Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

The Church At One Hundred And Seventy-Five
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

The concern for power continued in the most recent outsider critique, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (1999). Journalists Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling broke new ground in aiming at readers in and out of the Church, presenting a "candid but nonpolemical overview" about the "subculture 's colorful history, unique beliefs, and penchant for secrecy, its lifestyle and finances, its place in the religious and secular world today" and the future. The Ostlings concentrated on present-day issues, reporting on hidden activities about hierarchy and riches. Updating the work of Heinerman and Shupe, they estimated a financial empire worth $25 to $30 billion in the late 1990s, for which they credited tithing donations along with savings from much unpaid volunteer labor.

Church leaders do not answer criticism about their vast financial empire. They downplay assets, reporting that suggested holdings are exaggerated. Most are revenue-consuming, rather than revenue-producing, they say. The chapels and temples, and the three expensive branches of Brigham Young University, produce no income. Roger Clarke, who manages the money, will say only that Church members are generous, that all building expenses are paid out of current revenues, and that the accumulating reserves, enough to operate the Church for several years, have never been touched. Clarke notes two of Hinckley's reasons for keeping the financial situation quiet: he does not want the members to think the Church has unlimited funds, which it actually does not; and he does not want to dishonor the widow's mite, the sacrifice of the poor. Change is unlikely. Other book writers, including a few life-long members and a group of sympathetic outsiders, have also offered extended analyses of the Church. Their books are more likely to describe an institution that Mormons recognize.

Armand L. Mauss, a believing Mormon and a sociologist, in his book The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (1994), traced an undulating assimilation arc from 1900. According to Mauss, persecution and repression kept Mormons in isolation in their western redoubt until the turn of the century when the end of polygamy and statehood allowed assimilation to begin. By 1950 or so, Mormons had entered mainstream America with an unrivaled patriotism, living the American Dream. Thanks to the conservative turn in American culture after World War II, the Church in the 1950s was typical of the grassroots thinking of the nation. Except for the race issue, all major institutional and doctrinal accommodations to mainstream America had been achieved. David O. McKay, the Mormon president in the 1950s and 1960s, was known for patriotism, liberal thinking, and conciliation. Church members still considered themselves peculiar because of belief in Joseph Smith's visions, the Book of Mormon, and living prophets, but the Church had attained a degree of assimilation impossible in the nineteenth century.

At this point, according to Mauss, it was as if someone said, "enough!" Assimilation was eroding Mormon identity. As geographic boundaries were eliminated, Mormons reached into their bag of cultural peculiarities to find traits to mark their boundaries and to encourage a retrenchment mentality. Mormons reversed the assimilationist trend by emphasizing claims to continuous revelation through modern prophets, families, temple work, missionary work, and religious education. Genealogical work was computerized at enormous cost, and local genealogical libraries were widely dispersed. The proliferation of convenient new temples decentralized and democratized temple attendance. Some old exclusive, millenarian, and eschatological doctrines were down played as obedience to modern prophets, and the Book of Mormon as a witness for Christ was stressed. This emphasis on distinctive Mormonism became noticeable by the 1960s.

The leaders taught a new and strict obedience in contrast to seeking a universal good understandable to everyone. Some interpreted the injunction to "Follow the Brethren" to mean unquestioning obedience. They added corollaries to underscore the point: "When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done" and "When the Prophet speaks, the debate is over." These dicta are contrasted with the Church's steady devotion to "free agency," the right of people to make their own decisions and Joseph Smith's often-quoted statement, "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves."

This shift back to some aspects of old-style Mormonism took place against the cultural change of the Civil Rights Movement, an expansion of tolerance, a general loosening of traditional morality, and substance abuse. Mauss saw the Mormons retreating to old ways, building Church identity against the world. The correlation movement, he believed, sharpened this new identity while simplifying and homogenizing the work of the Church. This minimalizing of Mormonism made it maximally adaptable, a transportable model manageable by new members and plainly visible to visitors everywhere. The General Authorities also said they instituted these "course corrections" because the Church had become over-programed and over-regimented. The new motto was "reduce and simplify." Mauss regretted that simplification eliminated broader cultural programs- dances, plays, speech festivals, choral programs, and sports tournaments- but the back-to-basics trend helped to assimilate the large numbers of new converts and freed up women from heavy Church responsibilities. Mauss wondered whether minimalization had impoverished Mormonism's cultural experience.

Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon professor of history emerita at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, traced a similar and complementary arc. An "inside-outsider," she argued that Mormonism was not traditionally Christian but a new religious tradition of its own. Surveying the Mormon image since 1960 in her memoir-like collection of updated essays, Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons (2000), Shipps observed that the Mormons' appearance as model Americans was achieved against the radical image of pot-smoking, flag-burning, hairyfaced radical youth. Next to them, Mormons appeared neat, modest, virtuous, family-loving, conservative, and newly appealing patriotic people. The contrast between the clean-cut Mormons and the scruffy hippies moved the Mormon image from the earlier quasi-foreign, alien style to the super- American portrait of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they became "more American than the Americans."

But, according to Shipps, visibility bred contempt. Suddenly Church members began to seem more dangerous than the Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, the other three indigenous American "cults." Exposure led to the creation of anti-Mormon materials such as the film God Makers: the Mormon Quest for Godhood, which proposed to unmask the secrets of Mormonism.