A few years ago, the confluence of the Mitt Romney campaign and Proposition 8 (and to some extent Harry Reid) focused sustained national attention on the church and its members. The church’s profile has only continued to grow since then, raising a variety of questions about assimilation, retrenchment, and the future of the flock.
Mormonism has long inhabited a liminal state between cultural insider and outsider. Armand Mauss’s pioneering work The Angel and the Beehive charts the church’s uneasy relationship with mainstream status, a cycle of ebb and flow driven by the specific benefits and drawbacks on each side of the spectrum. If the church is too peculiar, it will suffer in its growth prospects and place in society. At worst, disrepute can lead society to treat such a church as a threat to be eradicated (a possibility of which Mormons are quite aware). This creates strong pressure to assimilate in order to avoid social costs and reap the benefits of societal acceptance. However, this raises the question of whether the church community can gain respectability without giving up its distinctive cultural and doctrinal markers — and so, as Mauss notes, the community adopts different strategies at different times. At times the organization and its members may embrace assimilation, while at other times they feel a need to “reach ever more deeply into their bag of cultural peculiarities to find either symbolic or actual traits that will help them mark their subcultural boundaries.”
The assimilationist impulse is currently in ascendancy, and its accelerating pace is fueled by the possibilities of new technologies — particularly the internet — which can provide new avenues for communication. The new media activities of both the institutional church and of individual church members are overwhelmingly assimilationist.
For instance, the church has just launched its new website at Mormon.org and the related ad campaign, both of which are designed to showcase the normalcy and folk-next-door-ness of church members. Meanwhile, the past several months have seen a cascade of new internet writing both inside and outside of the already-packed bloggernacle, ranging from a blogging apostle (!) to a wave of new high-profile internet commentary from Mormon women. These new media expressions of Mormonism provide expand the dialogue about Mormonism while also providing easy points of entry for outsiders to engage in the discussion.
The widespread blossoming of Mormon content in new media also raises a variety of concerns about boundary maintenance and community identity. Quirks and inconsistencies in permitted Mormon.org profile content highlight some of the tensions. The assimilationist impulse is to channel new media spontaneity in a Mormon direction. The widespread democratization of information fostered by the internet means that everyone has a story to tell, in a sort of global fast-and-testimony meeting. But who is the bishop empowered to turn off the microphone if a speaker should deviate too far from community norms? Who owns the soul of Mormonism?
In many ways, Mormonism seems poised to break out of its regional shell and embrace a future as a truly national (and even global) religion. But going national may mean abandoning cultural or political views that seem as Mormon as the hill Cumorah. Two years ago, Mormon scholar Melissa Proctor wrote that “Latter-day Saints want to be accepted as part of the mainstream, but they want to be accepted into the mainstream as Latter-day Saints.” Those two goals (and the tensions between them) continue to frame the current debate on assimilation — and ultimately will determine the fate of the angel in an age of the internet.