In recent research for a term paper on Mormonism and native Hawaiian culture for my history course on the American West, I came across Frank Salamone’s essay on “The Polynesian Cultural Center and the Mormon Image of Body.” Salamone discusses the alterations made in traditional Polynesian dress made at the Center to accommodate LDS conceptions of modesty, gender differentials in bodily coverage, and subversions of modesty through manner of dance and personal comportment.
While I will save for another day his analysis that greater male bareness at the Polynesian Cultural Center is reflective of Mormon gender ideology, I would like to focus here on another observation he makes, taking a cue from another researcher: “As Knowlton mentions, Mormons are surrounded by phallic symbols in their religious imagery, including the architecture of their temples.”
My immediate reaction was a sort of revulsion; how could one relate the ethereal heaven-reaching spires to something so base? Furthermore, I felt that this analysis reflected a sort of Freudian phallomania. Could temple spires truly be conceived as symbols of such dramatic masculinity? I do not think it is anywhere near that simple.
Even as Salamone qualifies that “American Mormons are a bit more subtle and shy about these images [than Pacific Islanders],” I think that cultural context must be considered when judging Mormon architecture. First, it arose in the American Northeast and West, were the country church reigned supreme: a rectangular structure, roof pitched to the sides, and a steeple housing a bell by whose ringing the community might measure time in the absence of clocks. This, in turn, was influenced by hundreds of years of European church-building, wherein the spired bell tower was literally the pinnacle of community achievement and served as a significant civic and ecclesiastical landmark. The dramatic Catholic cathedral, roughened and simplified by frontier Protestantism, has had an enormous impact on Mormon designs. The Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, save for the interior arrangement of their assembly halls and other ordinance-specific designs, had more to do with the neighborhood church with its amalgamation of folk architectural vocabularies than the Mormon theology reflected in incidental surface details (sunstones and moonstones, for example). If the spire is a phallus, it’s a democratized European one. (Were Tocqueville an architect, he’d have written a book on this.)
Moreover, sometimes Mormon architects tend to do strange things. There’s a reason that the Washington DC and San Diegotemples are likened to fantasy castles: they articulate architectural movements of their times in ways that are mostly unparalleled in the modern world. People don’t quite know what to make of them.
(Humorously, the South Park creators knew exactly what to do: they based the stage frame for the Book of Mormon musical on the San Diego Temple itself, and play on the peculiarity of its design by shifting its lighting throughout the production.)