Nation's Anthropologists Evaluate LDS Culture

The Salt Lake Tribune/December 1, 2001
By Christopher Smith

Washington -- For a first taste of Mormon culture, the menu presented to the world's largest professional association of anthropologists was on the spicy side: The troubles of corroborating archaeology with Book of Mormon geography; the secret struggle of gay missionaries; and institutional historical amnesia about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

The scholarly studies presented this week to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) might cause a little heartburn in Utah. But in the nation's capital, what was believed to be the first organized session on Mormonism and anthropology in the venerable organization's 100-year history was digested with relish.

"It's so rare that it must be a first," said University of Maryland anthropologist Mark Leone, author of the 1979 Harvard University Press book, Roots of Modern Mormonism. "It's special. And very brave."

The public affairs office of the LDS Church did not respond to requests by The Salt Lake Tribune for comment on the AAA program on Mormonism and anthropology.

Explaining that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has traditionally not welcomed secular scientific critiques of the institution, Leone had advice for anthropologists probing Mormonism and its followers: "Do it right. Be decisive. Be descriptive. Publish widely. Use the media. Be scared. And scare. We are not dealing with a timid institution."

It was a caution not lost on the session organizer, anthropologist David Knowlton, visiting professor at the University of Utah. Although he made no mention of it to the AAA audience, church-owned Brigham Young University fired Knowlton in 1993, saying his research to date did not qualify him for a permanent faculty position. However, his research on terrorist attacks on Latin American LDS churches and why some activists view Mormon missionaries as symbols of U.S. imperialism had been condemned by church leaders in 1991 as potentially dangerous to Mormon missionaries in the region.

While Mormon culture is not often examined by secular scholars, it has not been ignored. The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, an interdisciplinary organization made up of secular scholars from sociology, religious studies, psychology, anthropology, economics, and communications, has looked at Mormonism for more than two decades.

Knowlton told fellow anthropologists that with the LDS Church's rapid membership growth, it is a critical area for inquiry today. "All one has to do is listen to the general conference of the church to hear the confidence, the aplomb, the assurance with which the church presents itself to the world," he said. "They occupy and dominate an entire region of the United States in a way no other denomination does and that makes the Mormons somewhat unusual."

"Unusual" may have been a relative term at this annual gathering of some 4,000 professional practitioners of anthropology, a multidisciplinary field that has more than 100 different definitions but basically revolves around the study of humankind through archaeology, biology, culture and linguistics. Sprinkled amid 400 presentations with titles such as "Active Cognition in Bartending" and "Hidden Bodies: Concealing Female Victims of Homicide," the program called "Threats to History, Selves and Bodies as Cosmogony: Anthropology and Mormonism" didn't seem out of the ordinary.

The session papers reviewed by the Society for Anthropology of Religion and presented to the meeting included: Knowlton's ethnographic study on how Mormons view sex and their bodies in relation to personal discipline and expectations of the collective identity shared by most church members.

Knowlton surveyed several returned missionaries and married Mormon men who were trying to resolve personal questions of sexual orientation. Since the LDS Church views same-sex behavior as a sin and same-sex attraction as something that can be "overcome," Knowlton said many of the closet-gay Mormon men he interviewed were deeply conflicted over their identity. "A critical aspect of the Latter-day Saint self is not enclosed within the individual, it is an aspect of the self that is primarily dominated by the church," he said.

A contemporary ethnography of Mormon missionaries and their psychological identity battles in the field by University of Pennsylvania cultural anthropologist Melvin Hammarberg, who interviewed both active and returned missionaries.

He found while most missionaries came home strengthened in their beliefs and identities as church members, some were challenged by exposure to new cultures, separation from home and coping with suppressed sexual urges. He related a poignant account of a gay-male returned missionary who had fallen in love with his mission companion and sought counseling from his mission president. The young man was asked if he physically was capable of achieving an erection and, answering yes, was told "the commandment still holds," that he must marry a woman and have children, that his suppressed homosexuality was something he must live with, similar to someone who must live without the use of arms or legs. Hammarberg said that while other missionaries reported strengthening of their faith by suppressing same-sex urges, "all of them carry a huge cross throughout their lives."

An analysis of scientific evidence gathered from the 1999 forensic study of bones of emigrants massacred at the hands of a Mormon militia 150 years ago at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah, by University of Utah anthropologists Shannon Novak and Lars Rodseth.

Novak's landmark analysis of the exhumed bones of 29 massacre victims identified no wounds that would corroborate the traditional Mormon historical accounts that Paiute Indians aided in the murders by scalping, cutting throats or shooting emigrants with arrows. The two researchers contrast these findings to the series of sometimes ambiguous monuments and memorials that dot the meadows, including the LDS Church-sponsored monument placed in 1999 atop the mass grave that does not name any victims but instead recognizes the contribution of Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. "The remains of the victims lie beneath a memorial to memorials, what amounts in fact to an advertisement for the LDS Church and its generosity to the dead," the U. researchers wrote.

University of Alabama psychological anthropologist Charles Nuckoll's assessment of Mormonism's conflict of both needing and rejecting history to validate the faith by examining the argument over whether a pre-Columbian sculpture found in Mexico illustrates the "Tree of Life," a Book of Mormon story and image that is used frequently in LDS temples to illustrate abiding principles of Mormonism.

Although most secular scholars doubt that the so-called Izapa Stela 5 stone has any relation to Book of Mormon geography or theology, many Mormon researchers and faithful believe it is scientific proof of the veracity of the Book of Mormon. While promoting the possibility that such evidence exists, church leaders have discouraged followers from relying on archaeological findings to validate the faith. Church leaders "recommend Mormons dispense with historical proofs, since such proofs do not bear on questions of faith," according to Nuckolls. "Faith decrees that Mormons believe in the history, but the history itself does not exist to validate that faith. In fact, [leaders say] history is irrelevant to faith even though history must be true in order for the faith to be true."

Leone, the University of Maryland anthropologist who was selected by AAA to review the papers and lead a discussion of the findings, said the research on Mormonism was a "critique of the institution."

"How to think about Mormonism and its effect on its adherents and those within its orbit, that's definitely our purpose at this particular time in American history," he said. "It is a critique that is not wanted, but nonetheless it is an essential critique."

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