Monday, November 21, 2011

The Modern Diversity Within Mormonism

I have been continuing my reading on Mormonism, and as part of my occasional series here on that interesting religion, I want to share an extended quote from an article by the important scholar Jan Shipps on the diversity within Mormonism ('Beyond the Stereotypes: Mormon and Non-Mormon Communities in Twentieth-Century Mormondom', in New Views of Mormon History, Ed. David Bitton and Maureen Beecher, 1987).

Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Salt Lake City
This excerpt, although almost 25 years old now, gets at the question of just how monolithic Mormonism is, and whether it poses any threat to the other 98% of America if a Mormon president is elected.  (My answer, given all I'm reading, is almost surely not.)

(I hope you appreciate the fact that I'm having to type in the text below manually!)
...a useful means of examining the variegated and catholic nature of the world of modern Mormonism is noting how Latter-day Saints are situated along an orthodoxy continuum, on the one hand, and, on the other, a dimension along which is measured levels of church activity and attitudes toward it....

1.  At one extreme are those persons who regard themselves as the only true Mormons, but who are not recognized as Mormons by most Latter-day Saints, i.e. the Mormon "fundamentalists."  In a sense, their beliefs are more than orthodox, in that they accept the Book of Mormon as a historical document...; they accept the LDS doctrinal formulations that were established during the lifetimes of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, but reject the 1890 Manifesto proscribing plural marriage on the basis of its having been promulgated outside a "Thus saith the Lord" context, and they "live the gospel" as fully as they can by joining with like-minded Saints in isolated communities.  In other words, at one of the continuum's extremities one finds...the truest of true believers--the Saints who continue to practice plural marriage.

2.  A second, less extreme category next to this "fundamentalist" one is the one in which is found active, almost superorthodox [LDS] Saints.  These are the persons who seem to be certain that the Book of Mormon is historically accurate and who do not question the versions of LDS history long since canonized by the church.  Saints in this category exhibit a very high level of church activity, not only in attendance at worship, but also in fulfilling church callings.

3.  In a third category...are found Latter-day Saints who accept the truth of the LDS gospel, but concede that it might be held in "earthen vessels."  These are persons who are not very worried about whether the Book of Mormon is history in the ordinary understanding of that term, as long as the book's narrative captures and represents truth in some abstract sense....They are generally active, not only in worship and in carrying out church callings, but they also tend to be active in quasi-official LDS organizations such as the Mormon History Association or the various Sunstone symposia.

4.  Then there is a Mormon group that fits in the central category in this classification scheme.  Their thought patterns were formed by their immersion in Mormon doctrine, but for one reason or another they do not themselves take much of a role in church activities, althought they may send their children to Sunday School and sacrament meeting.  They are not hostile to the institution or to other Saints.  This category includes "cultural" and/or "ethnic" Mormons, large numbers of whom do not reside in Utah.

5.  Moving further from the center is a category that might be described as mildly anti-Mormon.  Popularly known as "Jack-Mormons", such Saints are located between the category that includes "cultural" or "ethnic" Mormons and a category that includes Saints hostile to the LDS Church and contemptuous toward its active members.  This is a fairly heavily populated category that embraces inactive Mormons of many stripes, including those who are more amused than threatened by the actions of the members of the LDS ecclesiastical hierarchy.

6.  A second "Jack-Mormon" category includes Latter-day Saints whose level of hostility toward the church as an institution is fairly high, who deny that in LDS scriptures might be repositories of truth, and whose attitude toward active and committed Mormons is generally one of contempt.  This category often includes persons who have been disfellowshipped or even excommunicated, but who have not rejected their Mormon ethnicity.

7.   Finally, at the opposite extreme from the Mormon fundamentalists is a category in which are found the ex-Mormons who are extremely antagonistic not only toward the LDS Church hierarchy, but toward anything Mormon.  Truly anti-Mormon, the persons in this category believe that Mormonism is so dangerous that they expend an enormous amount of energy denigrating Mormon theology and opposing the LDS Church and its authority in the community.
Based on what I have observed, I would place Mitt Romney in the second category above, of the 'superorthodox' Mormons, whereas Jon Huntsman seems to fit better into the fourth category of 'ethnic' Mormon. The thought has occurred to me that Romney, having grown up and lived most of his life (except for college and a brief stint before the 2002 Winter Olympics) outside of Utah, might find it easier to adhere more closely to the church, whereas Huntsman, having grown up in the more culturally stifling Mormon environment of Utah, would naturally find himself more of the renegade.

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