12 More Questions for Armand Mauss, Part 3

We are pleased to post the last installment of our Q&A with Armand Mauss, LDS author and scholar. See Part 1 for a full introduction and the first set of questions and answers, and Part 2 for the second set.

9. In the third chapter of your recent book Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, you discuss how as a graduate student you encountered the theory “that truth or reality is socially constructed,” which you contrasted with an “absolutist or essentialist ontology” that you had developed as a young Latter-day Saint. At the end of the chapter, you reflected back on your early experience as an undergraduate student in Japan and “finally realized how my exclusive resort to a Mormon epistemology in those days had prevented me from fully understanding and appreciating Japanese culture.” It sounds like the traditional Mormon approach to truth and reality makes it difficult to engage with other cultures. That seems like a problem as the Church continues to expand into new countries and sends thousands of LDS missionaries to teach in increasingly diverse cultures.

In eastern cultures, the idea that there is only one true religion in the world has never made much sense. Religion in most societies has been so intertwined with the rest of culture, politics, and the very identity of a people, that they have found the embrace of a new religion almost unthinkable (as our missionaries to Asia and elsewhere can attest). Thus historically it has always been difficult for a religion exported from one culture to take hold in a vastly different cultural setting, unless the export occurs by force and violence, which initially accompanied the spread of both Christianity and Islam. However, even now, the political, economic, and social conditions in a given time and society will also greatly affect the receptivity of new religions in that society. Such conditions favored 20th-century Pentecostalism, Mormonism, and other non-Catholic movements in Latin America, and also, indeed, Mormonism in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s (but not so much later). There are now many examples in the historical and sociological literature to illustrate how the changing social and political environment in a society facilitates or constrains the growth there not only of new religions but even of its own traditional religions.

The “traditional Mormon approach to truth and reality,” therefore, will not be the only determinant of the Church’s proselytizing success in the “diverse cultures” of the world — and probably not even the most important determinant. Such ontological and epistemological questions might be important to potential converts of an intellectual and theological bent, as they were to me, but the vast majority of potential converts are influenced far more by LDS teachings pertaining to the existential problems of daily living and future prospects — e. g., our teachings about healthy and provident living; economic improvement; the solidarity and eternal destiny of the family; and so on. Various scholars and Church leaders have sometimes advocated a “gospel culture” that is somehow independent of any of the cultures of the world, and can therefore be embraced by converts from any culture. Yet ultimately it has always proved difficult to distinguish much of that “gospel culture” — especially in operational terms — from its historic frontier and western American character — and, indeed, from contemporary American geopolitics in which it is perforce implicated, for better or worse.

10. However fixed the Mormon mentality may be in general, the LDS Church as an institution does manage to change and adapt over time. In addition to the 1978 revelation and its consequences, there has been in the last generation an emphasis on making the family a central doctrinal concept, supported by the The Family: A Proclamation to the World, and increased time and energy devoted to humanitarian service by local members (Helping Hands) and LDS missionaries. But change is slow inside the Church. Can it change fast enough to stay relevant for the next generation and attractive to potential converts?

As my response to the previous question suggests, the relevance and attractiveness of our religion will vary not only by generation but also by cultural setting. My argument of 20 years ago in The Angel and the Beehive — as updated in my Winter 2011 Dialogue article — still holds: The appeal of our religion will always depend in large part on achieving and maintaining an optimum level of cultural tension with the surrounding environment — enough difference in our cultural prescriptions and habits to attract the interest of religious seekers (despite some public criticism and ridicule), but not so much difference as to create a generally subversive public image and thus to invite serious persecution. The pace and degree of change in the Church will thus be affected by the pace and degree of external challenge to its way of life and fundamental doctrines.

Its wholesale assimilationist transformation, for example (ca. 1890-1930) was a response to the excess of tension with American society that occurred during the previous two generations. Its retrenchment posture in the second half of the 20th century can be understood as the resistance of a largely assimilated religion to rapidly changing cultural norms and values in American society that appeared threatening to certain LDS fundamentals. The need to recover the optimum tension level of midcentury has recently (in the 21st century) produced certain “course corrections” in Church policies and programs toward a somewhat more assimilationist direction. So yes: the Church can and does change, sometimes fairly rapidly (within a generation) and sometimes more slowly. To the extent that it is successful in maintaining optimum tension with the culture(s) within which it operates, it will always attract converts. However, each significant change in direction on the tension continuum makes the religion seem less appealing to one or another segment of the membership, as well as to certain potential converts, so such change always carries the risk of selective disaffection — something like what occurs whenever a successful “brand” in any other market makes qualitative changes.

11. Here’s an example of institutional change. On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to resign given his declining health due to old age. Two weeks later, he stepped down and shortly thereafter a successor took office. This was the first papal resignation in 500 years, but it caused hardly a ripple within the global Catholic community. Benedict was 85 at the time he resigned. How can such a significant change come so easily to the Catholic Church, a fairly conservative organization with deep and established traditions, yet such a step for senior LDS leaders seems almost unimaginable? The difficult final years in office of President Kimball and President Benson certainly raises the issue for the Church as an institution.

As a recent article by Leo Lyman makes clear (Journal of Mormon History Spring 2014), succession to the office of Church president has not always been so predictable as it seems now — or even the order of seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve. I could easily envision a policy for the Twelve that would replicate the one now in force for the Seventies. That is, apostles could be given “emeritus” status at age 70 (or maybe 75 or even 80), which would drop them from the Quorum of the Twelve, but not from the apostleship (which is a lifetime ordination). That would guarantee that no apostle would ascend to the Presidency after that age (80 or whatever). Such a policy would reduce, but not eliminate, the likelihood that an apostle next in line for the Presidency would already be seriously incapacitated by advanced age. (In many ways, age 80 is the “new 70” — or so we octogenarians would like to believe!) Of course, the Quorum of the Twelve had the power and authority to make that change in lower quorums (i.e., the Seventies), but bureaucratic inertia and self-interest will make that change more difficult in the Quorum of the Twelve itself; and the First Presidency (as a creature of the Twelve) probably doesn’t have the power to impose such a change on that Quorum. Yet, many of our readers might actually live to see such a policy change.

Yet we must not make facile organizational comparisons between the Catholic Papacy and the LDS Presidency. Only one man at a time serves in the papal role, but at least three serve simultaneously in the First Presidency. This means that in the LDS case there will always be a member of the triumvirate who is vigorous enough to function legitimately in the president’s role and to speak for the president. We have seen this arrangement work reasonably well in recent decades, though, to be sure, it has sometimes led to conflict or strain between the FP and the Twelve, and has unduly delayed the making of certain important decisions when a surviving counselor in the presidency has been hesitant to assert his authority against resistance from the Twelve — especially from the president of the Twelve. The point is that because of the “back-up” arrangement in the LDS case, there is far less worry than in the Catholic case about old-age incapacitation at the very top. That is probably why at this point it seems “unimaginable” that the recent change in papal succession could have its counterpart in the LDS presidency.

12. Let’s end on a positive note. Scholarship and blogging tend to focus on problems and difficult issues. That’s just the nature of the enterprise. Yet despite all the difficult issues that get discussed in journals, blogs, and the media, millions of Latter-day Saints continue to enjoy their membership, attend church each week, make substantial financial contributions, and accept callings that consume lots of time and energy. Even many who are troubled by this or that issue generally work to resolve it or improve the Church rather than just exit (which can be done with nothing more than a signed letter). The Church just keeps chugging along. We must be doing something right. What are a couple of features of the Church you see that enable this continued success despite historical, doctrinal, and social challenges? What is the secret of our success?

As a committed Latter-day Saint, naturally I assume that divine guidance has something to do with “the secret of our success.” However, as a social scientist, I can point also to a few other features of our ecclesiastical organization and culture. At a macroscopic level, I would mention again the argument I made above in response to Question 10 — namely, the skill of the LDS leadership (intentionally or not) in raising or reducing the level of tension with the surrounding American culture in an effort to keep that tension “optimum.” To be sure, that tension has not necessarily been optimum in other cultures; and even in the U.S., certain leadership miscalculations have sometimes increased the tension unduly. However, in North America — and generally in the whole hemisphere — the cultural tension has been maintained at a level that continues to give our religion a fairly strong appeal in a certain “niche” of the “religion market,” though certainly not market-wide.

Internally too, the LDS Church has always had certain organizational features that have contributed to its success. One is the expectation of participation or “investment” by members through the lay ministry of the Church. Social science research for the past few decades has repeatedly documented the principle that we come to love what we sacrifice for (or invest in), which is why “strict” religions (i.e., those which make demands on their members) grow while most others do not. Yet, through a system of selective rewards, the Church also maintains a fairly large proportion of “free riders” at any given time (i.e., those who enjoy the benefits of membership without contributing much if anything); and the free riders, in turn, become the locus for the services or investments of the more active members.

Many such features were analyzed in a 2007 article by Prof. Michael McBride in Rationality and Society. In recent years, the LDS Church has also started to become more welcoming toward various subcultural “constituencies,” as I have called them in my Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, Chapter 5 (pp. 90ff) and Chapter 9 (pp. 180ff). These “constituencies” represent different selective emphases in their preferences for the various ways of “living as a Mormon,” but the Church increasingly makes room for most of them. Interestingly enough, religious behavior has become far more important to the LDS way of life than religious belief (beyond the small number of very general affirmations required in the temple interview).

12 comments for “12 More Questions for Armand Mauss, Part 3

  1. Thanks for this series. I am especially encouraged by Mauss’s take on change and tension, especially with regard to our apostles. We ask so much of them, right to the end of their lives and health, an enormous personal sacrifice on behalf of the rest of the church.

  2. Religion in most societies has been so intertwined with the rest of culture, politics, and the very identity of a people, that they have found the embrace of a new religion almost unthinkable…

    So true. and one more reason why it would be helpful if we could distinguish between culture and tradition and doctrine. If doctrine conflicts with a culture, there’s not much we can do. If one culture clashes with another, we can do all sorts of things.

    Dave, question #10. Spot on.

    …enough difference in our cultural prescriptions and habits to attract the interest of religious seekers…but not so much difference as to create a generally subversive public image and thus to invite serious persecution.

    Like Rachel, I love this idea. It’s very applicable right down to some of the most mundane elements. With modesty, for example, our standard (flawed as it is) has managed to move from puritanical to marginally contemporary.

    It’s a difficult line to hold, however. It can almost be said to be different merely for the sake of difference, not of doctrine. That can cause as many problems as it solves.

    each significant change in direction on the tension continuum makes the religion seem less appealing to one or another segment of the membership, as well as to certain potential converts, so such change always carries the risk of selective disaffection — something like what occurs whenever a successful “brand” in any other market makes qualitative changes.

    True, but doesn’t such change also make it more appealing to others? Do you think this is generally a net loss?

    Many thanks to Armand Mauss for these insights. Very interesting.

  3. I’ve found this post and series to be edifying, stimulating and comforting. Thank you to you and Brother Mauss. Couldn’t let a post this great go by with only two comments, hence the non-comment comment.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. So much writing focuses on LDS doctrine and LDS history. What I enjoy about Armand’s books and articles is the focus on the Church as an institution, and the institutional details, the changes over time, the adjustments or lack thereof — these things have a big impact on the local experience of every Mormon in the Church but don’t get much discussion. Special thanks to Armand for the time and effort he puts into his responses.

  5. “This means that in the LDS case there will always be a member of the triumvirate who is vigorous enough to function legitimately in the president’s role and to speak for the president.”

    Wasn’t President Hinckley called as an additional counselor in 1981 more or less because none of the other three was vigorous enough to function?

  6. Very interesting. And thanks for the pointer to Michael’s article. I am one of the fairly small niche of people who enjoys the economics of Mormonism and religions generally.

  7. To Alison, #2: You’re right, of course. Every difference or “peculiarity” which the Church embraces, whether doctrinal or cultural, carries potential costs and benefits, both for its external image or “tension,” and internally for its retention of members. As changes occur across time in the tension level, and in the demands made upon members, the specifics in these changes will be more attractive to some members (and potential members) and more objectionable to others. Whether the net result at any given point is gain or loss, can be calculated, as in any other enterprise, by changes in “market share.” Yet that calculus differs from one cultural setting to another and everywhere depends on actual “sales volume” (active membership) rather than on claims about popular appeal (official membership figures).

    To Bill, #5: You are correct. Although the triumvirate is the typical pattern for the First Presidency throughout the history of the Church, there have periodically been more than three members called to that body, starting at least as early as the waning years of the McKay presidency. Of course, that simply emphasizes my point that in the LDS case, unlike the Roman Catholic case, there is always a “back-up” arrangement to keep the Presidency functioning, even if most of them become incapacitated. To be sure, however, this system has been messy at times.

  8. Thanks for this Armand. It’s almost a cliche now in the culture that it’s important to distinguish between culture and doctrine. But doesn’t your work, and that of all sorts of religious historians, essentially show that doctrine is always tied to culture? Especially when an idea first emerges, it’s usually a reaction to a particular question of the moment. Over time, that moment is often forgotten, and then the doctrine takes on this lasting quality–and you read the idea (like one of the creeds), and you don’t even realize how culturally loaded it was. And if I read you right, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing lasting in any doctrine: it means that the lasting bit may not be in the specific form the doctrine took at a given moment, but transcends it, and will inform the next iteration of the doctrine? Or something like that? But thanks again for this, and all your work.

  9. Thanks, Armand. It’s interesting to read how things do or do not translate into other cultures. My husband lived in American Samoa for three years as a child and then served a mission in American Samoa and Western Samoa years later. It’s been interesting to hear which things work and which were somewhat modified to fit. Also interesting to learn which “foreign” things I wish were more prevalent in the church’s “frontier and western American character” and which things about that character that I love.

    Every difference or “peculiarity” which the Church embraces, whether doctrinal or cultural, carries potential costs and benefits…

    Absolutely. I wish we had a clearer mechanism for distinction so we could better analyze the costs and benefits of the cultural parts. If we did, it seems we could better accommodate the people in all parts of the world.

  10. This has been one of the best 12Qs I’ve seen. Many thanks to Dave and Bro. Mauss for your efforts.

    1. With regard to maintaining the optimal tension in foreign cultures: as you note, it doesn’t seem to me that we do this well. We succeed with folks that are attracted to American culture or who directly benefit from our temporally focused programs. Do you see either of these two scenarios as more/less probable futures for the church as a “world religion” rather than merely an international church: 1 – the church becomes more comfortable with substantive cultural variation around the world; or 2 – independent Mormon sects branching up (e.g., a breakoff group in Asia that marries ancestor “worship” with LDS doctrines on family).

    2. What about churches that thrive internally rather than via converts? Mormonism seems to have this steady process of bleeding members while enjoying a larger incoming stream of converts. But it seems to me that groups like orthodox Judaism or the Amish don’t attract converts (or not many), while also being so distinct from the rest of society as “to create a generally subversive public image and thus to invite serious persecution.” They continue on steadily nonetheless. Why is this? Am I missing something? Can you envision Mormonism plateauing in membership (or slowing to primarily natural growth) while remaining a steadfast subculture in society? Do you think our divine mandate requires us to maintain a fairly optimal tension with the rest of society that results in constant convert growth?

    3. Most, I want to hear how you maintain your commitment to the church and your sociologist’s view at the same time. Many members today have a very difficult time coming to grips with the fully naturalistic kind of analysis that you give (i.e., recognizing that the church really can be given a legitimate, secular analysis, that one doesn’t need to posit God’s intervention in order to account for the facts of our history, growth, etc.) and their belief that God set up and maintained and continues to divinely guide this church. You’ve obviously got decades of experience comfortably operating with both of these. How do you do it?

    Once again thank you for all of this.

  11. To Craig, #8: Yes, Craig, this transmutation between culture and (religious) doctrine is well illustrated in your own work, and I concur in the general overview you have provided in your comment here. Even doctrines that adherents claim to have come de novo from divine revelation often have earlier cognates, as, for example, the LDS claims of the restoration of primitive Christianity, and many other ideas common to the cultural and religious environment in which Joseph Smith and his earliest associates received their Church doctrines and practices. For believers, of course, such similarities are understood as divine prescience and preparation of the environment for the establishment of a new dispensation of the gospel, which is another of those wonderful unfalsifiable explanations that no one can gainsay.

    But as you suggest, it is not only in their origins that doctrines might have long-standing cultural connections. Elsewhere I have proposed a typology or scale of “doctrinal authenticity” (or obligatoriness, if there is such a word). In this scheme, the highest level of doctrine (or policy) is identified as “canon,” followed by “official,” “authoritative,” and finally “popular” doctrine or policy, otherwise known as folklore. (Dialogue, Autumn 1981, pp. 32-33). Using the old racial doctrines as an example, I suggest that they began as folklore and worked their way up the scale in successive generations of LDS leaders and members, in response both to internal Church developments and to external national developments, until they finally became ensconced as “authoritative” or even “official” for many of the general authorities — only (and very belatedly) to be dropped again suddenly to folklore very recently. However plausible that process might seem in this instance, it can be very bewildering to the Saints in other cultures who do not share the U. S. historical background — but might well have comparable examples from their own respective cultures.

  12. To James, No. 10:
    1) A third alternative seems already to be occurring: More than half of our ostensible membership worldwide has dropped out, or was never converted in the first place. Some of these have simply melted into other religious traditions — or none — but are essentially “cultural defectors” — that is, people who might have retained some LDS beliefs but have found their own respective “mixtures” of those beliefs with cultures and subcultures (and important associations) outside of Mormonism. This seems to be more likely than sectarian schisms, which rarely survive their first generation. Therefore, I think the first of the two alternatives you suggest is the more likely, which would follow the Roman Catholic model of accepting a certain amount of syncretism. Yet that process would eventually but inevitably compromise certain features of our religion that have come by now to seem fundamental (e. g. gender roles and marriage), leading us down the well-worn path that we have always thought of as apostasy — barring divine intervention, of course, to prevent the Church from being “led astray.” I must add, though, that facile comparisons with other world religions are dubious, since most of them were spread, in large part, by force and violence (“in hoc signo,” etc.). If our religion ever becomes truly a world religion, we will have to do it the “new fashioned” way — with persuasion and appeals that offset the costs of active membership in the various cultures of the world.

    2) I would not consider the Amish or the Jews as “thriving internally.” Outside of Israel itself, Judaism has a big problem with intermarriage, which some Jewish spokespersons have called “the silent holocaust.” Orthodoxy and Hasidism seem to remain vital but still a relatively small part of the world’s 12-15 million Jews. My reading on the Amish (admittedly not extensive) leaves me the impression that they are losing increasing numbers of their youth. Yet such small religious bodies are quite capable of remaining viable indefinitely, but not “thriving.” Theoretically, Mormonism could do the same, but I would expect the long-term result to be increasing attrition through intermarriage (already far more acceptable in mainstream Mormonism than it was when I got married). The Mormon tradition of proselytizing zeal is not only one of its most important sources of growth (even net of the defectors), but also one of the features that helps to maintain its “optimum tension” with other cultures, including secularism. For us to begin reducing or de-emphasizing our proselytizing would be to concede that maybe our religion is not as important or “special” in history as we once thought it was. It irritates most others just enough to keep their attention, but not enough to alienate them!

    3) Forgive my immodesty in referring to my published work, but I deal at some length with this question in my recent memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, especially in Chapter 3 and (more briefly) in my Concluding Apologia. Essentially I have learned to accept and work with more than one fundamental ontology. I learned as a sociologist that all ontologies (understandings of reality) are socially constructed. Therefore, none can be privileged a priori over any others. None of us can know with any certainty what reality is in the mind of God, or of any other presumably “objective” definition of reality. Ultimately, we all end up embracing our definition(s) of reality as a matter of faith, just as the Church teaches. As a Latter-day Saint, I have adopted the LDS definition of reality for living my own life and defining my values, but I have no problem stepping outside of that mode to employ other ontologies and epistemologies, including the “naturalistic” ones, which we have inherited from our Western civilization, starting with the ancient Greeks.

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