Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mormons : America :: Catholic Monks : Rome

Recently at, there was a series of articles which played out the thought experiment of how America may come to end in the near or distant future. Towards the end of this series the author speculated on who or what would carry the spirit and ideals of America forward like Catholic monks did with Rome. His conclusion: the Mormons.

There were several reasons. First, Mormons might be more likely to survive the collapse of America because of our commitment to food storage and our actively watching for the apocalypse. Second, Mormons believe that America was divinely appointed and inspired, and are therefore more likely to carry on its ideals and traditions, maybe even revering the Constitution after America is no more. Third, Mormons represent American values because we have been forced to assimilate to American culture after years of being outcasts and persecuted. In other words, we have worked very hard to fit in and seem normal after a pretty rocky start. Fourth, Mormons have fully embraced capitalism. Fifth, Mormons are always looking to the past as a source of strength. Not being too caught up in the present or future is good for survival in harsh conditions. Finally, Americans represent good old fashioned American values like family, civic responsibility, and the like.

This makes me uncomfortable for several reasons. I think like most Mormons, I tend to discount the point of view that says that Mormonism is a uniquely American religion. Of course we believe that Gospel truths are universal and eternal, applying equally to all nations and people. I understand, however, where this point of view comes from. It is true that the church was founded (or restored) here in America, that the Book of Mormon goes out of its way to extol the virtues of America and its founding, that modern revelation has pinpointed the spot of the Garden of Eden and New Jerusalem here in America, and the headquarters are in America. That is fairly persuasive evidence that this is an American religion.

And it is true that the American culture that dominates Mormonism pervades congregations throughout the world. Non-English speakers use English words in regards to Mormonism (for instance, many French speakers use the word "garments" and "Elder" even though those words either don't exist or are not used in such a way in French) and foreign members of the church tend to exhibit America-philia in their desire to visit America or move here. I don't think the church explicitly encourages such America-centrism, but its hard to argue that it does not exist on some level.

But the main point of the article and what I was interested in, was the way in which Mormons have gone out of our way to assimilate into American society to the point that we are regarded as the best single example of the confluence of America and religion. Has it made a positive difference in our religion that we are trying very hard to fit it?

On the one hand state and federal governments have ceased sending armed mobs and militias to take our property and change our religious practices, but on the other hand Americans are still deeply suspicious of our religion and really don't trust us. Are we trying too hard to be seen as quintessentially "American" at the expense of some of our core ideals for very little in return?

It used to be that one of the distinguishing features of Mormonism was the emphasis on community. Of course there was the United Order, but there were also various other community activities and community pride. For a good look at this phenomenon read Wallace Stegner's Mormon Country. I think that has been completely lost. We pride ourselves in our big houses on our big lots and our capitalism and our Western-style individualism. I don't think there is anything wrong with those those, in moderation, but it feels like we've gone too far and maybe a lot of it has to do, ironically I guess, with our desire to assimilate and seem "normal."

Perhaps, as well, this has something to do with Mormon politics. This extreme identity with conservative politics which only loosely coincides with Mormon beliefs allows an outlet for the majority of Mormons to enter the national discourse via a mainstream political vehicle. What have they gotten in return? A Southern base that distrusts Mormons and would not consider nominating a Mormon for President.

I would hope that members of the church identify themselves as Mormons first and Americans, democrats, or republicans following after. Not because there is anything grossly wrong with America, but because a nation is manmade and transitory, whereas our religion is eternal. A nation, any nation, is inherently flawed and limited, which is not the case with the Gospel.

I would hope that we could find the beauty and wisdom in all cultures instead of puffing our American chests and sneering at what we see as inferior nations, especially knowing that members of the church come from nearly all cultures and nations (even Muslim nations).

So I don't feel bad admitting that the fact that people see us as the very epitome of American culture makes me uncomfortable.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

The thing I take issue with is American "exceptionalism", and the idea that the Book of Mormon somehow explicitly supports it:

We cross the line when we assume that the Book of Mormon's spiritual lessons can somehow translate to modern politics, or that its teachings line up neatly along party lines. To get an idea of what I'm going on about, here's a great interview with Richard Bushman (ostensibly about Romney's run for President) where he details the Church's evolving place in American politics over the years: