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Jonathan Stone, “Mormon Rhetorics”

Writing 5905, University of Utah 2016

Course Description:

In December 2014, an article published in Slate magazine declared the so-called “Mormon moment” over. That moment, which arguably began during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, began to gain steam with Mitt Romney’s first run at the presidency in 2008 and along the way granted Mormonism a voice in the US media that it hadn’t had in decades. Mormons, a Pew survey reported, were slightly more accepted by the mainstream, or (at the very least) a larger number of Americans found contemporary
Mormonism a little less peculiar.

Accompanying this shift in outside perspectives of Mormonism, many members within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints* also began to think about, understand, and challenge their faith in more nuanced and complicated ways. The internet in particular provided Mormons with a number of previously unavailable tools: easier access to alternative histories, communities to ask and debate questions and concerns, and highly visible blog sites to publish new ideas, expand upon the devotional canon, and even challenge status-quo beliefs and dogmas. As such, Slate argues, “a megaphone for the voices of Mormons who might ordinarily find themselves on the fringes of their congregations— academics, feminists, LGBTQ Mormons, and Mormons questioning their own beliefs” emerged and began to thrive. The “moment” arguably ended after KateKelly and John Dehlin, two of the most prominent of these alternative voices, were  excommunicated for their criticism of and activism against the church’s position on women’s access to the all-male priesthood and gay marriage.

During the last decade or so, Mormonism’s generally monolithic public discourse—largely shaped, controlled, and distributed by the LDS church—has blossomed like Brigham Young’s proverbial rose in the desert: from Mormon rhetoric to Mormon rhetorics. These rhetorics will be the focus of this class. Over the course of the semester, we will trace the Mormon historical narrative; examine the tradition’s sacred texts, doctrines, and shifting church policies; and consider the influence and rhetorics of LDS leadership. We will also make a special effort to nuance and complicate “official” institutional narratives with attention to both academic and vernacular historical, sociological, and ethnographic accounts of what it means to be Mormon. Of special focus during the semester will be Mormonism’s struggle with and rhetorics about marginality, first as a marginalized “peculiar” group itself and second as a group that has, at times, had complicated relationships with marginalized groups within its membership, including women, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQ.

*In class, we will work to differentiate between the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and “Mormons” and “Mormonism” as more cultural (and rhetorically flexible) terms.

Course Goals:

In this course, we will work together to:

  • Trace the histories and exigencies Mormon-related rhetorics from the early nineteenth century to the twenty-first.
  • Discuss LDS/Mormon rhetorics as simultaneously theological, political, cultural, and contested.
  • Examine the diversity and complexity of LDS communities and their rhetorical practices, past and present.
  • Situate Mormon rhetorics both in the local context of Utah and Salt Lake City, in U.S. society more broadly, and the global context in which it the LDS Church has become a major, growing religion.
  • Develop a critical vocabulary for talking about talking about religion and religious diversity.