Some time ago, Richard Bushman wrote an essay entitled “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” In it he argued that Mormons who have looked at the Mormon past have largely adopted the attitudes of those who colonized and ultimately dominated 19th century Mormondom. Hence, we tend to view things like “theo-democracy” and plural marriage as embarrassments and see nuclear, vaguely Victorian looking families as good, mirroring the attitudes of the federal officials who crushed Mormon peculiarity in the 19th century.
The hip and lit crit amongst us will recognize the influence of Edward Said in Bushman’s argument. In his book Orientalism, Said argued that Western “experts” on the Middle East constructed a vision of Arabs and Muslims as deceitful, lustful, childish, backward, etc., which Middle Eastern intellectuals then adopted as their own. As Bushman frankly acknowledges, he is applying Said’s ideas to Mormonism. Bushman the Historian focused his analysis on Mormon understandings of their own past, but I think that there is much to be said for his analysis when you apply it to more contemporary Mormon self-understanding.
Mormon intellectuals often pride themselves on achieving a certain critical distance from their faith. They are able to look (or at least hope and occasionally claim to be able to look) at their religion objectively and from the outside. They can look at Mormonism as a social, political, or economic phenomena and apply methods of analysis from those fields. They can appreciate accounts of the Church that emphasize its particular social and political position. They understand that Church leaders are not flawless and can be viewed the same way as other powerful men who control large organizations.
I wonder, however, the extent to which “critical distance” is simply a manifestation of intellectual colonialization. When we talk on about the corporate culture of the Church or look at Mormon chapels as analogous to McDonalds franchises, to what extent are we – like Said’s Arab intellectuals – simply adopting an image of ourselves created by “foreign experts.” Now just to be clear, I am not advocating a new Mormon xenophobia, nor am I against critical thinking about the Church or the Gospel. However, I wonder to what extent we take “critical thought” to be simply discussion that sounds as though it appeared pages of the New York Times. In other words, to what extent is there a difference between an “informed” vision of our religion and a vision of ourselves propagated by Gentile intellectual elites when they happen to glance at Mormonism for ten or fifteen minutes?