12 (or so) Questions for Kathleen Flake

Back in November, we solicited questions for Kathleen Flake, author of the terrific book The Politics of American Religious Identity (2004). We are now pleased to present her responses. Thanks Professor Flake!

1. How have you negotiated the tension between focusing on Mormon studies versus the broader issues within your discipline? How have your faith and your interest in Mormon studies affected your career at Vanderbilt, if at all?

My focus has not been on Mormonism as an end in itself. Rather, I have experimented with using Mormonism as a tool to understand the “broader issues.” This has spared me the tension you mention. As a graduate student, I chose to pursue a particular set of questions using Mormonism for several reasons. First, I knew more about it than other systems and that background was helpful given how much else there was to learn methodologically. Second, I had always suspected that Mormonism’s religious complexity had been underestimated and thought I’d test my hypothesis – namely, that it could illuminate the phenomenon of religion. My training in ritual studies and religious imagination at Catholic University reinforced this suspicion. The third reason for my choice was related to the second: Mormonism has been a neglected subject within religious studies and, therefore, was an ideal dissertation subject.

I don’t know that my faith has affected my Vanderbilt career. My colleagues have equally strong loyalties to other traditions. No doubt, Vanderbilt Divinity School’s nondenominational status and liberal commitments enabled it to hire me, despite my sectarian identity. For the Vanderbilt Graduate School of Religion, the issue was irrelevant. Whether I am granted tenure by either faculty will be based exclusively on the quality of my scholarship. No story there. On a more personal level, I can say that, as a school that overtly grapples with the relationship of reason and faith, Vanderbilt has been a very hospitable place for me.

2. In The Politics of American Religious Identity, you’ve argued that there was a shift in doctrinal emphasis away from the teachings of the Nauvoo era and polygamy and toward authority and revelation, particularly the First Vision and the Joseph Smith Story. To what extent do you think this was a conscious change made by leaders, rather than an unreflective evolution in response to the prosecution of polygamy? To what extent do you think the “rank and file” Saints noticed this shift, and how did they react?

As a shift, it was a subtle evolution: marked more by what was left unsaid than saying new things. I think it was a conscious effort by the transition figures: Joseph F., of course, but even more obviously new apostles Talmage and Widtsoe, who provided the doctrinal foundation for mid 20th-century theologizing on the godhead, temple ordinances, and priesthood. With respect to others, like David O. MacKay, who shaped the mid-century Church, I don’t know. We are lucky that the most astute student of priesthood, Greg Prince, has written also the definitive biography of President MacKay. I look forward to reading it with this question in mind.

I would only be guessing on how the general membership reacted to the shift. The book’s analysis was limited to member response to the Smoot hearing testimony. Those members of my family who lived through these days left me with the impression that there was some disappointment and sense of loss among some members. But, there was so much change going on in these years that such feelings were free floating and vaguely attached to a variety of possible causes. It’s also possible that, as Arizona Mormons, my family were not the norm. As a friend of my once observed, if the LDS Church were the Catholics, Arizona would be its Spain.

3. What analogies – or disanalogies – do you see between 19th century Protestant moral reform efforts and the evangelical “family values” movement that has been credited with much of the political shift of the last 20 years? Are we witnessing a resurgence of the 19th century notion that the government should affirmatively shape the moral character of its citizens?

I’m not really competent to speak on this broad issue. But, generally speaking, I would not limit it to the 19th century. It seems at least as old as Christendom. Certainly, as civic virtue, it was fundamental to what late 18th and early 19th century Americans believed necessary to ensure the success of the New Republic. Ultimately, I’m not sure any religion can divorce its sense of moral order from the civic order. Ironies abound, of course, in the changing definitions of morality over time and between various groups. That is, I assume, the reason you ask me this question. I did find in Smoot’s public display of moral rectitude and patriotic purity a traditional model of LDS rebuttal that is still with us – possibly because the “Under the Banner of Heaven” genre is still with us. And, I do wonder if it doesn’t sometimes give us some strange “bedfellows” on the religious right. Nuance is not, however, natural to politics.

4. Your book adds evidence to the case for Joseph F. Smith as the architect of “modern” Mormonism — positing that Smith sought to “heal the breach between his people and the rest of America” and “end Mormonism’s Rocky Mountain isolation.” Do you think that he was somehow enabled to undertake this role because of his familial connection to Joseph Smith? Why was he more willing than prior leaders to bridge the divide between the Church and the world? And why do you think we have yet to see a scholarly biography of Joseph F. Smith that more fully addresses these issues?

I finished my research convinced that only a second-generation Smith could have done what he did and maybe only one as tough and astute as Joseph F. In addition to his pedigree, intellect and temperament, however, his lifetime of personal sacrifice for and service to the Church made his loyalty to it incontestable. In short, he was uniquely able to lead his people into and through this crisis.

As for his willingness to change, I think it was more a matter of his honesty, though I’m sure that sounds strange given what others have said of him and his testimony to the Senate. I think Joseph F. had a high tolerance for admitting calamity and was not inclined to wishful thinking. At least, that is my interpretation of his 1901 inaugural sermon as president. That said, I think like any human being he could not control the consequences of his decisions and was adapting continually as events unfolded throughout the period. As I say in my book, however, I think he was firm in his objective and had both the intelligence and deep understanding of the Church to accomplish it. Of course, I accept his own representations that he was inspired, though this is not susceptible to historical proof and not subject to analysis in the book.

As for scholarly biographies, until Brigham gets his due, it is unreasonable to expect any others will. I say this for several reasons. The lack of an academic BY bio is more surprising given his significance to American history generally and the amount of 19th century LDS history already written. In comparison, Joseph F’s historical significance is, I think it fair to say, limited to Mormonism and to the 20th century which has captured little interest to date even within the LDS Church.

This answer begs that aspect of your question related to “these issues,” however. As I say in the introduction to my book, I believe the issue of change poses particular difficulty for any religious tradition. The LDS Church is no exception and arguably – as a modern revelatory tradition — more sensitive to the issue than other traditions. It may be that we are only able to begin talking about this period now because we have booth assimilated its changes and become distanced from them as the Church has been retooled in the last twenty years to meet new exigencies.

5. What sort of feedback have you received on your essay, “Rendering Unto the Corporation”? Is there anything you would add to it, or retract from it, if it were published today?

Now that you mention it, I haven’t had any feedback. I can’t think of anything I would retract or change. Not having read it since I gave at Sunstone, I may be wrong to be so confident of that. The essay is best understood, of course, in its time.

6. Some have suggested that the changes Mormonism underwent in the early 20th century were simply the continuation of the changes that began with the first Manifesto in the late 19th century. How do you think developments would have differed had Reed Smoot not been elected to the Senate?

The present is always a continuation of the past, of course. In that sense, I have no problem with saying that what happened in the first years of the 20th century was a continuation of what happened in the 1890s. I do disagree that the Church abandoned polygamy in the 1890s. It is incontrovertible, as Hardy, Jorgenson, and Quinn showed years ago, that the LDS Church continued to sanction the practice for another 15 years at least. My book makes no contribution to that proof. Rather, it questions why the church finally did cease the practice in the 1910s and how it managed such an architectonic shift without fracturing more than it did.

I’m not good at counterfactual history. I don’t know how the church would have solved its polygamy and proselytizing crisis without the apostle-senator. It’s hard enough – with the existing documentation – to comprehend how soon and effectively Smoot was able to intervene.

7. The Smoot hearings are especially interesting in that they occurred only four short years after B.H. Roberts was denied a seat in the House of Representatives. You point out the salient differences in the cases, especially that B.H. Roberts himself was a polygamist, and Smoot was not. But another relevant factor was the Church’s newfound willingness to negotiate on the issue of polygamy. Do you attribute this mostly to President Smith’s initiative, or were there other institutional factors at work in the years between Roberts’ and Smoot’s elections?

I think the most pressing institutional factor was the state of the Church’s missions, domestically and abroad. In addition, once the Smoot hearing publicized the continuing practice of plural marriage, I think there was a genuine fear on the part of LDS leadership that the Idaho test oath would be nationalized. A social historian might give more credence to generational differences: younger, eastern educated or otherwise upwardly mobile LDS embarrassed by pioneer ways. Such persons were so few in number and the practice of plural marriage still so embedded at the turn of the century that I think this (the effect of the educational elite) becomes a more significant factor in the later forgetting of polygamy, than in its actual abandonment.

8. You’ve argued that one of the effects of the Smoot hearings was that Mormon leaders began to give the same message to the Saints that they were giving to the world. Yet many would say that our discourse is still highly dependent on who the audience is. For example, in his own 12 Questions installment here on T&S, Armand Mauss opined that

“the Church uses a somewhat different emphasis and form of discourse in addressing the outside from what it uses in addressing the Saints inside. In speaking both ways, the Church is not contradicting itself but is ‘Janus-headed,’ for it exemplifies to the outside its ‘mainstream Christian’ aspirations and goals, while emphasizing to the Saints inside that it is special, exceptional, and the ‘only true and living Church on the face of the earth.’ The idea is to ‘stand for something,’ but to emphasize some of the ‘somethings’ to some audiences and others of the ‘somethings’ to other audiences.”

To what extent are we still working out the tension in our message that was publicly exposed in the Smoot hearings?

I think everyone has multiple forms of discourse and would not exempt institutions from this generalization. Neither do I think this a problem of moral integrity, but of competing loyalties. The particular “tension” “exposed by the Smoot hearings” was the Church’s disobedience to civil law. As indicated in my book, I think this too is not adequately described as a question of integrity, but is better understood in terms of the natural and continuing competition between church and state as competing sources of law. I don’t think this tension will ever be solved, but only managed in response to changing circumstances.

More specifically, my comments were related to doctrinal matters while I understand Armand Mauss’ observations to arise in the context of questions of identity or — in the terms excerpted in your question — “aspirations and goals.” I would not contradict his assessment that, both individually and collectively, the LDS are always negotiating their relative sameness and otherness with the broader culture. If there is something specific to Mormonism about this, I think it’s only a matter of degree and would tend to ascribe it to the Church’s raison d’etre as the “ensign to the nations.” To be what it is, the LDS Church must communicate within the culture its critique of the culture. Its message must be recognizable, but offer an alternative to the status quo.

9. As a participant in the recent Claremont conference on Mormon studies, what is your assessment of the current trajectory of Mormon studies scholarship and its place in the broader discipline of religious

I don’t know that I have anything particularly insightful to say about this. Clearly, academic interest in Mormonism has not only grown, but is in the process of being institutionalized outside of BYU. This will reorient the academic conversation about Mormonism and over time increase the competence of that conversation. I think LDS academic publications will be invited to show increasing methodological sophistication or risk being left out of the conversation. In any case, I think interest in LDS primary sources will increase and that present efforts to make those sources available are critical to making the academic study of Mormonism possible.

10. Scholarship about the temple liturgy requires particular sensitivity to matters considered sacred by members of the church. How did you navigate this issue in your paper “‘Not to be Riten’: The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon”?

Most obviously, I made certain that my subject was not contents of the liturgy, but rather its maintenance by and meaning to believers. In addition, whenever referring to the rite, I used materials already in the public domain with the sanction of the church, such as, Macmillan’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

11. What do you think are the most important works in Mormon studies over the last five years? Are there any forthcoming books you are particularly looking forward to? What can you tell us about your own current projects?

I’m not comfortable designating “most important” anything, though I think Prince’s biography of David O. MacKay may prove to be just that. As for my own projects, I am writing a book on what I will argue was Protestantism’s inevitable disappointment in the First Amendment by the last quarter of the 20th century. I am continuing to work on the Yale Conference piece regarding Joseph Smith’s refiguration of the biblical narrative. It keeps taking me in new directions that defeat my efforts to be done with it.

12 comments for “12 (or so) Questions for Kathleen Flake

  1. “To be what it is, the LDS Church must communicate within the culture its critique of the culture.”


  2. Well worth the wait!

    I’d be curious to hear more about how the Church’s missions played a role during the BH Roberts/Smoot period.

  3. In question 4, Prof. Flake notes: “As for scholarly biographies, until Brigham gets his due, it is unreasonable to expect any others will.” Having just labored through Arrington’s bio of Brigham, I’m curious what a “scholarly biography” would be that Arrington’s work isn’t or what lines of inquiry were lacking in the Arrington book that still need to be covered.

  4. I tend to agree with her Dave. Arrignton’s book is good, but hardly as comprehensive as one would wish. Look at all the work on Joseph and the paucity on Brigham. He’s a much deeper figure than I think we give him credit for. Also very complex.

  5. Just to add to Dave and Julie’s question. Don’t you think there has been a lot of research and evidence to arise the last 20 years that Arrignton doesn’t delve into? For one example, do you think Arrington adequately deals with Masonic elements in Brigham’s thought?

  6. Just to add, since this thread isn’t getting much traffic, I think that paper is one of my favorites in recent LDS scholarship.

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