We continue our Q&A with Armand Mauss, LDS author and scholar. See Part 1 for a full introduction.
5. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.