Dr. Chrystal Vanel offers this overview of a recent international Mormon studies conference. Vanel is a post-doctorate researcher at Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités (GSRL), in Paris, France.
On December 4 and 5, 2014, scholars from the United States, Germany, and France met in Paris for an international conference called “Religious Minorities in the Media: The Case of Mormonism in Europe and the United States.” Videos of the conference are available online on canal-u.tv. Organizers are hoping to see the proceedings appear in a future publication, but in the meantime, here is a brief overview of the presentations. ((The conference was organized by the Groupe Sociétés, Religions et Laïcités (GSRL), a laboratory of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), with the support of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Sorbonne) and the Brigham Young University, London Center.))
Mormonism has been a frequent topic of discussion in United States media outlets: Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy, church-sponsored opposition to same-sex marriage in California, the conviction of Warren Jeffs, polygamous leader of a fundamentalist group, and the TV show Big Love, documenting the everyday life of a polygamous “Mormon” family, etc. This media coverage of Mormonism goes beyond US borders and reaches Europe.
Presenters at this conference looked beyond the sole case of Mormonism to include other religious minorities in Europe and in the United States, including churches and movements that are in a minority situation only in certain contexts. The presenters came from various academic disciplines such as history, sociology, political science and the sciences of communication and information.
Regarding the study of the media treatment of Mormonism as a minority in the United States, as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was greatly exposed in the media following Mitt Romney’s candidacy, J. B. Haws (BYU) gave a paper on “The Mormon Image in the American Media: 2008, 2012, and Today.” Carter Charles (University of Bordeaux 3) gave a paper on “Satan’s Brother: Mitt Romney and Religion in U.S. Presidential Politics in the Media.” As Mormonism is not limited to the Salt Lake City headquartered Church, Mark Scherer (Graceland University) presented a paper called “A Minority in the Minority? Community of Christ in the Media in the United States,” showing how what was previously known as the RLDS Church is often mentioned in the US media in reference to the LDS Church, if not confused for it.
As Mormonism is a growing—albeit not without struggles—minority in Europe, and as Mormon studies are developing in the Old World, papers dealt with the media treatment of Mormonism in Europe. Two studies dealt with Mormonism in France: The paper by Christian Euvrard (GSRL) analysed media treatment of Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy while Chrystal Vanel (GSRL) gave a presentation focused on the media treatment of the first Mormon temple in an ever more religiously pluralistic France. Bryce Taylor (Heidelberg University) gave a paper, “Mormonism and the Media in Germany,” putting the German media treatment of Mormonism in the wider context of the media treatment of “sects,” while Mauro Properzi (BYU) examined “Mormonism in the Italian Media: 2012-2014 analysis,” focusing mostly on how printed and Internet news sources depicted Mormonism in Italy during those years.
Another religious minority born in the 19th century United States was studied in the French context as sociologist Fabrice Desplan (GSRL) gave a paper on the media treatment of Adventism in France, focusing on “the Case of the Adventist Exorcists of the Essonne” (a French area). Another French sociologist, Guillaume Roucoux (GSRL), gave a paper on “the Church of Scientology’s trials in off-screen voice,” while Louis Hourmant (European Institute of Religious Sciences-EPHE-GSRL) gave a paper on the media perception of different Buddhist movements in France. Frederique Harry’s (University of Paris-Sorbonne) paper on the media treatment of Catholicism in Sweden was particularly interesting in a French academic setting: while Catholicism is a religious minority in Sweden, it is still the religious majority in secular France.
Thus the category of “religious minority” is relative, as was also shown in Boyd Petersen’s (UVU) paper. Whereas the colloquy generally treated Mormonism as a religious minority, Petersen studied the “Print Media Coverage of Catholicism in Mormon Utah.” David W. Scott (UVU) presented a communications science perspective in “Religion on TIME: News magazine covers’ treatment of religion in America: Tension between institutional religion and private religious practice,” focusing on specific religious minorities in the US context. Professor Nathalie Caron (University of Paris-Sorbonne) gave a paper on the “Current Media Coverage of Judaism in the United States.” Political scientist Nadia Marzouki (CESPRA-CNRS) gave a paper on “Media Representations of Islam and Muslims in the U.S since 2001.” There was strong resonance between Marzouki’s paper and the presentation of Spencer Fluhman (BYU). Fluhman’s paper: “‘A peculiar People’: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America” showed how Mormonism was exoticized and compared to Islam in the 19th century United States.
Discussions during the panels were led by renowned scholars Sara Teinturier (GSRL), Valentine Zuber (EPHE-GSRL), Jim Faulconer (BYU-London Center), and Jean-Paul Willaime (EPHE-GSRL).
Videos of the presentations are available here.