Friday, August 31, 2012

Mitt and the historic Mormon paradox

In this moment when Mormonism is thrust under the national spotlight by Mitt Romney's candidacy, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: the transformation of America 1815-1848 provides a perspective on this peculiarly New World religious variation. Howe's portrait of the emerging sect in the 1830's includes this intriguing description.

The Book of Mormon purports to chronicle the history of an ancient people who once inhabited the American continent. … True or not, the Book of Mormon is a powerful epic written on a grand scale with a host of characters, a narrative of human struggle and conflict, of divine intervention, heroic good and atrocious evil, of prophecy, morality, and law. Its narrative structure is complex. The idiom is that of the King James Version [of the Christian Bible], which most Americans assumed to be appropriate for a divine revelation. Although it contains elements that suggest the environment of New York in the 1820s, … the dominant themes are biblical, prophetic, and patriarchal, not democratic or optimistic. It tells a tragic story, of a people who, though possessed of the true faith, fail in the end. Yet it does not convey a message of despair; God's will cannot ultimately be frustrated. The Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature, but it has never been accorded the status it deserves, since Mormons deny Joseph Smith's authorship, and non-Mormons, dismissing the work as a fraud, have been more likely to ridicule than read it.

I had never been exposed to the idea of the Book of Mormon as literature before.

I was also struck by the parallel between Muslims and Mormons in this regard: both religions deny that their scriptures can be read in any way except as direct revelation from God, without human intermediaries. Most Christians and Jews assume human authors assembled/wrote their sacred books. A belief in direct revelation creates an unyielding edifice for a faith. Yet such religions have found that they needed mechanisms to interpret their divinely revealed books in different societies. Most Muslims have empowered a class of law-interpreters who are scholars -- not in any way sacred, but wielding authority. Mormons created a hierarchy led by a President/Prophet who can lay down the law within the denomination, for example by ending the religious admonition in favor of polygamy and re-interpreting Mormon scripture to permit persons of African descent to assume male religious authority. Living traditions of all sorts require such interpreters, but obviously those that claim to derive from holy books written directly by God have a harder time steering new courses.

Mormons played a political role in Howe's period -- in fact hostile reactions to their political activity played a part in the persecution that drove Mormons to emigrate to Utah -- the absolute back of beyond in its day. The early Mormons tried to use their votes to protect their charismatic prophet and their right to their novel faith.

… the Mormons cast their votes in 1840 for the Whig presidential electors [because Democrats failed to protect them.] …Democratic politicians did not give up on the Mormons, however, and when Missouri agents came to arrest Joseph Smith as a fugitive from justice, Stephen Douglas, acting in his capacity as an Illinois state judge, set the prophet free. The grateful Mormons returned to the Democratic fold in 1842. In predominantly Democratic Illinois, it seemed a safer bet. The switch infuriated the Whigs, and did not restore the Mormons' popularity with their Democratic neighbors in the nearby towns of Warsaw and Carthage. Americans were accustomed to bloc voting by ethno-religious groups, but not to bloc voting that could go either way as directed.

The prophet Joseph Smith then planned to run for President in the 1844 but was lynched by anti-Mormons, setting off the move to the far west. Howe describes the paradox that resulted from Mormons' successful departure from the rest of the United States:

The Mormons transplanted their culture whole. Unlike so many other frontiers (Gold Rush California, for example) Utah experienced no transition from anarchy to civilization. The closest analogy in American history to the Mormon exodus would be the Great Migration of the Puritans from East Anglia to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, likewise religiously motivated, well organized, and implementing a preexisting blueprint. ….Early Mormon Utah was the largest of American utopian communities, an example to the world but not a part of it.

Ironically, the Mormons who sought to escape from the United States ended up playing a role in extending the United States. Their way of life, originally a millenarian critique of the larger society and a collectivist, authoritarian dissent from American individualistic pluralism, now impresses observers as the most "American" of all.

This year we'll be deciding whether the Mormon Romney -- the white patriarch with good hair -- is the prototypical "American" -- or whether a skinny mixed race guy with big ears can be just as much an icon of who we are. It's interesting that Romney's Mormons have always embodied and embraced "Americanism" while seeming foreign to their fellow citizens.

Other posts about What Hath God Wrought: Speed, communications and hope, Elections: Rousing the sluggish, and Doubling down on whiteness.


Rain Trueax said...

just after I got married, at 21, I studied Mormonism. Had their Book of Mormon as well as The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants. I was at that age eager for a religion that I felt I could follow; so was also studying Catholicism with a very intellectual Catholic priest. We had a nice Mormon couple coming to our house to give us instruction with a planned set of lessons which didn't work well as I was always a question person and several steps ahead of where they wanted to be. My husband and I were baptized into the Catholic Church in Tucson Arizona but left that church and eventually an evangelical one-- which dooms me to hellfire three times over as you aren't as accountable for rejecting Mormonism if you don't know what it is. It is, to me, a very weird religion is all I will say and most Americans have no clue what a high priest in that church had to agree to believing. They won't know either if Romney has his way. When I was studying it, they still had black people as wearing the sign of Cain due to the color of their skin... All direct revelation from God. I would like to hear more about what Romney thinks regarding it all as being a high priest should mean he believes a lot that an ordinary Mormon might not.

janinsanfran said...

Fascinating, Rain. I don't want to go all conspiracy theorist on Mormons, but I was really struck by the faith's history as a people apart, answering to what they believe are direct revelations.

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