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Friday, November 01, 2013
J. B. Haws, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception, Oxford University Press.
J. B. Haws, a Church History professor at BYU, has written an excellent book on perceptions of the LDS Church in the United States. He frames his narrative from Romney campaign (George, in 1968) to Romney campaign (Mitt, in 2012) and tackles all of the major incidents in between when Mormonism became a topic of discussion outside of the Church (BYU sports and the priesthood ban, ERA, anti-Mormonism, Prop 8, etc.).
I enjoyed reading this book, learned a lot, and recommend it, but it has a grave strategic error that nearly ruined it for me. The first tough issue that he treats is the protest around BYU sports in the 1970s. If you knew nothing about LDS history and were to read that chapter, you would leave thinking that Mormons were not racist, fully supported civil rights, and had no idea why there was a ban on blacks holding the priesthood. This treatment made me wonder if Haws was trying his own hand at shaping the image of Mormonism in the American mind, and so I lost trust in his ability to write fairly. It was only several chapters later, in the context of President Hinckley's 1998 address to the NAACP, when he discussed the folklore surrounding the ban and I realized that he wasn't whitewashing earlier on, but rather must have omitted this material for other reasons—reasons that are not at all clear to me. So my advice is this: stick with him. He is fair, even though it doesn't seem that way at first.
One of Haws' great strengths, which should be a model for LDS scholars in a wide variety of fields, is his ability to discuss controversial issues in a way that neither ignores dissent nor risks his day job. To wit, here is his description of reactions to the Church's anti-ERA stance:
To the church's opponents in this debate, including dismayed pro-ERA Mormons, these statements represented the reactionary fears of an entrenched patriarchy guided by a Victorian model of domesticity rather than revealed Mormon doctrine. Some made the argument that the LDS emphasis on stay-at-home motherhood was comparatively recent and contrasted unfavorably with Mormon views of feminine capabilities in the nineteenth century. These commentators located the shift in Mormon mindset at the turn of the twentieth century, a by-product of Mormonism's post-polygamy Americanization, which at that time meant adopting the prevailing middle-class morality. Accordingly, detractors read official praise for homemaking and full-time motherhood as a diversionary tactic to confine women to domestic prisons disguised as pedestals of honor. To believers, though, these statements emphasizing traditional roles for women went far beyond backward-looking retrenchment. They derived from a fundamental belief in the divinely-ordained, complementary natures of men and women, a belief that framed for Mormons their model of the family.
See, now, that wasn't that hard, was it? I could nit-pick a few word choices here and there, but I felt like he handled this marvelously well.
As far as analysis, he does a great job in framing a long-running tension in the American mind between perceptions of individual Mormons (generally: good) and The Church (generally: bad). He also successfully, I think, resists the urge to paint the perception of Mormonism as being all about Mormons and not about other currents in the culture. He points out that protests against BYU sports ended not with the priesthood ban, but earlier, as Americans lost their tolerance for protest movements in the mid 1970s. He suggests that the spate of 80s evangelical anti-Mormonism had more to do with the need to find a banner around which to rally a divided evangelical community than Mormonism itself. (Although LDS missionary work and the building of two LDS temples—Atlanta and Dallas—in the Bible Belt were factors here, as he indicates.) He points out that the emphasis on Mitt Romney's work as an LDS leader, which was featured prominently at the Republican National Convention in 2012, wasn't about Mormonism per se but rather a clever way to counter the perception that he was an out-of-touch plutocrat.
The one real weakness in this book is his lack of treatment of feminist issues. He does, of course, discuss the ERA extensively, but not much else. Perhaps this is becausethere hasn't been one big moment when LDS women's issues flooded into national attention since the ERA debates, but it is also true that over the years there has been a slow drip of media references to those oppressed Mormon women. He could have addressed the “Mormon mommy blogger” phenomenon, which, while not garnering national headlines, has been a huge factor on the ground in terms of the perception of Mormons in general. (Pardon my feminist soapbox, but this lacuna is why the world needs female scholars: the mommy bloggers, now fueled by Pinterest, are doing more to change the interactions between the average American woman and the Mormon Church than anything, ever. Need a chicken recipe? Find a picture of a temple in the sidebar. Redoing your mudroom? You'll see it is perfectly normal to have four kids—named McKay, Spencer, Vilate, and Lehi—and a dedicated place for scripture storage. And thus “women” and “Mormonism” enter the national consciousness not as a problem related to the priesthood, but as an aspirational lifestyle.) He might also have mentioned Elizabeth Smart.
This book is not only an interesting analysis of what Americans think about Mormons, but also a solid history of a period of Mormonism that is usually neglected. I didn't know that President Hinckley had apologized to black leaders for the Church's role in slavery, for example; that's the kind of interesting detail that fills this book. Several of Haws' observations really gave me new insight into some puzzling things. For example, BYU was praised by the LA Times in 1969 for the lack of beards on campus; do you think those kudos still play in the minds of those who maintain that much-disliked policy? In the time when BYU sports were being boycotted, many people (inaccurately) thought that BYU did not admit black students and the Church worked hard to correct this misunderstanding; do you think that history plays into the many instances where the Church seems to be answering a question that was not asked about women in the LDS Church? (Maybe that isn't clear. Here's what I mean: I frequently hear the media question “Why don't LDS women hold the priesthood?” answered with “LDS women are valued and are equals.” That doesn't answer the question! But to a veteran of the 1970s skirmishes, perhaps it seems that the interlocutor doesn't understand the LDS position that women are equals, and so that is the question they answer.) I was also struck by how very hard the Church worked in the days of the priesthood ban to support the African-American community, doing things like helping to build or rebuild black churches. (I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if, during the Prop 8 campaign/furor, the Church had asked its members to donate $1 to a shelter for homeless gay youth for every dollar they donated to Prop 8.) But this kind of thing isn't Haws' concern; it is just where my mind headed as I rode along on his historical survey. Which means that the book succeeds on its own terms, but also well beyond them.
Cross-posted from Times & Seasons.
Review copy provided by publisher.
Posted by Julie M. Smith at Friday, November 01, 2013
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