What is it about Mormons? Maybe history can teach us.

I first ran across Noah Feldman’s writing last year when I read his personal essay “Orthodox Paradox” in the New York Times Magazine. I liked the piece so well that I linked to it here, and discussed it further here. I suspect that Feldman has now turned his attention to Mormonism at least in part for the same reason that I was so captivated by his first piece: the experience of living as an educated Orthodox Jew in modern America is analogous in many ways to the experience of living as an educated Mormon in the same, with several important and mutually illuminating differences. Because Feldman’s vexed relationship to the Orthodox community in which he was raised, I wondered whether his account of Mormonism would reflect any trace of the ambivalence with which he views Orthodoxy. I was pleased to find a fair, frankly sympathetic, and insightful treatment, rare indeed in this particular media cycle. Moreover, his exploration and explanation of Mormon secrecy suggested to me another parallel to the Mormon moment we are now experiencing, far removed from Feldman’s personal referent of Orthodox Judaism.

On February 20, 1595, the English Jesuit Robert Southwell was executed as a traitor in a sensational public spectacle on the gallows at Tyburn. Southwell, a poet and well-known crypto-Catholic priest, had been ordained at the English College in Rome, and in 1586 returned to England in violation of the statutes prohibiting the presence of any Catholic priest within Elizabeth’s kingdom. Southwell, together with his Jesuit brothers, undertook an itinerant ministry administering the rites to Catholic families and writing and distributing Catholic polemic and devotional works. It was Southwell’s high-profile capture, trial and execution that seated the sinister figure of the Jesuit priest firmly in the English popular imagination, where it remains in some guises to the present day.

The Jesuit image was both shadowy and notorious: traveling by night and finding harbor in secret chambers called “priest holes” deep in the bosom of friendly private homes, these men nevertheless published defiant challenges to the political and ecclesiastical authority of the Elizabethan regime. Once apprehended by state authorities, however, their intentions became as opaque as the stone walls of their prison. Catholic casuists reasoned that priests may with safe conscience deceive their questioners by answering interrogations ambiguously or incompletely, thus preserving their lives. These notorious practices, known as equicovation and mental reservation, required for their moral legitimacy—from the Catholic point of view—a rejection of the questioners’ authority in favor of allegiance to the true authority of Rome. From the point of view of the Protestant regime, of course, these impenetrable prisoners generated a persistent anxiety around conscience in general and fuelled the especially vituperative attacks on Jesuit conscience in particular. One John King, vice-chancellor at Oxford, decried Jesuits’ “Maeandrian turning & windings, their mentall reservations”; this kind of conscience, he claims, is a “deepe and dangerous vault” containing “a wicked and unsearchable heart.”

In the end, the secretive discourse and practices of the English Jesuits probably saved some Catholic lives even as they infused the figure of the Jesuit with a stain of suspicion and fear it retains in the English imagination to this day. But the ultimate legacy of Jesuit secrecy is much larger than this: the terms of the social construction of Jesuit secrecy helped shape the prototypes of religious pluralism in England that persisted in profound and long-lasting legal substrates. It was a concept of private conscience deeply rooted in the arrangement of public and private space—a concept beholden to the tropes embedded in, for instance, chancellor King’s comment above—that undergirds the Supreme Court’s 1879 Reynolds ruling against the Mormon polygamy on the grounds that religious belief is protected but religious behavior is not.

There are clear parallels between the Jesuit experience in early modern England and the Mormon experience in the modern United States, brought so lucidly to the fore in Feldman’s piece. Feldman traces the limbs of Mormon secrecy to two taproots: the esoteric theme inherent in the Mormon myth-and-ritual of temple worship, and the defensive posture of a institution subject to constant suspicion and bigotry. Similarly, Jesuit secrecy developed from both the intra-confessional casuistry of private conscience and the lived experience of Jesuit priests hunted and persecuted by hostile Elizabethan authorities. And the cognates proliferate.

But there are important differences between the Southwell and the Romney moments, as well. For one, the great wall between modern public and private spaces that arbitrated the competing claims of state and church for so long—a boundary, I have argued, that Southwell’s experience helped to define—shows signs of decay in late modernity. The seismic counter-cultural shifts in the 1960s brought religion out from behind the wall of polite private discretion in the 1970s, and evangelical religion rampant has roared atop it ever since. New forms of media and entertainment—and the technologies that make them possible—penetrate walls of stone and flesh to bring private life into a censorious-yet-titillated public view. Medical and scientific technologies challenge our understanding of the protected privacy of thought. And in the free religious market Americans enjoy (and in which the Mormon church has thrived), believers are created in the image of consumers, choosing from a menu of options according to personal preference. Apple or PC? Prius or Hummer? Coke or Pepsi? Mormon or Baptist? One’s personal preferences are recorded and catalogued by Amazon and Google, then reflected back to oneself and one’s friend as a kind of private identity, a psyche externalized and pixelized for all the world to see.

Feldman’s stimulating exploration of Mormon secrecy suggests the ways in which Romney and the church may respond to the challenge of a residual soft bigotry in American society. The question that remains, prompted by the early modern analogy of English Jesuits, is how American society will respond to the challenge of Mormon secrecy. Will the anxiety provoked by a Mormon presidential candidate help to redraw the boundaries between public and private realms? Will the old settlement recrystallize? Will a new cultural boundary emerge, a new social caculus of religion, politics and identity? With the old front in disarray, it could happen.

18 comments for “What is it about Mormons? Maybe history can teach us.

  1. Proliferating cognates, indeed. The new priesthood/RS manual reminds us that, on the morning of June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith was sitting in jail in Carthage on the charge of treason against the State of Illinois. Ironically, this at the same time he was standing as a candidate in the 1844 election for president of the United States.

  2. Fascinating post, Rosalynde! One question, if I may. When you mention “equivocation or mental reservation” on the part of the priests, was this phrase their own term for their practice of answering questions? I ask due to my own familiarity with the phrase in a very different context, which makes me wonder where it originated. Any information (especially cited?) would be great!

  3. Well, the Internet has certainly made it hard to keep things private. Our Mormon temple rites are a mouseclick away. Same with Scientology’s confidential space opera.

    In the long run, I think this sort of exposure is good for everyone.

    @Dave (1), I imagine that Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential candidacy was about as legitimate as Alan Keyes’s current one. In other words, very trivial.

  4. Thanks for the response, Dave. I wanted to note in the comments one place where I think Feldman’s analysis might be a bit off. At the end of the piece, envisioning an accomodationist swing of the pendulum, Feldman writes “You could imagine Mormonism coming to look more like mainline Protestantism with the additional belief not in principle incompatible with Protestant Scripture that some of the lost tribes of Israel ended up in the Americas, where a few had a vision of Christ’s appearance to them.”

    This formulation, it looks to me, retains the basic historicity of the BoM—that is, it accepts the premise that there really were Nephites. This requires the miraculous provenance of the book through JS, and that would continue to make Mormonism look quite different from mainline Protestantism. We’d have to retreat to “with the additional belief that a precocious religious thinker produced a spiritual fantasia on American themes” to look more like Protestants.

  5. CC, yes indeed. Again, to flog my historical parallel, the shape of the religious upheaval in Elizabethan was driven in large part by the new (and newly affordable) technologies of printing and rising literacy rates. The written word was a major vector of the Jesuit campaign, as well as a dangerous paper trail to their whereabouts and deep intentions.

  6. Further to Rosalynde in #3, there is a real case of where we would be if we went in that direction, which is the Community of Christ (former Reorganites) who have taken exactly the step of saying the BoM is at best inspired fiction.

  7. And the way the Community of Christ has dwindled gives a great demonstration of why there would be no point for Mormons (Salt Lake) to flirt with that route.

    Unlike the Community of Christ, the Salt Lake church is financially just dandy, and the kind of persecution that led to the abandonment of polygamy is thankfully a thing of the past. Recent decades’ adjustments in emphasis in doctrine are primarily a product of the expansion of the church–a product of its success! We have to streamline the message to meet the needs of so many new converts. But if you ask me, the pendulum is starting to swing back. Mormon Studies is taking off, which is only interesting if you bring up the complexities, and the Church is encouraging it! Simultaneously, Elder Ballard is encouraging bloggers to take part in our society’s conversations about the Church. If that isn’t “moving on” from the age of correlation, I don’t know what would be!

  8. Interesting parallel, but with some limitations. Southwell was executed only 9 years after the Spanish Armada had sailed to restore catholic authority in England, and financed in part by a promise of a large sum of money from the pope if the invasion was successful. Jesuit priests on English soil certainly would have been viewed as agents of a foreign state, bent on the overturn of the current monarchy.

    I hope that we are not being perceived in the same manner, but I have seen some of the anti-Romney/Mormon attacks trying to tie us to a hidden theocratic agenda. We need to be careful about the “mental reservations”, and be perhaps more personally open about many things. Saying “Sacred, not Secret” doesn’t cut us much slack these days.

  9. As usual, I find myself in agreement with kevinf. I think we are FAR too hesitant to discuss just about anything than we should be, although, as I said on another thread, I avoid conversations when I get an impression that the other person simple isn’t going to understand – and probably will misunderstand.

  10. Kevin, yes, indeed, Jesuits came to represent in the English popular imagination a fearsome political threat. And in fact they probably were dangerous to the Elizabethan regime in ways that Mormons have never been dangerous to our nation. In this sense, Jesuits had more to conceal than the Mormons ever did. But the vague taint of sinister unease persists around both in their respective nations.

    It’s interesting and instructive to contemplate the ways in which we’re perceived by outsiders, and what we might change to mitigate these unfavorable perceptions. But it’s also interesting to contemplate the ways in which those outsiders might themselves be changed through their encounter with the religious other at the very heart of American democracy.

  11. In the age of the Internet I find the idea that there are any remaining secrets about Mormon doctrine or practice to be mildly amusing. The Church teaches certain key doctrines and everything else is basically either history or hearsay.

    The canon is important in certain contexts, but if the leadership does not think a scriptural precept worth mentioning, in practice it quickly becomes more a matter of intellectual curiosity than anything else.

  12. Mark, what do you think about the idea that human beings can become gods, equal in power an glory to God the Father. Would you say that’s a doctrine? Is it a key doctrine? Or is it hearsay?

    It is not often taught explicitly in places like General Conference or the Ensign, although it’s more often implied. It does not appear in the missionary lessons, but does appear in the gospel essentials manual. Pres. Hinckley and other church spokesmen have seemed reluctant to acknowledge it in public. So while I wouldn’t say it is “secret,” exactly, there does seem to be an interesting sort of discretion about when and how it is presented that does not apply to other theological teachings like “God has a physical body” or “there are three degrees of glory in the afterlife.” Is this because the doctrine is less important, or less well founded, or what?

  13. ed (#13),

    “Equal in power and glory” – at the moment not a doctrine, nor hearsay, but rather history. It is certainly a legitimate (and common) interpretation, but I don’t think it has been held to be doctrine since Brigham Young – and his take on it was rejected, so in a sense it has never been official doctrine.

    Not only that, with the current canon, I don’t think it is doctrinizable – there are too many open questions of the sort that got Brigham Young into trouble with the Adam-God theory.

  14. I love your essay, Rosalynde, and I agree with you that there are interesting parallels between anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism. Dan Brown has a lot to answer for reviving anti-Catholic discourse.

    Robert Southwell and the Jesuits, however, did not only assert the authority of Rome against the crown but the authority of the conscience. Moreover, governmental coercion creates an incentive to lie. Just as the Spanish inquisition had to distrust Jewish converts who had been won over under threat, the state’s coercion made it impossible for Southwell to be credible in the eyes of his persecutors.

    The solution to this problem was, of course, for the state to respect the freedom of conscience.

    The contemporary problem for Mormons only arises because instead of settling for toleration, we desire to be popular. If Mitt Romney would not be running in a popularity contest, there would not be any pressure on Mormonism to change.

    Feldman is right. If we want to be popular then there is pressure to change but, may be, being popular is not quite the proper priority for Mormonism and the LDS Church. After all, Christ has asked us to take the narrow and not the popular path.

    While the bigotry of the religious right is unfortunate, I am not sure that it would be wise to allow those who hate us to determine the path of our religion. Mainstreaming in the face of hate would amount to a surrender.

    And why would we? We have a right to be different. America is about being different. Liberty means that one may be different.

    If we have to be unpopular to be free then that is a price well worth paying. Asserting our liberty, we are realizing America’s essence and that is a much greater contribution to the common good than electing one of our own president.

  15. Mark D #14 “at the moment not a doctrine, nor hearsay, but rather history. It is certainly a legitimate (and common) interpretation, but I don’t think it has been held to be doctrine since Brigham Young – and his take on it was rejected, so in a sense it has never been official doctrine.”

    While there are always different interpretations of scripture my reading of D. & C. 29:12, 76:56-59 and 132:19-20 (v. 20 Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall the be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.” ) is that this teaching is and has been doctrine since the1843. To my knowledge nothing has been said to change that. The Doctrine and Covenants (Book of Commandments) is official cannon because it was presented and voted on by the general membership of the church. Over time some changes have been made. King Follett is no longer part of the D. & C. neither is the Lectures on Faith. Sections 137 and 138 were added as was D2 in 1981. The apparent silence on the subject does not invlidat it.

    The couplet “As man is now God once was: As God now is, man may be.” Was taught by President Lorenzo Snow. This statement was treated as doctrine as late as 1979 when it was included the the book My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth published by the Church as a short course in Church history for use in Sunday School classes.

    The Adam-God theory was never canonized. It may be that Brigham Young misunderstood something Joseph Smith said.

  16. I have to say, I read Feldman\’s article (and have commented on it in several places), but I thought it to be long-winded, prone to veer off into side discussions. He had some good points, but there were too many detours for me to think that the good points weren\’t lost. Rosalynde, I enjoyed your commentary in response.

    As Hellmut posted above, \”If we have to be unpopular to be free then that is a price well worth paying. Asserting our liberty, we are realizing America’s essence and that is a much greater contribution to the common good than electing one of our own president.\” I absolutely agree.

    I don\’t think that being Mormon (or being evangelical or Jewish or Muslim or Catholic…) inherently qualifies or disqualifies a person\’s suitability for office. In fact, I\’m wondering why everyone seems so entranced by the religion issue v. the issue on where candidates stand – especially in the divisive primary election runs.

    For me, the exposure of bitter \”soft bigotry\” in America\’s underbelly during this political season has sickened me.

  17. It is difficult to see any real parallel between the persecution of Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth the first and anything going on in the United States at any time or place. The major difference being that in Elizabethan England there was an established religion. Protestants–Puritans I believe–were persecuted as well. Any religious group that did not belong to the established Anglican church was persecuted. There was however particular antipathy for the Catholics because Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary Tudor aka Bloody Mary, had sought to re-establish Catholicism. She killed around 300 people during her reign. Among that 300 was the head of the Anglican Church, Cranmer who was burned at the stake.

    Elizabeth was always dealing with some plot or another by persons desiring regime change. She was particularly concerned about Mary Queen of Scots who she imprisoned. Mary finally lost her head, not because she was Catholic, but because Elizabeth became convinced the plotting would not cease as long as Mary lived.

    This same rivalry, between Catholics and protestants was not a small factor in the English Civil war the end of which was regicide. Charles, who lost his head, had a Catholic wife ,as I recall.

    Of course in the country we do not have any established religion. I do think it is interesting though that one candidate for President is using religion the way his supporters think the Mormons would if they had enough power, meaning votes.

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