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Mormonism and America

Mormonism And America

LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture. Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012.


There is a very good chance that within a few months’ time our president will be a practicing Mormon. This book, then, could not be timelier, because it clarifies both what Mormonism is and its historical and contemporary relation to American society. The basic facts will not be new to informed Mormons. Many of the facts probably will be new most non-Mormon Americans. The real value of the book, however, and its unique contribution, is its analysis of the creative tension between Mormonism and Americanism. Lee Trepanier and Lynita Newswander provide a brief but lucid and systematic account of this relationship, and their observations and conclusions on that point will no doubt be illuminating to non-Mormons and Mormons alike.

The relationship of Mormonism to America is paradoxical: on the one hand Mormons are among the most patriotic of Americans, and America indeed plays a crucial part in their faith and theology, to the point that Mormonism has been called, with some plausibility, the “theology of Americanism.” On the other hand, Mormons were much persecuted in their early history, their one-time practice of polygamy was widely considered to be “un-American,” and to this day they are greeted by many Americans with “a reluctant and schizophrenic tolerance.”

The creative tension between Mormonism and Americanism centers around five issues: marriage and family, morality, federalism, church-state relations, and the meaning of Christianity–its substance, theological implications, and mission. These are tension points because they are or have been points of difference between Mormons and other Americans. The tension is creative because Mormon differences have influenced and/or clarified these aspects of American life in heretofore unappreciated ways.

Other Americans rightly perceive Mormons as family oriented and rather strict in matters of personal morality. Probably no group in America stands out more in the public mind for dedication to family, high moral standards, and clean living, for all which they are alternately admired or derided (openly or furtively) as old-fashioned and uptight. The family orientation is not incidental. Marriage in Mormon theology is more than merely sacred as it is for Catholics and Protestants. Mormon couples swear in their marriage vows faithfulness not only “till death do us part” but for all eternity. As an important part of the afterlife, then, marriage is more than a sacrament; it is a central life achievement. A thirty-something, single Mormon friend of mine tells me that most Mormons marry in their early twenties and that other Mormons consider it strange and a kind of personal failure that he remains single.

Many Americans might find the idea of eternal marriage appealing. On the other hand, perhaps the first mental association occurring to most Americans when they hear the word “Mormon” is polygamy (also called “plural marriage”), which they further associate with backwardness and barbarism and something very much at odds with the sanctity of marriage. This primary association is no doubt largely a factor of ignorance. Many Americans know nothing about Mormons except that polygamy was once practiced among them. The association is reinforced by the fact that while the mainline Mormon Church (LDS, for “Latter-Day Saints”) officially banned polygamy long ago, some fringe Mormon groups still defend and practice it and have occasionally appeared sensationally in the national news.

The nineteenth-century struggle between the U.S. government and Mormons over the matter of polygamy, Trepanier and Newswander point out, had an effect of clarifying American views of marriage, federalism, and the relation of church and state. The U.S. government actively opposed Mormon polygamy, making its abolition a minimum condition of Utah’s statehood. President Buchanan moved (unsuccessfully) to control the governorship of the Utah territory to eliminate Mormon union of church and state, such as existed under Brigham Young, and the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, signed by Lincoln, both banned polygamy and restricted church assets to $50,000.

The Act was enforced. The Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States, a suit brought by one of the polygamists arrested under the Act, that religious practices impairing the public interests were not protected under the First Amendment. The Edmunds-Tucker Act actually disincorporated the LDS Church and the federal government seized its property; the Church was restored only after officially renouncing polygamy. As our authors note, these national actions constituted “a new kind of federalism, in which the U.S. government could now regulate marriage, which was traditionally a state issue, and religion, which was traditionally a matter of personal conscience.”

The lesson was clear: there were certain activities the nation was not willing to tolerate even if they took place under cover of religion and involved matters traditionally reserved to the states. Americans would only recognize marriage in its traditional Christian (monogamous) form, and though the existence of minority forms of religion (Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, etc.) would be tolerated, respect for the free exercise of religion and acceptance of religious influence over government had definite limits, rights of conscience and state authority notwithstanding. In this way the lines of federal-state relations and church-state relations, and the lines demarcating the institution of marriage, were more sharply drawn.

The contemporary relevance of these clarifications is evident in current political debates and in the current presidential election race. The definition of marriage has again become an important issue. The gay rights movement has successfully won legal recognition of gay marriage in seven states (Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, and Washington State) and the District of Columbia and civil unions or domestic partnerships in twelve states (Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, California, and Hawaii).

All the remaining states (very recently North Carolina) have banned gay marriage, with the exception of New Mexico, which has neither recognized nor officially banned gay marriages or partnerships. President Obama declared just after North Carolina’s ban that his “evolving” view on gay marriage has led him to conclude it should be legal. Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, declared shortly after that his conviction that marriage is “between one man and one woman.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule this year whether state bans of gay marriage are a violation of gays’ Fourteenth Amendment right to the equal protection of the laws. Thus, the question of marriage brings again to the fore questions of federal-state relations (whether the federal government can intervene in a traditionally state-level concern) and church-state relations (in this case whether the federal government can force legal recognition of a practice many religionists take to undermine one of their most sacred institutions).

It is an irony of history that the currently most visible champion of traditional, monogamous marriage, Mitt Romney, is a Mormon who is a distant product of polygamous marriage.  Romney’s position here and his rise to political prominence illustrate how Mormons have progressed in their relationship to American society. He represents Mormonism’s slow incorporation into the American mainstream.

American Evangelicals, probably the group that has been most suspicious of Romney’s faith, are likely to support him with some enthusiasm after his now especially relevant stand on gay marriage. But Evangelicals had already joined forces with Mormons on gay marriage, abortion, and other family issues despite their theological reservations. In political matters, Evangelicals and Mormons are natural allies, and this alliance may be the primary means by which Mormons move fully into the mainstream at least of culturally conservative American life.

But the relationship between Mormons and Evangelicals and between Mormons and national politics raise even deeper issues of concern and of special concern to readers of VoegelinView: the nature of Christianity and the relation of Gospel and culture. Americans are vaguely aware that Mormonism differs theologically in some way from mainstream Christianity in its Protestant and Catholic varieties. Evangelicals and orthodox Christian believers are, many of them, keenly aware of the differences. They are less aware of the nature of the similarities.

Trepanier and Newswander sum up the “most notable” differences as “the addition of ‘new’ Mormon scripture (the Book of Mormon), the Mormon idea of Christ, and corresponding views on the afterlife and the eternal nature of mankind.” Mainstream Christians, of course, believe that the fundamentals of Christian faith and theology were revealed fully in the Bible, reading the New Testament as a sufficient completion of the revelation begun in the Hebrew scriptures, which they call the Old Testament.

Joseph Smith, much like Muhammad for the Muslims, thought the old faith had been in some measure corrupted and presented a new revelation (actually, in Smith’s case, an old lost one he rediscovered) supposed to set things right. Smith’s mission, then, was, like Muhammad’s, a purifying one. Like Muhammad he was troubled by the chaos of religious opinions and the loose morals he found surrounding him. The discovery of the lost revelation (as told by the prophet Mormon) would bring final clarity about the fundamentals of faith and morals.

Mormons believe that Jesus came for the salvation of mankind and that he is the leader of that saving work. Jesus is for them, then, as for mainstream Christians, unique and central to their faith. The most important differences about Christ, it would seem, are that, according to Mormons, he was one of several sons of God before advocating to be savior of the world and that he visited the New World after his resurrection (and long before any Europeans made their way there). Of these two, the most objectionable to non-Muslim believers would surely be that Jesus did not have a special status before his commissioning. Working this problem out would involve interpretation of the first chapter of the Book of John and comparing with relevant passages in the Book of Mormon.

The most controversial Mormon belief, for mainstream Christians, is no doubt that faithful believers will become “gods” in the afterlife. This emphatically does not mean they will become equals of God, but what it does mean is unclear, even among Mormons. How literally is the claim meant? Does it mean merely that they are god-like–godly (pure), creative actors who share in ruling the universe? If this is all it means, is this really different in principle from the biblical claim that man is made in God’s image and commissioned to rule the earth? Or does it mean something more, and if something more, what? It is hard to conceive what this something more might be if men remain inferior to God. A comparison of Mormonism with mainstream Christianity is, as Trepanier and Newswander suggest, clarifying. It highlights the essential questions about Christianity: What is the nature of faith and revelation? What is the meaning of Christ? What is man and what is man’s destiny? What is the this-worldly mission of Christianity–its cultural and political or civilizing role?

What Mormonism has to say on all these questions is very interesting indeed. Even where it diverges from mainstream Christian teaching, it illuminates Christianity. The origins of Mormon faith and its early development mirror the Abrahamic experience. Mormons might be called the Third Israel, after the Hebrew and Puritan ones. The Puritans, of course, and many other Americans, too, called America the “New Israel.” Like Abraham, they had set out from the Old World to a Promised Land that God would show them; they had struggled like the Israelites in the American wilderness to establish themselves; they had like the Israelites made a covenant with God to obey his commands and would be a representative people, an example for the world of God’s blessings, if they were faithful, or of his wrath should they turn from the truth path. The Mormons led by Joseph Smith, like the Puritans, fled persecution and trekked to a new “Zion” (ultimately Salt Lake City), going without knowing their destination to the place God would establish them. This story of faith and faithfulness is worth pondering.

For Mormons, as for other Christians, Christ is at the center of their scriptures and faith and is the focus of divine revelation. Both groups agree Jesus is the savior of the world. But what does Christ reveal, and how does he reveal it? The traditional answer is that Christ is both Son of God and Son of Man, the image of God (of His essential character) and the picture of what man is supposed to be, anointed like the old Israelitic kings, this time with the Holy Spirit, to bring in a New Kingdom and protect his people and save them from corruption, and to show anyone with eyes to see how to live on and in God. This is the Bible’s presentation of the Gospel. Mainstream Christians have considered the biblical message to be sufficient and therefore at a minimum see no need for and usually reject as erroneous the Book of Mormon.

But the question remains, how to understand revelation? It is one thing to hear a message; it is another to understand it. It is one thing to see a vision; it is another to find meaning in it.  On this point Mormons and non-Mormon Christians have much to teach each other. The differences raise the question–what does it mean? Many Christians object to the Mormon idea of ongoing revelation, revelation extending not only to the Book of Mormon but to new revelations that come from time to time to Church leaders. And yet few Christians will deny that one can read the Bible and not be inspired by it, can read it without, in other words, being a Christian. The revelation must be reenacted in the reader, the hearer, the witness. This could be called ongoing revelation, not indeed revelation of something new, but a new revelation of something old.

The final question is that of man’s destination under God in this world and in the next. There was a time when Mormons organized their society on a more democratic version of the Hebrew model, as a “theodemocracy.” That time has passed. Some Christians might worry, however, about the possibility of a too close connection in Mormon faith and theology between religion and politics, or even a conflation of religion and politics. America, as we have noted, has a central place in the Mormon story, and might be thought of as a kind of Holy Land for Mormons, especially in Utah. One president of the Mormon Church said the U.S. Constitution was “divinely inspired” and a “sacred document,” which some might interpret as a kind of political idolatry. Mormonism is thus subject to unique temptations to political religion. But as Voegelin observed, Christianity in general is subject to unique temptations, as the perversion of the Christian vision of history by radical movements ancient and modern strikingly showed.

Mormonism’s attention to the afterlife reminds us of what Mormons like to call keeping the “eternal perspective,” or what the classic Christian theologians called living sub specie aeternitatis (under the face of eternity). Keeping the eternal in mind is a special challenge in modern times, particularly in affluent modern America, where even most Christians tend to focus on storing up earthly treasures rather than the other kind. It must be confessed that many Mormons do this too, but the prominence of the principle in their theology might serve as a beacon to the nation. In the final analysis, perhaps the appropriate Protestant and Catholic attitude toward Mormons is the one Lincoln recommended toward the Union’s Southern brothers: “let us judge not, lest we be judged” and do right to each other “as God gives us to see the right.”


Also see How Mormonism Shaped America,” An American Marriage: Mormons, Polygamy, and Federalism,” “Mormons in the American Imagination,” Liberal Democracy and Mormon Culture,” “Mormon Authority and Identity in America,” and “The Transformation From Theocracy to Democracy in Utah.”

Scott SegrestScott Segrest

Scott Segrest

Scott Segrest is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Citadel. He is author of America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense (Missouri, 2009).

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