The “Mormon Mask”? Ctd

Feb 3 2012 @ 1:24pm

Althouse and Reynolds accuse me of bigotry for merely raising the issue. The notion is preposterous. Althouse, who apparently doesn't even read the posts she attacks as well as the articles, asks:

Is it a special thing reserved for Mormons? … Test yourself out, Andrew. Imagine some friend of yours told you something like that about some other religious group. Test it with every religious group can think of, referring to political candidates that you like and dislike. Hold yourself to a neutral standard. Are you satisfied with what you’ve put out there?

Well, yes. In my post, I made a direct analogy to Catholicism, my own faith:

Think of a pastor who has a game face, or after-Mass cheeriness, because it's impossible for a human being truly to relate to so many different needs and individuals all the time without some kind of defense mechanism; some set of phrases to get him through a confession or consultation when he may be having an off day; some way to remove himself from the emotionally draining responsibilities of so many pastoral duties.

I'm actually sympathizing with the need for such a mask in that kind of situation in all denominations, not attacking it in one. Yet Reynolds and Althouse accuse me of bigotry, and charge that I am attacking Mormons as a whole. They need to apologize. To accuse someone of bigotry when the evidence they provide disproves it is disgusting character assassination. 

Actual Mormon readers – and not partisan propagandists like Reynolds – saw no bigotry and addresses the question from personal experience:

Your post on the "Mormon Mask" does have a ring of truth to it.  Once a Mormon reaches a certain level within the church hierarchy there is a tendency to start interacting with others in the manner you describe.  For a male, it usually begins at the Stake President level (a stake is similar to a Catholic diocese).  It is not so obvious at the Mormon Bishop level as the local congregations (called wards) are smaller (400 to 700 people) and more intimate in their interactions.  At the stake level there are 3,000 to 6,000 members that necessitate the need for the "mask".  Additionally, most often, the position of Stake President is filled by a successful businessman or professional who finds the same "mask" useful in business dealings.  If they serve long enough it does become a part of the person. 

(Trey Parker and Matt Stone partially allude to this Mormon trait in the Book of Mormon song, "Turn It Off".)

Breaking through the mask usually reveals a much more complicated personality than what is revealed in public.  It is why the Church General Authorities (both sexes) can appear to be robotic or programmed.  It is also why it is difficult to get a "down-to-earth" response from them when discussing challenges or concerns.  Unless the mask is put aside, the response will always seem slightly condescending to hear.

Another writes:

I must say that I don’t necessarily think the mask is a bad thing. Having leaders project a calm demeanor is certainly a strength in certain situations. Last summer my Stake was right in the heart of New Jersey’s Passiac River flooding that followed Hurricane Irene. In the days following the floods, the presiding stake authorities who worked with FEMA to coordinate the Mormon volunteers from all over the tri-state always maintained an air of confidence, even when it became clear that the extent of the damage overwhelmed our ragtag bunch of volunteers. Their confidence buoyed the work. And as you say, this demeanor serves them well in their daily ministering duties, where facing the varying, constantly changing, and continually increasing needs of members probably require a “game face” as a coping mechanism. A conservative church requires a conservative appearance as well as a conservative philosophy.

Another shifts gears:

I am a Mormon, and I can understand your theory for Romney's mask, but I think we can more plausibly explain Romney by referring to his other experiences. Sure, there is a degree of phoniness which most leaders acquire, religious or otherwise. But during my lifetime of interactions with local Mormon leaders in the same positions once occupied by Romney, I have never met someone whose phoniness is as extreme and transparent as Romney's.

Here's my argument. First note that local Mormon leadership is different from local leadership in other religions, in that it is only a part-time endeavor (it can be a lot of work and stress, but nothing like serious full-time employment). Romney was in local leadership for a period of about 20 years (starting as an assistant to the leader of a local congregation and ending in an overseer role for a handful of congregations in the Boston area). In his youth he, like almost all active Mormon males, served a full-time mission for a couple years, but other than this, his church leadership was always part time.

Meanwhile, during his entire adult life (including the period as a local Mormon leader) he has been employed full time in the upper echelons of corporate America and as a politician. A politician! Why should we assume that his personality is the result of his 20 years of part-time local church leadership rather than 40 years of a full-time+ career in business and politics? That's absurd. Add to this that he has a Harvard law degree (what, never met a phony lawyer?) and a Harvard MBA.

Yep, it can surely be multi-determined, as my shrink often says. Another continues along those lines:

Huckabee was right when he described Romney as the guy who fires you. Romney’s "Mormon Mask" is also the mask we’ve all seen the awkward boss wear when he feels a noblesse oblige to mix with the employees, whether at a company picnic or just walking the halls. Everybody rolls their eyes after he does his shtick. Rather than suddenly feeling kinship with the boss, you just feel patronized. His campaign is unfolding as if a CEO had permanently decided to "spend a day working alongside the employees." (Disney does that gimmick best – their executives have to wear actual masks as character furries.)

The ultimate “Mormon Mask” comes into play when you consider that Romney knows he can’t share basic tenets of his religion when speaking with voters, something that Republican voters have especially come to expect. It maintains distance and suspicion. Imagine him having to say not only that he believes he is going to heaven but that he is going to the best of three heavens (the ultimate upper percentile). He must be fearful that some interviewer will go there in the coming months.

Another discards the premise altogether:

I’m a long-time Mormon reader, and I guess I don’t get the issue.  Yes, Mitt is plastic and yes he has trouble connecting.  But why is this a Mormon story?  He’s a rich white guy that has circulated in the highest rings of society from birth to his education to his employment.  Not surprisingly, other rich white guys have had similar problems connecting, including a Catholic (Kerry), two different sects of Baptists (Gore, McCain), and an Episcopalian (Bush I).  The common thread here is not their religion, but the fact that they grew up outside of the circles they are most trying to connect with now – the Middle-Class Heartland Independent. 

Why is it so surprising that this would be difficult for them and that their efforts to do so would be so cringe-inducingly awkward?  Are Mitt’s statements so much worse than the greatest hits of the above candidates: wind-surfing, awkwardly making out with a spouse on the convention stage, studies on whether to wear suits or khakis, forgetting the number of houses he owned, or memorizing the price of milk?

I tend to agree and did not think of it this way until a very-well connected Mormon told me – completely ingenuously – of the whole concept. He found it not offensive, but helpful in understanding in part why Romney makes plastic look real.