2008: Implications of Mormon Assimilation and Retrenchment / Dr. Armand Mauss

See the original of this post placed on Morehead’s Musings on Wednesday, January 09, 2008 at this link.

This is a very insightful interview of Latter-day Saint Scholar Armand Mauss, whose mastery of Socialogy of Religion is perhaps unmatched.

Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair
Implications of Mormon Assimilation and Retrenchment
Dr. Armand Mauss

During my research in Mormon studies Dr. Armand Mauss has proved to be a very helpful resource for me. For thirty years he has served as a professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. The first half of his career was devoted mainly to mainstream sociology, but the rest of it to specializing in the sociology of religion, particularly Mormons, but with some attention also (in collaboration with his graduate students) to other religious movements, including a community of so-called “Jesus Freaks” in the 1970s and to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in the 1980s. For four years he was editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (the main professional journal in the social-scientific study of religion).Since retirement to southern California in 1999 he has continued his academic activities, most recently as Visiting Scholar in the School of Religion at the Claremont Graduate University, where he taught a course in Mormon Studies once each year during 2005, 2006, and 2007. He is author or co-author of four books, most of them on Mormons, and some hundred articles in academic journals. One of his most interesting volumes for me is The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Morehead’s Musings: Dr. Mauss, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I have long benefitted from your scholarship in my research in Mormon studies, and a few years ago you provided helpful feedback to a news story I wrote for Christian Research Journal on the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case. Your work was also helpful in my graduate studies in Mormon culture at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. As we begin our conversation, how did you become involved in the academic study of sociology, and did you reconcile the results of this with your faith as a Latter-day Saint?

Armand Mauss: I began my studies with an interest in history – especially cultural history – and I received both a B. A. and an M. A. degree in that discipline. For reasons that are not particularly germane here, I switched to sociology for my doctoral studies at the University of Californa, Berkeley. I was fortunate that three luminaries in the sociology/anthropology of religion were on the faculty at Berkeley in those days (1950s-60s) : Charles Glock, Robert Bellah, and Guy Swanson. My main mentor was Glock. He had recently come to Berkeley from Columbia and was trying to develop a research program in the sociology of religion. One of his first projects was a study of Christian beliefs and anti-Semitism, financed by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and based upon a large survey of Catholics and Protestants in northern California. I sought him out and he agreed to take me on as one of his doctoral students. He knew nothing about Mormons (and did not include any Mormons in his surveys), but he was intrigued by my claim that Mormons were unique in lacking the anti-Semitism so common in Christianity generally. During this same period, however, the LDS Church was becoming notorious for its discriminatory policy in denying the priesthood to people of black African ancestry. All of this raised the larger question (of great interest to both Glock and me) of whether and how the religious beliefs of a people got translated into racial or ethnic discrimination against other peoples. My lifelong commitments to the LDS Church, and to the prophetic religion on which it was based, were thus constantly under pressure as I contrasted sociological explanations and evidence with traditional religious claims and doctrines. In the process, I was forced to distinguish constantly between the human and the divine elements in my religious heritage. I had to learn to “give myself permission,” as it were, to try to make that distinction, since it is not encouraged in one’s upbringing as a Mormon. Ultimately, though, such success as I have had in living both as a believer and as a scholar in the social sciences has depended on my keeping in mind that distinction.

Morehead’s Musings: I only recently became aware of an informative interview you gave to Times and Seasons in 2004 that intrigued me greatly. One of the questions you were asked I’d like to repeat here. In my work in Utah I will be arranging for academic conferences on new religious movements, and Mormon studies will be an important facet of this, perhaps the focus of the first such conference. Perhaps your thinking has changed slightly from the 2004 interview, but what areas of research would you like to see pursued by academics in Mormon studies?

Armand Mauss: Well, I think the five topics (a through e) that I mentioned in that T & S interview are still important, though I had in mind then topics that I thought were especially relevant for inside (intra-Mormon) research. I would like to see non-Mormon scholars pursue such questions as:

1) Where does the anti-Mormon animus come from? Sociologists Bromley, Richardson, Robbins, Anthony, Barker, and others, have all (in various ways) raised some interesting questions about whose interests are actually being served by the thriving “anti-cult” movement in the world (usually including an anti-Mormon component, so derivatively the same question is applicable to the anti-Mormon movement specifically). Ex-Mormons seem to play a prominent part in the latter movement, even launching entire new careers. I know of no counterpart phenomenon of the opposite kind (i.e. ex-Evangelicals – or ex-anything else –) who become Mormons and then devote themselves to fighting against their former co-religionists.

2) From the viewpoint of the “religious economy” model recently popularized by Stark et al. (and by Laurence Moore among historians), might we understand the strains between Mormons and Evangelicals in part as a natural result of competing for “customers” in the same market niche? The moderately educated, upwardly mobile segment of American society seems to be the main stratum from which both Mormons and Evangelicals are drawing their converts. Ultimately, how much of the tension between Mormons and Evangelicals is theological and how much is sociological?

3) What is the impact on the Mormon leadership and grassroots of the unwillingness to accept Mormons as Christians – an issue very much highlighted for Mormons by the Romney campaign? Is the tension over this issue likely to accelerate Mormon assimilation into the American mainstream, or have the opposite effect – i. e. encourage a new retrenchment and “circling of the wagons”? Will the effect be different among U. S. Mormons than among Mormons elsewhere (who are now the majority of the world’s Mormons)?

Morehead’s Musings: One of your books that I found most interesting is The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. You stated in the 2004 interview that the books “seems to have been largely overlooked,” and I agree that this is the case. Can you briefly summarize the thesis you develop concerning assimilation and retrenchment?

Armand Mauss: Before summarizing the thesis, I should explain that it is derived ultimately from the classic insight of Weber and Troeltsch that new religious movements (NRMs) that survive tend to make compromises across time with the surrounding world such that they become at least partially assimilated, and thus less threatening to the “host society” and less an object of derision or persecution. This historical generalization implies the existence of a polarity or continuum, one end of which is marked by the mutual rejection of the NRM and the host society, and the other end by mutual acceptance. The classical expectation was always that movement down that continuum only goes only one way – toward mutual acceptance or assimilation. Sociologist Benton Johnson in the 1960s raised the theoretical possibility that a religious organization could actually move in either direction, depending on historical circumstances, but my 1994 book is the first study (of which I am aware) of a real historical example (namely, the LDS), in which a NRM spent two generations moving in an assimilationist direction, but then reversed course and began moving away from assimilation and back to “peculiarity.” I call this reversal of direction a “retrenchment.”

My basic thesis is derivative not only of the Weberian tradition in the sociology of religion, but more directly of the recent work of Rodney Stark and his associates, often called a “new paradigm” in the sociology of religion. In its fullest development, this new paradigm has been put forth in the recent book by Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith (U. of Calif. Press, 2000), which argues, in effect, that for a religious organization to grow and prosper it must find the “optimum” location on that continuum between total rejection and total acceptance of the surrounding culture. If the organization remains too close to the rejection end, it will continue to be stigmatized, persecuted, and (in extreme cases) stamped out. On the other hand, if the organization travels too far down the continuum toward acceptance, then it will eventually be absorbed into the mainstream culture. In either case, it loses its identity as a separate institution. Just what is the “optimum” level, however, of cultural tension will change with time, circumstances, and location (geography).

In my 1994 book, I argue that the LDS leadership launched a deliberate policy of assimilation (that is, reduced cultural tension) with American society as Utah acquired statehood, and that assimilation continued to develop all the way to the middle of the 20th century. However, starting in around 1960, a new generation of leaders became concerned about the loss of the unique and “peculiar” identity of the LDS Church, and they instituted a policy intended to increase the tension with American culture, to move the Church back in the direction of 19th century Mormonism in an effort to recover some of its lost “peculiarity” or identity. (I would add that since the administration of Pres. Hinckley starting in 1995, I see signs of another reversal, or at least “fine-tuning,” with the “pendulum” moving back somewhat in the assimilationist direction).

Morehead’s Musings: Can you provide some examples of both the efforts at assimilation and the process of retrenchment?

Armand Mauss: Of course, the major symptoms of assimilation were the abandonment of polygamy, theocracy, collectivist economic experiments, the adoption of American 2-party politics, and the embrace of American patriotism. Theologically, during the first half of the 20th century, LDS leaders such as Talmage, Widtsoe, and Roberts undertook to codify and “Christianize” LDS theology, and to emphasize use of the King James Bible over the use of the Book of Mormon. Then, after midcentury, symptoms of retrenchment were a new emphasis upon use of the Book of Mormon; a renewed focus on the president of the church as a prophet (with additions to the D & C for the first time in the century, recurrent slogans about following the prophet and obedience); the centralization and standardization of the church program and administration known as “correlation;” a great expansion in such “peculiar” Mormon programs as genealogy, temple-building, missionary work, and religious education (seminary and institute programs) – all of which had languished for decades; and finally a renewal and redefinition of the LDS theology of the family, with a conservative definition of women’s roles and an ongoing program to bolster the nuclear family institution as a bulwark against the creeping vices of sexual indulgence, substance use or abuse, and many other social ills afflicting American society since the 1960s.

Morehead’s Musings: You have described this as an ongoing process of identify formation and boundary negotiation and renegotiation. This is not only an ongoing but also complex social, cultural, and religious process. When evangelicals or traditional Christians look at such issues it is often a matter of concern directed only toward doctrinal or worldview issues. Wouldn’t your research and thesis indicate that a much broader template needs to be considered in order to understand these dynamics?

Armand Mauss: Yes, to be sure. Much that the LDS Church advocates for the behavior and “life-style” of its members is about boundary maintenance, which is very important for any people or community seeking to maintain a distinct identity. For Mormons, living in a certain way is more important than believing in a certain way. We can infer much more about what or who a person is from what he does than from what he believes (or claims to believe). Furthermore, beliefs can always be changed by teaching and by the promptings of the Holy Spirit (either in this world or in the next world, according to Mormonism). Certain kinds of behavior, however (such as sexual sin) can have consequences in this life that can never be entirely mitigated by later repentance. Ideally, people will learn both correct belief and correct behavior from membership in the LDS community, but it is the behavioral boundaries that really define the Mormon identity. I don’t know if that’s quite what your question was getting at, but that’s what first came to mind.

Morehead’s Musings: Some, particularly Protestant critics of the LDS Church, often make the accusation that the Church contradicts itself when it speaks with an assimilation emphasis to the outside world, particularly to Protestants, and with the voice of retrenchment within. In your Times & Seasons interview you stated that this was not a contradiction. Can you describe how the assimilation/retrenchment dynamic works in this situation so that outsiders might come to a different perception of it?

Armand Mauss: Speaking differently to different audiences does not necessarily imply contradiction. We do it all the time. When we talk among our friends about what goes on in our families, we are not likely to provide the same details or explanations as if we were talking within the intimacy of the family circle. When Mormons talk among themselves, they make certain assumptions about shared beliefs and values, so they (and their leaders) can emphasize the internal beliefs and standards that they have in common with each other, that make the Mormon community special. On the other hand, when Mormons and their leaders talk about their religion and religious community to non-Mormons, including other Christians, they are trying to communicate what they feel they have in common with those others. That’s why Mormons “sound” more assimilationist when they are reaching out to others and more “retrenching” when they are calling on each other to honor established Mormon ideals and standards.

Morehead’s Musings: Latter-day Saint-Evangelical dialogue has been taking place for a number of years now, with some supporting the process and some opposed to it on both sides of the religious divide. Can you comment on assimilation/retrenchment and how this might impact the dialogue taking place and how both religious communities might keep this dynamic in mind as the dialogue continues?

Armand Mauss: No matter where the LDS Church in general stands at a given moment in time on the “tension” continuum (explained earlier), there will always be some Mormon members and leaders who are “assimilation-oriented,” as it were, and therefore looking for areas of agreement and collaboration with others in civic and humanitarian affairs. I presume that there will also always be some Evangelicals similarly oriented. Mormons who remain in the more insular mindset of “retrenchment” will never be comfortable in such external relationships, and neither will Evangelicals who continue to think of Mormonism as a diabolical and dangerous cult.

On the Mormon side, the orientation of a given set of leaders (General Authorities) makes a big difference. At present, during the administration of Pres. Hinckley, the assimilationist orientation has become more apparent and has certainly permeated the professional PR bureaucracy (Public Affairs) more thoroughly than ever before. For the dialogue between Mormons and Evangelicals to continue (to say nothing of a closer rapprochement), I think we will have to see on the Evangelical side more Richard Mouws and Greg Johnsons and fewer local pastors sponsoring seminars and lectures on the dangers and deceptions of the Mormon “cult.”

I recognize that there are some serious theological issues that make Mormons seem especially scary to many Evangelicals. In one way or another, most of those issues seem to shake down to doctrines of deity. Mormonism will never be able to accommodate the traditional Trinitarian theology, and that theology, in turn, seems to be the “litmus test” of “true” Christianity for Evangelicals. When Mormons, in all sincerity, claim to believe in the divinity of Jesus, and in His indispensible salvific role in human history, Evangelicals tend to dismiss such claims because they are not made within the context of Trinitarian theology. There is some irony in this Evangelical dismissal of the “Mormon Jesus,” since many surveys in recent decades have shown that many, if not most, of the modern clergy of the “Protestant mainline” do not believe in the literal divinity of Jesus or in His literal resurrection. Yet no one would claim that these denominations –- or even their clergy — are “not Christians.” Evangelicals also object to Mormon doctrines about the role of Jesus in the pre-existence, and/or the Mormon conception of God as once mortal – even though such ideas are strictly theoretical and play no part whatever in modern Mormon worship, or in the de facto Mormon focus exclusively on the God of Abraham as the only God ever encountered in Mormon scriptures and discourse. For some reason, these theoretical Mormon “embellishments” on doctrines about deity disqualify them from the “Christian” label, but Roman Catholics are not disqualified by the elaborate cult of Mary, or by such doctrines as the immaculate conception or transubstantiation, none of which are strictly biblical. It seems that for mainline Catholics and Protestants, all extra-biblical ideas are forgivable as long as they embrace a Trinitarian deity, but Mormons can’t be permitted their extra-biblical ideas and still be part of the Christian “family.”I am no theologian, and I must confess that I find theological disputes generally tedious; as a social scientist, my main interest in theology is pretty much limited to its implications for behavior. I guess that’s why I find it difficult to understand why the “divide” has to be so “wide” between Mormons and Evangelicals.

Morehead’s Musings: Related to this question and the issues of assimilation and retrentchment, as well as the nature of Mormon spirituality that includes sacred and somewhat secretive aspects to it, attracts a lot of Protestant Christian criticism. This has spilled over into presidential politics with the issue of “soft secrecy” that was the topic of a recent New York Times article. Can you address how these issues are relevant to such issues, and how non-Mormons might come away with less sensationalistic interpretations?

Armand Mauss: I read that article by Noah Feldman in the NYT Magazine, and I thought it was excellent. He did a “fair and balanced” treatment of what it is that puts people off about Mormonism, and why it is that Mormons are so surprised at the way they and their religion are perceived. I haven’t seen the new book (apparently just published) about Romney and Mormonism on the heels of this Feldman article, but it seems from the description like just another anti-Mormon tirade by a Mormon apostate. Sociologists who have studied NRMs and their critics have long since realized that apostates are among the least reliable sources of information and understanding about a religion, since they always write in an exposé mode to vindicate their own change of feelings. (The so-called “white horse prophecy,” for example, has long been known by scholars, Mormon and non-Mormon, to be a fraud).

It is important to consider this Mormon predicament within the comparative and historical context of other unpopular religions (and Masonry). The charge about Romney’s covenant to obey the Mormon leaders, for example, is not only false, but it is highly reminiscent of the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” according to which there was a Jewish plot to take over the world. I have participated in the Mormon temple rituals many times, and I have made the same covenant of obedience that presumably Romney has made. However, it is a covenant of obedience to GOD, NOT to any prophet or earthly leaders. The whole canard about what REALLY goes on in Mormon temples reminds me of the regular stories I used to hear while growing up (not in Utah) about what REALLY goes on in those secretive Catholic convents and monasteries.

Morehead’s Musings: Dr. Mauss, thank you again for your thoughts. The information you have shared and your academic work will continue to make an important impact in the understanding of Mormonism.Armand Mauss: Thanks for caring enough about my ideas to ask for them.


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Filed under LDS Conservative Christian Dialog, LDS Scholarship

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