Mormon America

OneNationUnderGodWhen 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 dug around McNaughton’s web site and saw that he has done paintings of various Latter-day Saint temples. And he’s from Utah. There’s also this opinion piece on a local Idaho news site:

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.

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  • Jerry

    Liberal America skewered in painting that stresses Christian roots of US consitution

    Mollie, if you had skewered the reporter for conflating liberal and secular, you would have won my trifecta.

    Beyond liberal Christians, Jews and Muslims, there is no inherent reason why other liberals could not see the divine providence behind America. Certainly our founders did as the Great Seal illustrates. Given that many of the founders were deists, it’s not even that great a stretch.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Interesting that the liberals are on Jesus’s left (like the goats who go to hell in Matthew 25)

  • Shelly

    I absolutely love this picture. I didn’t know it existed. Yes, when one studies and ponders, truth is revealed. Revelation is ongoing. Those who have not experienced this find it hard to understand. I am so grateful for my studies into the restoration of the gospel (LDS Church) during our time and our country.

  • Martha

    Oh, dear.

    I suppose that means that we benighted hopeless ones in the rest of the world that are not so fortunate as to have the divinely foreordained Constitution personally written by the hand of God Himself are just going to have to reconcile ourselves to being less than the dust beneath the chariot wheels of America, then?

    Jerry, some of us like to think that we might have a teeny-weeny speck of a chance at the new heaven and the new earth, despite the fact that we are not inhabitants of the North American continent – oops, I guess Canada doesn’t count either, does it? :-)

  • Rathje

    I like how the news reporter and the “activist judge” are on Jesus left and not going to fare so well.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    This is a question about the painting. I see the Capitol and and Supreme Court but I don’t see the White House. Is that because Mormons believe Jesus is the only rightful holder of executive power, that all others are mere pretenders to the Presidency?

  • http://www.latterdayconservative.com Brian Mecham

    Mollie stated: “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.”

    Controversial doesn’t mean false. Skousen has written so many books, most of which are spot on with LDS doctrine. I am LDS and every time I’ve run into someone that says his teaches are controversial or not inline with official teachings, I ask them to be specific, to bring up one false teaching and they can’t… to this date no one ever has.

    You shouldn’t paint him with such a broad brush.

    The President of our Church, Thomas S. Monson, spoke at Skousen’s funeral. (I was there) He only had good things to say.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Brian,

    I know Mormons who LOVE Skousen. Heck, I’m related to some of them. And I know Mormons who think he’s a crackpot. I’m not in any way making a judgment on Skousen’s teachings. I haven’t actually read him. Quite simply, however, you can find Mormon and non-Mormon defenders and detractors of the man and his teachings. That’s all I was pointing out.

  • Jotapero

    This painting was the inspiration for the equally brilliant South Park espisode where it is clearly pointed out by hell’s party host, that the Mormon Church was indeed the true church. Much to the dismay of all the unaware, recently deceased party participants.

  • http://www.latterdayconservative.com Brian Mecham

    Molliem, My message wasn’t meant to imply you were making a judgment of Skousen’s teachings. I should clarify that it was meant to give my input, as a Latter-day Saint (mormon), regarding the common misunderstanding of his teachings. Unfortunately most LDS who think he’s a ‘crackpot’ haven’t even studied his writings, and couldn’t point out a specific flaw in his teachings.

    I’m not saying he’s never been wrong about anything, but as someone who has read many of his books and had the opportunity to learn from him just months before his death, I would ask others to judge him and his works based on the fruits…

    Matthew 7:20 – “By their fruits ye shall know them”. The fruits of Skousen’s teachings are definitely good fruits.

  • Jerry

    Martha, Those that believe America has a special place in the world, and dare I say it, a God-ordained purpose, don’t necessarily have to believe in an American empire.

    Instead first we should have the perspective that many civilizations had such a destiny including China, India, Islamic Caliphate, Greece, Rome and the British Empire to name just a few. So Americans should remember that our day in the sun is not eternal and, sooner or later, the torch will be passed.

    And because those civilizations were often accompanied with chariot wheels does not mean that our task is the same. Isn’t it possible to dream that Americans should live up to our ideals instead of bringing the blessings of civilization to unwashed heathen natives?

    Could it be that God actually wants us to live up to the self-evident truth that we are all created equal?

    That’s why I’m not bothered by people who recognize this except when history and news stories are distorted by those who refuse to see the influence of religion on American history or by those who want to cast people of good will who have different political ideas into lakes of fire.

  • chris g

    There is also the meme that the freedoms created by the constitution were a necessary step in developing a system that could support the LDS Church’s restoration. This fits in with other memes that see the emergence of the LDS Church as political knife edge that was just tipped in the right direction due to some of the content in the constitution (freedom of worship for example and, perhaps, church/state separation).

    I know the homeschooling movements with which I am familiar really buy into the idea of an inspired constitution and the need for a divinely inspired government.

    I think this whole divination of the constitution is interesting when looked at from the evolutionary psychology perspective that ideas with quasi-impossible (or non-natural) pieces are remembered much better. Are people naturally finding ways to keep the story of the constitution vibrant and relevant?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    chris g said:

    “I know the homeschooling movements with which I am familiar really buy into the idea of an inspired constitution and the need for a divinely inspired government.”

    Yes, this is certainly true. The baptist based curriculum my parents used when I was homeschooled certainly taught that the U.S. Constitution inspired by God. It even argued that the Constitution was designed to eventually abolish slavery. Mormons not the only people in America to think the Constituion is a Holy document. I bet Dr. D.James Kennedy thought it was, too. But then, perhaps, if we take his words at the Constitutional Convention at face value, Benjamin Franklin did, too.

  • Martha

    Jerry, I am only aware of one instance where God said to a particular people “You are specially chosen” and (1) they weren’t Americans (2) this destiny did not involve becoming a world power.

    America is no worse than the rest of us; America is no better than the rest of us. I think your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution are truly noble documents. I do not think the archangel Gabriel descended from on high and handed over the original parchment inscribed with the words.

    Anyways, I dare anybody to take one look at this image and then have the nerve to complain about the Sacred Heart being an idol. Go ahead – I dare ya ;-)

  • Jamal

    I’m LDS and I say Skousen’s ideas were kooky to the core, and I grew up in a house where his word was practically on par with GAs. His Reed Benson-like sighting of Commnists under every rock and pillow for one thing (and I like Reed Benson on a personal level having taken more than one kooky class from him at the Y, but come on Commie-hunter, you long ago passed into the realm of the ridiculous). And geez, don’t even get me started on his crazy ideas about Israel (angels fighting alongside terrorist Apartheid Israelis in 1967?? Puh-leeez!).

    I’ll credit Skousen with being able to weave a nice tale. He could have been and really should have been a professional storyteller. He did come off in person like the GA who can string an amazing and wonderful story together in a talk. Only problem was, he spent a lifetime taking a couple fragments of reliable data but then tacking on hundreds of guesses and off-the-deep-end errors and spinning it all as if it were the Lord’s revealed truth. Which it wasn’t. If President Monson spoke at his funeral and said nice things, that’s fine, it doesn’t change how kooky and extreme his ideas were.

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  • peg

    The key Mormon founders were genetic descendants of the Puritans.

    If we are going to critique the “America as New Israel” metaphor (as well we should!), we need to return to take a new look at Puritan/Cromwellian postmillenialism as well as the neo-Puritans of our day, including D. James Kennedy.

    The Jewish writer, David Gelernter, is right. Americanism is the ‘Fourth Western Religion,’ and that religion was not founded by Joseph Smith.

    The biggest obstacle to the gospel in Saudi Arabia is Islam; in India it is Hinduism; in America it is Americanism.

    Mormonism is a combination of neo-gnosticism, proto-pentecostalism, Montanist extremism and Puritanism. But the last ingredient is the most important.

    And the most overlooked.

    If evangelical scholars don’t see it, how are journalists to see it?

  • jkc

    Jamal is right. I am a Mormon and I have read “The 5000 Year Leap.” It is cukoo. I won’t drag this thread any further off course with specific examples, but just look at any of the the constitutional arguments in “Leap.” It’s like he’s never actually read debates of the constitutional convention, and if he has, he totally ignores any of the founders who disagreed with his ideas of what the constitution means.

    Brian says that Skousen should be judged by his fruits. Those fruits, as I’ve seen them in the lives of close friends who have chosen to adhere to his teachings, are paranoia, excessive eschatological thinking, hatred and demonizing (not just disagreeing with) political opponents, political extremism, and sadly, borderline racism. Those are not good fruits.

    I am NOT saying that Skousen himself was racist and hateful. I never met him and I have no reason to think that he was. But that is the effect that his teachings have had on friends of mine who accept them. There is a good reason that Skousen’s teaching have never been accepted by the leaders of the church.

    And the fact that President Monson didn’t have anything bad to say about him does not imply some sort of endorsement, either. What, do you really expect someone giving a eulogy to get up and discuss all the decedent’s faults? Of course not, that’s not what a funeral is for. Of course he only had good things to say, it was a funeral for crying out loud. That doesn’t mean that his teachings are in line with church teachings.

  • http://www.cameronnielsen.com Cameron

    @ #4, Mormons don’t believe that the US constitution is unique in being inspired. We believe that many governments and societies on all parts of the planet have been inspired as needed throughout the centuries. We do believe that it was part of God’s plan in providing an environment for the Restoration of the Gospel.

    Elder Quintin L. Cook, one of the twelve apostles, spoke earlier this year at BYU’s Law School, and made the point that although the overall ideas Constitution are inspired, we shouldn’t look at it like every word came from Heaven. Horrible paraphrase, but something along those lines.

  • Jason
  • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam Greenwood

    Brian,
    Mollie is right. I’m a conservative Mormon myself, but I personally think, and know lots of people who think, that Skousen was not all that.

    Cameron,
    Mormons do not necessarily believe that the US constitution was uniquely inspired, but certainly many of them do, including me. In general when we meet a claim about what Mormons believe that we’re uncomfortable with, we shouldn’t just deny it outright if there’s any truth to it.

  • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam Greenwood

    I think this whole divination of the constitution

    I think you mean divinization, though using the Constitution for divination would be extremely cool.

    “Hmm, you were born under Article II. You have leadership abilities but you aren’t good with money. Be careful to check your tendency toward violence.”

  • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam Greenwood

    Yeah, the absence of the White House is interesting. I’m only guessing, but I think Skousen was sort of a paleo-con–he was against “imperial overstretch” and the “imperial presidency” and wanted to return to the Congress-centered days of the old, 19th C. Republic. So if this guy is a Skousen fan, maybe that’s why he left the white house out, dunno.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    “I think you mean divinization, though using the Constitution for divination would be extremely cool.”

    I see a bestseller lurking in there.

  • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam Greenwood

    Mormonism is a combination of neo-gnosticism, proto-pentecostalism, Montanist extremism and Puritanism. But the last ingredient is the most important.

    You forgot to mention garlic. Also, arminianism, semi-arminianism, semi-reformed arminiansim, sufism, irredentism, pastoralism, supercessionism, anti-supercessionism, post-exponential Mariolatry, and, of course, garlic.

  • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam Greenwood

    Matt K.,

    The Bill of Rights Code: Your Secret Guide to Money and Health!

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  • peg

    You forgot to mention garlic. Also, arminianism, semi-arminianism, semi-reformed arminiansim, sufism, irredentism, pastoralism, supercessionism, anti-supercessionism, post-exponential Mariolatry, and, of course, garlic.

    Indeed, Adam. Hilarious!!

    And yes, it would be garlic (the more traditional alternative) over Garlique. No?

  • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam Greenwood

    You stinking liberals use garlique, but I will use the traditional garlic salt in a can from Walmart until I die.

  • Stephen A.

    Interesting painting, but bizarre on a few levels.

    From the Telegraph article cited above, which does a good, balanced job of covering this:

    The artist says that the painting is intended to highlight the Christian roots of the US constitution. Around Christ are arranged some of the Founding Fathers and other American patriots including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant, the civil war general.

    But McNaughton’s goal may be partially undermined by his inclusion of Thomas Paine, the religion-hating political pamphleteer, and Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US and the man who drafted the nation’s constitution.

    Jefferson argued passionately for the division of church and state and attacked religious superstition, leading some historians to conclude that his views approached atheism.

    The quote from the Mother Jones editor that this was quite a well-done piece of art was generous and of course true, IMO.

    A spoof cited in the article does a tremendous job of highlighting not only the anachronism of including the Deist Jefferson and atheist Paine, but several others who pretty much hated religion, and Christianity in general. Madison’s image, for example, features a quote that religion and government should never mix. Oops. Guess he will be proven wrong if this image is correct.

    The entire concept of American patriotism = religion is extremely suspect, but many conservative Christians would see this painting and be nodding in agreement with the artist’s descriptions. Not realizing, of course, that there are several Unitarians, Deists and others there. But I suppose this is meant to be a metaphor for the Judgment, as the frightened, apparently pagan immigrant’s description attests to.

    It’s also unclear why Marbury v Madison is somehow “wicked” or the pregnant woman who apparently wants to keep the baby. But this isn’t art criticism, after all.

    And personally, I think the Hollywood Agent should have looked more like Ari Gold from HBO’s Entourage.

  • Adam Greenwood

    That’s a pretty tendentious account of what Jefferson was up to chruch/state why, or at least its a disputed account. The artist is probably including Jefferson as a way of saying that he rejects the standard left-liberal view of what Jefferson and Madison envisioned in the way of church-state relations. Also, note that for Mormons Madison and Jefferson both have appeared in vision and asked for posthumous baptism.

    Paine, though . . .

  • peg

    Adam,

    You would think when facing hell common sense would prevail.

    After all, garlic is of no help there.

  • Sarah Webber

    I saw this painting referenced on another blog I just discovered (http://www.slacktivist.typepad.com/) that I’m finding fascinating reading. Anyway, one of the commenters refrenced this version of the painting http://wonkette.com/411524/gahh-the-jesus-painting-blood-redux/ and all I can say is yuk but interesting.

  • Pat Lynch

    “Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US and the man who drafted the nation’s constitution.”

    Jefferson was in Paris and did not participate in the Constitutional Convention. He is the chief author of the Declaration of Independence, however, and he edited his own Bible which excluded the divinity of Jesus.

  • Susan O’Neal

    I like the painting and think that it depicts that the Constitution was inspired by God. One of the things this country was founded on was freedom of religion. It wasn’t the only thing, but it was one of the important things. People should be allowed to worship God as it pleases them. Our country’s motto is “In God We Trust.” I am not saying the United States is any better than any other country, but I do think this country was chosen by God for a specific purpose. Do you think the Jews are any better than any other people? At one time, they were God’s chosen people and everybody else was left out in the cold. But eventually, Peter was shown in a vision that the gospel should be taught to the gentiles, also. I don’t claim to be all knowing, but I believe God has a purpose and will bring it about in His own way in His own time.

    As for Leon Skousen, I have only read three of his books. The First 2,000 Years, The Third Thousand Years, and the Fourth Thousand Years. He may have gone cuckoo after he wrote those, but in reading them, I was helped in understanding the Old Testament a bit better. The Old Testament in many places was very hard for me, and he put it in every day practical terms. I don’t remember everything I read, but I feel that when I go back to those chapters and verses that confused me before, I will be able to recall an inkling of information.
    In closing, I think that we should just do as the Savior suggested. Love thy neighbor as thyself. And I should practice what I preach. :o)

  • Stephen A.

    It occurs to me that after the Mormons’ bad experience of baptizing dead Jewish people (their descendants were outraged and the Mormons said they’d stop doing it) I would have thought Mormon individuals would be a bit more careful portraying non-Mormons (including Deists, Unitarians and atheists in this painting) as worshiping Jesus.

    Are any non-Mormons offended? If so, that’s an angle worth pursuing – though not worth manufacturing, if none are.

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  • http://coltakashi.livejournal.com Raymond Takashi Swenson

    While one could argue that the USA in the Nineteenth Century engaged in good old European-style imperialism against the Indians and then Mexico and Spain, in the Twentieth Century the USA was indispensible in the liberation of much of the world from Nazism, Japanese imperialism, and then Soviet imperialism, while not taking any new imperial privileges from other nations. The USA’s wars in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost it many billions of dollars and thousands of lives, without appropriating oil or any other wealth in the pattern of imperialism past.

    America’s Declaration of Independence and its written Constitution and Bill of Rights have been the template for national independence of former colonies worldwide. This is not because “Americans” are better than other nations. Rather, America is a unique nation that is based on political ideals rather than ethnicity. It is a “world state” that has attracted people from all parts of the earth, even electing the son of a Kenyan college student its president. Almost every ethnicity across the world has a counterpart that is embedded in America (including my own Japanese ancestral culture).

    I would assert that the USA in 2009 is better positioned to sympathize with all nations of the earth than any other single nation. There is no nation more tempermentally suited to be the custodian of economic and military power, and to guard democratic nations from new threats, including nuclear-armed Islamic jihadism.

    If there were no USA, billions worldwide would be praying to God for deliverance. If God gave freedom to mankind, it was through the instrumentality of the USA. The perverse psychology of mankind leads many to resent their benefactors, just as adolescents who have an easy life resent their parents.

  • dicentra

    I would have thought Mormon individuals would be a bit more careful portraying non-Mormons (including Deists, Unitarians and atheists in this painting) as worshiping Jesus.

    What for? The idea is that the Founders, being dead, would have already cottoned to the fact that Jesus is real and divine.

    The other interpretation of their inclusion is that they were divinely inspired to found the nation as they did, even if they were unaware of that inspiration.

    And yes, one should never omit garlic from the mix.

  • Bill Kilpatrick

    At what point does respect give way to idolatry? At what point does somebody’s “one great truth” matter more than all the little truths swept under the rug? There’s a certain innocence reflected by throwing all that’s good into a cultural blender – including God, home and family, Jesus and the Constitution – but maybe it’s not innocence so much as manipulation.

    Sentimentality is one thing, but purposeful sentimentality is another. Sometimes, exaggerated veneration masks another agenda. What is it about the Constitution that should evoke religious rapture? Is it the idea of checks and balances? Is it federalism? Is it the rule of law? The Constitution makes no mention of God. Jesus only shows up indirectly, as a cultural reference in the dating of the document “in the year of our Lord” 1787. In the meantime, the oath of office – even for the President – contains no amen like “so help me God.” In fact, the Constitution forbids the use of religious tests as qualifications for office.

    James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” was a protege of Jefferson, who himself rejected the divinity of Jesus and wrote his own version of the Gospels – with all supernatural elements removed. Both favored the Separation of Church and State, which is embodied in the First Amendment’s prohibition against both an Establishment of religion and inteference with its Free Exercise.

    There’s an added dimension to this painting that can only be appreciated within an LDS worldview, where the Church is “true” because it contains the “Restored” Gospel – a restoration of “plain and precious parts” lost by mortal (and sometimes scheming) men. When Mormons put the Constitution on a similar pedestal, it suggests that change is dangerous. There’s a privileging of reactionary attitudes. Never mind the fact that the Constitution had to be amended 10 times to get it ratified, or that it was largely based on the British Constitution (which isn’t contained in a single set of Monopoly rules). Never mind the fact that this “inspiration” was the direct result of trial and error with the Articles of Confederation, or that it was based on Enlightenment views which were not exactly reverential about religion. Never mind the fact that it left slavery intact and that the debate behind the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise was not slavery but apportionment. The delegates decided to count black slaves as “three-fifths” of a person for the purpose of deciding the delegate count from slave states.

    When some Mormons go from the “one true faith” to the “one true party” – granting the same reverential obedience to the GOP – they view change as a kind of “falling away.” Not surprisingly, some Mormon leaders – like Skousen and Ezra Taft Benson – were against the Civil Rights Movement. As an alumnus of BYU, I still remember hearing of the Civil War Amendments (abolishing slavery, demanding due process and expanding the vote) as if they were degradations to something pristine. Perhaps that’s why McNoughton’s painting – while gushing warm fuzzies for Jesus and the good guys – is more hostile to activist judges, women who want autonomy over their own bodies and greedy, greedy lawyers.

    Behind the glassy eyes and plastered smiles of feigned innocence, there are darker intentions – and at least less hospitable views about those who don’t share such wistful nostalgia for a time when the vote was denied to blacks, women and Native Americans. One wonders if similarly wistful artwork didn’t decorate the halls of the Reichstag when Hitler wooed the peasantry to genocide.


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