By November 16, 2013
Next weekend, tens of thousands of scholars of religion will come together in Baltimore, Maryland, for the joint annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. You could review the full program book for each group, but we thought we’d save you some time and trouble by providing a round-up of sessions and papers of interest to the Mormon Studies community. I have highlighted the JI affiliation of specific panelists. We hope to see many of you there!
For more information on any of the panels and papers listed below, including abstracts and the location of the presentations, please visit the official conference program books.
By November 4, 2013
We’re pleased today to welcome back J.B. Haws for Part II of our Q & A on his recent article in the JMH and his forthcoming book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (Oxford, December 2013), both exploring the changing image of Mormons in American media from George Romney’s presidential run in the 1960s to his son Mitt Romney’s campaigns in the early 21st century. Last time, we focused mainly on Haws’ methods and sources. Today, we’re exploring specific aspects of his analysis and a few of his conclusions.
By October 21, 2013
In August, I reviewed J.B. Haws’ recent article “When Mormonism Mattered Less in Presidential Politics: George Romney’s 1968 Window of Possibilities”, published in the summer issue of the Journal of Mormon History. Haws, an Assistant Professor of Church History at BYU, graciously agreed to participate in a Q & A to answer some of my lingering questions and those submitted by members of the JI community. In the course of our conversation, we also discussed how the research he presented in his article is extended in his forthcoming (and highly-anticipated!) book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (Oxford, December 2013), which promises to be an important and much-needed addition to our understanding of Mormonism in the contemporary period, as well as of public representations (and misrepresentations) of Mormonism across the last half of the 20th century.
JBH: I should say, by way of preface, that as I read through your questions, my reaction after every one was to think, “Wow—great question.” But I’m going to resist typing that every time (but just know I’m still thinking that!). Thanks for these thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.
CHJ: Thank you, J. B.! We’re excited that you were willing to offer us some answers. So—let’s get to it!
By September 16, 2013
Is this really a post about material culture? I started out thinking it would be, but I suppose it hasn’t really ended up that way as I’m not analyzing the ways in which the makers or users of these objects physically interact with them. Yet I think there’s something significant in the fact that the Mormon beehive is such a substantial physical presence, both as it is materially incorporated into so many Mormon sites and as it appears in so many of the mundane physical assertions of state power in Utah. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws in an effort to anchor myself to our monthly theme here at JI – I’ll leave it for the readers of this post to decide!
I’ve always been a very visual person, and I take great delight in quizzing myself and the people around me on the people and pictures that we encounter in our everyday lives. I’m told it’s something of a trial to watch any BBC production with me, as every time a new character appears on screen I immediately give my fellow viewers a brief history of the actor’s previous performances and explain how their previous roles are being used to shape the audience’s reaction to the current character. (This might explain why my husband often chooses to go do something else when I turn on Masterpiece Theatre….) I do the same thing with Disney movies, and I also delighted, when I worked for the Disney Store in college and made frequent excursions to Orlando, at finding the “hidden Mickeys” that Disney incorporates into designs all over its theme parks. It’s a shame Dan Brown isn’t better at what he does – I’m a big fan of finding and analyzing hidden symbols… when they’re well hidden (or at least unnoticed or misunderstood by many) and worth finding anyway.
So imagine how much fun I have with the many not-so-hidden but all-too-overlooked symbols I have learned through my study of the Latter-day Saints (as evidenced here by the fact that all of the pictures below are mine, unless otherwise noted).
By August 19, 2013
Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns came to seem, in the media frenzy of the last few years, like bookends to America’s much-touted Mormon moment. But Americans’ fascination with the Latter-day Saints did not begin or end with Mitt Romney. This is not the first period in American history when non-Mormon Americans have, to some extent, embraced their LDS neighbors. In fact, Mitt Romney isn’t even the first Republican Romney whose religious affiliation has colored his national political image. His father George, the successful head of the American Motor Company in the 1950s and popular governor of Michigan in the 1960s, was a prominent candidate for the 1968 Republican nomination for President. Also like Mitt, George owed at least some measure of his political success to a period of increased interest in and positive feeling towards the Mormons. As J.B. Haws, Assistant Professor of Church History at BYU, shows in his article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History, George Romney’s candidacy was not seen as tainted by a “Mormon problem,” as were his son’s campaigns a half-century later.  In the United States in the 1960s, the Romneys’ Mormonism simply “mattered less” than it does in the 21st century. And if it mattered at all, Haws argues, it did so by lending George Romney the air of “benign wholesomeness” that characterized public perceptions of the Latter-day Saints in this period (99).
Haws’ current article is based on the research for his forthcoming book The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (OUP, November 2013), and essentially lays the groundwork for that longer study, in which he traces public perceptions of Mormonism in the American media across the last half-century. In the 1960s, he argues, George Romney ran for the Republican nomination for the presidency and faced remarkably few challenges to his religion—or at least what look like remarkably few challenges to those of us who lived through the most recent Mormon moment. By comparing political polling data from both Romneys’ campaigns and examining news coverage of the elder Romney’s presidential aspirations and editorial commentary on his campaign and on the larger question of the role a candidate’s religion should play in voters’ assessment of his fitness for office, Haws convincingly demonstrates that Americans were less concerned in the 1960s—or at least said they were less concerned—by the possibility of having a Mormon in the White House than were their early 21st-century counterparts. While George Romney’s religion was occasionally challenged—primarily, Haws claims, regarding the Church’s policies on race (remember, George Romney was running for the presidency in the midst of the Civil Rights movements, and a decade before the Church lifted its ban on blacks in the priesthood)—according to Haws it was not Romney’s religion but his moderate politics and his ill-advised declaration in 1967 that he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam war that sunk him with American voters. In short, Haws argues that political views, not religious beliefs, were the elder Romney’s greatest obstacles.
By June 18, 2013
Let me be blunt. This makes me mad:
A seemingly innocent advertisement…
I walk home from work most days and on a one mile stretch of that walk, on Western Avenue in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, this ad appears on no fewer than three bus stop shelters. One of these bus stops is only a quarter of a mile from a playground and little league baseball diamond. It’s across the street from a grocery store. It doubles as a stop for school buses for children of various ages. And in a city where people routinely walk and use the public transit system, you can bet it gets seen. I’ve been contemplating it for weeks.
Why does this advertisement make me mad, you ask?
By May 31, 2013
PLEASE NOTE: All issues with the images below are the result of Cristine’s lack of technical prowess.
I’m pleased once again to present a guest post from another colleague whose work explores images of minorities in American culture, Martyn Oliver. Martyn is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University. He holds a BA from the University of Puget Sound, and earned his PhD in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University. Martyn’s work explores the construction of religious identity with particular emphasis on how Western literature depicts Islam and Muslims.
I’m going to have to start with a confession: I don’t really know a whole lot about Mormons or the LDS Church. Aside from a few ex-Mormon friends and a very strange night in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport,  my encounter with Mormonism both personally and professionally has been frighteningly thin.
So it’s been with great interest that I’ve followed The Juvenile Instructor during this month on Many Images of Mormonism. Crissy has this wonderful habit of inviting folk to do things they don’t know they can do and then convincing them they’re perfect for the task. Needless to say, I’ve been trying to figure out what her nefarious scheme is for me this time around.
To get right to it, she asked me to contribute something for y’all because I study Islam and the religious traditions of Central Asia, often in terms of how these traditions conform to or challenge our preconceptions about them, or in terms of how “foreign” religions are depicted in the West (by which I don’t mean cowboys, I mean white folk—we should be honest about what the “West” implies).
Anyhow, I’ve got this idea brewing: there’s an obvious tension within Mormonism, which you all have begun to spell out in fascinating detail, between the maintenance of—for lack of a better term—Mormon exceptionalism and Mormonism as authentically American. Without intending to gloss over the many subtleties of this situation, it seems that by and large there has been a push (as illustrated by Erin Anderson’s reprinting of Calvin Grondahl’s cartoon) for Mormons to be the “most” American, and in the process not only contort themselves into rigid caricatures, but also implicitly illustrate the foibles of American self-perception. To put it another way, they try and out-WASP the WASP’s.
From my view, this is a mistake. If Mormonism really wanted to make common cause with a group of fellow Americans who are both religiously peculiar while still being deeply and inherently American, the obvious choice is clear. They should cozy up with what was once the Nation of Islam.
By May 29, 2013
Today, as part of our continuing series on Mormonism’s Many Images, we are pleased to welcome Erin Anderson as a guest blogger. Erin left the LDS Church in her early teens, along with her parents and siblings; her extended family is still active. She holds degrees in religious studies from New York University and Boston University, and works as an administrator at Harvard.
The last time I set foot in an LDS building, more than a decade ago, I spent the entire day in the foyer. It was an ideal location. Like the rest of my immediate family, I had come to welcome these in-between settings: close enough to see friends and relatives, but removed from problematic religious spaces. My uncle’s wedding at the temple? We’ll volunteer to watch the kids outside. Visiting grandparents? Let’s fly in on Sunday afternoon, to spare them from asking us to church. We kept the peace by finding comfortable gray areas, neither embracing nor rejecting our heritage.
My parents, sisters, and I had withdrawn from a tight-knit congregation two years earlier, resulting in this “betwixt and between” strategy. Even in Massachusetts’ progressive Mormon community—surrounded by the lovely women of Exponent II—it had simply become too difficult for my mom and dad to raise three liberal, feminist daughters. And so I twiddled my thumbs that Sunday outside the chapel doors, already a veteran of living between two cultures at fourteen.
By May 27, 2013
Terryl L. Givens. The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, updated edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Paperback. 978-0-19-993380-8. $24.95.
Since its original publication in 1997, Terryl Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth has been a mainstay of the study of Mormonism and anti-Mormonism in American culture. And deservedly so. Givens’ work provided the first substantial scholarly book-length exploration of images of the Latter-day Saints in American culture in any time period. His examination of the representations of Mormons in the United States in the 19th century is sweeping in its coverage of the period; thorough in its inclusion of a wide variety of sources, from newspapers to popular fiction to fictive memoirs; and convincing in its argument that, whatever American claims of separation of church and state and tolerance for differing religious views may have been, religion was at the heart of mainstream America’s intolerance, suspicion, and occasional violence toward the Mormons. For many students of Mormonism and of American religion, Viper has served as an introduction to anti-Mormonism in America. For the generation of scholars who have examined the subject since Viper’s first publication—including Megan Sanborn-Jones, Patrick Q. Mason, and J. Spencer Fluhman—Givens’ scholarship has served as a guide. No one can engage in a study of anti-Mormonism in the United States without responding to his arguments about the mechanisms of and motivations behind anti-Mormon sentiment in American culture.
By May 15, 2013
Please note: This post has been corrected. In earlier versions, the second and third paragraph were inadvertently transposed.
As we continue this month to consider images of Mormonism in popular culture, the Juvenile Instructor is pleased to host guest blogger Megan Goodwin. Megan is currently completing her PhD at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Her research interests include American religions, gender and sexuality, religious language and literature, religious alterity, and contemporary critical thought. Her dissertation, entitled “Good Fences: American Sexual Exceptionalism and Marginal Religions,” examines three captivity narratives – Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter (1987), Michelle Smith’s Michelle Remembers (1989), and Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) – as articulations of American Protestant anxieties about the challenges marginal religions pose to normative masculinity. Please join us in welcoming Megan to the Juvenile Instructor.
Elizabeth Smart made headlines this month when she advocated for human trafficking survivors at a conference hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Smart this year – I made her kidnapping (or rather Jon Krakauer’s treatment of Smart’s captivity in his inexorable Under the Banner of Heaven) the focal point of a national conference paper and a key element of my dissertation chapter on anti-Mormon religious intolerance. But I missed that she’d spoken at this conference until the blogosphere erupted over her alleged condemnation of abstinence-based sex education.
During her 13 minute presentation, Smart recounted the details of her captivity and emphasized the need to teach children that they have intrinsic worth, regardless of how others might abuse or exploit them. She further noted that “one of the questions that is most commonly asked [of her] is ‘well, why didn’t you run away? Why didn’t you yell? Why didn’t you scream?’”
This question immediately raised the hackles of my inner humorless feminist, who was already riled after a year of teaching Women’s and Gender Studies 101. This question, as Smart notes, is common – an almost knee-jerk refrain when people feel survivors didn’t resist their own exploitation and abuses enough. (The metrics of “enough” are usually a bit murky.) This question, as I explained to my students this year, perpetuates rape culture: the popular and often unquestioned conviction that men are naturally sexually aggressive and dominant, while women are the natural targets of that sexual aggression and must resist unwanted overtures. Or to put in simpler terms: women should try to avoid being raped, because, you know, rape happens.
By May 13, 2013
In my years in Boston, I have been a frequent visitor at the city’s wonderful Museum of Fine Arts. While I couldn’t name a single favorite object, one piece that I return to again and again is Paul Gauguin’s epic masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” While there is much to be said about the painting, I’m most concerned in this post with its title. Students and scholars tend to be a self-critical bunch, and I think most of us regularly ask these questions of ourselves and try to have ready answers for our colleagues. But when you’re a non-Mormon in the world of Mormon Studies, I’ve found that those questions take on a special shape and urgency. Who am I? What’s my real interest in Mormonism? What exactly am I going to do with my scholarly explorations of Mormonism in American culture? What’s a non-Mormon doing studying the Latter-day Saints? Am I anti-? Is it a fetish? Am I on the road to conversion? All of these questions are regularly leveled at me by Mormons and non-Mormons alike, and regularly with a degree of suspicion bordering on accusation.
So, where do I come from? I was raised in rural America, in a family that I only realized as I got older was noteworthy for our relative religious diversity – and our general acceptance of it. We counted members of a variety of Christian denominations in the extended clan, including a number of very heterodox members of different denominations (a Methodist grandmother who argued with people in church that the Trinity wasn’t biblical, anyone?), as well as nonbelievers of several different stripes. There was disagreement, but in general we accepted that we were all doing our best and, really, none of us could be sure we had the corner on the meaning of life. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized that many of the people around me – most of whom were generally decent people – were not as comfortable with religious difference as much of my family seemed to be. (As I got older, I also began to see that my family members were much more tolerant of Christian diversity than they were of non-Christian religions.) Unfortunately, I witnessed some respected adults in my life making very ugly comments – which they often used their professed Christianity to justify – about other people and their religions. In my teenaged brain, this gave rise to two questions: Isn’t Christianity supposed to be about loving your neighbor? Isn’t the United States supposed to be about separation of church and state and thus acceptance of religious diversity?
By December 8, 2012
I am not a Bob Dylan fan. But I happen to live with one, and I’ve learned a lot about Dylan by osmosis. I suppose it’s only fair that some of my husband’s knowledge about music that isn’t to my taste has rubbed off on me. In the last several years, he’s become something of a scholar of representations of the Latter-day Saints in American history without any significant interest in the subject – a hazard of living with someone who’s working on their PhD.  He has also become a valuable scout of sources for me, and can spot a pop culture reference to Mormonism at twenty paces. Imagine our mutual surprise when he recently starting putting things in front of me in which Bob Dylan makes explicit – and sometimes admiring – reference to the Mormons.
By November 7, 2012
Mitt Romney hoped to be the Mormon JFK. Instead, he will now go down in the history books as the Mormons’ Al Smith — the Roman Catholic who was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party in 1928, but lost to Calvin Coolidge in part because of anti-Catholic prejudice.
But I’m not interested in how long it will be before we elect our first Mormon president. I’m more interested in the so-called “Mormon Moment,” and what the end of Mitt Romney’s political career means for the place of Mormons in American culture. With Romney (and his ubiquitous political ads) out of the spotlight, will the Latter-day Saints now fade from the national stage? Will Americans forget about their odd Mormon neighbors and move on to lambasting and lampooning someone else?
By November 3, 2012
On Thursday, October 25, Janet Bennion, Professor of Anthropology at Lyndon State College in Vermont, delivered a lecture, “The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism,” at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University. Professor Bennion is an expert on the contemporary practice of polygamy among Mormon fundamentalists, and the author of several books on the subject. Bennion’s lecture focused on her most recent book, Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism, which she presented as a synthesis of her more than twenty years of research among polygamous groups in North America. Her goal, she said, was to produce a readable work that would educate the general public about these groups, as well as better preparing law enforcement officials to deal with them—and thus to avoid another event like the ill-managed 2008 raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas.
By October 22, 2012
We thought that some of the New England branch of the JI community might be interested in this upcoming event at Brandeis University:
“The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism”
A lecture by Janet Bennion, author of Polygamy in Primetime
Thursday, October 25, 2012, 7:00 to 9:00pm
Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Epstein Building, Brandeis University
515 South Street, Waltham MA 02454
Media portrayals of Mormon women have focused on the potential for oppression and abuse within both the mainline church and fundamentalists sects. Drawing on her 17 years of fieldwork among fundamentalist polygamous Mormons, Janet Bennion argues that some “sister wives” find fulfillment and even empowerment through their domestic arrangements. In this lecture, she will be joined by historian Laurel Ulrich to look beyond the official patriarchy and find the subtle feminisms Mormon women embody.
Janet Bennion is a professor of social sciences at Lyndon State College in Vermont. Her latest book, “Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism”, was published in 2012 by the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion, and Law, a collaboration between the HBI and the University Press of New England.
Free and open to the public.
Parking in Epstein Lot.
RSVP encouraged: firstname.lastname@example.org
By October 9, 2012
Sister Wives. The Book of Mormon on Broadway. And of course the presidential campaign trail.
Mormons are everywhere in the media in 2012, and by many measures the Mormon image is faring well in the early 21st century. Yes, the Brown family encompasses more wives and children than the average American family, but Sister Wives showcases the seemingly very normal lives that Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, Robyn, and their 17 children lead, struggling with relationships and weight and decisions about where to live or go to school. The Book of Mormon pokes fun at young Latter-day Saint missionaries, but in the end the show sings the Mormons’ praises for the good they do in the world. In presidential politics, Mormonism is a virtually silent presence in Mitt Romney’s campaign, but when it is brought forward it underlines the candidate’s service, both during his mission in France and during his years as a bishop and stake president in Massachusetts, and the family values that supported his 40+ year marriage to his high school sweetheart and nurtured their five handsome, successful sons.
But in each of these current examples of Mormonism in the media spotlight, there is significant underlying negativity.
By September 17, 2012
Mitt Romney is a politician born not in the wrong place, but the wrong time. While his opponents in the Republican primary accused him of untrustworthy geographic origins and thus of not being a real Republican, in fact Romney is simply running sixty years too late. If this were 1952 instead of 2012, the “Massachusetts moderate” would have enjoyed a political climate that twice elected Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower—the father of such massive government spending projects as the interstate highway system, who spoke openly of the value of organized labor for protecting working Americans . As many have asserted during this election cycle, past Republican luminaries would not survive in their own party after its hard turn to the right in recent decades.
By August 20, 2012
The media is buzzing about the current “Mormon moment,” by which they mean that Americans, in contrast with decades past, currently seem fascinated by and inclined to be positive about the Latter-day Saints. But this is not non-Mormon America’s first flirtation with this long-suspected native-born religion. Americans have had several such moments of fascination with the Saints throughout the last century.