Posts

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.

Jesuits, Mormons, and American Religion in the World

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Dr. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp has written extensively on the importance of space and geography in studying American religions. I interviewed her at the University of Notre Dame, Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion. This session dealt with Dr. John McGreevy (History, Notre Dame)’s new book, “American Jesuits and the World.” Maffly-Kipp and Thomas Bender (History, NYU) gave remarks about the book; McGreevy responded; and two hours of Q&A with scholars and graduate students followed.

My conversation with Maffly-Kipp begins with McGreevy’s book, expands to include her work on Mormonism in contrast to Catholicism, and ends with a discussion of evangelical historian Mark Noll, in whose honor Notre Dame was originally going to host a conference, but was cancelled at the last minute. This free-ranging conversation nonetheless centers on Jesuits, Mormons, and transnational religious history.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Frankincense, and Myrh.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World

Podcast with Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Maffly-Kipp_-_Jesuits,_Mormons_and_American_Religion_in_the_World_1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Dr Maffly-Kipp, welcome to the Religious Studies Project

Laurie Maffly-Kipp (LMK): Thank you.

DG: We’re here at the Morris Inn, at the University of Notre Dame. We just finished the Cushwa Centre’s Biannual Seminar in American Religion, discussing John McGreevy’s book on Jesuits in the World. So, you have been writing about space, and geography, and understanding religion for more than twenty years now, beginning with your essay in Thomas Tweed’s edited volume, Retelling US Religious History. I’d be curious to know how your views have evolved, and what you believe is the importance of space and geography in studying American religions.

LMK: That essay was my initial foray into the field and it was more of a thought piece, based on sort-of the hypothetical question of: what would you do if you didn’t narrate American religious history from the perspective of European movements from East to West – particularly British American movements. In a sense, it was also inspired by the work, in the 1930s, of Herbert Bolton – who was a historian of empires in the New World – and his basic observation that the Spanish Empire had been a part of North America and South America, long before the British ever came along. So, what would it do to sort-of retell the story of the growth of the US nation and religion in that sort-of setting, but come at it from the perspective of all theses different movements into North America, at various points in time? So that was, I think, a framework that I laid out. And since then I’ve been, I guess, exploring different avenues into that. Most recently, I’ve been spending time doing work on Mormon history and looking at Mormonism. But I think that that focus on space has then led me to think about Mormonism differently: how do I think about Mormonism as having a particular kind of centre in the United States, but also has having other areas in other parts of the world that are significant for particular purposes?

DG: So today, the book we’ve been talking about – American Jesuits in the World, by John McGreevy – it’s dealing with, well, somewhat missionary activity, but a little different from what you focus on. Because you’re often talking about American Mormons going outwards, whereas he’s talking about, at first, Europeans coming to missionise America. Can you talk a little bit about the differences you see between Mormons and Jesuits operating on the world stage?

LMK: Well, they’re very different. I mean, certainly, they’re different in terms of having a different focus on what they were doing with other people. So, for Jesuits: Jesuits are a particular Catholic order; their jobs revolve around educating peoples, administering the sacraments and keeping people in the faith. For Mormons, the goal tends to be to create habits of discipline and industry – much like those of the missionaries themselves. There’s sort-of a distinct separation between the kinds of spiritual practices that a Jesuit missionary undertakes, and what he’s trying to inculcate in other people. Whereas, for Mormon’s, they were sort-of one and the same thing. So that’s just one small difference. But, I think, on all kinds of different levels there are differences. But there are also similarities, because Mormons are also exiles – perhaps exiles in their own land. But they have a very – I guess, the best way to put it is – angular relationship to the US government in the 19th century, and often a very combative relationship. So, they aren’t sold on the idea of the nation state as necessarily an all-encompassing good, just as the Catholics are disaffected from the US Government in various ways.

DG: Well, certainly, one of the points that came up in the Q and A session, today, was that the Jesuits were roundly denounced as a secret society on the floor of Congress – one that should be banned. But there wasn’t widespread Catholic persecution in the 19th century, the way we saw against the Mormons.

LMK: I don’t know, I think you could argue with that: the burning of convents, riots in the streets . . .

DG: Well, that’s true.

LMK: . . . in Philadelphia and Boston. So, in some ways, I think that the tensions were manifest in more physical kinds of ways than they were for the Mormons. There were a few incidents with the Mormons. And the Mormons certainly fought back at various points. So I think, actually, a comparison of them is really helpful to see the ways that Protestant America was shaping the limits of its own toleration.

DG: I suppose, what I was thinking of more was that there was not state legislation against the Catholic Church in the way that there was, for instance, when the Governor of Missouri declared war on the Mormon people, saying: “Leave my state or I’m going to kill all of you!” (5:00) That is a difference.

LMK: Right! Yes. You’re right. That’s a difference. Although, I think one of the interesting things about John McGreevy’s book is the way he points out how assiduously Protestant Americans worked to create laws that would exclude Catholics in certain kinds of ways. So, from public education: there were certain rules put in place that made it obvious that the Catholics were not going to fall within the bounds of the law. I mean, their kind of education wouldn’t be acceptable as a form of public education. So, it seems to me that the very creating and shaping of laws is another way to put boundaries around religious toleration.

DG: Now, I’m curious also . . . You’ve obviously read the book – you’ve just delivered a short paper commenting on it. If you were writing a book about transnational religion in the 19th century – I mean, McGreevy is focussing on the ideas of nationhood and politics – what would be the factors that you’d want to pursue? What do you see as mattering the most?

LMK: Well, in fact, I am writing that kind of book right now.

DG: Well that’s fortuitous!

LMK: Yes. So, in fact, I am writing a book on transnational religion, in that I am writing a history of Mormonism that tries to take seriously Mormonism as a global religion and an international movement from the beginning, not simply since World War II. It’s certainly the case that there are now more Mormons outside the US than in, but even in the 1850s there were more Mormon’s in England than in the US.

DG: Oh certainly, they were very active with sending missionaries – also to Scandinavia as well as England.

LMK: Later, to Scandinavia. There were sort-of waves of migration, and missionisation and migration, starting with England and moving into Scandinavia by the 1860s and 1870s. And all of those – or many, many of those people – came over to the US, and really saved what had been a dying movement by the 1850s.

DG: Yes. I believe you mentioned, during the Q and A period, that most Mormons at the end of the 19th Century in America were foreign-born.

LMK: Either foreign-born or second generation at best. Because, yes, the bulk had been immigrants.

DG: That’s not a comment that the Church stresses very much any more!

LMK: No, but it’s also not a comment that other historians have noticed much.

DG: Certainly not.

LMK: I think the focus has been on Mormonism as a distinctly American religion, which is certainly true in terms of the influences on its founders. But it’s not true in terms of who joined the movement in the first half-century.

DG: Very interesting. I think the claims you’re making will certainly overhaul graduate reading lists round the country – including my own! So, the other thing . . . I’m thinking that at my University , the University of Rochester, the graduate . . .well, loosely defined, our graduate interests are supposed to be around “the world of goods, the world of nations and the world of ideas”. So, a nice way to integrate cultural and social history. Now, listening to the Q and A today, lo and behold! The comments wind up revolving around ideas, goods and nations. So the comments from, for instance, Thomas Bender – one of your co-panellists – saying that we should think of the Jesuits as a cosmopolitan religion; the discussion from Dr McGreevy that later Jesuits were embracing American nationalism, even though they weren’t necessarily OK with separation of church and state; and your discussion of the culture Jesuits were bringing from around the world. Now, I just recapped – for the listeners – a lot of material and I certainly threw a lot at you, but I’d be curious . . . . These concepts of the physical things and the more intangible things: what do you see of those as their place in American religion?

LMK: What do I see as the place of those in American religion?

DG: So, I suppose, is there an aspect: nationhood, ideology, material culture? Do you see one factor as being more important than another?

LMK: No. I think what I was trying to call for was not separating them – at least, disaggregating them in some way but not isolating any of them one from another. I think it’s easy. . . . We often get a little too free with our definitions of globalism, internationalism, transnationalism. . .

DG: Sure

LMK: . . . and I think, part of what my colleague was calling for was the use of the term cosmopolitan as sort-of an orientation towards the rest of the world. (10:00) What it seems to me, though, that using that term can do is to draw attention away from the way power flows in the movements: the power of states is one kind of power, economic power is another kind of power. I think that’s how I would break things down. Material goods are interesting to focus on, but there’s also, appending to that, the question of “Who’s paying for what?”

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: Right? And that determines the flow of those goods.

DG: So, if you were to say, simply, that “Oh, the Jesuits were cosmopolitan”, that may be obscuring who’s leading their operations.

LMK: Right. So, if you just notice that they’re bringing chalices over from Italy and putting them into chapels in North Dakota, it doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the circumstances behind those movements. And so, you just don’t want to separate those two things out. I suppose that’s the simple point I’m trying to make.

DG: So, a lot of the conversation today dealt with the fact that the Jesuits do eventually, wind up launching outward from their bases in America to the Pacific Empire. And that really intersects with several of your books dealing with Pacific missionaries. Could you expand a bit on missionaries in the Pacific?

LMK: Yes. I think the 19th Century was the Pacific Century in that regard. If one could say that the 17th and 18th centuries sort-of focussed on Atlantic movements – with the slave trade, with European migrations to the new World – the Pacific Century is very much caught up, at least in terms of the relationship of the US to other nations, with: movements from various countries in Asia, eastward; the US becoming an imperial power, moving to places like Hawaii and later down to Central and South America. And those sorts of exchanges and contexts become focal points for interesting religious phenomena.

DG: Sure. And then the other thing, I’m thinking about, though, was – coming towards the end of the conversation – was that McGreevy’s book is mostly focussing on putting Jesuits into the international story, not so much on their interior life. I mean, he touches on that in the discussion with Father Bapst but it’s not the main point of the book. And we’re sitting here at the Cushwa Centre which has. . . the nature of spirituality and history has been a recurring topic for them. Do you think the book could have done more to consider the interior life of these priests?

LMK: By interior life, do you mean . . . ? I mean, he does consider things like the devotionalism, the increasing devotionalism in the 19th century – which is tied to interiority, I guess.

DG: I suppose I was thinking of the one gentleman’s comments which were about: “the book doesn’t really deal with the sort of spiritual exercises that Jesuits do”.

LMK: Yes. It ‘s certainly more focussed on the Jesuits as missionaries. And it struck me, as that conversation was going on, that Jesuits are not necessarily trying to inculcate the same disciplines in the people they are leading to the faith as they do in themselves. And, in a sense, those are almost two different tasks of a missionary. One question is: how do you inculcate discipline, education, bodily exercises or whatever into your subjects? But, as members of a Jesuit order, how do you try to maintain your own spiritual discipline, which might be a very different thing?

DG: Oh, certainly.

LMK: That’s certainly not where McGreevy’s interest lays.

DG: Well, it also brings up an interesting contrast with your work, for instance, studying Mormons – who take the Protestant idea of “every man his own priest” to an extreme, compared to the Catholic priest, saying: “There are certain things that are just for us and not for you.”

LMK: Exactly. Exactly, yes. So Mormons: they’re trying to replicate themselves and say, “This is how you live a Christian life – do as I do.” It’s a lay order, there isn’t a trained ministry, in that sense. So, I think , the tasks are really different. And what the Jesuits are trying to preserve for themselves in their own spiritual lives, can be – and in some situations is – very different from what they’re trying to get others to do.

DG: Another topic that comes up, involving America in the World in Dr McGreevy’s book, is the fact that Jesuits were becoming more politically liberal as the 20th century approached, but they had an interesting relationship to America as empire. For instance, they’re perfectly happy to sail on American ships to go into the Pacific. But on the other hand, they oppose, for instance, the war in the Philippines, in the early 1900s, because it’s a war against a Catholic nation. So, in the Mormon Church, did you find similar ambivalence about the imperial message?

LMK: Earlier on there was a lot of ambivalence about it. (15:00) When Mormons send off missionaries to the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, and later to places like New Zealand, the message is, “We’re also being oppressed by our government, just as you are being oppressed.” In other words, they’re an anti-colonialist movement spreading a message of joining common cause with the oppressed people’s in Utah. “And we will”, you know, “have more strength together”. So, yes, it’s sort-of an interesting thing. And, of course, by the 20th century they are certainly in line with American liberal values in a very different way. But there are other traditions that have a much more – I would say – a much more conflicted relationship to the US Government throughout. So, African American Christians, for example, also have some debates about how much to support the American imperial project, in various places: be it Haiti, where there’s a long tradition of African American missionaries in Haiti; or in Africa, because they have their own loyalties as they see it to people in Africa. So I think the whole issue of loyalties to religion and nation – aside from the Protestant mainstream one – have always been much more conflicted, and often more complicated, than we’ve realised.

DG: So we’ve spent a long time talking about comparative aspects of your work and Dr McGreevy’s work. But, I’m curious now. The role of the Catholic Church today in the United States is . . . . So, just to narrow in on Catholicism: the Catholic Church today is a large supporter of the United States Government, although it’s basically at odds with – sometimes at odds over – social issues. Do you think that trend is going to continue, of the Catholic Church having a liberal voice in American society? Because there certainly was a resurgence of conservatism under John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

LMK: Yes . . . . Historians, typically, aren’t very good prophets.

DG: Yes, so I caveat all of this with, “This may go wrong!”

LMK: Right! You know, I think there are potentially lots of counter-cultural elements in Catholicism . Even the social teachings of Catholicism – there is an anti-militarism which goes way back, that is combined, in ways different for Catholics, with their pro-life policies. So even though they might agree with evangelical Christians or other Protestants about questions of abortion, they’d part ways over the role of the American military and its work abroad. So it’s a complicated picture, I think. And as we’ve seen – and as a historian I suppose my take is – it’ll probably come around again. We will see more episodes of liberal . . . . I’m not a whiggish historian, so I don’t believe that we are in some inevitable march towards progress of all sorts, or enlightenment. And therefore it’s hard to predict what the next step would look like.

DG: Absolutely. The thing that’s been weighing on my mind – less so than recent political developments – is population shifts and demographics in the Catholic Church. I mean, certainly, with the rise of birth control – despite what bishops might want to know – the families are smaller now than they were in, say, the 1800s. And certainly, with the rise of secularity, I am curious to see the role of Catholicism in American public life. Dr McGreevy’s book deals with them taking on a larger role and now, I wonder, as the population shrinks, what’s going to happen?

LMK: That’s a great question. We have certainly seen revivals before in this country.

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: So it’s hard to predict. The demographic shifts are obviously significant, but exactly how they’ll play out, I think, is not easy to prognosticate. Just because there are people in the Southern Hemisphere who are becoming the voice of Christianity, it’s not clear to me what political pay-off that has, or what path that portends. In fact, if you look at something that I know a little more about, in Protestant missionary work, the kinds of Protestantism that are making in-roads in places like Africa and South America are some of the more conservative kinds of Protestantism: Pentecostalism . . .

DG: Which is a counter-narrative to the modern, growing secularism in America.

LMK: And now they’re sending missionaries back to the United States.

DG: Really?

LMK: Yes. There are reverse migratory flows of missionaries. One of the biggest churches in Western Europe right now is a church – and this may be out of date because it’s a few years ago someone told me this: that there’s a huge evangelical church that was founded by a Nigerian pastor that has grown by leaps and bounds in Europe. (20:00) Now who that’s growing among, in Europe, is an interesting question. But, of course, the make-up of Western Europe and the United States is changing, as well. So the demography may just follow back to the Northern Hemisphere.

DG: Sure. Well, this discussion of transnational Catholicism and which particular voice will win out, makes me think of the original intention for why we’re sitting here in Notre Dame. So, for our listeners, this conference was originally meant to be part of a much larger conference on the work of Mark Noll, the historian of American Christianity. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the conference had to be, mostly, scrapped. But I’m curious what you would think of this, to bring in Mr Noll as an evangelical historian and historian of evangelicalism. His recent work has been abandoning America Studies, to some extent, to talk about the world. His book, Clouds of Witnesses is about Africa and Asia. So, the work of Mark Noll: how, if at all, does that influence your research? Do you see his views about pluralism . . . do you think those are going to carry more weight, going forwards, in the academy?

LMK: In certain sections of the academy, absolutely. I mean, Mark has been a pioneer in that sort of field, looking at global Christianity, for a long time. And thinking about, well – he’s a historian with an eye to the future, and where the church is going. And that’s certainly a big piece of the puzzle that I think has trickled back into the academy, in all kinds of ways. So I don’t see that stopping, by any means. But the question of what globalism or increasing globalisation of any of these religious traditions actually means for piety, for spirituality, for institutional life is, I think, the next big question. We know what it means in terms of bodies moving from one place to another, but how that actually, then, plays out – in terms of building institutions and building structures – is anybody’s guess.

DG: Well, and you’ve also mentioned – on sort-of a final note – that you and the other panellists talk about how the Catholics have become, you know, comfortable with their place in American society. Whereas Mark Noll, in his works, is talking about how some evangelicals want to make the country an explicitly evangelical nation – and he rejects that, as an evangelical man. So do you see these fights in the academy at all, over how to define religion? Should there be an exclusively Protestant historical mould, or should we find news ways of thinking and defining religion – ways that aren’t just tied to Christianity?

LMK: So, are you thinking . . . ? Yes – I think the horse is out of barn on that one! I don’t see going back to any kind of narrow focus on either churches, or institutional life or Protestantism. But I think, in some ways, the study of religion in all of its dimensions can only enrich the future study of Protestantism, along with other traditions.

DG: Yes, I think pluralism is here to stay. Or, at least, that’s what we’re supporting, right?

LMK: Yes.

DG: And then, a genuinely final note, I’ll ask: some scholars consider Mormonism a Christian faith; others say it is a Christian inspired faith.Where do you stand on those issues?

LMK: It’s certainly inspired by Protestantism and that’s where, if you look at the first sort of members of the movement, they came by way of other Christian traditions. I don’t . . . . The theological question – of whether it is a Christian tradition – I don’t feel, as a scholar, is mine to answer. I guess, on one level, I take seriously the self-identification of Mormons who see themselves as Christians. I think it’s an interesting question to look at. I think there are other Mormons who don’t see themselves as Christian, so that’s also an interesting question: where are the fault lines, and when and where do these questions matter? As a cultural historian, I think those are the more interesting questions for me. But I am not a theologian and I am not a historian of a particular kind of church tradition, so I’ll leave that to the experts.

DG: Laurie Maffly-Kipp discussing bodies in space: what they think, what they say and what they do. Thank you very much.

LMK: You’re welcome. Thank you.


Citation Info: Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. 2017. “Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/jesuits-mormons-and-american-religion-in-the-world/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Comedy, Comedians, and Church: The Interplay between Religion and Humor

mosehair-450x548Beyond the irony of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tony-Award winning musical, the Book of Mormon, or the use of a funny meme or two in the classroom, religion and humour are perhaps not two concepts one often considers together. However, the interplay between religion and humour comes in many forms; comedy films, stand-up comedy, musicals, satire, and kitsch products are just a few platforms in which religion and humor come together. In this RSP interview from our friends in Australia, Dr Elisha McIntyre discusses her research into religion and humour, particularly looking at comedic work The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as a broad range of evangelical comedians. McIntyre discusses the use of religious comedy as a point of entertainment as well as an identity solidifier, evangelical tool, and preaching format within Christianity.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, whoopee cushions, hand buzzers, and other comedic classics.

From the Ku Klux Klan to Zombies

Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.

Gospel According to the Klan
The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
Kelly J. Baker

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.

 References:

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic […], and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

By Pavol Kosnac, Oxford University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 30 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline (28 January 2013).

As Professor Cragun suggests in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mormonism in USA has, from the viewpoint of sociology, undergone a process of socialization. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are generally on the edge, and probably even within,  wider public acceptance. They are considered to be a truly American religion; they have been there for some 180 years, which is longer than many Christian evangelical groups, which nowadays consist  largely of Pentecostals (the youngest members of the evangelical family), and they are considered to be conservative, defenders of family values, and an important part of the Republican voting base. However, the same factors that may have granted Mormons respectability in USA, may prevent them from gaining it elsewhere any time soon. I will focus on Europe, since this is area in which I have most practical experience in general, and particularly with Latter-Day Saints.

In Europe, LDS members are still mostly well known for one characteristic, which has not been a valid stereotype for about 120 years – that is, that they engage in polygamy. People, especially in non-English speaking countries, do not yet recognise their typical uniform – white shirt, dark trousers, name badge –  and often mix them up with Jehovah´s Witnesses, mostly because they, same as Mormon missionaries, always move in pairs and want to talk about Jesus, and partially – especially in areas east  of Germany – because Jehovah´s Witnesses are generally the only contextually well-known religious movement that does this kind of mission (stopping people on street, house to house mission). This small mistake can damage their cause before they even speak to someone. Besides some anti-American sentiment in parts of European society, I would agree with some of the missionaries I have talked to, who said that the America-centric nature of their message is somehow damaging for their mission on several levels. Many people, who would possibly be interested in a new version of the Christian message, when told that Jesus will come to Salt Lake City, or that Lehi’s family (from the biblical tribe of  Manasseh) floated to America to build the true Christianity there, consider these details too much to bear, break contact and stop coming to the meetings.

The problem with applying terms like ‘new religious movements’ to movements that are approaching 200 years of existence is obvious, even if the term is not only descriptive of age. Yet, however disputable this may be in the Americas, it is not in Europe. In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic (for other Christians absolutely heretical), and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area – from their American Pentecostal compatriots to new and ‘westernized’ types of far-east inspired spiritual groups

I would agree with Professor Cragun that most people in Europe, as in the US, who start to become more interested in Mormonism and consider entering it, are of lower socio-economic standing, especially in new Mormon mission areas. My personal experiences relate to Prague and Bratislava, where this is true for at least 70% of new members. Another constituency of members that you can meet at regular Sunday gatherings are students and foreigners, a large number of whom do not speak language of their country of residence very well and/or do not have another community there. In these cases, the Mormon community – traditionally very welcoming – may attract them as a friendly (if small) social group, where they can belong.

To disagree with Professor Cragun, however,  I would question some of the reasons which he considers important factors influencing the low membership retention rate: namely,  sexual conservatism, such as opposing pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and restricting pornography and practiced homosexuality. Mormons are not particularly special in these requirements; the same rules can be found in the most conservative of Protestant or Catholic groups, many of whom have very high retention rates.  If there is not another specific which makes conservative sexual ethics somehow more problematic for members of the LDS church, I would be quite sceptical of the influence of this factor upon membership retention.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree with the problems surrounding counting new members  by baptism. During my field research in Bratislava, it appear to me that becoming a member is not a very complicated process, with much less involved than I would have expected after having the official church regulations for membership explained to me by several ex-members. It seemed to me to be possible to be interested in the idea of converting, or to only enjoy the very nice and welcoming social atmosphere, yet leave after several months, having been baptised during that time. If what Professor Cragun said is true, which I have no reason to doubt, that “once a Mormon, until the age of 110 a Mormon“, then their membership numbers may be very highly inflated, and not only in USA, but also in Europe, where Mormon groups seem to have very small numbers indeed.

Success of LDS missionaries in converting Europeans is generally very small. The only large official numbers are in the United Kingdom – where, according to an LDS webpage, it has 188 000 members. Problems with these number will probably be same as problems with US numbers. Other states in Western Europe have several tens of thousands, in other parts of Europe it is from several thousand to several hundred. In some western European countries,  Mormon missionaries have been active for more than 150 years (in Britain, for example, they have been since1837). In terms of mere numbers, in comparison to younger groups who come from the USA, like Jehovah´s Witnesses or Assemblies of God, this has not been a  very successful mission.

Finally, there may be also other local specifics that inflate the numbers, for example, in Slovak case, the “phantom Mormons“. The phenomenon which I call ”phantom membership“ happened in Slovakia´s last national census in 2011, where 972 people identified themselves as Mormons. This was an unbelievable number, since I know the situation of Mormons in Slovakia very well. I have never seen more than 50 practicing Mormons in their biggest Slovak group, and when I talked to several Slovak missionaries and representatives, their estimates of the number of Mormons in Slovakia were never higher than 300, and they also suggested that the results from census were very surprising for them also. I think that a possible explanation might be that, because Mormons are little known in Slovak environment, and their official name is generally unknown, when they were listed in the census options (for first time in Slovak history), many non-denominational Christians who were not sure what box to tick, and may not have wanted to tick the “Other“ box, saw “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints“ and ticked the box with ”Church of Jesus Christ“, filtering out the rest of the name since they had no idea what it meant means, but it sounded about right (no other registered church in Slovakia has “Jesus Christ” in its name). It is possible that this hypothesis is incorrect, but if not it would explain those almost 700 invisible Mormons, which even the most optimistic church officials never knew they “had”.

In summary, we can conclude, that official LDS estimates of Mormon demography are strongly inflated in Europe , just as in the Americas. Many of the advantages that Mormons have in the USA because of their unique “American-ness” may become more of a burden in Europe, and because of this their retention rate may be worse in Europe than in the USA. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine how LDS Church officials could consider the Mormon mission to Europe a success.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Pavol Kosnac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and studies of political philosophy, jurisprudence and ethics at Collegium of Anton Neuwirth. He is currently studying for a MSt. In the Study of Religion at Oxford University and applying for DPhil studies. His focus is mainly on the study of new religiosity, new religious movements and non-religiosity in (but not exclusively) central and eastern Europe, and the methodology of research in these categories in general.

 

References:

LDS official membership information by country:

http://www.ldschurchnews.com/almanac/1/Almanac.html, accessed 12.1.2013

Information on Slovak national poll from Slovak statistical Institute:

http://portal.statistics.sk/files/tab-14.pdf

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism

Why is it that millennialism – the belief in an immanent return of Christ to Earth – has had such a particular fascination for the American people? Millennial prophecy is often analysed with relation to violence and minority “cults”, but it is also infused into everyday discourse, in the rhetoric of politicians and the “rolling prophecy” of talk radio hosts. In this wide-ranging interview, David asks Gordon Melton about the history and reasons behind the fascination. Discussion moves from the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. We discuss the strategies used by these groups when their prophecies fail, which often involves a  shift from premillennialism to postmillennialism.

“When you look at all the groups who have given prophecies at various times, they have one thing in common: they all failed. For most of us, this is a history of successive groups with failed prophecies. But for the groups themselves, prophecy never fails…”

Finally, we come right up to the present day, talking about Harold Camping and other Christian millennialism, and the 2012 narrative so prevalent today in popular spirituality and the media. While these share similarities with 19th century millennialism, but considerable differences also, in particular in relation to media. In closing Melton prophecies about the future of millennialism; as the population continues to grow, and there continues to be a need to fill news shows, then prophecy will continue to fail.

(By the way, the chap who’s name we couldn’t remember is David Spangler.)

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained it’s director for the last 44 years. The institute is devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion, and has been responsible for the publication of more than 400 reference and scholarly texts, including multiple editions of the Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th edition, 2009). He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions.

Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions. Melton has publish extensively, but of particular relevance to this interview are Cults, Religion and Violence (With David G. Bromley. Cambridge University Press, 2002.) The Family/The Children of God (Signature Books, 2004.) “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed.” In Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, eds. Handbook of New Age (Brill 2007, pp. 77-97), and “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” (American Studies 26:2, 1985, pp. 17-29) [Jstor link]. 

Podcasts

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.

Jesuits, Mormons, and American Religion in the World

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Dr. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp has written extensively on the importance of space and geography in studying American religions. I interviewed her at the University of Notre Dame, Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion. This session dealt with Dr. John McGreevy (History, Notre Dame)’s new book, “American Jesuits and the World.” Maffly-Kipp and Thomas Bender (History, NYU) gave remarks about the book; McGreevy responded; and two hours of Q&A with scholars and graduate students followed.

My conversation with Maffly-Kipp begins with McGreevy’s book, expands to include her work on Mormonism in contrast to Catholicism, and ends with a discussion of evangelical historian Mark Noll, in whose honor Notre Dame was originally going to host a conference, but was cancelled at the last minute. This free-ranging conversation nonetheless centers on Jesuits, Mormons, and transnational religious history.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Frankincense, and Myrh.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World

Podcast with Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Maffly-Kipp_-_Jesuits,_Mormons_and_American_Religion_in_the_World_1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Dr Maffly-Kipp, welcome to the Religious Studies Project

Laurie Maffly-Kipp (LMK): Thank you.

DG: We’re here at the Morris Inn, at the University of Notre Dame. We just finished the Cushwa Centre’s Biannual Seminar in American Religion, discussing John McGreevy’s book on Jesuits in the World. So, you have been writing about space, and geography, and understanding religion for more than twenty years now, beginning with your essay in Thomas Tweed’s edited volume, Retelling US Religious History. I’d be curious to know how your views have evolved, and what you believe is the importance of space and geography in studying American religions.

LMK: That essay was my initial foray into the field and it was more of a thought piece, based on sort-of the hypothetical question of: what would you do if you didn’t narrate American religious history from the perspective of European movements from East to West – particularly British American movements. In a sense, it was also inspired by the work, in the 1930s, of Herbert Bolton – who was a historian of empires in the New World – and his basic observation that the Spanish Empire had been a part of North America and South America, long before the British ever came along. So, what would it do to sort-of retell the story of the growth of the US nation and religion in that sort-of setting, but come at it from the perspective of all theses different movements into North America, at various points in time? So that was, I think, a framework that I laid out. And since then I’ve been, I guess, exploring different avenues into that. Most recently, I’ve been spending time doing work on Mormon history and looking at Mormonism. But I think that that focus on space has then led me to think about Mormonism differently: how do I think about Mormonism as having a particular kind of centre in the United States, but also has having other areas in other parts of the world that are significant for particular purposes?

DG: So today, the book we’ve been talking about – American Jesuits in the World, by John McGreevy – it’s dealing with, well, somewhat missionary activity, but a little different from what you focus on. Because you’re often talking about American Mormons going outwards, whereas he’s talking about, at first, Europeans coming to missionise America. Can you talk a little bit about the differences you see between Mormons and Jesuits operating on the world stage?

LMK: Well, they’re very different. I mean, certainly, they’re different in terms of having a different focus on what they were doing with other people. So, for Jesuits: Jesuits are a particular Catholic order; their jobs revolve around educating peoples, administering the sacraments and keeping people in the faith. For Mormons, the goal tends to be to create habits of discipline and industry – much like those of the missionaries themselves. There’s sort-of a distinct separation between the kinds of spiritual practices that a Jesuit missionary undertakes, and what he’s trying to inculcate in other people. Whereas, for Mormon’s, they were sort-of one and the same thing. So that’s just one small difference. But, I think, on all kinds of different levels there are differences. But there are also similarities, because Mormons are also exiles – perhaps exiles in their own land. But they have a very – I guess, the best way to put it is – angular relationship to the US government in the 19th century, and often a very combative relationship. So, they aren’t sold on the idea of the nation state as necessarily an all-encompassing good, just as the Catholics are disaffected from the US Government in various ways.

DG: Well, certainly, one of the points that came up in the Q and A session, today, was that the Jesuits were roundly denounced as a secret society on the floor of Congress – one that should be banned. But there wasn’t widespread Catholic persecution in the 19th century, the way we saw against the Mormons.

LMK: I don’t know, I think you could argue with that: the burning of convents, riots in the streets . . .

DG: Well, that’s true.

LMK: . . . in Philadelphia and Boston. So, in some ways, I think that the tensions were manifest in more physical kinds of ways than they were for the Mormons. There were a few incidents with the Mormons. And the Mormons certainly fought back at various points. So I think, actually, a comparison of them is really helpful to see the ways that Protestant America was shaping the limits of its own toleration.

DG: I suppose, what I was thinking of more was that there was not state legislation against the Catholic Church in the way that there was, for instance, when the Governor of Missouri declared war on the Mormon people, saying: “Leave my state or I’m going to kill all of you!” (5:00) That is a difference.

LMK: Right! Yes. You’re right. That’s a difference. Although, I think one of the interesting things about John McGreevy’s book is the way he points out how assiduously Protestant Americans worked to create laws that would exclude Catholics in certain kinds of ways. So, from public education: there were certain rules put in place that made it obvious that the Catholics were not going to fall within the bounds of the law. I mean, their kind of education wouldn’t be acceptable as a form of public education. So, it seems to me that the very creating and shaping of laws is another way to put boundaries around religious toleration.

DG: Now, I’m curious also . . . You’ve obviously read the book – you’ve just delivered a short paper commenting on it. If you were writing a book about transnational religion in the 19th century – I mean, McGreevy is focussing on the ideas of nationhood and politics – what would be the factors that you’d want to pursue? What do you see as mattering the most?

LMK: Well, in fact, I am writing that kind of book right now.

DG: Well that’s fortuitous!

LMK: Yes. So, in fact, I am writing a book on transnational religion, in that I am writing a history of Mormonism that tries to take seriously Mormonism as a global religion and an international movement from the beginning, not simply since World War II. It’s certainly the case that there are now more Mormons outside the US than in, but even in the 1850s there were more Mormon’s in England than in the US.

DG: Oh certainly, they were very active with sending missionaries – also to Scandinavia as well as England.

LMK: Later, to Scandinavia. There were sort-of waves of migration, and missionisation and migration, starting with England and moving into Scandinavia by the 1860s and 1870s. And all of those – or many, many of those people – came over to the US, and really saved what had been a dying movement by the 1850s.

DG: Yes. I believe you mentioned, during the Q and A period, that most Mormons at the end of the 19th Century in America were foreign-born.

LMK: Either foreign-born or second generation at best. Because, yes, the bulk had been immigrants.

DG: That’s not a comment that the Church stresses very much any more!

LMK: No, but it’s also not a comment that other historians have noticed much.

DG: Certainly not.

LMK: I think the focus has been on Mormonism as a distinctly American religion, which is certainly true in terms of the influences on its founders. But it’s not true in terms of who joined the movement in the first half-century.

DG: Very interesting. I think the claims you’re making will certainly overhaul graduate reading lists round the country – including my own! So, the other thing . . . I’m thinking that at my University , the University of Rochester, the graduate . . .well, loosely defined, our graduate interests are supposed to be around “the world of goods, the world of nations and the world of ideas”. So, a nice way to integrate cultural and social history. Now, listening to the Q and A today, lo and behold! The comments wind up revolving around ideas, goods and nations. So the comments from, for instance, Thomas Bender – one of your co-panellists – saying that we should think of the Jesuits as a cosmopolitan religion; the discussion from Dr McGreevy that later Jesuits were embracing American nationalism, even though they weren’t necessarily OK with separation of church and state; and your discussion of the culture Jesuits were bringing from around the world. Now, I just recapped – for the listeners – a lot of material and I certainly threw a lot at you, but I’d be curious . . . . These concepts of the physical things and the more intangible things: what do you see of those as their place in American religion?

LMK: What do I see as the place of those in American religion?

DG: So, I suppose, is there an aspect: nationhood, ideology, material culture? Do you see one factor as being more important than another?

LMK: No. I think what I was trying to call for was not separating them – at least, disaggregating them in some way but not isolating any of them one from another. I think it’s easy. . . . We often get a little too free with our definitions of globalism, internationalism, transnationalism. . .

DG: Sure

LMK: . . . and I think, part of what my colleague was calling for was the use of the term cosmopolitan as sort-of an orientation towards the rest of the world. (10:00) What it seems to me, though, that using that term can do is to draw attention away from the way power flows in the movements: the power of states is one kind of power, economic power is another kind of power. I think that’s how I would break things down. Material goods are interesting to focus on, but there’s also, appending to that, the question of “Who’s paying for what?”

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: Right? And that determines the flow of those goods.

DG: So, if you were to say, simply, that “Oh, the Jesuits were cosmopolitan”, that may be obscuring who’s leading their operations.

LMK: Right. So, if you just notice that they’re bringing chalices over from Italy and putting them into chapels in North Dakota, it doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the circumstances behind those movements. And so, you just don’t want to separate those two things out. I suppose that’s the simple point I’m trying to make.

DG: So, a lot of the conversation today dealt with the fact that the Jesuits do eventually, wind up launching outward from their bases in America to the Pacific Empire. And that really intersects with several of your books dealing with Pacific missionaries. Could you expand a bit on missionaries in the Pacific?

LMK: Yes. I think the 19th Century was the Pacific Century in that regard. If one could say that the 17th and 18th centuries sort-of focussed on Atlantic movements – with the slave trade, with European migrations to the new World – the Pacific Century is very much caught up, at least in terms of the relationship of the US to other nations, with: movements from various countries in Asia, eastward; the US becoming an imperial power, moving to places like Hawaii and later down to Central and South America. And those sorts of exchanges and contexts become focal points for interesting religious phenomena.

DG: Sure. And then the other thing, I’m thinking about, though, was – coming towards the end of the conversation – was that McGreevy’s book is mostly focussing on putting Jesuits into the international story, not so much on their interior life. I mean, he touches on that in the discussion with Father Bapst but it’s not the main point of the book. And we’re sitting here at the Cushwa Centre which has. . . the nature of spirituality and history has been a recurring topic for them. Do you think the book could have done more to consider the interior life of these priests?

LMK: By interior life, do you mean . . . ? I mean, he does consider things like the devotionalism, the increasing devotionalism in the 19th century – which is tied to interiority, I guess.

DG: I suppose I was thinking of the one gentleman’s comments which were about: “the book doesn’t really deal with the sort of spiritual exercises that Jesuits do”.

LMK: Yes. It ‘s certainly more focussed on the Jesuits as missionaries. And it struck me, as that conversation was going on, that Jesuits are not necessarily trying to inculcate the same disciplines in the people they are leading to the faith as they do in themselves. And, in a sense, those are almost two different tasks of a missionary. One question is: how do you inculcate discipline, education, bodily exercises or whatever into your subjects? But, as members of a Jesuit order, how do you try to maintain your own spiritual discipline, which might be a very different thing?

DG: Oh, certainly.

LMK: That’s certainly not where McGreevy’s interest lays.

DG: Well, it also brings up an interesting contrast with your work, for instance, studying Mormons – who take the Protestant idea of “every man his own priest” to an extreme, compared to the Catholic priest, saying: “There are certain things that are just for us and not for you.”

LMK: Exactly. Exactly, yes. So Mormons: they’re trying to replicate themselves and say, “This is how you live a Christian life – do as I do.” It’s a lay order, there isn’t a trained ministry, in that sense. So, I think , the tasks are really different. And what the Jesuits are trying to preserve for themselves in their own spiritual lives, can be – and in some situations is – very different from what they’re trying to get others to do.

DG: Another topic that comes up, involving America in the World in Dr McGreevy’s book, is the fact that Jesuits were becoming more politically liberal as the 20th century approached, but they had an interesting relationship to America as empire. For instance, they’re perfectly happy to sail on American ships to go into the Pacific. But on the other hand, they oppose, for instance, the war in the Philippines, in the early 1900s, because it’s a war against a Catholic nation. So, in the Mormon Church, did you find similar ambivalence about the imperial message?

LMK: Earlier on there was a lot of ambivalence about it. (15:00) When Mormons send off missionaries to the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, and later to places like New Zealand, the message is, “We’re also being oppressed by our government, just as you are being oppressed.” In other words, they’re an anti-colonialist movement spreading a message of joining common cause with the oppressed people’s in Utah. “And we will”, you know, “have more strength together”. So, yes, it’s sort-of an interesting thing. And, of course, by the 20th century they are certainly in line with American liberal values in a very different way. But there are other traditions that have a much more – I would say – a much more conflicted relationship to the US Government throughout. So, African American Christians, for example, also have some debates about how much to support the American imperial project, in various places: be it Haiti, where there’s a long tradition of African American missionaries in Haiti; or in Africa, because they have their own loyalties as they see it to people in Africa. So I think the whole issue of loyalties to religion and nation – aside from the Protestant mainstream one – have always been much more conflicted, and often more complicated, than we’ve realised.

DG: So we’ve spent a long time talking about comparative aspects of your work and Dr McGreevy’s work. But, I’m curious now. The role of the Catholic Church today in the United States is . . . . So, just to narrow in on Catholicism: the Catholic Church today is a large supporter of the United States Government, although it’s basically at odds with – sometimes at odds over – social issues. Do you think that trend is going to continue, of the Catholic Church having a liberal voice in American society? Because there certainly was a resurgence of conservatism under John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

LMK: Yes . . . . Historians, typically, aren’t very good prophets.

DG: Yes, so I caveat all of this with, “This may go wrong!”

LMK: Right! You know, I think there are potentially lots of counter-cultural elements in Catholicism . Even the social teachings of Catholicism – there is an anti-militarism which goes way back, that is combined, in ways different for Catholics, with their pro-life policies. So even though they might agree with evangelical Christians or other Protestants about questions of abortion, they’d part ways over the role of the American military and its work abroad. So it’s a complicated picture, I think. And as we’ve seen – and as a historian I suppose my take is – it’ll probably come around again. We will see more episodes of liberal . . . . I’m not a whiggish historian, so I don’t believe that we are in some inevitable march towards progress of all sorts, or enlightenment. And therefore it’s hard to predict what the next step would look like.

DG: Absolutely. The thing that’s been weighing on my mind – less so than recent political developments – is population shifts and demographics in the Catholic Church. I mean, certainly, with the rise of birth control – despite what bishops might want to know – the families are smaller now than they were in, say, the 1800s. And certainly, with the rise of secularity, I am curious to see the role of Catholicism in American public life. Dr McGreevy’s book deals with them taking on a larger role and now, I wonder, as the population shrinks, what’s going to happen?

LMK: That’s a great question. We have certainly seen revivals before in this country.

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: So it’s hard to predict. The demographic shifts are obviously significant, but exactly how they’ll play out, I think, is not easy to prognosticate. Just because there are people in the Southern Hemisphere who are becoming the voice of Christianity, it’s not clear to me what political pay-off that has, or what path that portends. In fact, if you look at something that I know a little more about, in Protestant missionary work, the kinds of Protestantism that are making in-roads in places like Africa and South America are some of the more conservative kinds of Protestantism: Pentecostalism . . .

DG: Which is a counter-narrative to the modern, growing secularism in America.

LMK: And now they’re sending missionaries back to the United States.

DG: Really?

LMK: Yes. There are reverse migratory flows of missionaries. One of the biggest churches in Western Europe right now is a church – and this may be out of date because it’s a few years ago someone told me this: that there’s a huge evangelical church that was founded by a Nigerian pastor that has grown by leaps and bounds in Europe. (20:00) Now who that’s growing among, in Europe, is an interesting question. But, of course, the make-up of Western Europe and the United States is changing, as well. So the demography may just follow back to the Northern Hemisphere.

DG: Sure. Well, this discussion of transnational Catholicism and which particular voice will win out, makes me think of the original intention for why we’re sitting here in Notre Dame. So, for our listeners, this conference was originally meant to be part of a much larger conference on the work of Mark Noll, the historian of American Christianity. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the conference had to be, mostly, scrapped. But I’m curious what you would think of this, to bring in Mr Noll as an evangelical historian and historian of evangelicalism. His recent work has been abandoning America Studies, to some extent, to talk about the world. His book, Clouds of Witnesses is about Africa and Asia. So, the work of Mark Noll: how, if at all, does that influence your research? Do you see his views about pluralism . . . do you think those are going to carry more weight, going forwards, in the academy?

LMK: In certain sections of the academy, absolutely. I mean, Mark has been a pioneer in that sort of field, looking at global Christianity, for a long time. And thinking about, well – he’s a historian with an eye to the future, and where the church is going. And that’s certainly a big piece of the puzzle that I think has trickled back into the academy, in all kinds of ways. So I don’t see that stopping, by any means. But the question of what globalism or increasing globalisation of any of these religious traditions actually means for piety, for spirituality, for institutional life is, I think, the next big question. We know what it means in terms of bodies moving from one place to another, but how that actually, then, plays out – in terms of building institutions and building structures – is anybody’s guess.

DG: Well, and you’ve also mentioned – on sort-of a final note – that you and the other panellists talk about how the Catholics have become, you know, comfortable with their place in American society. Whereas Mark Noll, in his works, is talking about how some evangelicals want to make the country an explicitly evangelical nation – and he rejects that, as an evangelical man. So do you see these fights in the academy at all, over how to define religion? Should there be an exclusively Protestant historical mould, or should we find news ways of thinking and defining religion – ways that aren’t just tied to Christianity?

LMK: So, are you thinking . . . ? Yes – I think the horse is out of barn on that one! I don’t see going back to any kind of narrow focus on either churches, or institutional life or Protestantism. But I think, in some ways, the study of religion in all of its dimensions can only enrich the future study of Protestantism, along with other traditions.

DG: Yes, I think pluralism is here to stay. Or, at least, that’s what we’re supporting, right?

LMK: Yes.

DG: And then, a genuinely final note, I’ll ask: some scholars consider Mormonism a Christian faith; others say it is a Christian inspired faith.Where do you stand on those issues?

LMK: It’s certainly inspired by Protestantism and that’s where, if you look at the first sort of members of the movement, they came by way of other Christian traditions. I don’t . . . . The theological question – of whether it is a Christian tradition – I don’t feel, as a scholar, is mine to answer. I guess, on one level, I take seriously the self-identification of Mormons who see themselves as Christians. I think it’s an interesting question to look at. I think there are other Mormons who don’t see themselves as Christian, so that’s also an interesting question: where are the fault lines, and when and where do these questions matter? As a cultural historian, I think those are the more interesting questions for me. But I am not a theologian and I am not a historian of a particular kind of church tradition, so I’ll leave that to the experts.

DG: Laurie Maffly-Kipp discussing bodies in space: what they think, what they say and what they do. Thank you very much.

LMK: You’re welcome. Thank you.


Citation Info: Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. 2017. “Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/jesuits-mormons-and-american-religion-in-the-world/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Comedy, Comedians, and Church: The Interplay between Religion and Humor

mosehair-450x548Beyond the irony of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tony-Award winning musical, the Book of Mormon, or the use of a funny meme or two in the classroom, religion and humour are perhaps not two concepts one often considers together. However, the interplay between religion and humour comes in many forms; comedy films, stand-up comedy, musicals, satire, and kitsch products are just a few platforms in which religion and humor come together. In this RSP interview from our friends in Australia, Dr Elisha McIntyre discusses her research into religion and humour, particularly looking at comedic work The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as a broad range of evangelical comedians. McIntyre discusses the use of religious comedy as a point of entertainment as well as an identity solidifier, evangelical tool, and preaching format within Christianity.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, whoopee cushions, hand buzzers, and other comedic classics.

From the Ku Klux Klan to Zombies

Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.

Gospel According to the Klan
The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
Kelly J. Baker

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.

 References:

Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic […], and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

By Pavol Kosnac, Oxford University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 30 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline (28 January 2013).

As Professor Cragun suggests in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mormonism in USA has, from the viewpoint of sociology, undergone a process of socialization. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are generally on the edge, and probably even within,  wider public acceptance. They are considered to be a truly American religion; they have been there for some 180 years, which is longer than many Christian evangelical groups, which nowadays consist  largely of Pentecostals (the youngest members of the evangelical family), and they are considered to be conservative, defenders of family values, and an important part of the Republican voting base. However, the same factors that may have granted Mormons respectability in USA, may prevent them from gaining it elsewhere any time soon. I will focus on Europe, since this is area in which I have most practical experience in general, and particularly with Latter-Day Saints.

In Europe, LDS members are still mostly well known for one characteristic, which has not been a valid stereotype for about 120 years – that is, that they engage in polygamy. People, especially in non-English speaking countries, do not yet recognise their typical uniform – white shirt, dark trousers, name badge –  and often mix them up with Jehovah´s Witnesses, mostly because they, same as Mormon missionaries, always move in pairs and want to talk about Jesus, and partially – especially in areas east  of Germany – because Jehovah´s Witnesses are generally the only contextually well-known religious movement that does this kind of mission (stopping people on street, house to house mission). This small mistake can damage their cause before they even speak to someone. Besides some anti-American sentiment in parts of European society, I would agree with some of the missionaries I have talked to, who said that the America-centric nature of their message is somehow damaging for their mission on several levels. Many people, who would possibly be interested in a new version of the Christian message, when told that Jesus will come to Salt Lake City, or that Lehi’s family (from the biblical tribe of  Manasseh) floated to America to build the true Christianity there, consider these details too much to bear, break contact and stop coming to the meetings.

The problem with applying terms like ‘new religious movements’ to movements that are approaching 200 years of existence is obvious, even if the term is not only descriptive of age. Yet, however disputable this may be in the Americas, it is not in Europe. In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic (for other Christians absolutely heretical), and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area – from their American Pentecostal compatriots to new and ‘westernized’ types of far-east inspired spiritual groups

I would agree with Professor Cragun that most people in Europe, as in the US, who start to become more interested in Mormonism and consider entering it, are of lower socio-economic standing, especially in new Mormon mission areas. My personal experiences relate to Prague and Bratislava, where this is true for at least 70% of new members. Another constituency of members that you can meet at regular Sunday gatherings are students and foreigners, a large number of whom do not speak language of their country of residence very well and/or do not have another community there. In these cases, the Mormon community – traditionally very welcoming – may attract them as a friendly (if small) social group, where they can belong.

To disagree with Professor Cragun, however,  I would question some of the reasons which he considers important factors influencing the low membership retention rate: namely,  sexual conservatism, such as opposing pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and restricting pornography and practiced homosexuality. Mormons are not particularly special in these requirements; the same rules can be found in the most conservative of Protestant or Catholic groups, many of whom have very high retention rates.  If there is not another specific which makes conservative sexual ethics somehow more problematic for members of the LDS church, I would be quite sceptical of the influence of this factor upon membership retention.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree with the problems surrounding counting new members  by baptism. During my field research in Bratislava, it appear to me that becoming a member is not a very complicated process, with much less involved than I would have expected after having the official church regulations for membership explained to me by several ex-members. It seemed to me to be possible to be interested in the idea of converting, or to only enjoy the very nice and welcoming social atmosphere, yet leave after several months, having been baptised during that time. If what Professor Cragun said is true, which I have no reason to doubt, that “once a Mormon, until the age of 110 a Mormon“, then their membership numbers may be very highly inflated, and not only in USA, but also in Europe, where Mormon groups seem to have very small numbers indeed.

Success of LDS missionaries in converting Europeans is generally very small. The only large official numbers are in the United Kingdom – where, according to an LDS webpage, it has 188 000 members. Problems with these number will probably be same as problems with US numbers. Other states in Western Europe have several tens of thousands, in other parts of Europe it is from several thousand to several hundred. In some western European countries,  Mormon missionaries have been active for more than 150 years (in Britain, for example, they have been since1837). In terms of mere numbers, in comparison to younger groups who come from the USA, like Jehovah´s Witnesses or Assemblies of God, this has not been a  very successful mission.

Finally, there may be also other local specifics that inflate the numbers, for example, in Slovak case, the “phantom Mormons“. The phenomenon which I call ”phantom membership“ happened in Slovakia´s last national census in 2011, where 972 people identified themselves as Mormons. This was an unbelievable number, since I know the situation of Mormons in Slovakia very well. I have never seen more than 50 practicing Mormons in their biggest Slovak group, and when I talked to several Slovak missionaries and representatives, their estimates of the number of Mormons in Slovakia were never higher than 300, and they also suggested that the results from census were very surprising for them also. I think that a possible explanation might be that, because Mormons are little known in Slovak environment, and their official name is generally unknown, when they were listed in the census options (for first time in Slovak history), many non-denominational Christians who were not sure what box to tick, and may not have wanted to tick the “Other“ box, saw “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints“ and ticked the box with ”Church of Jesus Christ“, filtering out the rest of the name since they had no idea what it meant means, but it sounded about right (no other registered church in Slovakia has “Jesus Christ” in its name). It is possible that this hypothesis is incorrect, but if not it would explain those almost 700 invisible Mormons, which even the most optimistic church officials never knew they “had”.

In summary, we can conclude, that official LDS estimates of Mormon demography are strongly inflated in Europe , just as in the Americas. Many of the advantages that Mormons have in the USA because of their unique “American-ness” may become more of a burden in Europe, and because of this their retention rate may be worse in Europe than in the USA. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine how LDS Church officials could consider the Mormon mission to Europe a success.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Pavol Kosnac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and studies of political philosophy, jurisprudence and ethics at Collegium of Anton Neuwirth. He is currently studying for a MSt. In the Study of Religion at Oxford University and applying for DPhil studies. His focus is mainly on the study of new religiosity, new religious movements and non-religiosity in (but not exclusively) central and eastern Europe, and the methodology of research in these categories in general.

 

References:

LDS official membership information by country:

http://www.ldschurchnews.com/almanac/1/Almanac.html, accessed 12.1.2013

Information on Slovak national poll from Slovak statistical Institute:

http://portal.statistics.sk/files/tab-14.pdf

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism

Why is it that millennialism – the belief in an immanent return of Christ to Earth – has had such a particular fascination for the American people? Millennial prophecy is often analysed with relation to violence and minority “cults”, but it is also infused into everyday discourse, in the rhetoric of politicians and the “rolling prophecy” of talk radio hosts. In this wide-ranging interview, David asks Gordon Melton about the history and reasons behind the fascination. Discussion moves from the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. We discuss the strategies used by these groups when their prophecies fail, which often involves a  shift from premillennialism to postmillennialism.

“When you look at all the groups who have given prophecies at various times, they have one thing in common: they all failed. For most of us, this is a history of successive groups with failed prophecies. But for the groups themselves, prophecy never fails…”

Finally, we come right up to the present day, talking about Harold Camping and other Christian millennialism, and the 2012 narrative so prevalent today in popular spirituality and the media. While these share similarities with 19th century millennialism, but considerable differences also, in particular in relation to media. In closing Melton prophecies about the future of millennialism; as the population continues to grow, and there continues to be a need to fill news shows, then prophecy will continue to fail.

(By the way, the chap who’s name we couldn’t remember is David Spangler.)

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained it’s director for the last 44 years. The institute is devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion, and has been responsible for the publication of more than 400 reference and scholarly texts, including multiple editions of the Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th edition, 2009). He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions.

Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions. Melton has publish extensively, but of particular relevance to this interview are Cults, Religion and Violence (With David G. Bromley. Cambridge University Press, 2002.) The Family/The Children of God (Signature Books, 2004.) “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed.” In Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, eds. Handbook of New Age (Brill 2007, pp. 77-97), and “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” (American Studies 26:2, 1985, pp. 17-29) [Jstor link].