I attended the Princeton conference, mostly. The following is based on memory rather than notes.


My companion and I arrived (very) late because of I-95 and Noodles & Company, so the panel the first evening was mostly a wash; we arrived just as Jan Shipps finished presenting her facelifted version of Phil Barlow’s paper on the Mormon transformation into Republicans. This was followed by an interesting interchange on the spectre of legalized polygamy that potentially hovers behind that of gay marriage, making the latter bugaboo even more unnerving to the average Mormon. Kathleen Flake, however, feels we have little to worry about; the equal protection case on gay marriage doesn’t apply to polygamy.

The next day: Noah Feldman presented an interesting keynote address about Mormon secrecy, which, he maintains, is representative of larger forms of religious secrecy. This comes in two varieties: the esoteric secrecy of mystery religions, Gnosticism, and the like, which Mormonism shares with such notable companions as Jewish mysticism and medieval Islam. The second variety is more prosaic; the sort of secrecy which is born of persecution. Here, of course, “lying for the Lord” springs to mind. But Feldman maintains there is a softer version of secrecy which we see in Mitt Romney (and, according to Feldman’s examples, Boyd K. Packer): simple unwillingness to discuss that which might provoke derision or bigotry. That Mormons still embrace this form of secrecy means we are not yet completely integrated into the American public sphere, despite the achievements of guys like the Romneys and Harry Reid.

This point came up again in the final panel of the day, which included only a single Mormon: Thomas Griffith, and focused primarily on Romney. Boston College’s Alan Wolfe argued that in American life, religion is acceptable; religions are not. He’s drawing on Robert Bellah and other theorists of civic religion here, maintaining that Americans want their leaders to be religious in generic ways, genuflecting ritually to a fuzzily defined Jesus and echoing imagery about American exceptionalism. Mormonism, however, remains still outside this generic and largely Protestant American faith.

Richard Land, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, argued that Romney is capable of pulling off the Kennedy speech. Romney will, to paraphrase JFK, eventually have to make clear that he will not be the Mormon candidate for president, but the Republican candidate for president who happens to be Mormon. This, Land believes, may assuage many evangelicals’ fears about cults. Fascinatingly, Francis Beckwith took issue with Land here, arguing that in the famous speech, Kennedy sold out his Catholicism. Faith is intimately involved with one’s political positions, Beckwith argued; the sort of privatization of religion that Kennedy embraced is mere posturing, a capitulation to a secularized American society and a surrender of the vigor that religion brings to the public sphere.

In between Feldman and this final panel were a series of interesting presentations: John Green described a Pew poll that demonstrated, among other things, that Mormons are more likely to embrace creationism and less likely to oppose civil unions than evangelicals. David Campbell argued that Mormons are a sleeping giant (or, to use his phrase, “dry kindling”) in terms of political activism: they’re equipped with networking skills and social capital far beyond other religious groups, but they’re also far less likely to associate their religion with politics than those groups. Also, according to Campbell’s poll, Mormons are tied with Jews as the American faith group most likely to urge their children to marry within the faith – at a surprisingly low rate of two-thirds saying this is important. Helen Whitney discussed the solid, though not ecstatic, response to The Mormons; our own Russell Fox cogently and brilliantly discussed the new ways Mormons are engaging with the public sphere (including something called ‘the internet’); and Marci Hamilton raised a furor arguing that Mormon officials in Utah are disinclined to prosecute child abusers both within the church and within its schisms.

Like all such conferences, it felt simultaneously rushed and too short; there was much interesting mingling in the halls and the comfortingly familiar problems with AV presentations. Most significantly, I think, non-Mormons seemed to have caught up with Mormons in terms of attendance and presentation numbers, and Mormons seem to have backed a little from their defensiveness. The harshest questioner of Hamilton was non-Mormon. The divide between the sides, so problematically present at the Library of Congress Joseph Smith symposium, was less glaringly obvious. Perhaps this is a function of the conference’s topics, which emphasized truth claims less than at the Library. Perhaps, however, it’s a sign that Mormons, academically speaking, are growing up.

High praise for Melissa Proctor, who pulled off a triumph.