Newsweek’s cover story on Mormonism last week seemed little new — a conglomeration of the standard tropes about Mormonism in the modern media. It was as though it clicked off the standard list:
Did the article have the obligatory references to polygamy? Check. There were five.
Did the article describe Mormons or our rituals as secretive? Check. It mentioned our temple ceremonies, and described them as secretive.
Did the article describe the faith as unusual or weird? Check. It made reference to temple garments and said Mormons believe in “magic spectacles,” calling the faith weird.
I was deeply disappointed in Newsweek and its distortions of my sacred beliefs. Therefore, I might quote the ever-gracious Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (the article may require a subscription to view) this week about some discussions of Mormonism in politics and apply it to Newsweek's choice to characterize my faith. I hope she won’t mind: “Really, grow up. Enough.”
Did the article describe Mormonism as a paradox? Did it have quotes from famous or iconic Mormons? Did it have a discussion of “remarkable” church growth? Check. Check. Check.
In some senses, the Newsweek article was more favorable in discussing as it did, the supposed examples of Mormon success and of how Mormonism might shape Mormon politicians, than others articles of its type.
That was a welcome change.
I also appreciated some of the specifics discussed about Mormonism’s history of persecution — the extermination order comes to mind.
Aside from these interesting ideas, however, there seemed little new beyond recycled news frames of the last few decades.
What interested me most was Newsweek’s use, as so many others have, of Mormonism’s relationship to the national mainstream as a way of telling our story and our history.
What of the “mainstreaming” of Mormonism? Pretend two things: that mainstreaming means becoming part of and accepting the broad set of contemporary American cultural values. Second, assume that becoming mainstream is what we Mormons wish.
Given that we Mormons are “set apart” to be a “light unto the nations” and to “flee from Babylon,” and given that Mormonism seeks to be a “city set on a hill,” it is easy to think that becoming “mainstream” so defined is not really part of our goal. I strive to be “in the world,” but not “of the world.” It is hard to imagine any Mormon I know wishing to be a fuller part of a modern culture of irresolute families, of media filth and of contentious debate in America today.
I wonder if joining a mainstream really is our goal in the first place.
As such, the whole story of a Mormon quest to obtain mainstream acceptance sort of misses the point. (To be sure, we want to worship as we please and to participate fully in national life. If mainstream is diversity, then I wish a part of that mainstream.) We really are not trying to be part of the cultural mainstream and to receive its acceptance.
If the story of mainstream misses the point, then why tell it?
My point may be esoteric, but think about this for a moment: If the story is true that Mormons or other minorities are trying to enter a mainstream, then it assumes that the mainstream with all of its assumptions and values is superior, worthy of entering. Through this alleged quest, those who would enter the mainstream validate the values that excluded them all along.
The quest to join the mainstream becomes a story of redemption for the mainstream, redeemed of its historical weaknesses and persecutions somehow by the suffering of those persecuted in days gone by. After all, how bad could the mainstream have been if this minority group wishes to join it?
The story of mainstream acceptance marginalizes those with less power. It allows the mainstream such as it is to avoid the criticisms implicit from the differences of others by defining the quest in terms most favorable to the mainstream. Perhaps it would be better if the mainstream began a quest to be more like those it once persecuted. Telling a quest story of someone trying to be like you is a way of avoiding asking hard questions about yourself.
I exaggerate this idea for effect and understand there are other ways to explore this issue of “mainstreaming” Mormonism. Nor do I pretend that Mormons are perfect. Still, I am frequently troubled when people talk about Mormonism becoming — or not becoming — part of the American mainstream.
Ask me, and I will tell you that I wish the right to worship as I please and to have the full right to participate in public discourse and political persuasion. I wish to have friends outside my faith more understand me. I believe most Mormons agree with me.
But if you want to know if I think Mormonism should try to join the American cultural mainstream, I answer no.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.
As the Mormon Media Observer, Lane is interested in hearing your ideas for stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.