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Secularism’s Saints

Book Review

Saturday 2 November 2019, by siawi3


Gender & Sexuality

Secularism’s Saints

Two recent books about Mormon women highlight the success of the church in redefining itself as a modern liberal religion. But to become that, the Latter-day Saints dramatically reworked both their theology and history.

Peter Coviello

The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church
Jana Riess
Oxford University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy
Colleen McDannell
Oxford University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

Were I a different sort of writer, possessed of something nearer to a professional historian’s archival talents, I know what story I would tell. It would be the story of the social life of Salt Lake City between 1890 and 1917—between, that is, Latter-day Saints church president Wilford Woodruff’s “Manifesto” renouncing Mormon polygamy (and thus paving the way for Utah’s statehood) and the broadly nationalizing moment of World War I. For high-stakes political and indeed cosmological drama, intimate upheaval, and sweeping reorganizations of flesh and spirit, you could hardly do better.

For mainline Protestants, Mormons were a people whose wild beliefs had made them deviants, and whose defiling of marriage made them dubiously white.

By 1890 the avowedly polygamous Mormons had suffered through a half century’s worth of harrowing persecution, having been chased from New York to Ohio to Missouri to western Illinois, and thence out to the Wasatch Range. The threat of violence was never far behind them—indeed, Joseph Smith had been murdered by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, in 1844. In 1856 U.S. congressman Justin Morrill reflected the prevailing sentiment about Mormons when he argued against Utah statehood: “Under the guise of religion,” he said, “this people has established and seek to maintain and perpetuate, a Mohammedan barbarism revolting to the civilized world.” A Mohammedan barbarism: the phrase catches nicely the interwovenness of Mormon depravity in the eyes of their scandalized countrymen. From the perspective of mainline Protestant America, Mormons were a people whose wild extravagances of belief, which they chose to name “religion,” had made them deviants, and whose marriage-defiling deviancy made them dubious white people—figured again and again as Mohammedan, Indian-like, Asiatic, sultanic—whose very presence threatened nothing less than the civilizational health of the nation. Monogamy, a blistering 1855 Putnam’s Monthly editorial entitled “The Mormons” proclaimed, “is one of the pre-existing conditions of our existence as civilized white men. . . . Strike it out, and you destroy our very being; and when we say our, we mean our race.”

In the teeth of these violent disparagements, and of the series of laws enacted across the century designed to criminalize polygamy and thereby stamp out the Mormon menace, the Saints followed a direct path. They made themselves over more and more completely in the image of righteous insurgents, renegades from a fallen nation dooming itself to destruction. They set themselves up in the mountainous West in flight from the American nation that had set about trying to annihilate them (and so they came to be in fraught and tenuous relationship with the Native peoples of the West, whom they occasionally regarded as fellow refugees from empire). One of the greatest signs of their commitment to a life apart from Gentile declension was, for Mormons, “celestial” or “plural patriarchal” marriage: that is, polygamy. For in this arrangement Mormons found not just the satisfaction of some basically restorative religious impulse, and not just the stability of a committedly patriarchal structure in the midst of a period of dramatic social flux. They found rather, or also, the culmination of an entire theology, at the beating heart of which was Smith’s most definitive vision. This was of humankind not as fallen away from a distant, hugely alien God, nor as mired in Calvinist depravity, but as embryonic gods, assembling mortal lives on an arc that bent, with patient inexorability, toward divinity, toward becoming gods. “You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods,” Smith had declared, in an altogether astonishing sermon shortly before his murder. This was exaltation, and to the early Saints polygamy was essential to their cosmology.

How, then, to unwrite that conviction? How to navigate a world that had been given so much of its order, social as well as spiritual, by a densely interconnected set of practices that were, quite suddenly, disapproved and disavowed? What could living through that transition have been like, with its multiple stages, occasions for refusal and dissent, its compromises and half-measures and improvised sociabilities? And then, what does this long-resisted and not altogether voluntary surrender to the United States, and its empire of secular monogamy, do to a faith? How does such a contentious history live itself out in the present tense? What forms does it take? What kinds of story does it foster, or foment, or disallow?


‘Good’ religions of secular modernity are those that accord with, and do not disquiet, the panoply of orchestrated norms condensed into the political sociability of liberalism.

To write about Mormonism is to come into an at least glancing contact with questions such as these. For the story of the Mormons, at virtually any point in its trajectory from renegade counter-Protestantism to globally flourishing religion, is the story of a faith grappling with a worldly standing that is never quite free of a certain bedeviling precarity. Mormonism may or may not be the fastest growing religion on the planet, as it used to boast. In any case, it is not one of the mainline Protestantisms and this, it turns out, matters. One does not require a finely tuned sensitivity to hear, trembling beneath the surface of even the sunniest of Mormon self-accountings, the fact that Mormons were the object of such sustained condemnatory violence; that they survived, rather surprisingly, into a brighter future; and perhaps above all that they were marked, in the not-wholly-distant past, as racialized deviants, perverted by misfiring belief.

A more academic way to say this is to remark that Mormonism, like every other modern faith, transpires under the sign of what Talal Asad, among others, has taught us to recognize as the regime of secularism. For secularism, that prized signature of modernity, is after all not that form of social ordering that dispenses with, or surpasses, or even derogates what it is pleased to name “religion.” We do considerably better to think of secularism as propagating a pivotal distinction that is not between the religious and the nonreligious but, more elementally, between good religion and bad belief. This is something of what Asad means when, in Formations of the Secular (2003), he says that, under conditions of secularism, “religion” names “everything the modern state can afford to let go.”

Asad’s point is not merely about the secular privatization of belief. It is more tellingly about how the good religions of secular modernity are those that accord with, and do not disquiet, the panoply of orchestrated norms condensed into the political sociability of liberalism. Those faiths that do not present themselves as rivals to liberal visions of the self, the social, the family, the private, the public, and much else—those are “religions,” properly speaking, under the aegis of secularism. Whereas those faith practices that fall aslant these organizing dictates do not register as religions at all but as perversions of proper religiosity: as sad exemplars of atavism, or backwardness, or “fundamentalism,” or any of the other more and less racist cognates you might think of. (Hence, you might even now hear pundits considering with sage deliberation whether or not Islam is a religion.) It is in these senses that we might more properly describe secularism as a peculiar species of discipline: as, most compactly, the racializing metaphysics proper to imperial liberalism.

Mormonism is, in these senses, that most curious of phenomena. It is a religion that, for quite some time, failed at being secular, and failed at achieving the status of good religion by the lights of secular distinction; but that then, after a series of bloody encounters with the disciplinary forces of secular modernity, became so, and assumed its place at the table of tolerably normative belief. From bad belief to good religion: it is a startling transformation. It is also—and this should be no surprise—spectacularly fraught.


If it seems all-but-given to argue that women have been a powerful force in shaping Mormonism, it is worth remembering the degree to which they have been functionally written out of church history.

Such strains and counter-strains are live currents in contemporary Mormon discourse. And they are no less alive in scholarship about the Latter-day Saints. Two recent books speak volubly to the dilemmas of Mormonism’s secular accommodations, and they do so in tellingly related ways. Jana Riess’s The Next Mormons and Colleen McDannell’s Sister Saints offer striking portraits of a faith weathering multiple seasons of upheaval, endeavoring both to evolve and to solidify, and plotting an intricate course into the twenty-first century. In both works, questions of gender take center stage. And both books too, I think, provide us with a kind of meta-critical insight: a glimpse into how scholarly works about Mormonism can themselves become entangled in the tasks of secular accommodation—of producing Mormonism as good religion by the lights of secularism—that have pressurized and shaped the LDS church for nearly two centuries.

Riess’s book, The Next Mormons, is anchored in the present tense. The book is a critical exfoliation of the results of “the Next Mormon Survey,” a “major national study of 1,156 Mormons and 540 former Mormons” that the author created with political scientist Benjamin Knoll. The book is built around the voluminous data collected from this instrument, whose results are amplified, and appreciably thickened, by Riess’s interviews with some four dozen “young adult Mormons and former Mormons” (the “vast majority” of whom “were Millennials, with a few GenXers in the mix”). We encounter, then, not only graphs and charts and enumerated percentages, with their curious metricization of veritably Jamesian states of being (“Prevalence of Doubting in Mormon Social Networks” is among my favorites). We find, too, a wealth of textured, individuated personal narratives of faithful and former Mormons, navigating their way through the church’s rituals, and structures, and socialities: its imaginings of divinity, its shaping and reshaping of its missionary work, of education, of work, and (crucially for Riess) of its strictures in relation to the politics of race, gender, and sexuality.

The findings of The Next Mormons are edifying, if not necessarily startling. It is interesting, for instance, to learn that “six in ten Mormons think the nation’s growing racial diversity is a problem.” And it is interesting to discover that while “Mormons with college degrees are 15 percent less likely to leave the church,” this isn’t entirely straightforward, at least for women. “Having a college degree,” Riess writes, “decreases women’s likelihood of disaffiliating, yes, but women who follow college with certain kinds of postgraduate education . . . are actually more likely to leave.” The Next Mormons is full of such intriguing, often counterintuitive data. But the central theses of Riess’s work are rather less likely to surprise: that the “decelerated growth” of the LDS church is not a singular Mormon phenomenon but part of “the changing religious landscape in America”; that a major engine of disaffiliation among young people is “the church’s treatment of women and the LGBT community,” which has been “galvanizing disaffection among younger former Mormons”; and that a church that has adapted so dramatically in the past is surely capable of adapting still again, to ensure what Riess calls an ongoing “cultural relevancy.”

This is neither to disparage nor dispute these points, though it is to mark the conventionality of the framework in which Riess’s book places the LDS church, there within what she calls the “ever-present pendulum between assimilation and retrenchment.” For this is a framework that, about as precisely as you could wish, maps out the task of religion in the secular age as that of fine-tuning itself, with ever-tightening gradation, to a frequency located snugly between an accommodation to environing norms and a somehow inviting, or at least non-alienating, idiosyncrasy. Indeed, one of the striking things about the conceptual architecture of The Next Mormons is its naturalizing identification with precisely that project. It treats the decelerated growth of the church as context and occasion and then, in idioms both quantitative and qualitative, seeks out causes and potential corrections. The results are often intriguing as sociological portraiture, but the book can also for long moments feel a bit like an especially thorough shareholders report, prepared in a moment of declining returns.

Again, I don’t quite mean that as a knock—who among us would object to scholars doing their part to shape ampler futures for a given sodality, be it faith-based or otherwise?—though I would want to observe the several ways this conceptual disposition amounts to a naturalization of secularism. McDannell’s Sister Saints is clarifying in these respects. Like The Next Mormons, Sister Saints is oriented around a thesis that is fundamentally unobjectionable, which is to say that it is at once edifying, filled with moment-to-moment revelatory detail, and also general enough to not invite much in the way of contradiction. It is that Mormon women, who have labored through a number of church-led “reorganizations” that have tended toward an erosion of practical power for women, and who have managed nevertheless to occupy a spectacular range of roles in the faith, “have been a powerful force in shaping Mormonism since its earliest days.” If this seems an all-but-given observation, it is worth remembering the degree to which Mormon women have been functionally written out of Mormon history, and not only by the wide ranks of anti-Mormon critics who could see in these faithful only dupes and pawns, the mesmerized victims of domineering patriarchs unwilling to share with women even in the practice of marital exclusiveness. Like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females (2017), Sister Saints works as a sharp and canny rebuke to the reading of Mormon women as passive, unself-knowing, or morally and politically inert. And like Ulrich’s volume, McDannell’s work also tracks the patterns of foreclosure and restriction that have punctuated the church’s own relation to the women in its ranks.

An irony of depicting Mormonism as a ‘good’ liberal religion is that, for quite some time, Mormons understood themselves as being in opposition to liberal secularism and were willing to stake their lives upon it.

The intricate and involving and often moving story Sister Saints tells is, in this sense, one of achievement under conditions of constraint. McDannell notes the expansive work polygamous women did as part of the Female Relief Society (observing as well that women in Utah were the second in the nation to be granted the ballot) and shows in turn how, after polygamy, at the instigation of church president Joseph F. Smith, the church undertook a project of “modernization” that led to “declining Relief Society independence” over the course of the new century. Then, too, there was “the slow edging out of women from the administration of social welfare by World War II,” the long and nearly uninterrupted reign of a status quo emphasizing “traditional” values for women (i.e., familial rather than waged work, “domesticity, engaged churchgoing, and bodily purity”), which McDannell argues held sway until 1970.

Among the most electrifying passages of Sister Saints are those detailing the tumult of the Mormon 1970s, when faithful Saints interested in expanding possibilities for women—and creating critical venues for Mormon Studies, including Dialogue and Exponent II—found themselves set alongside figures such as Barbara Smith, who in 1974 became president of the Relief Society and promptly declared her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. (She had been galvanized by a visit to Utah from world-historical homophobe and anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly.) In 1979 Mormon feminist Sonia Johnson was excommunicated. Then, after a vital burst of scholarship in the 1980s, came more excommunications in 1993 (and again in 2014)—though, as McDannell notes, at the same time the hugely flourishing culture of Mormon “mommy blogs” had begun to take hold, and to provide Mormon women with a more pliable venue both for self-expression and culture-making.

It is difficult, reading this narrative of possibility and stricture, not to be heartened by McDannell’s refusal of a certain style of secular dismissiveness. She does not equate devotion with delusion, and she works hard to peel “obedience” off of any flat equivalence with, say, “submission.” Given how ready secular regimes are to turn women into objects requiring rescue, and to make enfranchisement into the presumptively beneficent norms of liberalism the mark of having been saved—no matter the gender inequities structuring liberalism itself—this is a bracing move, recalling some of the strongest turns in scholarship by Joan Wallach Scott, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Saba Mahmood. Again, though, as in Riess’s work, the resistance to secular presumption comes paired with a complicating eagerness to show the LDS church, not in fractious opposition to such presumption, but already in line with what the book offers as the highest virtues of liberal secularism: openness, pluralism, “diversity and choice,” and “more gender equality.” The commitment to this story—and to a vision of Mormonism as balancing delicately between its hyper-traditionalist gender roles and ampler possibilities for women—can have peculiar effects.

For instance, McDannell offers a striking reading of that still-governing document of Mormon theology, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (1995), which theorizes the eternity of sex (i.e., that gender is “an essential characteristic that exists prior to our birth and that will continue after we die”) and dictates that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” Even after noting that the document was written without consultation from the Relief Society, McDannell nevertheless asks us to understand the text in terms of its “ambiguity, restraint, and brevity,” all of which testify to the church’s efforts “to adjust official doctrine and rituals to better match the behavior of actual Mormons.” There is much one might say in relation to these claims. We do not, for instance, need Riess’s data (though we have it, and it is ample) to recognize that such “adjustment” comes at the dear expense of Mormons for whom gender is more multivalent, who find minimal “ambiguity” in a proclamation that only heterosexual marriages are godly, or for that matter who find quite hollow all assurances that an elemental difference between sexes need not issue in anything like inequity or gender subordination, given the desperate regularity with which it does. “By cultivating a theology of silence and forgetting,” McDannell writes, “Latter-day Saint leaders carved out space for diversity and choice within their communities,” and it is at moments like this where the book’s claims on behalf of the church’s baseline trajectory toward progressive tolerance, and toward that generous pluralism that is the hallmark of secularism’s good religion, reads most like a species of apologism—a justification of the ways of doctrine, to man and woman both.


A cherished Mormon strategy for presenting themselves as good liberals has involved the strategic deployment of strictures with respect to gender.

Traversing both these energizing texts, then, is the curious impulse to write about Mormonism from the perspective of secular discipline—or rather, in sympathetic identification with the church’s own efforts to establish itself as distinctive but also hewing so closely to the norms of liberal sociality (familial devotion, yes, but also tolerance, free choice, diversity, generous pluralism) as to testify, still again, to Mormonism’s rightful place among the good religions of secular modernity. If there are moving and necessary clarities on offer in both these books, there are also some potent ironies. Only one of which is that, for quite some time, Mormons understood themselves to be living in vital and righteous opposition to the dictates (and certainly the familial norms) of liberal secularism and were willing to stake nothing less than their lives upon it.

Then again, this is an irony writ large across post-“Manifesto” Mormonism, and it is not hard to see how it came about. As historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps long ago argued, the termination of polygamy as sanctified practice marked the end of that remarkable era during which devout Saints could understand themselves not merely as chosen of God but as living, within their mortal present tense, inside sacred time. With the “Manifesto,” the Saints passed over into the orders of nation-time and came, in turn, to posit that the dramatic tumult of the Mormon nineteenth century was, in essence, scriptural: the sacred past that could only be reencountered thereafter in song, story, and historiographic pageantry. One striking effect of this was the thorough rescripting of an achieved comity with the United States into a scene not of surrender, nor of theological collapse, but of victorious culmination—as though the destiny of Mormonism, and the telos of its sacred history, had all along lay in its enfolding into American imperium. Scholarly accounts of Mormonism that underscore such comity, and work to affirm the Saints’ position among the good religions of the secular age, inherit this post-polygamy disposition, and amplify it, and extend it. They reflect the Mormon entanglement with the disciplinary force of secularism, we could say, rather more than they reflect upon it.

Among the larger ironies to get disappeared in this transaction is that, for a long time, a cherished Mormon strategy for presenting themselves as the good liberals the state has demanded they be—even when they were otherwise in flight from that state and its authority—has involved the strategic deployment of strictures with respect to gender. Again and again, from the patriarchal exhortations of Brigham Young and Orson Pratt, from President Joseph F. Smith’s efforts toward modernization to contemporary elaborations of the eternity of sex, the LDS church has insisted that nothing marks its place among the properly normative faiths of the republic so much as its commitment to order, and ordered hierarchy, in the sphere of gender. Early Mormons may have disrupted dyadic monogamy, like those “Indians” and “Mohammedans” to which they were so often disparagingly aligned, but in their defenses of the practice they would note again and again how the signal mark of civilizational attainment was not monogamy itself (as anthropologists such as Lewis Morgan were claiming, in racist disparagement of Native backwardness) so much as it was patriarchy: a clarified ordering of gendered life. This is part of what I mean when, in my new book Make Yourselves Gods, I say that early Mormons insisted on the patriarchality of “patriarchal plural marriage” as a gambit of racial distinction: patriarchy made them white. Or so they tried to claim.

Within Mormonism, the achieved comity with the United States has been rescripted into a scene of victorious culmination, as though the destiny of Mormonism had all along lay in its enfolding into American imperium.

None of which will sound unfamiliar to anyone who has paid attention to the church’s oft-reframed but still unyielding opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2008 the LDS church threw its resources behind California’s now-overturned Proposition 10, which sought to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman (not, notably, several women)—as if in the effort to distinguish themselves, decisively and unambiguously, from any contemporary defilers of the sanctity of marriage. These long-lived strategies of invidious distinction, this leveraging of claims to hyper-normativity as against proximate populations marked as deviant, offer swift instruction in the styles of anxious self-legitimation that have long animated Mormonism. They sketch out for us, in miniature, the movements of a faith caught up in the disciplinary machinery of modern secularism.

All of which is perhaps a way of reiterating how little justice we do to the Mormon faithful, men and women both, in regarding them as dupes, or delusional, or victims of the sorts of “credulity” a scholar such as Emily Ogden has helped us to grasp. Like all the rest of us, they are contending with the actuating, world-orchestrating, ground-level presumptions of a liberal world that likes to understand itself as agentive, plural, free—no matter the coercions cooked into its forms of order and authority. A good number of thoughtful people incline even now to regard “secularism” as a kind of release, a launching-away from orthodoxy, enchantment, superstition, and out toward the safe harbors of pluralism, diversity, reasoned choice. That secularism might be something nearer to an alibi, a sententious story imperial liberalism likes to tell itself—this is a position harder to convey than you might suspect. If the Mormon story shows us anything, it is that the costs of belonging to the orders of secularism are high. And the bills never stop coming.