Romneyxiety, Faux-Mo Lit, and the Fetishization of the "Bizarre"

Thanks to Mitt Romney and cultural appropriations like The Book of Mormon, everybody has something to say about the Mormons these days. A few weeks ago, for example, the illustrious Harold Bloom took time out from his petrification to grace the world with a fretful New York Times opinion piece on Romney’s run for the presidency. More recently, Michael Ruse expressed similar concerns in a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post. Like other non-Mormon commentators on Mormonism, he was quick to bring up planets, golden plates, and “creepy” Mormon underwear.[1]
I suppose we can forgive Ruse for the way he fetishized seemingly bizarre aspects of Mormonism in his piece. It’s nothing new: people have been doing it since the first Palmyrenes caught wind of Joseph Smith’s “Golden Bible” in the late 1820s. And Ruse is hardly the creepiest of fetishizers. That distinction goes to Max Florence and Gisbert Bossard, two men who tried to extort the Church in 1911 with photos of the interiors of the Salt Lake Temple and Beehive House, including a photo of Joseph F. Smith’s bed. Next to these chaps, Ruse and the rest of the “magical underwear”-loving crew seem kind of dull.
Still, it’s funny how the fetishizers get such a kick out of boiling Mormonism down to Kolob and the Golden Plates, as if such things were cornerstones of Mormon theology. If Romney is elected president in 2012, I hope they aren’t let down when he turns out to be a rather dull Jack.[2] Sadly, I don’t think he’ll be pouring money into the Smithsonian to fund archeological expeditions to Mexico to uncover ancient Nephite artifacts. Nor do I think he’ll spend a whole lot of time searching for Kolob with his all-access pass to the Hubble Telescope. Heck, he probably won’t even Bush his religion around all that much. Not as much as the fetishizers would like him to, at least.
Since this is a Mormon literature blog, I should probably point out that this brand of fetishizing is one of the hallmarks of faux-Mo lit. Recently on A Motley Vision, in fact, Theric tackled this very issue in his review of James Rollins’ novel The Devil Colony, which apparently sags with references to Golden Plates and a Mormon Kodesh Hakodashim! I mean, is it not telling that Ruse cites Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet as his first primer on Mormonism? It makes one wonder about the influence of, say, polygamy sexploitation novels.
Of course, it is my observation that real Mormon literature is much less likely to hold “bizarre” Mormonism up as a fetish than its faux-Mo counterpart. There are exceptions to this rule, no doubt, like the recent Monsters & Mormons, which brilliantly fetishizes the fetishization of Mormonism. But that’s an exception. Mormon literature, for better or for worse, is fairly down-to-earth stuff. Like most Mormons, it doesn’t spend a whole lot of time hie-ing to Kolob or digging up Golden Plates.[3]   


[1] I’m not sure what’s creepier: the fact that Mormons wear garments or that Ruse is looking at picture of them online. I mean, what’s up with the link? 
[2] Dull in the sense that he’s not going to reference the Golden Plates in his inaugural address or walk out onto the White House lawn in his “creepy” underwear.  

[3] If you’re interested, Todd Robert Petersen makes the non-Mormon fetishization of “weird” Mormonism the theme of his short story “Redeeming the Dead” from Long After Dark. 
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2 thoughts on “Romneyxiety, Faux-Mo Lit, and the Fetishization of the "Bizarre"”

  1. I think you're asking an important question here. I guess my short answer is, yes, I think we are afraid of validating other people's weird ideas of us. But I also think we have good reason for being reluctant to validate them.

    Most Mormons, I think, understand that their beliefs are weird in the eyes of other people, and I don't think many of them would disagree that garments and the doctrines of exaltation and, say, baptisms for the dead are, in a sense, bizarre. What I think we're afraid of validating–for good reason–is the glib way commentators like Ruse talk about these practices. I mean, garments may be different, but are they creepy? And I can see why someone might think exaltation sounds weird, but I also think it's a powerful idea that is somehow cheapened when someone flippantly describes it in terms best suited for the SyFy channel. And what would that say about us if we fully embraced the South Park narrative of Mormonism? I much prefer the M&M approach (if I understand it correctly) of appropriating the stereotypes and the glibness and exaggerating them in a way that sticks it to those who don't take the time to understand the seemingly bizarre about us.

    So, I'm not a fan of the idea of validating these weird ideas about us, even though I can understand, to a certain extent, why they have them. As Mormons, we're hesitant to talk about these things because we hold many of them extremely sacred and we don't want to cast pearls before swine, so to speak. So in not talking about them more openly, we give space to wild speculation and glib potshots. Maybe Mormon literature could do a better job of validating those aspects of Mormonism that people zero in on as being weird.

    But I have issues with a project like that as well. Does Mormon literature have to validate anything? Should we not just let the Mormon writer write? Wouldn't that, more than anything else, help validate Mormonism?

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