12 More Questions for Armand Mauss, Part 2

We continue our Q&A with Armand Mauss, LDS author and scholar. See Part 1 for a full introduction.

shifting borders5. Let’s talk now about some of the issues you discussed in your memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (U of U Press, 2012). In Chapter 6, “Recurrent Visits with the Race Issue,” you recount how you conducted research on the LDS race issue during the 1960s for your dissertation on Mormonism and minorities, filed at UC Berkeley in 1970. That put you smack in the middle of the most contentious issue in the Church during a difficult ten or fifteen years (particularly difficult for many LDS scholars) right up to the 1978 revelation. Yet you held the middle of ground of not exiting the Church or being pushed out as a harmful critic while, at the same time, publishing scholarly analysis and gentle criticism of the existing LDS policy and remaining a fully active member of the Church. How did you manage that?

It helped that I had grown up in a family with decades of conspicuous Church service in the San Francisco Bay area, and that I had maintained such a record personally before I began writing on the topic. One thing that kept me out of trouble was that I never publicly criticized the actual policy of withholding the priesthood from “Negroes,” as they were then generally called. Instead I focused (and always remained focused even to the present) on the doctrinal folklore used to justify the discriminatory policy. Naturally I had my doubts about the origin of the policy itself, but I knew that it was embraced in a 1949 letter from the First Presidency, which made it “legitimate” as Church policy, even if it was wrong. In my 1967 Dialogue article, I argued that the Church had a right to maintain such discrimination as an internal ecclesiastical policy, and it was no one else’s business unless and until someone could show that the policy had consequences in the way that Mormons treated black people in the secular, civil world outside the Church.

My own research (published in a respectable peer-reviewed sociological journal in 1966) indicated that on several different measures of anti-black prejudice and discrimination, Mormons were right on the average among a dozen different Christian communities including Catholics and major Protestant denominations ranging theologically from liberal to conservative — a finding that held up later with a much larger sample in my doctoral dissertation. It was small comfort, of course, to find that Mormons were no worse than the average, but at least it countered the claim that the internal Mormon policy had special consequences in the nation outside the Church.

In the hindsight of half a century, that posture now seems quite conservative, of course; and it satisfied neither my non-Mormon critics nor my more devout fellow Saints, who tended to be scandalized by my rejection of the doctrinal folklore that in those days was being taught as truth by high-ranking Church leaders. The work of Lester Bush soon convinced me that the policy itself lacked any authentic origin in revelation; yet, when the policy was finally dropped in 1978, the supporting doctrinal folklore was left untouched and continued to circulate widely in the Church, so my writing continued to criticize that.

A couple of contextual factors also help to explain why I didn’t get in any trouble with Church leaders during the 1960s: (1) We tend to forget that LDS members who questioned Church policies felt freer to speak out in those days before the retrenchment era, when both Dialogue and the Mormon History Association were started without “permission” from Church leaders; and (2) the Bay area was not Utah. There was the constant social unrest at UC-Berkeley, and of the black community in Oakland, so Mormons in that area knew that we had a pressing race problem. A lot of us wanted to talk about it. In fact, my first public comments on the subject were presented in a 1963 sacrament meeting at the invitation of my stake president, and at local firesides during the next two years. Also, in 1967, without permission from anybody, I delivered the gist of my Dialogue argument as part of a joust with the host of a prominent Sunday afternoon radio broadcast over KCBS in San Francisco. Fifty years ago, especially in California, we just felt freer as Church members (than in later decades) to do what scholars and intellectual gadflies normally do, with no expectation of Church constraints or sanctions. In very recent years, we see evidence that this happy situation seems to have returned in spades, with Mormons of different stripes commenting now on all kinds of things in all kinds of media; but during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, that was very risky.

6. In Chapter 6, you also recount unsuccessful efforts in the years after 1978 to get some sort of official renunciation by the Church of doctrinal folklore “explaining” the pre-1978 exclusion of men of African descent from the LDS priesthood that continued to circulate within the Church. The official position at that time was that, in light of the 1978 revelation ending the restriction, no further comment or explanation was needed. Then, in 2012, a BYU religion professor made comments to a Washington Post reporter endorsing some of that racial folklore, which were subsequently published. Were you surprised when the Church immediately responded with two press releases (a “Church statement” and an “official statement”) posted online at the Mormon Newsroom that did, at last, directly and unequivocally renounce that racial folklore? [More recently, an essay posted at the LDS.org site, “Race and Priesthood,” has restated in detail this rejection of racial folklore. The essay includes this passage: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”]

The only thing surprising to me about the 2012 press releases was that one of them actually named and blamed the hapless BYU religion professor who had caused the kerfuffle! In controversial situations involving one of their own (a Church employee), such references usually tend to be more circuitous. In any case, whether we are talking about the 2012 Mormon Newsroom reactions or the more recent “Race and the Priesthood” essay at lds.org/topics, it’s hard to be surprised when an official Church initiative so long overdue finally arrives.

7. In Chapter 7, “My Journey with Dialogue,” you reflect on your many years of support for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, including time on the Board of Directors and a term as Chairman. Dialogue has played a key role in the public discussion of Mormonism since its first issue in 1966. You were part of the search committee that hired the current editor, Kristine Haglund, whom you describe as part of “a truly new and much younger generation of authors and editors for Dialogue, savvy about strategic and tactical uses of the new electronic media.” What does the future hold for Dialogue and newer electronic media such as blogs and Facebook as the public discussion of Mormonism continues to expand?

In 2016, Dialogue will commemorate its 50th anniversary, but its future seems to me quite uncertain. Among Mormons, it remains, I believe, the main truly independent scholarly journal not devoted mainly to historical studies. The backbone of its readership has always been LDS members who are active in the Church but adventurous in their thinking. The retrenchment motif in the Church during the final decades of the 20th century suppressed the readership, especially among those less willing to chance Church discipline, or even the disapproval of family members and local leaders. One of the editorial teams during this period made “reform” or “liberalizing” of the Church (my terms) an explicit and public part of its editorial philosophy — at the cost of a third of the readership, which has never been recovered. Then, a few years ago, a person elected to chair the Board of Directors suddenly decided instead to leave the Church. A period of leadership drift and internal conflict resulted, which has only recently been corrected with strong new leadership and some promising new additions to the Board. By now, however, the subscribership remains well below 2,000. Denizens of the blogosphere, if they really care about the survival of Dialogue, had better step up and subscribe.

The blogs and social media we shall have always with us, for they need not compete but can simply proliferate indefinitely to meet even the smallest niche of taste. Yet, the new official Church friendliness toward scholars, critics, and all kinds of public commentary from the general membership, makes “edgy” independent journals like Dialogue seem less necessary to many potential readers. Therefore, the future of Dialogue, in my view, depends upon how well the Board of Directors and the editorial team can cope with such recurring difficulties as: (1) new competition from other scholarly journals in the Mormon orbit, especially from those with Church backing (e. g. from BYU and the Maxwell Institute), given the limited market niche for all such journals combined; (2) competition from the blog sites and social media, where many potential Dialogue readers and authors now turn for their intellectual stimulation and self-expression as easy substitutes for the disciplined writing of the traditional journals — no need for preliminary research, peer reviews, or subscription costs (though, to be sure, a few manage to write for both the new and the old media); (3) finding a way successfully to solicit a reasonable revenue from readers for access to both current and archived issues of Dialogue — readers these days have been conditioned to think that anything in electronic form should be free; (4) recruitment of editors and assistants who, as in the early days, regard their appointments primarily as opportunities to serve (“callings,” as it were), rather than as sources of necessary income; and finally (5) the need for a permanently vested endowment, which will generate enough income for Dialogue to survive on its own resources, rather than depending forever on a very few wealthy and generous donors.

8. In Chapter 8, “Bridging the Chasm Between Academics and Apologetics,” you talk about your efforts in supporting the establishment of the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. Other endowed chairs have been established recently at Utah State University and the University of Virginia, and Utah Valley University runs a Mormon Studies program. The emergence of these chairs and programs strikes me as a remarkable development which signals, as you note in the chapter title, a blending of previously separate categories (scholars, critics, apologists) into one large group of scholars and others doing research and publishing on Mormonism. How are these programs going to change the future of Mormon Studies?

Yes, the whole Claremont experience has been very gratifying for me during the past decade. I taught the Mormon Studies courses for the first few years before Richard and Claudia Bushman came, and almost from the beginning I have been active on the Mormon Studies Council there, which handles liaison between the university and the local LDS community, and has been responsible for funding the Howard W. Hunter Chair first held by Richard and now held by Patrick Mason. Programs like this one hold great promise in accomplishing the following objectives in particular: (1) Facilitating respectful and mutually enriching relationships between those scholars engaged mainly in apologetics and those working in secular academic university positions: Apologetics done well is a valuable contribution to scholarship, and criticism from other academic disciplines can help apologists do their work better, while (reciprocally) skilled apologists can help identify unfair or inaccurate work on Mormons in academia more generally. (2) Already at Claremont, some students are coming from BYU or CES with a primarily apologetic outlook but learning, during their graduate studies, how to integrate that outlook in an academic framework; a few doctoral graduates from our Claremont program have recently been hired by CES or by the Religion program at BYU. (3) As more and more students with course work in Mormon Studies (including many who are not LDS) enter professions such as academia and journalism, their expertise as teachers, consultants and writers will lend credibility to their public portrayals of the LDS people and religion.

Bonus question. The memoir Shifting Borders reviews, to a certain extent, ideas you presented in your two earlier books, but also addresses other issues and more recent events. What are a couple of the newer topics or issues you discuss in the book that you hope readers will notice and that you think younger scholars and grad students in Mormon Studies might pursue in more detail?

OK. Here are a few examples:

  1. There is a pressing need for historical and sociological research and interpretations on 20th-century Mormons and their religion, especially on the second half of the century.
  2. The LDS Church and religion, despite significant numerical growth in general, remains confined primarily to the Western Hemisphere. What seem to be the main cultural and political constraints on our growth elsewhere? Can a religion with a strong western American cultural heritage take root and really grow in other cultural settings without significant local adaptations? Catholicism could not do so. “Correlated” Mormonism is still trying.
  3. Traditional and official portrayals of the Mormon story tend to emphasize the exceptionalism of our religion and its history. Yet, many of the features and developments in our experience as a people, whether in the past or in the present, have parallels in the historical experience of other religions. Comparative studies would reveal these parallels, especially if those studies were to employ theoretical frameworks that could be generalized. Such studies would help to demystify the Mormon story, both for believers and for the public.

19 comments for “12 More Questions for Armand Mauss, Part 2

  1. Armand Mauss’s memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in the intellectual history of the LDS Church from the 1960s to the present. Armand is truly one of the Church’s “Forrest Gumps”–he’s not only observed, but participated in, many of the most important recent intellectual and academic touchstone trends and events.

    Regarding his comment about one of Dialogue’s editorial teams during the 1990s, I may be able to offer an alternative opinion. Armand says that this team made “reform” and “liberalizing” “an explicit and public part of its editorial philosophy–at the cost of a third of the readership, which has never been recovered.” (This is also one of Armand’s themes in his chapter on his involvement with Dialogue.) As one of the members of the editorial team Armand alludes to, I can state unequivocally that we had no such agenda, hidden or out in the open. I think what Armand points to may be what he sees as a general trend in the kind of articles published (others, myself included, do not discern such a trend). Armand knows such possible trends are more a result of the submissions received than the focus of an editor’s or editors’ acquisitions strategy. I know for a fact that every effort was made during these middle-to-latter years of the 1990s to solicit as wide a range of articles and viewpoints as possible. And regarding the decline in subscriptions, this was an across-the-board phenomenon generally, affecting publications from Sunstone to the Journal of Mormon History. The story of Dialogue during these difficult years is not as simple as one might conclude from reading Armand’s reminiscences.

  2. Gary, I have heard the current editor make similar remarks — that Dialogue can only publish (a subset of) what it actually receives as submissions.

  3. There are few scholars in Mormon Studies during the past few decades whom I appreciate and respect as much as I do Gary Bergera, and given the central role he played in the editorial work of Dialogue during the period in question, I can well understand his resistance to my interpretation of the editorial philosophy of the editorial team of which he was a vital part. However, I think the documentation I provide (pp. 121-22 and notes 16-19 of my Shifting Borders book), quoted from the statements of the editors themselves, will indicate that my interpretation of their philosophy is by no means simply my inference about a “general trend in the kind of articles published.” One of the editors, for example (not Gary), on taking the editorial reins, expressed a determination “. . . to advocate reform, progressive change, [and] a pointing of the way to a more ideal Mormonism.” This general orientation was further elaborated in comments by the editors both at the beginning of their editorial term (see “The Times — They Are a-Changin’,” in Dialogue, Spring 1993) and at the end (see “A Dialogue Retrospective” and “The Times – They Are Still a-Changin'” in Dialogue, Fall, 1998). Gary is absolutely right about the ultimate dependence of the editors of any journal upon the nature and quantity of submissions, and editors often have to take considerably initiative to seek out authors or commentators who can provide balance and context for articles that are especially controversial or tendentious.

  4. Dave–Exactly. The content of almost all journals is submission-driven. Dialogue was, and is, no exception. If readers would like to see other topics, and viewpoints, treated, they should submit articles, etc.

    Armand–I appreciate your perspective … however much I may disagree with it. I think interested readers might want to read the entire editorial you refer to, “The Times–They Are A’ Changin’,” in the Spring 1993 issue.

    I hope this minor detour doesn’t derail comment on the host of ideas Armand raises. I think his seasoned input on a variety of important topics is invaluable.

  5. Even editors who take substantial initiative to seek out submissions that provide balance are hindered by the unwillingness of many authors to contribute to Dialogue, and by an unwritten policy that discourages/prohibits BYU professors from contributing.

  6. WIKIPEDIA: “The first issue appeared in the spring of 1966, and during its first few years the Editorial Board and Staff came to include many notables in the subsequent history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as Richard Bushman, Chase Peterson, Stanford Cazier, Dallin H. Oaks …

    Emphasis on the Dallin H. Oaks – which makes Kristine’s comment above poignant, indeed, Perhaps this good brother could now be re-approached in our new climate of”openness” and asked to grant his apostolic imprimatur to Mormon scholarship emanating from BYU and published in Dialogue.

  7. Speaking as an academic, I would love to write something for Dialogue, but neither my department nor college would grant such a publication much (or any) credit toward promotion. Like many university professors, rising service obligations and declining extramural funding opportunities affect my ability to publish, so I’m forced to be utilitarian about the outlets I choose. The irony is that Dialogue’s readership is much larger than some of the journals that *would* count toward promotion, but those are the breaks.

    It is interesting to note that much of Armand Mauss’s career was spent in the area of social movements and social deviance, where he produced important work that shaped these sub-fields within sociology. He has plainly stated that he waited until he was promoted to full professor before fully shifting his focus to Mormonism. I suspect there are a number of scholars who have interesting things to say in the pages of Dialogue who are prudently waiting as well.

  8. I certainly take the points made in the above comments (#5 and #6) deploring the tendency of BYU scholars to boycott Dialogue as an outlet for their work — though it is actually only a tendency, not a total boycott, and I am optimistic that we will soon see “the new climate of openness” begin to take in Dialogue and more of the wary scholars at BYU. Meanwhile, however, I think we have been unduly preoccupied with bemoaning the apparent restrictions felt by potential authors from BYU, when, in fact, we now live in a time when many other talented scholars, including some who frequent blogsites such as T&S, might make Dialogue far less dependent on BYU than in earlier years for strong and balanced articles — IF ONLY more of them would do the work necessary to convert some of their extensive and time-consuming blog posts into publishable manuscripts for Dialogue.

    Rick’s observations (#7), including those about my own career, while accurate enough in general, might be somewhat overstated: It’s true enough that academics who aspire to work and publish in Mormon Studies will do well to focus their efforts at first on gaining some seniority and credibility in more mainstream academic disciplines. HOWEVER, this need not mean avoiding Mormon studies altogether, even as a sideline. While Mormon studies became my main focus only relatively late in my career, I published at least a dozen times in Dialogue between my graduate school years and my formal retirement. That was never held against me for tenure or promotion as long as I published mainly in regular academic journals (even if occasionally on Mormons there, too) and did my share of the teaching.

  9. Thanks for an interesting interchange and some wise counsel, Armand.

    Regarding Dialogue, Dialogue is, as Armand says, the “main truly independent journal not devoted mainly to historical studies.” We understand scholars need to focus on tenure track publication but echo Armand’s encouragement to publish Mormon Studies in Dialogue as a sideline. The list of subjects crying for thoughtful treatment but which do not fit in or would have a much smaller audience in other journals is long. Think Scripture Studies; Theological Issues; Issues relating to Singles, Women, Youth and Homosexuality; and Humanitarianism for starters. Any issue whose exploration would bring us closer to lives of truth and love are fair game. Some are best reached historically; some, sociologically; some, by exploring life experience and personal insight. Remember our sermon, essay and interview sections when you have an important insight to share but need to put the bulk of your effort into tenure track publishing. And, when you can, we’re interested in all aspects of Mormon Studies.
    Molly Bennion, Chair, Dialogue Board

  10. I think Armand’s advise to T&S bloggers “to convert some of their extensive and time-consuming blog posts into publishable manuscripts for Dialogue” is excellent. I think some of us are held back by the idea that once a text is in the open on the blog, it has lost its originality for later publication. But the comments can be (partly) considered as peer review, obliging the author to rethink some premises, expand arguments, and cite more sources. The later article in Dialogue could mention something like “This article is based on a post at T&S which has been … etc. ” I would also suggest that Dialogue editors contact the blogger who posted a text with good potential for an article for Dialogue. And exert appropriate and continued pressure and encouragement …

  11. If you’d like, I can provide a list of articles in the last 5 years that began as blog posts :)

  12. My Dialogue article on Mother in Heaven originated not as a blog post, but in response to a discussion at FMH, where everyone was bemoaning that it is not possible to say anything meaningful about MiH without risking church discipline. I didn’t think that was correct, and modeling such discourse was what motivated my article “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven” (including in particular its cheeky subtitle, “Without Getting Excommunicated”). A blogger posted a critique of my article, and I posted a response, and Kristine invited both of us to include this exchange in Dialogue, which we did. So that is a small sample of the kind of leveraging of blog content in the pages of the journal that Wilfried so helpfully suggests.

  13. Armand, it’s not reluctant scholars at BYU, it’s an administration that vets faculty employment applications for publications in Dialogue, and nixs those applications before they get off the ground. The same is true for untenured faculty. Publishing in Dialogue can sink your ship. It is true perhaps that some Mormon scholars at BYU (and elsewhere) may harbor (unfounded in the current state of things) fears that publishing in Dialogue somehow marks one as unfaithful or on the fringe of membership. But it is not reluctance of BYU faculty to publish in Dialogue that creates a dearth of submissions from that crowd. It is the central administration. And that is a far different animal.

  14. WVS: Of course, I well understand that the reluctance of BYU faculty to publish in Dialogue originates in administrative policies, written or unwritten, and faculty deference to those policies is certainly understandable — at least in the early stages of one’s career (hiring and first promotion). Yet, all along, some senior faculty have been adventurous enough to place good work in Dialogue. These have included Tim Heaton in Sociology, Duane Jeffrey in Biology, and Mark Grover in the Library. More recently we have seen articles from Steven Peck (Biology) and Roger Terry (actually BYU Studies, perhaps even more sensitive). These scholars might have faced repercussions, but I’ve not heard of any. If a few more senior faculty would do the same, I think that would help both to (1) make the existing administrative posture seem less intimidating; and (2) eventually remove the constraining policies altogether in this period of increasing openness and transparency in scholarship around the Church more generally.

  15. Recent news from BYU suggests that my hopeful expectations expressed above in #15 are apparently unduly optimistic, or at least premature. We might need some more turnover in the Board of Trustees. Rejections of truly qualified new hires, or of tenure, promotion, etc., have typically been occurring in the top administration above the department or college levels. Dialogue’s “problem” at BYU almost certainly originates with one or more persons on the Board, for the President and Vice-Presidents are simply the most direct instruments of Board preferences (at almost any university, actually).

  16. What an interesting set of posts, Dave and Armand, thank you. First let me clarify that I am not currently connected to production etc. of Dialogue, so what follows isn’t coming from a Dialogue insider.

    I wanted to sound off on one particular point: “(4) recruitment of editors and assistants who, as in the early days, regard their appointments primarily as opportunities to serve (“callings,” as it were), rather than as sources of necessary income; ”

    I don’t think it’s in Dialogue‘s best interest to expect solid editors to volunteer their time. Very, very few people would be financially able to pull off editing a quality publication quarterly with little no no income. The laborer is worthy of her or his hire. I can think of a few types of people who might be able to perform such consecration: independently wealthy folk (how many of these will have advanced degrees in any relevant humanities field, given that such graduates are usually under-compensated in whatever jobs they manage to find?), retirees (who may have difficulty adapting the journal to younger audiences), established professors (who, in the current state of the field would likely not receive much in terms of professional academic recognition for editing a small Mormon journal, which meanwhile would require a pretty good amount of free time) or people who don’t mind being homeless.

    In other words, it seems to me priority should be given to compensating a competent editor, establishing a solid and adaptable marketing plan, seeking to build a financial endowment if one already doesn’t exist, making sure office workers etc. are being compensated at a rate comparable to other small publications (ie, not overpaying), and other such things before trying to get someone to give away the skills they invested a good deal of time and money to develop for free.

  17. Two of the five individuals named in comment 15 are biology professors who teach (or taught) the Evolution course. They’re willing to teach a tough and somewhat dangerous subject matter–especially at a school like BYU–so it’s no wonder they’re not afraid to publish in Dialogue.

  18. In re: #17:
    Understandable advice, coming from one not “a Dialogue insider.” Would that we lived in such an ideal world of easy funding and generous compensation for competent and professional editors, and a journal with thousands of subscribers. Unfortunately, that has never been the case with any of the journals in the LDS intellectual world — not even BYU Studies, which at least has Church support. Like those other journals, Dialogue depends heavily on a very small number of faithful donors, and if one of those donors, in particular, were to pull out, Dialogue would collapse in a matter of months. It is in the process of raising an endowment, but that is going slowly. It is true that the editor’s duties have been more comfortably managed by those in or near retirement, or by couples. Yet the role of editor has never been considered a full-time position, and the pay was miniscule during the first half of the journal’s existence. In more recent years, it has been equivalent to half of the salary of a senior associate professor in the humanities or social sciences. One would be hard put to find evidence of any correlation between the editor’s salary and the quality of the journal, and that is because so many editors have been willing, like ward bishops, to give the job what it requires irrespective of the pay. I hope and pray that we will continue to find such editors, but the applicant pools have always been very small — also irrespective of salary.

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