So its election year in the US. It’s the year that we get to trust the American public to select the ‘leader of the free world’ (whatever that rather presumptuous aphorism means?). It’s the year that our news programmes at the ends of the earths are clogged with the latest from the US hustings which will dump endless medium shots of Romney with his immaculate pompadour, and Obama with his smug smile on us. We New Zealanders get to look on as who knows how many millions and millions of US dollars are stuffed down the proverbial drain to support two campaigns to elect yet another impotent American President. A President whose most aggressive opponents in bringing about reform and transformation to America will not be sitting on the opposite side of the house from him, but will consist of a voracious commercial sector, a rapacious industrial military complex, and the intransigent mythologies of America’s halcyon days long since past that will buzz incessantly in his ears from the pulpits of thousands of congregations across the continent.
For us New Zealand Mormons the contest leading up to November is even more interesting because of Romney. In the last six months I’ve actually been asked for whom I would cast my vote in the American Presidentials more times than I was asked about my political preferences in my own country’s recent elections. It seems very difficult for people outside our faith tradition to disaggregate our religious identity from the country from whence that faith tradition was born. Just as Catholics are a bit from Rome, and Jews are a bit from Jerusalem, Mormons all over the world are just a little bit from Utah and are therefore a bit American whether we like it or not.
I don’t particularly like it all. Don’t get me wrong, I love visiting the US and adore my American friends. I love ‘In and Out Burgers’, and the cute way Americans say ‘swap out’ instead of ‘change over’. I adore the way they are nostalgic about the Imperial System of measurement while the rest of the world has gone metric. I love that most Americans would be largely unaware of the fact that the rest of the world has gone metric. I love the way the Americans can talk with a pitch, pace and volume that I can’t possibly replicate. I love their good teeth and the way they whoop and holler when they go to the bowling alley as if all future joys in life depend on the ‘strike’. I think its sweet that they blush when they hear ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ and of course I’m an ardent consumer of many of their books and media which have provided hours of pleasant distraction for me over the years! To borrow a maxim from the many American visitors to our New Zealand podiums;
I love the people of America so much. What a beautiful country you have!!
But as one helluva proud Kiwi sometimes it’s difficult to feel wholly like a New Zealander while being a Mormon at the same time, and I feel ever so slightly peeved about it. This, I think, is largely because our religion calls upon us to perform our faith like Americans; to sing American songs; to use daft American titles like ‘President’; to be required to understand a cultural logic that doesn’t quite fit in over my own; to always feel like we are waiting for permission for something from America; to frequently tell or listen to American stories about Americans in America; and now to get caught up with an election that should be but a passing interest but feels rather like the future of the Mormon church.
But then again I am resigned to the fact that it wouldn’t be possible to grow a church anywhere in the world without the attendant cultural inscriptions borrowed from its host nation. I just think we could be a bit smarter about it and a bit more conscious of it. If the way we made sense of our religion was (as much as possible) mindful and cognizant of the way in which our national cultural habits shape our faith experiences, Romney and his republicans wouldn’t be positioned as a religious option or a spiritual possibility, they would be understood as politicians – pure and simple.
Yet when I was in the Utah a couple of months ago that’s not the impression I got from the punters. There was a startling conversation rumbling around the wards that has positioned Romney as ‘the one’ (because he is Mormon); to pray America out of its woes; who would prepare America for the second-coming; whose extraordinary wealth was a blessing from God for this moment! My sense was that there is a strain of American Mormon who seems to have glommed on to the notion that because Romney is wealthy he possesses the requisite skills to set America on its financial feet again and restore the fat to the land – which is apparently a precursor to the second-coming of Jesus to the Midwest?
There must be some alarmingly unhinged folk in certain Mormon circles for these kinds of notions to be so apparent to someone just passing through the Valley. Sure there is a vague possibility that Romney might be able to cook the books but its highly unlikely that Romney has any notion of how, or any will to deliver or even restore wealth to the entire country. He didn’t do it for Massachusetts (where I think the gulf between the rich and poor increased exponentially under Romney’s governorship) so one wonders why the faith in his disposition to do so nationally?
I do believe that our awareness, consciousness and attention as to the texture of our respective national cultures might offer us some spiritual liberty and the impetus to have a conversation with each other about what our special Mormon brand of Christianity means in practical terms. Perhaps we would be actively working to construct the ideal faith community, our Zion, instead of conflating things like the material benefits of upper middle-class incomes with the blessings of personal religious observance.
Perhaps we could freely answer the question as to why Mormons in the US are largely Republican, and be at liberty to have a decent chat about it in a Pleasant Grove Sunday School without folks getting white knuckled and watery eyed.
We might be able to wonder out loud in our sacrament talks about the efficacy of supporting what looks to be a tendency for the US to get involved in illicit and wasteful military campaigns across the world, and we’d allow the words of Mormon to inform our thinking as we pondered what it meant to:
…delight no more in the shedding of blood.
We might be able to openly consider the state of health care and social services in our respective countries and in discussion with each other we might speculate as to whether or not Alma was talking to our generation when he asks:
…will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?
…all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.
If we were a bit more awake to the tendency for our mortal political institutions to go spectacularly pear-shaped we’d bring a healthy skepticism to national leadership because we are aware that:
…we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Perhaps we would be able to have a healthy retort for any politician who gauged the prosperity of a nation by the NASDAQ or the Trade Weighted Index by asking them them if:
…ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted?
I’m sure there will be the predictable Rush Limbaugh fans who will try to poke holes in my ‘oh so obviously socialist’ ideology. But inasmuch as the Book of Mormon belt looks set to go Red in November and while there are small pockets of Mormons across the American continent and large pockets across the world saying ‘hang on a cotton picking minute! What’s that it says in my beloved scriptures??’ it would seem that we clearly have an ideological contest within our own ranks that some robust conversation could help us map. But sadly this won’t happen – at least not in Utah – where it should happen. Unfortunately we Mormons will be bullied along in a certain ‘cultural-political’ direction because there isn’t enough ‘raho’ (a Maori word –look it up) in the upper echelons to confront the possibility that treading the sacred territory of the right might upset donor revenue in the Basin. And here in New Zealand that will matter in terms of our religious/churched experience as these dominant ideological trajectories reach out to us in Othered places and work to shape our spiritual identities. America has been made to matter in non-American LDS places but it feels like an unwieldy beast, intransigent, bullish and utterly entitled. So from my soap-box at the bottom of the world I have a hope beyond hope that one day we’ll get to a place where our spaces, regardless of our geography, freely admits the kind of debate that seeks to work out our discipleship in a world full of ‘isms’. Where Mormons in the US are honored for being a people who manage the aggregation of their theology with the political terrain and are honest about the ripples it creates among their own across the world.
Just for fun and because few Mormon’s in New Zealand will never be vilified for not loving Mitt Romney and his straight teeth, I’m daring to play the lone down-under off-shore pundit.
Romney will be creamed in the Presidentials not because he’s a neo-liberal Mormon brat but because he can’t do Al Green, or slow jam the news, AND because he ain’t half as hot as Obama. And note this too, all you good ole boys who thought your wives to be the ideal sweet conservatives that you had married when she was 17, when you are out at work she’s on the internet getting all squiffy on that fine black man with his liquid eyes and his smart behind.