Armand Mauss on Church and Society and Other Musings
John Morehead at Morehead’s Musings recently interviewed Dr. Armand Mauss, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Religious studies at Washington State University. Mauss, author of “The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation” (University of Illinois Press, 1994), examines the relationship of Mormonism and society at large through the discipline of sociology. This is a timely interview which succinctly sets forth the main themes of Mauss’s work:
My basic thesis is derivative not only of the Weberian tradition in the sociology of religion, but more directly of the recent work of Rodney Stark and his associates, often called a “new paradigm” in the sociology of religion. In its fullest development, this new paradigm has been put forth in the recent book by Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith (U. of Calif. Press, 2000), which argues, in effect, that for a religious organization to grow and prosper it must find the “optimum” location on that continuum between total rejection and total acceptance of the surrounding culture. If the organization remains too close to the rejection end, it will continue to be stigmatized, persecuted, and (in extreme cases) stamped out. On the other hand, if the organization travels too far down the continuum toward acceptance, then it will eventually be absorbed into the mainstream culture. In either case, it loses its identity as a separate institution. Just what is the “optimum” level, however, of cultural tension will change with time, circumstances, and location (geography).
Both Mormons and Evangelicals will recognize this academic language to be describing the tension found in the phrase ”In the World, but not Of the World.”
During a round table discussion on Utah NOW about Helen Whitney’s The Mormons. Robert Millet explained:
It’s the question of: Do the Mormons today want to be perceived as similar or as dissimilar? And I think that is a very critical question because it is a dynamic of the faith, right now, that we must address. I’m convinced that the answer is yes, that is, I want that there’ll always be a tension. And if there isn’t a tension, then I think we lose something. There are certain things that I want my Christian friends or my Jewish friends to understand about my Christianity. Certain things I have to stand up for and say no… The maintenance of our distinctives, while at the same time maintaining that we shouldn’t hide from our similarities is a tough dynamic to maintain, but I think it is one that the LDS faith has to maintain if we are to do what we’re supposed to do.
Robert Goldberg followed up this comment with a comparison to the Jewish faith:
I want to respond to that which is I find with Mormons as often with Jews an action and a defensive crouch, a ‘bunker mentality,’ which is yes we’re distinctive, yes we’re different, we’re proud of that and when is the next blow going to fall, and how do we protect ourselves from this wider society, how do we protect ourselves from within? So this defensive crouch which keeps people, I think, often from being who they are, people are more Mormon in the home than outside, more Jewish in the home than they are outside. So, I welcome a sense where people can be who they are, what they are, without fear of recrimination, fear of any sign of prejudice. (43:00)
In other words, all faiths must decide what their relationship is to society at large. As an interested observer and participant in communication between faith groups, I see another dimension of this tension. As Mauss points out, individual Latter-day Saints may orient themselves largely one way or the other, either as viewing the faith as an important participant in society, or viewing the faith as something ultimately incompatible with society, seeking to maintain the peculiarities. Most believers are likely to be a mixture of both, as both strands exist within the Mormon tradition. However, not far behind this dynamic is the counter-cult movement who has a vested interest in this tension. Not tension between faith and society, but tension between legitimate Christian expression and illegitimate Christian expression. Counter-cult apologists are happy to assist Mormons in remaining distinct, “strange and peculiar” and ‘wholly other’ than the rest of Christian society. Apologetics makes strange bedfellows.
I often observe Latter-day Saints within this dynamic who, on the one hand, do not want to be part of “Christian society” (often viewing anti-Mormons who protest outside temples and general conference to be representative of “Christian society” and often viewing “Christian society” as the ones who historically chased and persecuted the early Latter-day Saints out of the country), and yet on the other hand are highly offended when people do not consider their faith to be “Christian.”
In recent years, an Evangelical and Mormon dialogue has emerged in which the goal has been less to keep the religious other as ‘other’ but rather to gain a better understanding of the tradition. A growing number of Evangelical scholars have realized that years of polemical discourse has actually hampered our understanding of one another. As a result of an ongoing dialogue LDS scholars have been given the opportunity to articulate LDS belief to a non-LDS audience. While I’ve highlighted the negative reaction that Evangelical apologists have to such dialogue, I’ve also observed an interesting negative reaction from certain Latter-day Saints who perceive such dialogue as an attempt to play down “distinctives” of the LDS faith, where intuitively one should anticipate a more favorable reaction in contrast to the alternative polemical approach. While it’s beyond the scope of this post to address this complex situation in detail, I believe Mauss’s interview offers much food for thought about the context and cause of such reactions.