Guest Post: Martyn Oliver, “Made in America”

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, [1] 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.

No, really, let’s make a list. Demonized founder? Check. New addition to an older religious tradition? Check. Funny clothes? Check. Suspect attitudes towards polygamy? Check. Funny names? Check. Willingness to shed foundational beliefs in order to appeal to orthodox communities? Check. Strange food aversions? Check. Emphasis on family, community, clean-living, self-reliance, and personal striving? Check. Contentious cosmological narratives? Check.

And, most importantly and with the possible exceptions of Christian Science and Scientologists, being undoubtedly the most explicitly American expression of major religious traditions? Double check.

In other words, the LDS Church and what was once the NOI are more or less the same thing. Show a picture of Joseph Smith side by side with Elijah Muhammad, and I would guess a lot of folk would conjure up similar ideas about potentially fraudulent but clearly charismatic founders.

elijah_muhammad_stars_poster JosephSmith

Brigham Young and Malcolm X—both are the highly controversial institution builders who now, through the long lens of history, find their names adorning streets and civic structures.

malcolm-x Brigham_Young

Mitt Romney and Muhammad Ali are the respective faces of a religious tradition made good, of having been fully welcomed into our peculiar American religious identity; certainly, doubts about both remain, but their religious identity gets pushed far down the list of reasons to praise or damn either one.

muhammad-ali

Mitt_Romney

To put a slightly more academic spin on this comparison, we might consider the transformation of the Nation of Islam following the death of Elijah Muhammad and the assumption of leadership of the NOI by his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, in 1979. [2] Under Warith Deen Muhammad’s control, the NOI was repeatedly renamed, finally settling upon the title American Society of Muslims. As part of this re-branding, Imam Muhammad (as Warith Deen came to be known), replaced the racialist and heterodox theologies taught by his father, and explicitly recast the faith as adhering to Sunni Orthodoxy. But in addition to this, Imam Muhammad also preached a kind of American Patriotism, donning the American flag as a cape and encouraging his followers to not only love their country but to serve it by joining military service or working in the government. [3] To collapse what is a complicated evolution, and to borrow from Sherman Jackson’s pioneering work on this topic, the NOI’s transformation into the American Society of Muslims both continued and challenged the “holy protest” of Black Religion. To quote:

At its roots, Blackamerican Islam is a thoroughly American phenomenon that grew out of the efforts of Blackamericans working through the agency of Black Religion. . . . Islam was appropriated and made the “property” of Blackamericans so that for a Blackamerican to become a Muslim entailed neither racial nor cultural apostasy nor violated any of the “rules” of American blackness. [4]

I would add to this that conversion to Blackamerican Islam also no longer violated any of the “rules” of American-ness. That is, to be a Blackamerican Muslim today is to affirm simultaneously Islam, America, and the cultural and historical realities of being the descendant African slaves. In similar ways, the evolution of the LDS Church—and we might find an interesting parallel between the name change of the NOI with the evolution of the LDS logo—came to emphasize both patriotism and Protestantism. To this end, we might recast Jackson’s argument to say something along the lines of: “At its roots, Mormonism is a thoroughly American phenomenon that grew out of the efforts of 19th-century Americans working through the agency of American religiosity . . . Protestantism was appropriated and made the ‘property’ of Mormon Americans so that for an American to become a Mormon entailed neither religious nor cultural apostasy nor violated any of the ‘rules’ of American religiosity.”

But there is, I would argue, an additional irony and a kind of isomorphism here between African American Islam and Mormonism—both traditions are “native” to America in profound ways, yet were challenging in their original, heterodox articulations of their religious traditions. They both grew more accepted as they endeavored to cast themselves as more orthodoxly Muslim and Christian, and as self-consciously patriotic. The cost, of course, is particularism, and both African American Muslims and Mormon Americans continue to straddle this uneasy divide between being exceptional and thoroughly American.

In other words, African American Muslims and American Mormons inhabit the same liminal space of cultural and religious identity. They will both always be “other,” but there is something uniquely American in that otherness. Both will remain suspect to the orthodox hegemony, but—more so than immigrant Sunnis or Methodists—African American Muslims and Mormons can claim an authentically “Made in America” label. Strange bedfellows, Unite!

 

[1] You see, I was stuck there, having caught the last train out so as to make my morning flight, so I just bummed around for four or five hours. The whole place was closed down and sort of eerie, but I struck up a conversation with three or four young ladies who were on some kind of “alterna-mission.” We spent the night chatting. I was wide-eyed about their openness regarding the peculiarities of their faith; for their part, I think they were shocked someone could just sit there and drink that much beer. I planned ahead, obviously.

[2] Portions of what follows here comes from a longer examination of racial and religious identity for American Muslims. I don’t mean to leave you with an entire opened can of worms, but it is what it is. That longer project is still in progress.

[3] Various sources, including a personal interview with Imam Talib Shareef, Washington, DC, October, 2011.

[4] Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 56.

 

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History


Comments

  1. A-freaking-men! I think you might have just explained to me why I am such a fan of the NOI. I’m a fat, white, libertarian kid from Idaho and yet since the movie came out and I read the biography of Malcom X (holy-long-tome, batman) I found myself to be sympathetic and well, a fan of the NOI. Admittedly outside of those things I know nothing of Blackamerican Islam, but still.

    Excellent post!

    Comment by Jacob Smith — May 31, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  2. This is an interesting comparison. I know at one point Kate Holbrook was writing about Mormon and NOI (among others) foodways in her dissy. I’m not sure if that is still the case, but this post has gotten me excited to see what she pulls together.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 31, 2013 @ 10:40 am

  3. Fascinating comparison, Martyn. Thanks for sharing!

    I do have one question on the possibility of comparing the role of “apostasy” in each religion. In LDS culture, leaving the church often carries with it a great deal of stigma, and those who make the choice to no longer believe or practice in a more or less orthodox manner unfortunately find themselves pariahs among the believers. Can this also be found among Blackamerican Muslims?

    Comment by Nate R. — May 31, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

  4. Thanks for you thoughts, Martyn. You bring an interesting perspective. After reading Manning Marable’s wonderful biography of Malcolm X last year*, I was struck by some of the similarities between Mormonism and the NOI, and offered some thoughts on the potential usefulness of comparing the two to better understand Mormonism’s relationship with historical Christianity.

    __________________

    *That biography should be essential reading for every white libertarian kid from Idaho whose love for the NOI is based on the Autobiography and Spike Lee’s film adaptation (as well as just about everyone else interested in the subject). I don’t know that it will necessary change your opinion of Malcolm X and the NOI, Jacob, but it goes a long way towards correcting various aspects of the Autobiography and presenting aspects of Malcolm X’s life ignored in his own writings (including the complicated process of co-authoring and publishing the autobiography).

    Comment by Christopher — June 1, 2013 @ 6:44 am

  5. Thanks to all of you for the kind words. Kate Holbrook and I slightly overlapped in graduate school, and I’d be thrilled to read her work on the comparisons of foodstuffs between LDSers and NOIers.

    Nate, in terms of apostasy, ex-NOIers were considered verboten, but I’m not sure in the same way as in the LDS church. Instead, members were often “punished” by way of suspension. Warith Deen Muhammad was himself exiled by his father a number of times, but obviously his resumption of a leadership position indicates a fluidity.

    Mostly, Christopher, it’s somewhat embarrassing to read your excellent post! If nothing else, it betrays my lack of familiarity with the Juvenile Instructor, and I apologize for that. More positively, it’s clear that the parallel phenomena with these two groups is desperately calling out for a fuller treatment. Maybe we should talk?

    And, finally, I’d certainly reiterate the reference to Marable’s bio of Malcolm X. It’s an interesting project to compare how Malcolm chose to represent himself versus Marable’s account.

    I’d use all of this to suggest that there’s likely some very good comparative religion work to be done on the LDS church. The arguments over Christian or not tend to obscure the–in my mind–more interesting ways in which Mormonism is a remarkably American phenomenon, and we can see this same trait express itself in other traditions that have arisen initially in the US. I think that sort of comparative work also sheds light on American religiosity writ large–what we see in these American faiths is in many ways an amplification of prevalent if sometimes unrecognized national traits. Which is also likely why these same traditions become so often demonized. We don’t like to look ourselves in the face.

    Comment by Martyn — June 3, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

  6. Martyn,

    No need to feel embarrassed. I’m thrilled to see someone else point out the potentially utility in comparing the two religious communities. Thanks again for your provocative post.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  7. I totally agree with Christopher. I think your posts actually compliment one another — Christopher points out the value in comparing the early development of the two groups, and Martyn shows us that the comparison can be carried forward into the periods in which those groups have developed and begun to reach an accord with the wider American culture.

    I was right, Martyn… This post was a great idea! 🙂

    Comment by Cristine — June 5, 2013 @ 3:27 pm


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