I am an assimilated American. I shop at Trader Joe’s, Target and Costco. I play fantasy football and love watching NFL games. I have degrees from two of the most diverse, liberal, meritocratic universities in the nation. I listen to punk, post-punk, electronica, pop, heavy metal and several associated subgenres. I saw every episode of Firefly, Wonderfalls and Freaks & Geeks when they aired. I’m a big fan of network sitcoms and Hollywood romantic comedies. I read literary fiction (mostly American authors), science fiction and fantasy, and big idea general nonfiction (like Freakonomics or The Tipping Point). I wear jeans and t-shirts at home and dress pants, shirts and ties to work. I like Smashburger and Culver’s and The Original Pancake House as well as a host of non-chain American and ethnic restaurants. I use an iPhone. I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Google+. I read an article or column on the websites of Slate, the WSJ, Mashable, Eater and the NY Times almost every day. I’m a political independent who has voted for Republicans, Democrats and third party candidates. I own a Wii and play Lego Star Wars and watch Netflix on it.
And yet still I was struck when I read these two paragraphs near the beginning of Thomas G. Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930:
After moving to Utah, the Latter-day Saints had built a community which conjoined church and state, politics, the economy, and society into one whole. In that respect, it was much like the sort of community found in the definitions of Martin Bubuer and Robert Redfield, since virtually all aspect of life were shared within the group. The Protestant majority in the United States responded with a series of laws, court tests, and political activities designed to break the back of the Mormon community and reshape it in the image of the remainder of the United States. These culminated in the passage of the Edmnds (1882) and Edmunds-Tucker (1887) acts, which disfranchised all polygamists, took control of Utah’s Mormon-dominated public school system, abolished the territorial militia, disfranchised Utah women, provided for imprisonment of those practicing plural marriage, and confiscated virtually all of the church’s property. They insisted that the Latter-day Saints conform to the norms of Victorian America, which allowed religious influence to be exercised on moral questions but generally interdicted extensive church interference — at least by religions considered deviant — in political and economic matters.
These changes did not come easily. An integrated community with its union of church, state, and society was long engrained in Latter-day Saint traditions. It could not be transformed without creating considerable disruption. Where wer the Saints to find their fixed points in this moving world? By adopting a program-oriented approach? By concentrating on religion, narrowly defined? By stressing the family instead of community? By emphasizing missionary work? Forced by an unfriendly society to substantially modify the Mormon community, how did the church adjust? As the church members sought to redefine their political role, solve economic difficulties, and alter marriage practices, what were the problems? Opportunities? Strains? (4-5)
Of course, we now know the answers to all those questions Alexander raises (here’s a hint: they’re all Yes), and he details how this all plays out in those crucial 40 years that set Mormonism on the same path it is today.
Let me be clear: I have no nostalgia for the period prior to this move towards assimilation. I think the move was inevitable. I like living in the spaces among and between created by this overlapping of Mormonism and America. And while there is friction, I don’t know that it’s that much worse for Mormons than it is for any other ethnic, cultural, political or religious minority. In fact it’s easier for us than for most — it’s just not that hard to be a Mormon American. And I definitely like that I can talk sports and TV with some Americans and tech stuff with others and food and cooking with others and genre fiction and gaming with yet others.
And as someone who is highly invested in the world of Mormon culture, I’m glad that I’m fairly conversant with current forms of narrative art and can move in and out of idioms with fluency.
No, that’s not quite right. There’s no “And yet.” I am an assimilated American. Pretty much every American Mormon — liberal or conservative, Utahn or living in the mission field — is, whether they think they are or not. I have no desire to go back to where we were. And I’m not just talking polygamy. I’m talking the whole thing.
So there’s no “And yet.”
What there is, though, is a realization that:
1. Mormonism wasn’t always the way that it is now. I knew that growing up. I knew that before I read this book. But now I really know it. I highly recommend reading this book if you are at all interested in Mormon culture. This is a period that deserves some attention from us as producers of culture.
2. Whatever we are at this point in time and whatever we produce culturally is implicated and compromised. I’m okay with that. But, of course, that means that whatever we produce culturally implicates the broader culture as well. And I’m very okay with that.
Or to put it another way: Guess what America? You created this situation. We tried to leave. You couldn’t leave us alone. Deal with it. We do.