Latent Racism, Orientalism and “Magic Underwear” in American Society and Mitt Romney’s Presidential Campaign

African Muslim Men in Religious Attire, source http://www.thingsoftheday.com/?p=3285

As I made my way through the crowded local Costco recently, I stepped back a moment and appreciated the diversity surrounding me. Although approximately 92% of the population in the UK is white, about 45% of the remaining 8% of the UK population that are ethnic minorities live in London. And we’ve enjoyed having a high concentration of this 45% in and around the area of London where I currently reside. We have become accustomed to seeing people in their religiously significant daily dress in all circumstances, from the morning school run, to regular visits to the supermarket, to going to movies in the cinema and just about everywhere else. (In fact, it is not unusual for us to see such dress in our LDS ward on Sunday as investigators from all of these ethnic and religious backgrounds politely keep their commitment to the missionaries working in the area to visit us and see what the Church is all about.)

Indonesian Muslim Women Wearing the Hijab, source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijab#Women

At Costco, I had to navigate around a family of what appeared to be Somali Muslim women forming a guantlet as they moved slowly down the aisle near the store entrance. A mother with two teenaged daughters — all three wearing a black hijab. Mingling in perfect commercial harmony, these Somali women mixed with white British (and Americans, such as myself), a large number of black British and black Africans, some of the latter wearing the recognisable religious attire customary for Muslim men, Indian men and women wearing traditional dress with religious significance, and a group of what appeared to be Pakistani Muslims with the women wearing the niqab-burqa.[1]

Hasidic Jews in Prescribed Attire, source unknown

Stopping in front of the granulated sugars in Costco’s warehouse-style aisles, my ears picked up a conversation in Yiddish and, sure enough, a family of Hasidic Jews turned the corner, dressed accordingly. Unable to restrain myself, I lingered and listened to the husband and wife discuss the products on their shopping list in Yiddish (it’s so wonderful!). This pause gave me occasion to step back, really notice, and appreciate the ethnic and religious diversity on display in the store that day, as easily observable by the ethnicities, languages and, of course, the traditional religious dress that so many of them were faithfully wearing.

I was faithfully wearing my religious attire as well.

Wait, what? A white, mid-30s, middle-class suburbanite American working in a secular profession wearing religious attire? That simply doesn’t compute, does it? Aside from very few (infamous) exceptions, such as John Walker Lindh,[2] this perhaps comes across to the casual observer as an egregious category error.

But there I was, standing next to a family of Hasidic Jews, having just passed a group of Pakistani Muslims with women wearing the niqab, shopping together with Hindus in their characteristically colourful clothing and Somali Muslims in their more subdued religious attire, and I too was wearing the unique religious attire of those Latter-day Saints who have chosen to make what we consider to be holy covenants with God in the temple: the temple garments lovingly referred to by both our creedal Christian brothers and sisters and secular America alike as “magic underwear”.[3]

Temple garments are worn by a relatively small number of Latter-day Saints — not all Mormons have decided to visit a Mormon temple and make the lifelong covenants of Christian discipleship that are exclusively on offer there. Latter-day Saints who have done so and remain committed to their faith have promised to wear the temple garments under their clothing whenever practical as a symbol and reminder of these covenants. The garments remind the Mormon men and women who wear them that they aspire (through allowing the Atonement of Jesus Christ to take effect in their lives) to become “priests and priestesses” to God in the hereafter[4]; the temple garments are therefore, in fact, priestly vestments. As a result of their symbolic significance, Latter-day Saints see them as providing spiritual protection against the mundane temptation to do things unbecoming of a disciple of Jesus Christ because they are meant to be a constant reminder of these temple covenants of Christian discipleship.

The comfort taken by Latter-day Saints in the potential for such spiritual protection offered by the temple garments as an ever-present reminder of these covenants expanded in Mormon folk beliefs to faith promoting rumours of instances in which the temple garments also provided physical protection against external physical harms. This latter belief apparently held historically by some Mormons — that this priestly vestment worn under the clothing could also afford actual physical protection — is likely the source of its description as “magic underwear”.

But Mormons can jusitifiably wonder why this characterisation of the Mormon temple garments as “magic underwear” remains so prevalent among such disparate segments of the American population. In fact, it does not seem like a stretch to conclude that latent racism — or at least Orientalism[5] — could be a factor in this analysis.

It is understandable to see how some might find it funny in an adolescent kind of way to think that people might believe (1) that God would command or at least endorse the wearing of priestly vestments underneath normal clothing as a reminder of covenants of Christian discipleship and (2) that this underwear can provide spiritual and/or physical protection. But something else perhaps a little more sinister is conceivably at play here.

Until recently, it is fair to observe, the majority of Latter-day Saints have been white, middle-class Americans living in the suburbs of American cities or in rural areas — this certainly seems to describe a considerable period of Mormon demographics throughout the twentieth century. And white, suburban-dwelling middle-class Americans simply do not wear ritually prescribed religious attire of any kind on a daily basis. Even the most religious among this demographic, unless he or she is actually an ordained minister of their particular church, still wears standard middle-class secular clothing provided by our profit-driven fashion industry. Perhaps a subconscious belief among this demographic, who throughout most of the twentieth century were the main peers of suburban American Latter-day Saints, that religiously prescribed attire is just for orthodox Jews and the various “brown” peoples of the world, not white middle-class Americans, could be behind this lingering fascination with the temple garment.

The theory is that Bill Maher and Robert Jeffress, examples of two white, middle-class Americans (though both are probably much richer than the average white middle-class suburban American), can both share a laugh about “magic underwear” despite their otherwise fundamental religious and ideological differences precisely because of the blatant absurdity (in their minds) of the idea of fellow white, middle-class Americans actually wearing such ritually prescribed religious attire on a daily basis. It is simply a shared assumption, not even necessary to communicate between the two in a live interview, even between two otherwise such differently thinking people. And the pundit class and the media — both still mostly made up of white, middle-class Americans — can ridicule Mormons about the garments in discussing the very serious candidacies of qualified contenders for the office of President of the United States because they find it ludicrous to think of people in their same demographic wearing priestly vestments, no matter that they are worn discreetly beneath the clothing so as not to draw unwarranted attention to them.[6]

To clarify, I am not suggesting that white, middle-class Americans are racist against Mormons; rather, mockery of Mormon temple garments as “magic underwear” could possibly be seen to reveal latent racism that stubbornly persists among white, middle-class Americans against the various races and ethnicities of the world whom they mentally associate with (silly or superstitious?) religious costumes worn out of ignorance or oppression.

* * *

Though Mormon temple garments are worn beneath the clothing and therefore are not readily observable like the religious attire of others, the temple garments simply constitute Latter-day Saints’ own religiously prescribed dress (for the relatively small number of Mormons who have made covenants of Christian discipleship in a Mormon temple). But in America, both fundamentalist Evangelical Christians — those exemplars of true Christian charity — and atheists on the secular left — enlightened, tolerant secular humanists that they are — unite in their derision of Mormon priestly vestments. Is it simply too hilarious to think that white, middle-class suburban American co-workers are wearing (hidden!) formally prescribed religious attire on a daily basis, much like the adherents of other venerable world religions, as an expression of their commitment and devotion? (Educated white people just don’t do that, do they?) It is an argument worth considering, particularly given that, far from ameliorating any criticism, wearing these priestly vestments unostentatiously underneath the clothing seems to have only led to further scorn because, after all, underwear is simply funny.

————————
[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niq%C4%81b#Hadith

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Walker_Lindh

[3] Nothing demonstrates how nicely the prospect of ridiculing beliefs that are holy to Mormons can bring together such otherwise irreconcilable parties as America’s secular political left and its fundamentalist creedal Christian religio-political right quite as well as Bill Maher’s recent interview with Dallas First Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, covered here at BCC by Ronan. Sure enough, “magic underwear” solicits a shared laugh from such odd bedfellows in the segment, which can be viewed on Ronan’s post.

[4] W. W. Phelps, Times and Seasons 6.10, page 916, at http://en.fairmormon.org/Times_and_Seasons/6/10 (quoted by James Faulconer, “Something Else I Don’t Know“, Patheos, January 5, 2012.

[5] Historically, Orientalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism) is the romanticised depiction in Western art or literature of “Eastern” life/culture/morals/motifs. As products of a nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Western worldview, these depictions were frequently based on caricatures or stereotypes of non-Western peoples/cultures/attitudes as ignorant, primitive, opulent, oppressive, immoral, lecherous, etc. (a prime example might be Georges Rochegrosse’s nevertheless gorgeous “The Slave and the Lion” or the various studies of Middle-Eastern or Indian harems by nineteenth-century European artists). A study of such depictions and the history of Orientalism in Western thought led Columbia scholar Edward Saïd, in his 1978 book Orientalism, to describe Orientalism as a biased view of the East (referring mainly to the Middle East and Asia) based on notions of assumed Western cultural and moral superiority that was and continues to be used to justify imperialistic political agendas. These ideas gained traction in the postcolonialist movement as encouragement for imperially dominated cultures to write their own stories and produce their own depictions of themselves. As can be imagined, however, Saïd’s description of Orientalism as propaganda against its own subject matter can itself be criticised (see here, for example) as a highly politicised reading of the development of Orientalism in the Western imagination. One art critic recently described Saïd’s 1978 book as “a modern classic — of fear and loathing” (Jonathan Jones, “Orientalism Is Not Racism“, Guardian Blog, 22 May 2008). Jones continued, “Today the west is bleakly incurious about the history of Islam, its art, peoples and learning. There’s a blank wall of terror. This wall has been strengthened by Said’s book because it closes down a crucial way for cultures to encounter one another: it closes down romanticism.”

In discussing the idea of this post with BCC permas, some queried whether this “magic underwear” phenomenon was more of an expression of Orientalism than of latent racism, as I have characterised it in this post. I was grateful for the thought-provoking comment but ultimately decided to stick with latent racism because it lacks the sophistication or implicit/subconscious admiration inherent in Orientalism, which at its root is based on a romanticised and highly idealised depiction of “the East”, based as it may be on mere stereotypes. The two are related, of course, but I think latent racism fits better as a description of white, suburban Americans being turned off by people who look and otherwise act and work/live like them wearing religiously prescribed daily attire (even though hidden underneath clothing, somewhat similar to Orthodox Jews’ tallit katan (Read more here)), as Kevin Barney helpfully reminded me), which is perhaps loosely (subconsciously) associated with “other world religions” and not standard American creedal Christianity or atheistic/agnostic secularism (given that both unite in ridiculing Mormon temple garments).

[6] In fact, in comparing the temple garments to the hijab as religiously significant attire, BCC’s own Blair Hodges has discussed similarities between the significance of the hijab and the temple garments for their respective wearers, noting this key difference of not “broadcasting” religious devotion in the case of the temple garments (Blair Hodges, “Islam’s Hijab and Mormon Garments: On Clothing as Broadcasting“, Life on Gold Plates, 13 October 2009).

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