Not Your Parents' Mormonism

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Not Your Parents' Mormonism Claudia L. Bushman. Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2006. 256 pp. Cloth: $44.95; ISBN 0-275-98933-X

Reviewed by David X. Banack

Writing a one-volume treatment of modern Mormonism that avoids being overshadowed by the movement's gripping nineteenth-century history and focuses instead on what Mormonism is today is a challenge for any author. Bushman, a scholar who also writes from the perspective of a practicing Latter-day Saint, has produced the best attempt so far at painting the complex portrait of contemporary Mormonism.

First, I must acknowledge the difficulty of such a project. A one-volume survey lacks the clear narrative thread that guides a one-volume history. Moreover, Mormon readers likely take it for granted that they themselves know most of what there is to know about the modern LDS Church. Yet most who read this book will find that their own experience of Mormonism ref lects only part of a larger picture. As Bushman herself notes, the LDS Church "encompasses large numbers of people with complex histories who join for many different reasons and have chosen to relate to Mormonism in many different ways" (xii). Spirited public discussion in the media, in symposia, and in rapidly multiplying online forums of every facet of LDS doctrine and practice makes this new diversity increasingly evident. The memorable events of 2008-the glare of publicity resulting from the Romney candidacy and the busy role that Mormons were asked to play in the fight over Proposition 8 in California-likewise signal that this is plainly not your parents' Mormonism.

While LDS readers will find familiar some material in the book, each chapter offers new information and commentary. In Chapter 3, "Families," Bushman spends five pages discussing the oft-quoted but rarely analyzed The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which may now be contemporary Mormonism's defining document. "Speaking against family disintegration, same-sex marriage, and abortion, declaring gender to be an eternal characteristic, the policy is more conservative than anything found in the Scriptures" (38-39). Conservative, yes, but strangely progressive at the same time, at least by Mormon standards. Bushman notes that the document carefully avoids mention of birth control and early marriage, two staples of yesteryear's counsel, and describes the ideal mother and father as "equal partners," not a term often heard from LDS leaders of prior generations. I have seen no other commentator discuss the progressive implications of the proclamation.

Chapter 7, "Gender and Sexual Orientation," surveys the tensions that cut across the evolving position of the modern LDS woman. Some see greater recognition and more opportunities to serve and lead. A convert and self-described feminist is quoted as saying, "I've never seen such active, liberated women as in the church. I've never been to any other church where women spoke equally with the men" (111). At the same time, some are dissatisfied with the roles assigned to women. Opinion spans the spectrum, really, and no simple statement can adequately describe what LDS women think. This is clear from Bushman's review of the results of a study sampling the reaction of LDS women in Utah to President Ezra Taft Benson's 1987 talk, "To the Mothers in Zion," in which he stated "a mother's calling is in the home, not in the marketplace. …