Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rethinking Retrenchment: Course Corrections in the ongoing Campaign for Respectability

Sociologist Armand Mauss has written an important "update" on the continuing evolution of the modern church.  His article in the most recent issues of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought summarizes his views of LDS church assimilation into the greater culture as presented in his 1994 book The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. He describes periods of assimilation into the greater American religious culture, interleaved with periods of retrenchment that differentiate the Mormon church from other religions. Periods of retrenchment emphasize differences between the church and society, while periods of assimilation focus on commonality and deemphasize differences. 

Mauss sees the 1950s as a period of assimilation, while the subsequent decades up through the administration of Ezra Taft Benson were a period of retrenchment.  His update suggests that we've entered a new period of assimilation, where a more moderate approach is underway, and some of the distinctions emphasized in the previous period are being deemphasized, as we strive for greater acceptability.

Below are excerpts from the conclusion of his article.
... it seems clear that at least a partial reversal of the late twentieth-century retrenchment process is underway, both in the ecclesiastical culture of Mormonism and in the efforts of the leadership to improve and soften the Mormon public image. These internal and external processes are connected, for they are both driven by an organizational imperative to modify the degree of cultural and political tension that had developed in recent decades. Tension is increased both by Church demands on the membership that seem excessive or "weird" to the outside and by Church policies that seem at odds with the general normative and political consensus-or that challenge powerful interest groups. Tension is reduced to the extent that demands on members seem less strenuous and/or the Church seems to pose a lesser political challenge to interest groups in the "establishment."

As I have argued here, tension reduction seems to be the order of the day as the new century unfolds. Internally, certain traditional ideas about the Book of Mormon and some doctrines from the Nauvoo era have been dropped or soft-pedaled as no longer central to Mormonism, thereby reducing somewhat the discrepancies with traditional Christianity.

.. Scholarship on Mormon doctrine, history, and culture is now welcomed by Church leaders, even when it comes from independent scholars, LDS and otherwise....

Externally, meanwhile, the Church has ramped up its assimilation is thrust, especially through a Public Affairs apparatus that has been enhanced both in visibility and in sophistication. The initiatives taken in recent years, whether by Public Affairs or by the Church leaders more generally, point to policies that have become less defensive, and more proactive and transparent, in the struggle to define and enhance the Church's public image.

....Mormon outreach seems much more interested in actively cultivating new relationships with Catholics, Jews, and Muslims,both Church wide and through initiatives of stake Public Affairs Councils at the local level....

Like most of these other traditional faiths, the LDS Church has also recently embraced humanitarian outreach to all communities, regardless of their religion, as a fourth part of its public mission statement-certainly a move also in an assimilationist direction.

...What is apparent, however, from this presentation is the growing importance of LDS Public Affairs policies and spokespersons in a "course correction" intended to reshape the popular image of Mormons and their Church in such a way as to reduce the political and cultural tension with American society. This external course correction, however, is having its implications also for certain internal changes that promise to soften, or even partially rollback, a few prominent features of the earlier retrenchment policies regarding doctrine and scripture, women's roles, and the acceptance of homosexuals and scholars with "alternate voices."

One wonders what additional course corrections are around the corner as the Church approaches its bicentennial, and what implications these might have for LDS members in other parts of the world.

Info about the full article can be found here.