Masculinity and Mormon Apologetics

We are pleased to have this guest entry by Mrs. Silence Dogood, a friend of the blog.

Have y’all heard about the latest squabble amongst apologists and academics?

Anyways, the main lesson that has seemed to come out from the most recent spat is the vast and increasing divide between the two fields. Though someone can certainly use scholarly tools in making apologetic arguments, and someone can certainly become too apologetic in their scholarship, the works of the current generation of Mormon scholarship and Mormon apologetics are leading in drastically different directions; the former is focused on integration within broader fields, collaborations with competing ideas, and relevancy to areas outside of Mormonism proper, the latter is trenchant in resuscitating old debates, responding to dated critiques, and fighting tired battles. Perhaps the major source of division is the outlook toward outside critics and collaboration with those who don’t share the Mormon worldview. As Richard Bushman put it in a 2007 Journal of Mormon History article, “The apologists want to war with the critics; the historians ask them out to lunch.”

But beyond the mere difference in quality, purpose, and audience, all contributing reasons for why apologetics is not counted as academically viable even at BYU, perhaps this fighting outlook is indicative of another division between apologetics, at least as practiced by those formerly associated with FARMS and now part of the Mormon Interpreter, and the modern academy: a not-too-far-from-the-surface embrace of masculinity as viable form of academic approach.

This is not to say that apologists are outright in defending certain ideas of gender, because gender is hardly ever a point of interest in their writing. (However, the decision to avoid gender, and therefore reaffirm assumed notions of gender, is a gendered argument in and of itself.) But their general approach and tone is reminiscent of the current nostalgia for manliness, an anxiety that is currently in vogue among certain demographic and ideological backgrounds. In hearkens back to the Muscular Christianity at the turn of the 20th century, and privileges qualities of confidence, aggressiveness, and overbearing strength; its idol is Teddy Roosevelt, and its activities reflect physical regiments like rough riding, boxing (without gloves!), and, importantly, military imperialism. (See the connection between this nostalgia and Mormon manliness here.)

One could see such an outlook throughout the apologetic work that seeks, engages, and destroys opponents. (And fits in nicely with the Wheat and Tares analogy Smallaxe introduced.) One of my advisors at BYU once referred to FARMS as “intellectual face-masking.” Indeed, sports metaphors are common and apt when discussing apologetics—recall Neal A. Maxwell’s famous counsel that there be “no more slam dunks”—and are indicative of the very male space in which apologetics takes place. If you were to vocalize a common FARMS or Interpreter article in your mind, I bet it would a male voice, perhaps even Dwayne Johnson. In short, the apologetic world is a very gendered world, one in which validity not only hinges on the strength of the argument but the strength of the arguer—and that strength is often presented through, and decided by, gendered notions of masculinity most akin to a barroom brawl. This is not only embodied in the FARMS/Signature wars that are very much reminiscent of knock-down-drag-out fights, but the fitting description of apologetic circles as the “old boys’ club.”

Compare this to the modern academy that, while it still has a long way to go, has consciously sought to better establish space for female scholars. This has led to a change in dominant topics—from institutional and intellectual histories that privileged dead white men to cultural and social history that integrated broader demographics—to a change in general tenor and tone. This has come through both institutional requirements (like equal-opportunity legislative acts) as well as a conscious decision that things needed to change. Mormon Studies is lagging behind in these developments, as seen in this year’s Church History Conference that features a topic that limited female participation to zero, but the youngest practitioners of the field are being educated at schools and institutions that recognize these gendered tensions and are thus wary antiquated institutional frameworks. This is perhaps among the reasons that FARMS has left a limited legacy and claims minimal prodigies; even during this period of erupting numbers of Mormon graduate students and young scholars interested in Mormon studies, very few are interested in taking up apologist mantle.

Beyond mere rhetoric, there are practical consequences for this approach and framing. Of the many authors who have contributed to the Mormon Interpreter thus far, only one was a woman; of the thirty-six people who serve on the journal’s various boards, only four are not men. I would imagine (and hope) that the Interpreter has approached more women than that. Perhaps women don’t want to sign on because of the topics the journal explores just as much as the tone it takes; in many ways, though, that is a distinction without a difference. Regardless, there is something about the Interpreter’s approach that is more appealing and conducive to male scholars, a fact that should be acknowledged and analyzed.

Rather than engaging the nuances and complexities of various ideas and critiques, sometimes it is much easier—not to mention more satisfying—to challenge the critic to a duel.

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