Mormon, Jesuits, and the Pain of Replication: A Historical-Social Excursus

In their interview dealing with the place of American religion in the world and ‘bodies in space’, Dan Gorman and Professor Laurie Maffly-Kipp cover a wide range of topics relevant to both American religious history and Mormon studies as they reflect on several important suggestions made by John McGreevy in his American Jesuits and the World.  In composing a response, one could introduce Maffly-Kipp’s exemplary list of historical studies, all of which explore relatively marginal religious communities and alternative religious narratives.  Indeed, within Mormon studies specifically, her recent presidential address to the Mormon History Association called for more such studies which may focus on the fringes of Mormonism’s history so that the retrospective picture of the tradition is fuller, more accurate, and less monolithic.  This seems to be more than a call to ‘problematize’ a narrative, instead it is born of one historian’s well-founded argument that America’s religious history is not simply the history of religion in America.  Undoubtedly, much could be said on this.

Of course, it also tempting to pick up some of the topics left scattered by the end of the interview.  For instance, Gorman’s assertion that Mormonism faced persecution that was unlike, or at least more severe than, Catholics in America could be gently rebutted with a reminder that a number of colonies did ban Catholicism through various legal manoeuvres – New Hampshire and Virginia to name but two.  Additionally, for those familiar with the intersection of history and social science in Mormon studies, it requires little coaxing to revive the dialogue initiated by sociologist Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Mormonism which used available data to project ‘world religion’ status in Mormonism not-too-distant future and which was rebuffed by others precisely because of the unique challenges facing a religious tradition governed by a centralised church if it wished to be categorically equivalent to Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.  After all, something like Roman Catholicism is not usually conceived of as a world religion.  Categories matter in religious studies and should be debated accordingly.  However, in the response below, I seek to address a different aspect of blending history with social science in an attempt to better understand global religion.

In a passing comment on the difference between the missionary tasks of Jesuits and Mormons, Maffly-Kipp notes that Mormon missionaries are ‘trying to replicate themselves’.  This is an incisive observation and underscores the unique challenges for Mormon expansion/proselytizing, as the ‘self’ is largely a bio-cultural phenomenon, even if it has been wrapped in sentiments and symbols of transcendence and eternality by the myths and rituals of the religious system.  Furthermore, the goal of self-replication relates directly to the notion of ‘cosmopolitan’ religion mentioned by Gorman and Maffly-Kipp.  By ‘cosmopolitan’ I assume they (and perhaps McGreevy if it is his phrasing) intend something like a tradition which is accommodating of, and integrative with, the various cultures that it encounters so that it is capable of longevity and expansion.  For a religious movement to be ‘cosmopolitan’ in that sense, then, it need not simply contain elements of diverse cultures.  Instead, it must contain elements that can be read as a cohesive whole whilst bending and flexing enough to accommodate and to order the existential needs and expectations of ‘the locals’ in each culture.

This is where social science can enhance historical analysis by illuminating not only the differences between cultures but also the differences between contextually-dependent cultural systems and the ‘cosmopolitan’ religious systems highlighted by McGreevy’s book and discussed in the Maffly-Kipp interview.  Cultural systems qua systems order, define, constitute, and reflect the cumulative and collective experiences and hopes of a social group and its members.  They are the hermeneutics of society.  Insomuch as they are a type of cultural system, then, religions seem to operate similarly.  Religions give meaning to experience and, thus, alter both personal and collective expectations, a process mediated by various restrictions – whether of a biological, economic, or psychological sort.  Yet, as religion strives to make meaning out of the life-course of every individual, its outputs are necessarily all-encompassing and often expressed in transcendental terms.  In this way, religions become the hermeneutics of existence for their adherents, gradually untethered from any one culture as they accumulate broad adaptations afforded by their encounters with a multitude of people, places, and periods.  In other words – as everything from the sociology of knowledge to the ‘subjective turn’ generally, or from Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus to the contemporary emphasis on ‘lived religion’ specifically has suggested – systems of thought and behaviour are indissolubly linked to the nexus of meaning-making and experience.  As a religion is sustained over time, it necessarily reflects the contours and exigencies of its members’ lives.  There is a sort of dialectic at work in such a relationship; habitus constructs and perpetuates the socio-cultural structures even as it internalises and embodies them.

So what could this mean for missionary activity and the international expansions/exportation of a religious tradition?  In short, it is only a ‘tradition’ so long as it remains salient.  Yet, the greater insight is that a religion, as a meaning system, accrues existential adaptations like antibodies building in the blood.  Social anthropologist Douglas Davies refers to this as a ‘pool of potential orientations’, and I have described it as ‘elasticity’.  No matter the term, the basic observation is that each component of the system – its mythological elements, rites, emotions, doctrines, sacred texts, politics – combines with its cumulative record of successful resolutions of crises to increase the potential for a bright future by providing an ever-expanding set of tools useful for survival at both the personal and the collective levels.  As long as a sense of identity is still conferred and maintained amidst the challenges and socio-cultural negotiations, the religion may succeed and may become ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘global’.  This is the process of ‘growing pains’.

Bringing it back to Mormons and Jesuits, then, we see that Maffly-Kipp’s observation that LDS missionaries are trying to ‘replicate themselves’ indicates potential cultural inflexibility applied to an inherently tricky enterprise.  Do they want to replicate personalities?  Emotions?  Rocky Mountain cultural norms?  Is it possible that the priesthood/laity separation mentioned by Gorman as integral to Jesuit missions abets the adaptability of the tradition precisely because the clergy do not expect or chase self-replication?  Either way, one does wonder how fair it is to compare Jesuits to LDS Mormons.  It seems feasible to claim that this is a comparison of sect and sect, but others in the past have seen more parallels between Mormonism and the whole of Roman Catholicism (presumably understanding this as a church-church comparison).  More importantly, as the above precis on social theory implies, the older and more intentionally adaptive the religion, the more likely it is to weather the storm of worldwide growth as it encounters new cultures and new people.  With that in mind, it is important to note not only that the Jesuits had been in formal existence for over 250 years before the Mormon Church was founded in 1830 but also that they remained under papal authority and conceived of themselves as a particularly innovative/amendatory movement from the outset.  The LDS church is only now not quite 200 years old, and those familiar with contemporary Mormonism will recognise that their relatively rapid rise to approximately 16 million members is beginning to cause a few significant pangs (e.g., disaffecting members in Europe).  Growth hurts, for the religious system as for the individual, but the story of that pain is the story of those people.  Fortunately, it is a story helpfully elucidated by social science and admirably told by exceptional historians like McGreevy and Mafflly-Kipp.

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