The Origins of the Mormon Moment; or, How to Generate Your Own Such Moment

Christopher Jones

As a follow-up to Paul's post last week on "the Mormon moment in scholarship," and in an attempt to answer the questions posed by Elesha and Curtis in the comments of that post, I'll simply point readers to a post today ("2011: The Year of the Mormon") over at the Mormon blog By Common Consent. Embedded within that post, which surveys a number of individuals, events, and trends in pop culture, politics, sports, and scholarship that kept Mormonism in the spotlight all year long, is what appears to me to be a basic (if slightly complicated) formula for those interested in generating a similar moment for their respective religious movement/scholarly-subject of study/etc. With a giant tip-of-the-hat to the fine folks at BCC, then, here is my formula:

1. Aim for an election year (preferably a presidential election), and ensure that at least two of the candidates are of the specific faith community. If they represent divergent approaches to said faith, and maintain a personal and/or political rivalry dating back several generations, even better.

2. Politicians alone, of course, cannot create such a moment. They need to be buttressed by likeable star athletes that inspire hip-hop songs and videos, rock/pop music sensations that publicly proclaim their faith without coming across too condescending or annoying and incorporate elements of the religion's founding theophany in their music videos, and television programs portraying the more controversial elements of the faith tradition. For scholars of religion, it is particularly important that these figures not only be members of the religion, but also that their respective talents can be explained by alluding to, for example, Thomas Aquinas's theory of scripture. Landing these public figures on the cover of several prominent national publications doesn't hurt, either. Oh yeah, and if the guys behind South Park create the Broadway hit of the year about the religious community, that's just icing on the cake.

3. While loads of publicity may generate a "moment" for the religion, they do not automatically lead to a corresponding "moment" for scholarship on the subject. The key there, of course, is to keep researching and writing. The sheer amount of scholarship focused on Mormons and Mormonism over the past year (or that forthcoming in 2012) really isn't all that unique---historians, sociologists, and others have been generating volumes and volumes of scholarship on the subject for decades now. The key here, as I see it, is that the younger generation of scholars---folks like Pat Mason, Matt Bowman, John Turner, and Spencer Fluhman---are building on the work of their predecessors but also more directly engaging trends in larger fields (American religious history, religious experience, religion and politics, etc.) and demonstrating what the Mormon experience uniquely reveals about those larger subjects, trends, etc. It also helps if the institutional church in question decides to take an active role in that scholarship by expanding and publishing archival collections.

Looking forward to 2012, Paul may be right in wondering if "another mainline moment in being born." But just to be sure, someone may want to put in a call to the South Park guys.


Elesha said…
If only creating a moment were this easy. Mainline Protestants run for office all the time, without generating any useful upsurge of interest in the tradition. The Jeremiah Wright brouhaha does not count as useful. And even I wouldn't go see a Broadway play about The Christian Century or the National Council of Churches. (I draw a complete visual blank trying to imagine it.) I guess more writing and publishing is the only way forward.
Christopher said…
Ha. I was writing mostly in jest, Elesha. Truth be told, this "Mormon moment" has been a longtime in the making and is more the culmination of several separate developments over the past century (or more) than it is an abrupt moment when Mormons and Mormonism burst onto the scene. And the same is true of this moment in Mormon scholarship--historians of Mormonism have been toiling away for decades now researching and writing, and trying to make their research relevant to wider audiences. Several recent trends in religious history and religious studies, combined with a really sharp group of young scholars and the expanded media attention to Mormonism these last few years seemed to have culminated this year.

And for the record, I couldn't imagine a Broadway play about Mormonism that would be half interesting before Matt Stone and Trey Parker did what they did in The Book of Mormon musical.