Immigration, Promised Lands, and Homelands


LDS pioneers who arrived in the Great Basin in 1847 were, well, squatters. I don’t know what else to call them. The academic term for their development of the Great Basin is “extralegal,” that is, outside of the bounds of law. They were stepping into the ungoverned and soon-to-be contested territory of the Spanish colonies, but even if their immigration was not technically illegal, their practice of polygamy certainly was. LDS pioneers were deemed a sexually deviant and threatening bunch, and no one gave us the legal right to settle and develop this land. But we had and still have our narrative of what this journey meant, how it was providentially aided, about why we could justify our arrival. For Mormons, it has always hurt that this story was not adopted by the national narrative as a deeply American story. Such adoption of one’s own story of providential arrival ultimately is the hope of those who come to promised lands. Tragically, promised lands are too soon converted into homelands—places of definitive belonging that exclude others— and they lose the romance of innocence.

Take any landscape back through time and it is a layered story of converging and diverging human histories. The only reason the Mormons knew about this place was because of an odd cooperation between two Ute Indians and the Dominguez-Escalante party who came northwest from New Spain (Mexico) to understand the unexplored and largely unknown topography north of the Grand Canyon. There were others who came after—Charles Fremont, and Etienne Provost—but the maps and legends found their way into the hands of Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young. This was a story of inadvertent collaboration that made the Mormon migration a possibility. It was also a story of repeated rejections of Mormons as outcasts that made the migration a necessity. No wonder the Mormons drew inspiration from the Book of Mormon, a sacred and archetypal tale of immigration if there ever was one, a book that argues that “there shall be none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord” (2 Nephi 1:16).

I don’t know exactly when it was that the LDS story was adopted, if in fact it was because no doubt in many corners it remains a strange and foreign story of otherness outside of the bounds of American normality. Growing up LDS in Connecticut and as a student in California for ten years, I never felt that my Mormon story was a candidate for adoption by anyone but by my own people. I always felt that my story of descent from Mormon pioneers, from polygamy on both sides of my family, and all of my particular experiences growing up Mormon and practicing my religion as an adult might create more walls than it would create bridges, so I generally learned to tell it quietly and in fragments, so that it wouldn’t cause too much alarm, unless, of course, I sensed genuine interest from someone seeking their own religious orientation in the world.

Maybe this was just paranoia and was not warranted, but, as the adage has it, just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Having been a microminority everywhere I had lived until I moved to Utah to join the Mormon super-majority, I knew full well just how off the radar my experience is. But if I have learned anything from my study of minority cultures, it is how necessary it is to have a few bold voices who share the particulars of a people’s experience without apology. The problem is that it is hard for many Mormons to believe that our story is worthwhile, let alone of interest, to those who just have common human interest in the Mormon story. Telling our story to such people means that we have to give up on trying to protect the special or even exceptional nature of Mormon experience, and maybe even separate the story, at least temporarily, from its religious meaning. Instead we must learn to see it and tell it as one unique piece of a much larger and more diverse whole. This has not been easy for Mormons.

The LDS story is a story of a long and arduous naturalization, one that was rife with political tension, anti-polygamous raids from the federal government, and no end of propaganda against the Mormons for the perception of their strange religious practices. It has made it possible for Mormons to hunger for integration into American life while also feeling perpetually distinct and apart. I sometimes think that something started to shift in Mormonism and maybe in the nation in 2002 when the Olympics were hosted here in Utah and when Mitt Romney, soon to be a serious contender for the presidency of the United States, welcomed the world here on the streets of our very Mormon towns and cities of Utah. Utah felt like it could be a warm and welcoming place for anyone and everyone and that we could genuinely respect and admire our different stories that bring us together. The story of Utah was told to the world in pageant form in the opening ceremonies, and the Mormon story was one among others. I remember walking the streets of Salt Lake City with fellow citizens of the world, all of us happy. It seemed that everyone mattered.

But while the nation was asked in the last two elections to undergo the pains of adopting Romney’s odd story as a scion of polygamy, born in Mexico no less, as an acceptable and natural American story, we have seen a rise of anti-immigrant fervor in Utah the likes of which I hope never to see again. A few years ago, things seemed to have reach a peak when Utah legislators took steps toward passing an anti-immigration bill modeled after the infamous Arizona bill. That bill had been written by a xenophobic Mormon in Arizona who was finally ousted from office thankfully by more moderate Mormon voices. And while that was happening, the LDS church quietly worked behind the scenes to help craft the Utah Compact, a set of reasonable, fair, and moderate principles that gave Utah legislators pause. The church owned paper, The Deseret News, urged this approach in a thoughtful editorial that called for reasonable adaptations of extralegal activity in the interest of preserving families and the civility of our community. Initially the legislators were unmoved, but at least one experienced a major change of heart when he finally listened to the heartbreaking story of one “illegal immigrant” who had lived here since she was a young toddler from a family had wanted nothing more from this land than what the Mormons had also once wanted: a promised land where opportunities were made available equally and fairly and where material blessings were shared. This was an amazing testimonial to the power of stories. You can see more of these stories in this wonderful video that stresses the need for a more Christian response.

The Utah Compact has been lauded nationally in many newspapers and was cited by President Obama as a reasonable set of principles. Sadly, this past weekend, the Utah County Republican party faced a vote to adopt its principles in its platform. After pleas from some of the most prominent conservatives in the valley, the party delegates rejected a wholesale adoption of the compact and instead adopted an unsatisfactory portion of the principles. There is a fundamental unease among some Mormons and many Christians with the idea of a shared and plural nation. This breaks my Christian heart.

Nationally conservativism is reported to be held hostage by a strong and influential right wing that is increasingly out of touch with the American mainstream, as well as within the party itself. This is making it difficult for a moderate and more widely popular conservative party to capture the national imagination. From gun control to immigration to environmental stewardship, we find polls indicating preference for more moderate positions among conservatives than the Republican party is willing to adopt. And as this recent vote reflects, it is making it increasingly difficult for moderate voices to be heard even at the local level. It is also harming the very conservative principles Republicans hold dear—especially, as the Utah Compact reflects, the values of family togetherness.

If the idea of a promised land means anything anymore, we must shun its appeal as a country club of exclusion. As the title of my book implies, I prefer the term “home waters” because its plurality and sense of ecology imply the obligation to share. I think the moral test of a promised land is to see whether we are worthy of it, and worthiness would come, it seems, from being capable of imagining the full range of God’s generosity.

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