God's Hunky Bodies
In my Religions in the U.S. class, I use images of Jesus to demonstrate different theological movements: the feminized Jesus, Warner Salman's Jesus, an African American Jesus, etc. I also use an image of Jesus from the Book of Mormon in which Jesus is preaching to Native American peoples. What I point out to students is that this rendition of Jesus is always so muscular. He's got huge biceps, a chiseled chin, and flowing hair. I pass around my copy of the Book of Mormon, so that they can see that the other figures depicted in the sacred text are also sufficiently muscled. Moroni buries the golden plates as his forearms and biceps ripple and bulge. The images make it clear that these religious men are manly men with the strength to prove it. Masculinity exudes from them.
Recent agitation over a calendar of shirtless Mormon missionaries made me reflect on the above images and why glorifying male bodies proved inflammatory in this particular context. Steve Freiss, in an article entitled "Mormon Beefcake," explored the controversy over the calendar and the excommunication of the calendar's creator, Chad Hardy. For the author, the fusion of religion and sexuality that appeared in the calendar led to Hardy's punishment. "Men on a Mission," after all, juxtaposed pictures of smiling Mormon men in their missionary attire (white shirt, tie, black pants, and name tag) with images of the men shirtless in various poses with smoldering gazes. Freiss writes:
Hardy says the church has accused him of using religion to sell sex. But he prefers to think of it as the other way around: he's using eye-catching and unexpected images of usually buttoned-up men to draw attention to the charitable and civic contributions of the faith. Until his excommunication, Hardy was a sixth-generation Mormon who some six years ago stopped attending church, tithing or wearing the requisite sacred undergarments, but he insisted he still admires the church and wanted to use the calendar a form of outreach. "I have my own feelings about the church; they're personal," he said. "I don't want to make the church look bad. I want this to be a positive thing for these guys."
The calendar also features a biography of each model, mentioning the place where he served his mission and some thoughts on his faith. None are particularly provocative poses by beefcake calendar standards, although Mr. October 2008 does have a finger tugging down his belt and exposing the elastic of his underwear.
Interestingly, one of the participants for the 2009 calendar, Christopher Hayes, thought the calendar might demonstrate that Mormons were part of the mainstream. Freiss noted:Hayes's mother, in fact, urged him on after the 2008 edition was cited as the "Hot Calendar" of the year by Rolling Stone magazine. Hayes's mother and grandparents even attended the photo shoot in Las Vegas in March. "What we're doing is showing people that Mormons aren't the weird, sheltered people that people think we are. It was more of an acceptance of us as people."
On Hardy's website, Mormons Exposed, one can buy the calendar, declare a secret crush on the models, buy a t-shirt with your favorite model, and learn about auditions for new models. Additionally, the FAQ section addresses questions about the purpose of the calendar and the larger project of Mormons Exposed. The website echoes Hayes's sentiments:
Behind the eye-candy, this calendar has a deeper story - one that can reshape perceptions, heighten awareness, and perhaps encourage and inspire a broadened acceptance of human and religious diversity. The fact that twelve young returned missionaries are posing shirtless will certainly raise eyebrows, but may also help to sort out some common misconceptions about Mormons. The shock value of what these traditionally conservative young men have helped to create has the power to build a dialogue that encourages people across every belief system and walk of life to defy stereotypes, step out of judgment and embrace tolerance.
The twelve former missionaries who "bare their testimony" on the pages of the Men on a Mission calendar were hand-selected for their striking good looks and powerful spiritual devotion. They are men who were comfortable enough in their own beliefs, and independent and brave enough to take a stand for what they believe in regardless of what others may think. By slightly stepping away from the Mormon traditions of modest dress, these missionaries show the world they can have a strong faith and be proud of who they are, both with a sense of individualism and a sense humor at the same time.
The message is by showing Mormon "eye-candy," the website hopes to counter stereotypes of Mormons in larger culture. Muscled bodies demonstrate that these young men are no different than other half-dressed religious people? Baring their chests lays bare their devotion to their faith as well as highlights their virility. Folks who scoff at Mormon missionaries on bikes have missed the sheer prowess of their masculinity, and the calendar serves as a corrective to show that Mormons, just like other religious Americans, are willing to showcase their bodies (for their faith in this instance). Undressing for tolerance is not an idea I have encountered before, but it could work if hard bodies distract folks from their religious prejudices. (If this catches on, please let me know.) However, I think the paean to tolerance and supposed humor of the calendar were lost on LDS officials.
Hardy claims that his excommunication was due to his personal behavior not the calendar, but not all agree with his claims. Richard Bushman, noted Mormon scholar, chalked the issue up to the combination of the erotic with imagery of the missionaries.This fusion suggested that missionaries are more than chaste evangelists for the faith but rather are sexual creatures as well. The glorification of male bodies and sexuality seems to be problematic because the calendar makes it obvious that missionaries are sexual beings despite the uniform. Moreover, the conception that gazing on these men builds religious commitment might prove to be a bit of a stretch. Lust might not be the approved way to become more faithful. (See Gary Laderman's Ecstatic Sex on the complicated relationship of religion and sexuality at Religion Dispatches.)
Yet muscled Mormon bodies have presence in Mormon visual imagery. However, muscled angels and religious figures are tucked safely away in sacred text. They also have their shirts on. (Editor's note: I stand corrected most have their shirts on. Please see the comments section.) Their muscles signal virility and strength of the tradition rather than sexual objectification. The calendar lacks the sacred legitimacy despite Hardy's commitment to using sexuality to sell religion. This falls outside the bounds of previous masculine representation. Muscled religious figures promoted the faith, but how do shirtless missionaries contribute?
Moreover, the issue of who consumes the calendar also adds to the controversy. Hardy noted that "Men on a Mission" was quite popular among gay men. The issue of eroticism proves tricky, but the possibility of homoeroticism is more difficult for the leadership of LDS because gay members must remain chaste. Hardy, however, is not discouraged by the commotion over "Men on a Mission" because his next calendar entitled "Hot Muffins" will contain images of Mormon mothers and their recipes. Risque pictures of Mormon moms might prove even more controversial than the barely clad missionaries.