When I first saw the painting here by Jon McNaughton, I thought it was one of the best distillations of civil religion I’d seen. While most American civil religion focuses on generic Jewish and Christian themes, I wondered if this painting didn’t reference some particularly Mormon doctrine.
Jesus holding the Constitution was what first made me wonder. For reference, from the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints news web site:
At the October 1987 general conference, President Ezra Taft Benson . . . spoke “about our divine Constitution, which the Lord said ‘belongs to all mankind’ (D&C 98:5) ‘and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles.’ (D&C 101:77.) “The Constitution of the United States has served as a model for many nations and is the oldest constitution in use today.
“‘I established the Constitution of this land,’ said the Lord, ‘by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.’ (D&C 101:80.)
An LDS family member of mine then pointed out the student in the lower left portion of the painting. One of the reasons why this painting is being discussed far and wide is that the artist described each person in the painting. Here is how he described “College Student”:
He is holding some books under his arm. This book on the top is I believe the most important book written of why America is so great and how it has influenced the world. It’s called “The Five Thousand Year Leap” by Cleon Skousen. It explains that if it had not been for the founding fathers and how they set up our Constitution we could not have created the environment to allow for the great advances of the modern world. We literally went from hoes and shovels to placing a man on the moon and we took a five thousand year leap in human development. Truly these men were inspired!
It’s not just that we get the “inspired” language again but also the Cleon Skousen reference. Skousen was, among other things (including a stint as an FBI employee and the police chief of Salt Lake City), a Brigham Young University professor. He was also an adviser to Ezra Taft Benson. And it’s worth noting, since everyone is talking about Cleon Skousen these days, that his teachings are controversial even within the Mormon community. They are not official LDS teachings — as some are making them out to be.
Okay, all this is prelude to the media analysis. Here’s how the Telegraph (U.K.) wrote about the painting:
Liberal America skewered in painting that stresses Christian roots of US consitution
One Nation Under God, a painting by a Christian artist that depicts Jesus Christ holding the United States constitution while an evolutionary academic, Hollywood actor and “liberal news reporter” huddle at his feet, is generating mirth and praise online.
The article continues to use the generic Christian descriptor. But I’m wondering whether they — and much of the online punditry discussing the piece — missed the more interesting religion angle.
I work for an artist who’s taking some heat at the moment. Jon McNaughton (LDS), is an artist best known for his landscapes, and as of late his religious paintings of the savior. You may have seen his work within the LDS Ensign magazine or other western art publications.
Well, there you go. The truth is that the piece is so much more interesting to look at when it comes with a bit more understanding of the perspective and religious views of the artist. Too bad the Telegraph reporter couldn’t do some basic research for his article. Maybe all religious adherents look alike to him, but the particulars of religious belief can actually be illuminating.