We are pleased to post the last installment of our Q&A with Armand Mauss, LDS author and scholar. See Part 1 for a full introduction and the first set of questions and answers, and Part 2 for the second set.
9. In the third chapter of your recent book Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, you discuss how as a graduate student you encountered the theory “that truth or reality is socially constructed,” which you contrasted with an “absolutist or essentialist ontology” that you had developed as a young Latter-day Saint. At the end of the chapter, you reflected back on your early experience as an undergraduate student in Japan and “finally realized how my exclusive resort to a Mormon epistemology in those days had prevented me from fully understanding and appreciating Japanese culture.” It sounds like the traditional Mormon approach to truth and reality makes it difficult to engage with other cultures. That seems like a problem as the Church continues to expand into new countries and sends thousands of LDS missionaries to teach in increasingly diverse cultures.
In eastern cultures, the idea that there is only one true religion in the world has never made much sense. Religion in most societies has been so intertwined with the rest of culture, politics, and the very identity of a people, that they have found the embrace of a new religion almost unthinkable (as our missionaries to Asia and elsewhere can attest). Thus historically it has always been difficult for a religion exported from one culture to take hold in a vastly different cultural setting, unless the export occurs by force and violence, which initially accompanied the spread of both Christianity and Islam. However, even now, the political, economic, and social conditions in a given time and society will also greatly affect the receptivity of new religions in that society. Such conditions favored 20th-century Pentecostalism, Mormonism, and other non-Catholic movements in Latin America, and also, indeed, Mormonism in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s (but not so much later). There are now many examples in the historical and sociological literature to illustrate how the changing social and political environment in a society facilitates or constrains the growth there not only of new religions but even of its own traditional religions.
The “traditional Mormon approach to truth and reality,” therefore, will not be the only determinant of the Church’s proselytizing success in the “diverse cultures” of the world — and probably not even the most important determinant. Such ontological and epistemological questions might be important to potential converts of an intellectual and theological bent, as they were to me, but the vast majority of potential converts are influenced far more by LDS teachings pertaining to the existential problems of daily living and future prospects — e. g., our teachings about healthy and provident living; economic improvement; the solidarity and eternal destiny of the family; and so on. Various scholars and Church leaders have sometimes advocated a “gospel culture” that is somehow independent of any of the cultures of the world, and can therefore be embraced by converts from any culture. Yet ultimately it has always proved difficult to distinguish much of that “gospel culture” — especially in operational terms — from its historic frontier and western American character — and, indeed, from contemporary American geopolitics in which it is perforce implicated, for better or worse.
10. However fixed the Mormon mentality may be in general, the LDS Church as an institution does manage to change and adapt over time. In addition to the 1978 revelation and its consequences, there has been in the last generation an emphasis on making the family a central doctrinal concept, supported by the The Family: A Proclamation to the World, and increased time and energy devoted to humanitarian service by local members (Helping Hands) and LDS missionaries. But change is slow inside the Church. Can it change fast enough to stay relevant for the next generation and attractive to potential converts?
As my response to the previous question suggests, the relevance and attractiveness of our religion will vary not only by generation but also by cultural setting. My argument of 20 years ago in The Angel and the Beehive — as updated in my Winter 2011 Dialogue article — still holds: The appeal of our religion will always depend in large part on achieving and maintaining an optimum level of cultural tension with the surrounding environment — enough difference in our cultural prescriptions and habits to attract the interest of religious seekers (despite some public criticism and ridicule), but not so much difference as to create a generally subversive public image and thus to invite serious persecution. The pace and degree of change in the Church will thus be affected by the pace and degree of external challenge to its way of life and fundamental doctrines.
Its wholesale assimilationist transformation, for example (ca. 1890-1930) was a response to the excess of tension with American society that occurred during the previous two generations. Its retrenchment posture in the second half of the 20th century can be understood as the resistance of a largely assimilated religion to rapidly changing cultural norms and values in American society that appeared threatening to certain LDS fundamentals. The need to recover the optimum tension level of midcentury has recently (in the 21st century) produced certain “course corrections” in Church policies and programs toward a somewhat more assimilationist direction. So yes: the Church can and does change, sometimes fairly rapidly (within a generation) and sometimes more slowly. To the extent that it is successful in maintaining optimum tension with the culture(s) within which it operates, it will always attract converts. However, each significant change in direction on the tension continuum makes the religion seem less appealing to one or another segment of the membership, as well as to certain potential converts, so such change always carries the risk of selective disaffection — something like what occurs whenever a successful “brand” in any other market makes qualitative changes.
11. Here’s an example of institutional change. On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to resign given his declining health due to old age. Two weeks later, he stepped down and shortly thereafter a successor took office. This was the first papal resignation in 500 years, but it caused hardly a ripple within the global Catholic community. Benedict was 85 at the time he resigned. How can such a significant change come so easily to the Catholic Church, a fairly conservative organization with deep and established traditions, yet such a step for senior LDS leaders seems almost unimaginable? The difficult final years in office of President Kimball and President Benson certainly raises the issue for the Church as an institution.
As a recent article by Leo Lyman makes clear (Journal of Mormon History Spring 2014), succession to the office of Church president has not always been so predictable as it seems now — or even the order of seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve. I could easily envision a policy for the Twelve that would replicate the one now in force for the Seventies. That is, apostles could be given “emeritus” status at age 70 (or maybe 75 or even 80), which would drop them from the Quorum of the Twelve, but not from the apostleship (which is a lifetime ordination). That would guarantee that no apostle would ascend to the Presidency after that age (80 or whatever). Such a policy would reduce, but not eliminate, the likelihood that an apostle next in line for the Presidency would already be seriously incapacitated by advanced age. (In many ways, age 80 is the “new 70″ — or so we octogenarians would like to believe!) Of course, the Quorum of the Twelve had the power and authority to make that change in lower quorums (i.e., the Seventies), but bureaucratic inertia and self-interest will make that change more difficult in the Quorum of the Twelve itself; and the First Presidency (as a creature of the Twelve) probably doesn’t have the power to impose such a change on that Quorum. Yet, many of our readers might actually live to see such a policy change.
Yet we must not make facile organizational comparisons between the Catholic Papacy and the LDS Presidency. Only one man at a time serves in the papal role, but at least three serve simultaneously in the First Presidency. This means that in the LDS case there will always be a member of the triumvirate who is vigorous enough to function legitimately in the president’s role and to speak for the president. We have seen this arrangement work reasonably well in recent decades, though, to be sure, it has sometimes led to conflict or strain between the FP and the Twelve, and has unduly delayed the making of certain important decisions when a surviving counselor in the presidency has been hesitant to assert his authority against resistance from the Twelve — especially from the president of the Twelve. The point is that because of the “back-up” arrangement in the LDS case, there is far less worry than in the Catholic case about old-age incapacitation at the very top. That is probably why at this point it seems “unimaginable” that the recent change in papal succession could have its counterpart in the LDS presidency.
12. Let’s end on a positive note. Scholarship and blogging tend to focus on problems and difficult issues. That’s just the nature of the enterprise. Yet despite all the difficult issues that get discussed in journals, blogs, and the media, millions of Latter-day Saints continue to enjoy their membership, attend church each week, make substantial financial contributions, and accept callings that consume lots of time and energy. Even many who are troubled by this or that issue generally work to resolve it or improve the Church rather than just exit (which can be done with nothing more than a signed letter). The Church just keeps chugging along. We must be doing something right. What are a couple of features of the Church you see that enable this continued success despite historical, doctrinal, and social challenges? What is the secret of our success?
As a committed Latter-day Saint, naturally I assume that divine guidance has something to do with “the secret of our success.” However, as a social scientist, I can point also to a few other features of our ecclesiastical organization and culture. At a macroscopic level, I would mention again the argument I made above in response to Question 10 — namely, the skill of the LDS leadership (intentionally or not) in raising or reducing the level of tension with the surrounding American culture in an effort to keep that tension “optimum.” To be sure, that tension has not necessarily been optimum in other cultures; and even in the U.S., certain leadership miscalculations have sometimes increased the tension unduly. However, in North America — and generally in the whole hemisphere — the cultural tension has been maintained at a level that continues to give our religion a fairly strong appeal in a certain “niche” of the “religion market,” though certainly not market-wide.
Internally too, the LDS Church has always had certain organizational features that have contributed to its success. One is the expectation of participation or “investment” by members through the lay ministry of the Church. Social science research for the past few decades has repeatedly documented the principle that we come to love what we sacrifice for (or invest in), which is why “strict” religions (i.e., those which make demands on their members) grow while most others do not. Yet, through a system of selective rewards, the Church also maintains a fairly large proportion of “free riders” at any given time (i.e., those who enjoy the benefits of membership without contributing much if anything); and the free riders, in turn, become the locus for the services or investments of the more active members.
Many such features were analyzed in a 2007 article by Prof. Michael McBride in Rationality and Society. In recent years, the LDS Church has also started to become more welcoming toward various subcultural “constituencies,” as I have called them in my Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, Chapter 5 (pp. 90ff) and Chapter 9 (pp. 180ff). These “constituencies” represent different selective emphases in their preferences for the various ways of “living as a Mormon,” but the Church increasingly makes room for most of them. Interestingly enough, religious behavior has become far more important to the LDS way of life than religious belief (beyond the small number of very general affirmations required in the temple interview).