Mormon America II
Bill Long 1/4/05
It is a truism that one of the spoils of battle going to the victor is the ability to write and rewrite the history of what took place in the battle and in the events leading up to the battle. History thereby becomes a tool in the hands of those in power to shore up ideologically what one didn't completely establish on the field of battle. And, everyone does it. Everyone wants to give a "take" on history that justifies current action or explains present-day reality. History, therefore, is a fluid medium, often filmy and flimsy, where not only the battles of the past are refought in the present. but that same past is also reconceptualized. The question, "What's new in the past?" is always one of the most important questions you can ask any thinking person.
Yet history isn't a completely subjective undertaking. It differs from the creation of our own private memories of events where we are the only witnesses. Written accounts, memories, second-hand stories and other remnants of the past help control the penchant for bending that same past too completely to fulfill present ideological needs.
History for the Latter-Day Saints
But as the Ostlings point out in Mormon America (and they are not unique to indicate this), history functions among the LDSs to create and solidify an identity that both is super-patriotic while, at the same time, being highly defensive and suspicious of the larger America of which it is a part. Here is the second truth/shadow issue to understand LDSs in America: their way of telling history shows their victimization as well as diligence but, at the same time, their present day life-style and ideological commitments wants to downplay victimization.
Mormons as Victims/As Eschewing Victimization
If there is one theme that permeates the way Mormons conceptualize their historical experience in America it is that we were unjustly persecuted. We were innocent victims of irrational rampages of the dominant community. Just as the sonorous biblical phrase "our ancestors were slaves in the land of Egypt" sums up an important principle of the ancient Israelite self-understanding, so the reality of being "driven out" and almost constantly in exile for about 15 years from the early 1830s until 1847 (when they settled in Utah) defines the Mormon self-consciousness. But we can go further. Their persecution wass of two kinds: first, by unthinking and ill-mannered local communities as the small but hardy LDS band was forced from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and finally to Utah and second, by the federal government after the Utah Territory was established. This second kind of persecution was an attempt to destroy the religion, as it did everything from forbidding the church to hold assets exceeding $50,000 to requiring the church to renounce its long-standing and important principle of polygamy.
Yet, on the other hand, as the Ostling's point out, Joseph Smith himself considered the Constitution of the United States to be divinely given and America to be the true promised land. This leads to a tension in any thinking Latter-Day Saint. On the one hand they are utterly committed to the idea of America and the free-enterprise system but, on the other hand, there is the memory of betrayal, hostility and threats to extermination that is continually stoked through Seminary education programs and church-approved publications. Thus there is an embrace of the system and, at the same time, a suspicion of that same system; a sense that this is our land but, at the same time, a deep feeling that we are aliens in this land.
Christian or Non-Christian
The way that this tension becomes the most visible is the debate over whether LDS people are Christians. On the one hand, the question is ludicrous. Of course they are Christians. You don't go around sayiing you are the "Church of Jesus Christ" in order to deny that same Christ. Yet, on the other hand, they are not like the mainstream Protestants or the evangelical Protestants out of whose womb they emerged in the theological stew of mid-19th century New York. They use language of "church" and "God" and "Christ" like the best Protestant but they really are not cut out of the same theological cloth. To be more obscure than desirable, their theology is Arian rather than Athanasian, their anthropology is Irenaean rather than Augustinian and their millennialism differs from that of Protestant Fundamentalism.
But here is the tension. Do we, speaking from the perspective of a Saint, emphasize the Christian traditional (that is, Protestant or Catholic) aspects of our faith and downplay the unique LDS parts (extra testament--which is now called "Another Testament"; food storage; physicality of God; one-time commitment to polygamy; previous existence; the "curse" of Ham; extreme secrecy) or do we embrace the panoply of traditional LDS doctrine and tell the world to be damned? As Mormonism becomes more embedded into the fabric of America both America and Mormonism will probably change (and I do have some ideas on how that will occur), but this question must remain.
Therefore, in my judgment, the most important issues for the next generation for LDS people are in the realm of ideas. How do we reconcile the tension between being a unique and chosen people in a land of "gentiles" who vastly outnumber us but whom we want to convert? Do we become more like them, dropping the "more unique " parts of our past or, by so doing, do we abandon our uniqueness and run the risk of becoming so absorbed in the mainstream of America that we no longer have any zeal for our ultimate task on earth: to bring all people into the restored faith of Jesus Christ?
The final essay deals further with this realm of ideas.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long