Scholars & Saints

The Uncanny Mormon Smile (feat. Kathryn Lofton)

November 03, 2022 Stephen Betts Episode 24
The Uncanny Mormon Smile (feat. Kathryn Lofton)
Scholars & Saints
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Scholars & Saints
The Uncanny Mormon Smile (feat. Kathryn Lofton)
Nov 03, 2022 Episode 24
Stephen Betts

Professor Kathryn Lofton, Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American studies, Professor of History and Divinity, and Dean of Humanities at Yale University, joins me to discuss her Smith-Pettit Lecture delivered at the Mormon History Association Conference in June 2022, entitled "A Brief History of the Mormon Smile." We discuss Erving Goffman, affective performativity, American consumer capitalism, and the "missionary grin."

Show Notes Transcript

Professor Kathryn Lofton, Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American studies, Professor of History and Divinity, and Dean of Humanities at Yale University, joins me to discuss her Smith-Pettit Lecture delivered at the Mormon History Association Conference in June 2022, entitled "A Brief History of the Mormon Smile." We discuss Erving Goffman, affective performativity, American consumer capitalism, and the "missionary grin."

                                                               The Uncanny Mormon Smile 

                                                             Kathryn Lofton, Yale University


Stephen Betts: I'm joined today by Kathryn Lofton, Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American studies, Professor of History and Divinity, and Dean of Humanities at Yale University. Professor Lofton is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon and Consuming Religion. She has also served as Editor-at-Large for The Immanent Frame and currently co-edits the Class 200 New Studies in Religion with John Lardas Modern for the University of Chicago Press. We're discussing her 2022 Smith-Pettit Lecture, "A Brief History of the Mormon Smile," delivered at the Mormon History Association conference earlier this year. Thanks for chatting today, Kathryn. 

Kathryn Lofton: Thank you for having me. 

Stephen Betts: So Latter-day Saints are, you note, commonly identified by their smiles. You see it on these faces of young missionaries when they knock on your door, on the face of Mormon leaders, Mormon celebrities, and even interestingly enough, among Mormons themselves, it's not uncommon to first identify strangers or YouTube personalities as Mormon just by that smile. That just happened to me earlier this week. Someone told me that. I wanna dive into some of this history of the smile with you today, but before we do, can you talk a little bit about your involvement with Mormon studies? You've made several, I think, important interventions in Mormon studies over the last several decades. And of course you just recently taught a class with John Durham Peters at Yale on Mormonism. Can you talk a little bit about your experience? 

Kathryn Lofton: It it's so funny that preparing to give the Smith-Pettit Lecture gave an opportunity for me to do a very Mormon thing, which is to reflect on genealogy. And I was just struck right away that some of the most important intellectual conversation partners that I've had since I decided to go to graduate school in the study of American—what we called then American religious history when I started grad school in 2000, and now we've moved into a lot of different ways of describing that subfield with greater consciousness of the nationalist politics of that word, American— but at, from the very outset, my advisor was Laurie Maffly-Kipp. One of the very first, brilliant students I got to work with at Yale is Dave Walker, now a remarkable scholar of Mormon studies at UC Santa Barbara. And then along the way, as I found the people who I just wanted to talk to all the time, it ended up being, you know, a series of ferociously intelligent Mormon-identified people. J. Spencer Fluhman, who was in my Young Scholars group. And from the very first dinner of that really amazing mentoring program, we were just sitting at the end of a table talking nonstop about everything that we had in common. And it was just a very striking. You know, I am a lesbian-identified woman. I've spent most of my adult life struggling within the frame of queer experience. And, it was just shocking how much Spencer and I could go on and on about where our, I would say now through his teaching questions of theological commitment, ritual commitment, and how those dovetailed with experiencing different plot points and marginalization.

But then I also had the joy of getting to know Kathleen Flake, who was someone I admired so much on the page. And then to get to know her as an intellectual person is to discover a mind that never stops, is boundless in its interest and its critique. And she introduced me, when [John Durham Peters] came to Yale, she said, “You two have to hang out.” And indeed, we have had a very amazing and trippy time together and decided to do a seminar on Mormonism, which I had said forever I would never do. I would never do a single-religion course. I'm a comparativist. But I was so glad we did it and we had an amazing group of students that ended up being a COVID class. So that was all on Zoom. But I learned so much from our extremely different reactions to texts, to ideas. And it was just an electric class that expressed again to me why the archive that we can comprise around this notion of “the Mormon,” “the Latter-day Saint,” two distinct things. And my, I was always pushing for the Mormon. He was always pushing for Latter-day Saint and what it was to try to comprise the space between that. Infinite, infinite dialogue, debate, dissent, and that, that continues to this day. So, I feel like I've had the privilege of being nearby the real perceptions and growth of Mormon studies over the last twenty-two years of my academic career.

Stephen Betts: Before we get into the Mormon smile, can you give us a high-level overview? I mean, this is something I'd never really thought about before—the smile as not just a gesture, but as a cultural experience, as a cultural icon in the United States. What's the cultural history of the smile in the U.S.? 

A Brief History of the American Smile

Kathryn Lofton: This was literature that I had never gotten into besides the amazing book by Arlie Hochschild. I was gonna write a book about a guy named Erving Goffman, who is a 20th century social theorist, who, whenever you hear the phrase performance studies, he's definitely one of the grandfathers of that field and a significant influence on people like Judith Butler who thought so much about this language of performativity and Goffman was a person who did a lot of kind of complicatedly non-reproducible ethnography of just everyday life. But he was really, especially, interested in moments of marginal experience. So, kind of famous early work he did was on gambling and how, how do you tell the truth and lie? The question of what's the tell on your face in gambling, um, and gave a lot of thought to how do criminals succeed? How, how does it make it that you get hustled? Get defrauded. And, uh, for me, reading Goffman as a college student was like reading a user's manual to capitalism as someone who was engaged in a class transfer, uh, was trying to figure out how to fit in, even though everything about me was not fittable in affect and, and aesthetic and desire.

So reading Goffman who really did a lot of reading of how culture organizes through tiny gestures, differences among people and, you know, listeners who are trying to get what does that mean? He looked a lot at queuing. So, when you're in line, how do you know when you're in line that someone's kind of pushing up on you? Or how can you tell when someone's trying to get ahead of you or what does it mean to compete or think about a lie. Goffman's the kind of guy who stared a lot at that and talked about how every human being alive is doing tiny things to get ahead or to indicate they don't wanna get ahead. But the consciousness of that survival tactic is, Goffman wagered, universal.

So within that space, I go first go to Goffman because you have to ask yourself, if you're listening, “Why do I smile when I smile? Why do I smile at a clerk? Why do I smile when I go to the post office? Why do I not smile when I am, you know, paying for my apples as I'm leaving the store?” And those histories right away, if you get a group of people with a representative demography of difference, you're gonna hear radically different stories.If you ask my mother, a white Midwestern woman, who's 73 years old versus if you ask a Black woman from Alabama who's 73 years old, if you ask me, an anguished lesbian, a white cis-identified woman, you're gonna hear very different answer from a person who's more aggressively and antagonistically performing their culture and gender as something as a resistance to femme identity. So in every kind of answer you're gonna get about what the smile does, you're gonna hear a story that we're really quickly gonna see is not just raced and gendered in a simple sense. It's gonna be infinite adjustments based on your theories of respectability about whether or not you want to understand yourself as dissenting and what you think dissent means.

And Goffman wrote so beautifully about the smiling person, imagined that they're always trusted, but all of us know, and here I'm just paraphrasing Goffman. All of us know when we see a fake smile. Now pouring off from Goffman who did no social science research. He just hung out in gambling halls and in faculty meeting rooms, there then now is this vast amount of social science research that tries to get super technical about what is the manipulative, social, political power of the smile and there's studies about whether or not smiling politicians do or don't win elections. What kind of smiles? And then there's this whole insane physiognomy of smiles that is kind of echoing of things that we kind of thought we left behind in the 19th century, but we keep practicing in part because we know there's a power to how we visually present and relay ourselves.

So, in American history, to kind of speak very grandly—I think the smile does not become a normative feature of public performative life until the mid-20th century in general, we see it in photographs and in advertisements increasingly in the 1920s and thirties, but it's really the forties where it becomes ubiquitous. Anyone who might be a student of American studies can guess that a couple things come together to produce that one is a more democratic society, or let's say a more democratic— complicatedly so— inclusive society. Number two, questions of technology. So, the popularization of the home photograph and photographic materials and use to do at home, trying to decide what then you present in a photograph there's great histories of when does the smile become necessary and specifically Kodak's role in advertising that produce that. Third, dental care and the question of whether or not you want to reveal your teeth. And there's a lot of amazing European histories to talk about that. And finally, the question fourth is what I would put broadly. The questions of theology of smiling: “Is a smile a sign that you are demonic, or is it a sign that you are angelic?” And there's some beautiful art historical work about where you first see smiles inlaid on statuary on Gothic cathedrals. But also, if you just look at the history of reception around the Mona Lisa. There's tons of things that used to describe her smile as Satanic, disdainful, evil, and then we see moments where it's about mystery and power and charisma. So those differences are historicized, but also, I would always wanna locate those around who the observer is and what their own raced and gendered relationship to the smile is. 

Stephen Betts: So talking about this theology of the smile as you put it. What's the anxiety, when you were talking about Mona Lisa and you know, art historians in the 19th century. Why are they anxious about the ambiguity of this smile in Mona Lisa?

Kathryn Lofton: Yeah. You know, I think the anxiety about the smile has two parts. One is, is it true? Meaning, that assumes that the smile is a conveyance of positive feeling. Can I trust the positivity its conveying. That makes a kind of simple hermeneutic of the smile, but what's interesting. And here I go to a text that Spencer [Fluhman's] book about anti-Mormonism in American culture introduced me to where in 1851, one of the, you know, kind of loudest insult to Mormon culture was the idea that its leaders had facial features that indicated through their smile, a contempt and a manipulative relationship to the speaker. So, their smile was read as problematically leering, or as aggressive. And the fact of their constant smiling was seen as a part of a potential mental illness. So, step one is if a smile is a positive, can you trust whatever that positivity is or is it deceptive? Step two is, is a smile good or evil? And I think we see throughout the history of Mormonism, a very interesting social response to are these folks to be trusted. Their smile has been, I think, a key instrument and I think a conscious instrument by the church to say we are, we come in peace. We are here with good news. We are ready to be friendly and available to you. The critical observer asks is that for real, how happy are you? And are you manipulating me? Are you a problem? What are you doing behind that smile? So that, that kind of two level is I think that something that a lot of Mormon life in secular culture has been more conscious of than many writings have tried to testify to as they capture the cultural salience of Mormon performativity.

Stephen Betts: You call in your lecture the Mormon smile a kind of uncanny gesture. I want you to unpack that uncanniness, we've already talked about the authenticity issue, but talk about uncanniness. Why is the Mormon smile today perceived as uncanny?

The Uncanniness of the “Missionary Grin”

Kathryn Lofton: I think inside LDS culture, the phrase "missionary grin" is a little bit more common locution. I wanted to find a way to neutralize that 'cause grin to me has a kind of a complicated affect. When you hear grin versus smile, what do you distinguish? I think a grin is something that seems more smug, more powerful, potentially more controlling or maybe a little dopier even like a kind of like "I'm smiling!" Versus a smile has a kind of neutral quality of the descriptor. And I was, I was searching by talking you know, the Mormon smile to get in a neutral anthropology for something I don't think is neutral at all. And the reason we know it's not neutral is because the smile can be used in satire, like Book of Mormon: The Musical as one of the key features of, you know, a Mormon is on stage and throughout the show, the Mormon smile is showing up as something that creates laughter in the audience who watch as the mask is put on. And even the use of mask suggests that behind it is something untrue. And one of the reasons why I started my talk with this amazing satire of Adele's “Hello,” done by an [apparent] LDS missionary pair.[i] And I just encourage everyone to go on YouTube, give 'em some more hits. They've gotten many, but it's so amazing how they use this longing love song to think about the consistent pain of being a person who goes to a door, smiles and gets the door slammed in their face. And I wanted to use that to get at a LDS produced—and it seems to me by its circulation, relatively church supported—satire, that's representing openly the smile as component and surviving through smiling as something that's an important part of being a missionary and the uncanniness and the use of uncanny is for me to, to raise the secular gaze on that. So, I start with—within, I think, LDS life, I would wanna have more anthropological material before I wager what I think is probably true, which is that within LDS culture, there are people who mock smiles or think some smiles are more real than others. And there's probably a whole raft of commentary and smiling that is internal to the church community, but certainly external to it, it's understood I think widely as pretty uncanny, here meaning mysterious in an unsettling way, a sense that there's something you can't solve about it. Why are you happy? Seems to be the reaction to that uncanny smile and it's unsettling because I think the viewer here perceived to be secular or at the very least non-Mormon is wondering, what is the truth of this? Are you, are you smiling for real? Are you smiling 'cause you were told to smile and what's really the difference? And I think any person who's here can know when I was told to smile, smile big. What's your reaction to that? Some people are fine with it. Some people feel like they're being controlled. What's interesting is to imagine a religious movement in which smiling might be a part of the costume of doing the basic work of the church, or certainly the basic work of entering the church, which is the missionary.

Stephen Betts: Just a personal anecdote as, you know, a Latter-day Saint who served a Mormon mission actually in the Mormon corridor in Idaho, believe it or not— 

Kathryn Lofton: Wow. 

Stephen Betts: What's interesting for me is that growing up, you can't find a single picture of me smiling with my family and I hated getting my picture taken. I hated smiling. And so, I was actually disciplined, I think by my Mormon missionary experience to adopt that affective stance as a form of resilience and as a form of self-presentation during that mission experience. So I think that your analysis is true to my experience.

Kathryn Lofton: Stephen, I just wanna say, first of all, I'm so pleased your parents didn't school you out of that smile. I've spent so much time with parents of young children watching as they struggle about the narrative of the child's physical presentation. And, you know, how do people react when they see a baby? I mean, the excitement over the idea of the first smile by the baby, the hope to have a so-called “happy baby,” and then the program, and here, this is highly gendered. Again, the social psychologists have had a field day with this. What kind of smiling do you need from a young person? Again, my own politics, how great it is your parents didn't force you earlier into that smile and allowed a critique of photography, a critique of that performance of happiness. And that we know when does it become imperative? When you're gonna go and participate in communicating a vision for future life through this particular religious message, “Now you must smile, Stephen, or else you are not wearing the right I would say outfit for the work.” And I just love that. And I would, I personally would be thrilled if some anthropologists—but you and I know how hard this would be—would get into this and speak more. We don't have yet though, the great anthropology of Mormon missionary life. 

The Mormon Smile & American Consumer Capitalism

Stephen Betts: You say something really interesting, in the lecture, which is that you view the use of the smile as a form of the ritualization of humiliation. I wanna get into that a little bit in a few minutes, but before we do you, you also make this point about the Mormon smile as a kind of useful analytical site for thinking about the relationship between the apparent and the real. And I'm wondering if you can unpack that for us a little bit in the context of the uncanny. 

Kathryn Lofton: Yeah, I think that one of the things I'm struck by, you know, to be a student of American religious history is to be a student of American capitalism. And much of religious history is especially in the United States, one of trying to territorialize a space that is conscious of the market, within the market, somehow distinct from it. So of interest to me is how right at the moment where smiling gets to be increasingly culturally salient for Americans writ broadly: the 1930s, 1940s, and where I observe in my historical work, an increased sense of trying to create standardization in Mormon aesthetic life that began I think, 30 years earlier, but kind of hits a real apex in the mid- 20th century, you know, under the, under the McKay presidency, is the growth and development of religious movements, like the Nation of Islam that are so overtly interested in a non-smiling, performative register of presence. And what I wanna just raise for people to think about is there's two different kinds of mystery. The mystery of the smile is one. Are you for real? The mystery of the non-smile or as my brilliant colleague, Tina Post calls it, the dead pan. What is the dead pan? It's a resistance to you knowing. It's still mysterious, still confusing, but I'm not even gonna give you something to lean on, which is the smile. I'm not gonna give you any more information or that I'm unavailable to you emotionally is the dead pan. I won't give you anything more. Meanwhile, the Mormons like, “We'll give you we'll smile. We'll smile. Do you need a smile? We will be the ones that give you a smile that will never be a risk between us. You will never wonder am I interested in friendliness as the primary form of our relationship?” And to me, there is no doubt that friendliness as evinced by a smile is something we must imagine is somewhat a replete feature of capitalist life, but one that we all struggle a great deal with, whether you're, you know, at a counter having had a flight canceled, maybe it was the third flight cancelled, that you're trying to get home for a sick relative, and you're standing there and someone just smilingly says to you, "I can't help you anymore. I can't help you anymore. I'm sorry. I can't help you anymore." So what, what does that smile? That smile can drive you a little crazy. On the other hand, the person who smiles and says, "I see it, I'm so sorry. We have no more tickets. I'm sorry. How can I, can I help you some other..." so smiles can do different kinds of tenderness and, uh, attention in the moment. And I think what's striking is how resiliency in the practice of smiling is a way that Mormons created a sense [of] "We are safe for you to interrelate with not only as no longer being mysterious in sexual practices, but also," and that's where I began either the question of capitalist actors, "You can trust us. We're gonna run businesses with really good service.” And now that we're in a service economy where we get in the sixties and seventies, Mormons are your kind of guys and gals to do business with because they will provide it with a smile and that becomes a rich repository for cultural critique and cultural satire, but let's never forget it: it's also a way to get profit. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, undoubtedly. Of course, the relationship between Mormonism and capitalism is well established and I think that's a great point. And the other thing that that comes to mind is the relationship between Mormon kinship and the ways that Mormon imaginary kinship or imaginative kinship gets constructed through those kinds of gestures as well. So you have these like political strategies. You have these economic strategies, you have other kinds of social strategies of resilience in terms of power. And you also have these kinds of strategies of hospitality which again is a form of power as well. Another interesting dimension of this, I think is in Utah and sort of the Mormon corridor it's known as one of the main sites in the United States for affinity fraud, multi-level marketing, door-to-door sales, right? That's the smile too. In your book on Oprah, you talk about the spiritual practice of Oprah's, capitalist modernity, and you, you say that there are two different aspects to this, what scholars call "charismatic capitalism" and "millennial capitalism," right.[ii] And so, yeah, the spiritual being a kind of experience founded on this disciplining of, of desire of the body's desire, but of affect for both material things and for a kind of experience of salvation or possibility. Can you say more maybe in this Mormon context on the relationships between religion and consumer capitalism?

Kathryn Lofton: Uh! This is my favorite topic, Stephen, so we can just go and go. So, two things that come immediately time first is, um, Cody Musselman, who's starting a post-doctoral fellowship at the Danforth Center [on Religion & Politics] this year is working on a book that will come out in a couple years about CrossFit and Soul Cycle and other forms of fitness culture that often participants describe as having a religious meaning in their life. But also, people on the outside can see that those often have MLM qualities that get people to join different kinds of fitness movements has a, I think a kind of sectarian quality and we can see the rise and success of Peloton. We'll see how long Peloton works, but around certain charismatic figures who then gather groups and create ritual relationships. Cody has an amazing chapter on the work of charisma, understanding charisma as a form of labor, not a form of magic. And she focuses in particular on the training of Soul Cycle instructors, which is very similar I think when you look to MLM people who're especially successful in that tend to have certain influencer qualities. And if you go on Instagram right now and see, like there's one, that's kind of selling a particular kind of vitamin water. Someone else is selling a new kind of natural makeup, whatever the product is, the person is trying to convey to you, "This changed my life. It can change yours." How do I believe that this has changed your life? Well, all listeners can ask themselves, “When do I really believe someone's life has been changed?” Right away we're in a space that religion is very interested in too, how can I, if I'm in a missionary program or religion, which I always wanna remind us, given that we're in an Anglophone, an American scene is not the majority of world religions. The majority of world religions are not interested in missionary pull. But the religions that have emerged in the wake of capitalism's predominance, unsurprisingly are missionary religions that is trying to expand membership through individual conveyance. And my colleague, Michael Warner always described evangelicalism as an address to strangers that we should just understand after all the debates about what is evangelicalism, he says evangelicalism's simple it's a missionary address to strangers. I've got good news and I'm talking to strangers about it.

I think Mormon life as a form of where religion and consumer capitalism meets, it isn't addressed to strangers, but as we know what matters so much in Mormonism is that they don't stay strangers for long, they become importantly, built into an infrastructure for which the word "family" is not nearly big enough. So, my interest in consumer culture and its relationship to religion tend to be where we see ideas of family up-built. Where does the family, which is such an important and complicated cracked idiom of social organization and modern life become essential to the sale. And we know that that's one of the things that the LDS church is especially brilliant, thoughtful, I think pretty impossible to defeat on the question of why does it matter? Why if you're not in the church, are you not only out of the church you're out of your family, which is why the cause of LGBT people is so important in the church and ongoing and trying to understand where your family relation sits. So that's why I'm interested in everything from thinking about how sitcoms like Modern Family function as complicated, theological outposts, where they're trying to sell the idea of what I would call, you know, not that perfectly queer, but they're queer family relations. But the other way in which, in this particular case, we're looking at the sale of product as not unto itself, a good thing. The lipstick doesn't mean anything. It's how does a lipstick help me? And that I then become the advertisement. And I think that's the thing that makes Mormon missionary life very complicated since as, you know better than I do, the first person is also something regulated. You're trying to get people to pay attention to the Scriptures, trying to get them to pay attention less to the individual, to the dramatic stories of Joseph Smith and his followers to your individual story. But to these texts, these texts that change your life. And then the transom is some level of the missionary was changed without giving up too many personal details. Well, the smile, the happiness becomes one of the endorsing without giving too much away, this guy just seems so happy. And I think a lot of people who convert to Mormonism think this looks like a happier way to be a person, especially within the frame of family life. 

Stephen Betts: The other interesting part of this is that a lot of these especially Utah-based or Mormon corridor-based companies, whether MLMs or not, they're centered around transformations, like you said: bodily practice, prevention, health, lifestyle, and, and it really does bring together the attraction of salvation, the attraction of embodied transformation in a family structure, but also then that's what gives context for the consumption of certain kinds of goods that then continue to create the ongoing experience of that. 

The Gendered Dimensions of the Mormon Smile

We mentioned earlier, the Mormon smile and the male missionary and ritualized humiliation. This is, I think really important in the gendered dimensions of the Mormon smile is thinking about what does it mean to smile in this kind of humiliating way or, or you, you call it a feminized way. Talk more about that. 

Kathryn Lofton: Yeah. So this is really hard to talk about well, and I admit that I'm right now trying to revise this talk into an article for the Journal of Mormon History and I'm being really careful. I guess I just wanna admit right now this podcast I'm not done. So my wording feels unsettled.

What I'm trying to talk about without being too categorical is in the thirties and forties we know that the Mormon church started thinking more about a globalized life in the fifties and sixties that takes off. Things like the weekly broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The church decides it's done a kind of, I think a period of reorganization retrenchment in the first 50 years of the 20th century. For a variety of reasons, which there are great historians like Matthew Bowman, who've given thought to them, what is it? It kind of goes public and it goes global overtly a part of that going global is the image we now have of especially the Mormon male-identified mission white shirt and then the black name tag, as we know, the aesthetics of the outfits have changed in contemporary period. So I don't wanna lock into that image, what I wanna talk was that short sleeve shirt, the white shirt, but as the aesthetic we associate, it has its origin in this mid-20th century moment. It's at that time, a hundred percent male-identified and the elemental tool from the very beginning of pictures of Mormon missionaries in Mormon texts is with a smile. So they don't look like, you know, the Nation of Islam. They're not soldiers in an army. They are conveying overtly friendliness so that I'm really interested in what I would say kind of square-jawed American masculinity is step one. So I am a male person. I am, and you right away pull up images of the man in the gray flannel suit. So we go to mid-20th century American businessman aesthetics of which, the television show Mad Men and its iconic lead character, Don Draper becomes the incarnation of that white power. But if Don Draper is the unsmiling face in long sleeves, the Mormon man is in short sleeves and he is smiling.

So that difference, that Mormon male difference is to me, it's a giveaway, a sign that something is different in this gendered kingdom. And I'm right now looking at if standardization and harmonization of aesthetics was, as we know, pretty strongly directed by Harold B. Lee, why was it so important to not make them, they were not unsmiling soldiers. They were smiling men who went door to door and got it slammed in their face. And right now the vocabulary I'm thinking about is questions of feminization, because there's a humility to that receipt of regular "No." And the smile before it, you would associate normally with the female-identified person, she smiles through her pain. She smiles through the abusive husband. She smiles when she goes to the store, even if she's unhappy. She smiles when she drops off the kids, even if her husband's an alcoholic. So, the persistence of a smile is something culturally in the 20th century, in a secular culture, you don't associate the smile with the male-identified subject. And I am very interested in whether part of this smile is a kind of decoration that conveys not only are we trustworthy, not only are we male, we also are fine if you still need to slam a door in our face, if you still need to humiliate us. Fine if you still think we're disgusting because that 19th century stuff we've never gotten over quite either, it broke our hearts and you broke our hearts by how cruel you were to us. You were so cruel to us. Do you remember what you did to our families? Calm down. We're smiling. It's fine. We're still smiling. And we will smile forever as you slam that door in our face, because this is the true gospel word. So, I'm trying to find a way of talking about that gameness to smile as a conveyance of, “We are safe for your anger and dislike to still be available.” That's the slamming door in the face, the ugly speech that missionaries encounter all the time. The prejudicial words, the accusations about polygamy in 2022, even though polygamy closed out as a practice organized by the church over a hundred years before. We'll still take your ugly speech and we will smile back. And to me, there's something very interestingly kind of gendered subversion that's happening there that I'm playing out with the right vocabulary. And Ann Douglas wrote this iconic, complicated, mixed-bag of a book called The Feminization of American Culture when she looked at the role of diminishing religious adherence and increasing consumer culture and tied that to forms of sentimental fiction. And I think I'm gonna play out in the article with why I think that that image of feminization is important to think about as Mormon men try to face the regular humiliation of not being loved for their love of the church. And that's again, why I think that satire of the Adele video is such a brilliant admission that failing in the missionary project is like failing in love, “I didn't get you to see how amazing I feel about this thing that I have.” 

Stephen Betts: Before we go, I'd love to hear what topics or methods, theories you see as emergent possibilities for Mormon studies. In my personal assessment, I think Mormon studies is in kind of a golden age or a revolutionary phase where there are so many possibilities. So many different directions that can be taken and it's, you know, it's longed for so long to be taken seriously by outside scholars and people outside of the community and that's starting to happen. I'd love to get your take on that. 

Kathryn Lofton: I couldn't agree more. I feel like there's, the pile of books that I just actually, you know, in trying to prepare for this talk and wanting to get fresh in my own speech acts, feels incredible. And there are so many people have put work into that institutionally and educationally. That said, I think the challenge for me remains that history is the default idiom of presence and speech, and I think history is fantastic, but I do think history is a fairly conservative medium that has certain plot points expected in its discoveries. That as a scholar who primarily identifies as a person who does cultural studies, I'm also really interested in performance studies and, you know, race and gender studies. Those are things that I think have still not yet found as big a strength in the Mormon studies conversation. And I am absolutely certain that the more that Mormon studies and Mormon-identified people that play such a strong role in organizing Mormon studies can see that those forms of method offer also things that can be assessed by archival evidence, but also invite interpretations of things that supersede documents. And I think one of the challenges that Mormon studies faces is that because of the archivalism of the church, there is a kind of weird mimicry by those in Mormon studies that even those who I admire and are ferocious critics within their practices in Mormon studies still feel the need to imitate the aesthetics of archival obsessiveness as a part of the way of communicating. But as scholars of Black studies and gender studies, queer studies, and performance studies have long told us there is a lot that archives do not represent about human suffering and experience.[iii] There's been a lot of profound human suffering and experience in the LDS church that has not been archived.[iv]

And yet I believe we can write about it responsibly by taking some risks of interpretation of the text that are apparent for us that are extant. And I'd like to see the field keep pressing in the space of what has not been recorded in text but is absolutely recorded and felt and imagined realities of those who circle this category of Mormon.

Stephen Betts: That's Kathryn Lofton talking about her 2022 Smith-Pettit Lecture, "A Brief History of the Mormon Smile." Thanks for joining me today, Kathryn. 

Kathryn Lofton: Thank you so much, Stephen.

[i] The missionaries depicted in the music video are not actual missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nor is the music video officially endorsed by the Church. “Marcus Joseph is a music video director/music producer from Northern Virginia. Korey Smith is a filmmaker and director of music videos from Roseburg Oregon.” (See their YouTube channel “Joseph & Smith”)
[ii] See discussion in Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 22.
[iii] For example, Saidiya Hartman’s notion of “critical fabulation” as articulated in Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no.2 (1–14). Critical fabulation is the idea that absences from the archive invite speculative reconstructions guided by both known historical context and imagination.
[iv] See, e.g., Max Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (Chapel-Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); see also Quincy D. Newell, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). 

This podcast is made possible by the Mormon Studies program at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit

The music in this episode is used by permission from the artists.
Wayfaring Stranger” is by Ben Howington. To hear more, visit

Adele – Hello (Missionary Parody)” was created by Marcus Joseph and co-created by Korey Smith. The artist of the original song is Adele.

Scholars & Saints is hosted, produced, and edited by Stephen Betts, a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.