The Mormonizing of America: John Krakauer, Stephen Mansfield, and the Mormon Moment

I have known next to nothing about Mormons. Growing up as an evangelical Christian I was taught that Mormonism was a cult. A few youth group friends got into studying how to evangelize Mormons. They learned its history, and honed rhetorical strategies on the off chance they’d get to witness to a Mormon. I thought it was a waste of time. I had read the brochure – Mormons didn’t believe in the Trinity, black people were not acceptable to God, women were to be saved through their husbands, polygamy, mind control, Salt Lake City, magic peep stones, golden plates… whatever.

With the recent election and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism I’ve become a bit more interested. I couldn’t figure out how evangelicals (these are my people btw), were suddenly ready to give a Mormon a religious hall pass, especially given past attitudes toward Mormonism and the intense scrutiny of President Obama’s faith life. Obama’s religion has been a huge point of contention among many evangelicals. How did a Mormon candidate for president get Ralph Reed and Billy Graham on team Mitt while nobody said a thing about the fact that he is a Mormon?

Since then I’ve been reading Under the Banner of Heaven, so you can imagine what I am thinking right now. Krakauer characterizes Joseph Smith as a P.T. Barnum-like huckster who early in his adulthood was actually convicted of defrauding people by charging them money in order to find buried treasure with his peep-stones. Next thing you know he’s started his own religion and became a venerated saint. What has surprised me most about the LDS history isn’t the polygamy, the treatment of women, or their racism toward African Americans, but the incredible violence of their past. Sure these were violent times. Just read up on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and you’ll get a little taste.

I do not think Mormonism is a cult, per se, although from what I understand I think Mormon Fundamentalism should be considered a cult. Nevertheless, the mainstream LDS Church isn’t a Christian sect, or a Christian subset, or even Christian. Mormons are not Christians by any definition (save their own). They are not Trinitarian. Near as I can tell the LDS doctrine of God is a convoluted modalism. LDS soteriology has nothing in common with Judeo-Christian soteriology. Worship is different, eschatology is different – it’s not a Christian religion. It is its own thing.

Stephen Mansfield’s recent book, The Mormonizing of America might be my next read on the subject. He wrote an article recently in The Huffington Post – here’s an excerpt:

There are nearly seven million Mormons in America. This is the number the Mormons themselves use. It’s not huge. Seven million is barely 2 percent of the country’s population… In fact, worldwide, there are only about fourteen million Mormons. That’s fourteen million among a global population just reaching seven billion. Fourteen million is the population of Cairo or Mali or Guatemala. It’s approximately the number of people who tune in for the latest hit show on network television every week. Fourteen million Americans ate Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant in 2011. That’s how few fourteen million is.

Yet in the first decade or so of the new millennium, some members of the American media discovered the Mormons and began covering them as though the Latter-day Saints had just landed from Mars. It was as though Utah was about to invade the rest of the country. It was all because of politics and pop culture, of course. Mitt Romney and John Huntsman were in pursuit of the White House. Glenn Beck was among the nation’s most controversial news commentators. Stephenie Meyer had written the astonishingly popular Twilight series about vampires. Matt Stone and Trey Parker had created the edgy South Park cartoon series–which included a much- discussed episode about Mormons–and then went on to create the blatantly blasphemous and Saint-bashing Broadway play The Book of Mormon. It has become one of the most successful productions in American theater history.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen Mormons sat in the US Congress, among them Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader. Mormons led JetBlue, American Express, Marriott, Novell, Deloitte and Touche, Diebold, and Eastman Kodak. Management guru Stephen Covey made millions telling them how to lead even better. There were Mormons commanding battalions of US troops and Mormons running major US universities. There were so many famous Mormons, in fact, that huge websites were launched just to keep up with it all. Notables ranged from movie stars like Katherine Heigl to professional athletes to country music stars like Gary Allan to reality television contestants and even to serial killers like Glenn Helzer, whose attorney argued that the Saints made him the monster he was. The media graciously reminded the public that Mormon criminals were nothing new, though: Butch Cassidy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame was also a Mormon, they reported.

Most media coverage treated this “Mormon Moment” as though it was just that: the surprising and unrelated appearance of dozens of Mormons on the national stage–for a moment. More than a few commentators predicted it would all pass quickly. This new Mormon visibility would lead to new scrutiny, they said, and once the nation got reacquainted with tales of “holy underwear” and multiple wives and Jewish Indians and demonized African Americans and a book printed on gold plates buried in upstate New York, it would all go quiet again and stay that way for a generation. In the meantime, reruns of HBO’s Big Love and The Learning Channel’s Sister Wives would make sure Mormon themes didn’t die out completely.

You can read the rest of the article here.

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  • JT


    As one who has studied a fair amount on Mormonism, I would highly recommend going beyond Krakauer. To be sure, Krakauer is a great writer. However, keep in my mind that he is a journalist (not a historian) who shades his history a bit to tell a good story (such as painting the Mountain Meadows Massacre as the norm rather than the perplexing tragedy and anomaly that it was, or in making Joseph Smith out to be a convicted fraud when in fact he was not convicted of anything in the proceeding Krakauer is referring to, a proceeding that wasn’t even a trial). Krakauer is not taken very seriously in academic circles knowledgeable on Mormon history.

    As more fair, academic treatments, I would highly recommend:

    Richard Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press: 2008.
    Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People, Random House: 2012.

    • Al Pratt

      I join JT in recommending Bushman’s book, though not for the same reason. Bushman, a respected Mormon (LDS) scholar, goes to lengths to justify Smith. I suppose if you’re bent on believing Smith was a prophet, you’ll buy the excuses Bushman makes for him. But if you read from a neutral standpoint, I bet you will find in Smith a deluded, fantasy-prone mountebank who happened to catch on in a big way. Read it and judge for yourself.

  • Bot

    If there had been no Nicene Creed or Emperor Constantine, Catholic and Protestant theology would be quite similar to Mitt Romney’s In fact, there would likely be no need for the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) to restore Jesus Christ’s church. Mormons’ theology is based on New Testament Christianity, not Fourth Century Creeds. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views on Baptism, Lay Ministry, the Trinity, Theosis, Grace vs. Works, Pre-Existence, the Divinity of Jesus Christ are closer to Early Christianity than any other denomination. And Mormon teenagers have been judged to “top the charts” in Christian Characteristics by a UNC-Chapel Hill study. Read about it here:

    According to a 2012 Pew Forum poll of members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) 98 percent said they believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and 97 percent say their church is a Christian religion. They volunteer 7 times as many hours as does the general population, according to a 2012 University of Pennsylvania study. Mormons have a better understanding of Christianity than any other denomination, according to a 2010 Pew Forum poll.

    11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (including several presidents) were non-Trinitarian Christians, as is Mitt Romney, who is as faithful as the most devout Founder.

    • Ms. Glatz

      This response is hilarious as it is posted on several websites pertaining to Mormonism. No one in their right educated mind would ever watch a “secret” mormon temple ceremony and think that it reflects early Christian practices (Masonic perhaps). Every mormon I have met recently wants to tell me they read the Bible–they say the Bible is “Holy” and then they contradict themselves by saying “insofar as it is translated correctly.” Which parts are translated correctly? How about the parts that affirm and reaffirm the oneness of God? How about the fact that the book of Mormon has been revised and lacks any archaeological evidence and contradicts the Doctrine & The Covenants. Many mormons have left their faith because the Truth demanded they do so. Any person who believes in Mormonism is unfortunately ignorant (or brain washed) of their own foundation. The very sad reality is that most Christians (this does not and will not ever include Mormons) are ill-equipped with the facts themselves. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…No one comes to the Father except through me…I and the Father are one (not one in purpose)…..I am in the Father and the Father is in Me…before Abraham was I AM.”

      • David Willmore

        I am mystified that the idea of a closed canon is so widely accepted by those who call themselves Christians. The acceptance of such, indicates that God no longer cares for us because he no longer speaks to us individually or through his prophet. Revelation from God to man is a reality. Isn’t answer to prayer the same as revelation?
        New Testament Christianity was seriously compromised through the 4th century councils from which came the Nicaean, Athenacian and Apostolic creeds which became the theological foundation of Catholicism and mainline protestant churches. Incidentally Plural marriage was practiced throughout the Bible and continues today through Islam.

  • Have you seen the South Park episode? I tell people to check it out all the time. I think it’s one of the best, fairest portraits of modern mormonism out there (as long as you wait for the semi-profane rant at the end to bring it all into perspective).

  • Dan

    TIm, I think that you lack a good deal of depth of your knowledge and understanding of the historical content of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS/Latter-day Saints/saints/nicknamed: “Mormon”), if that is the best that you have read. . . I was born and raised Lutheran (Missouri Synod), we did study the “cults” as part of our Sunday School lessons. I also taught Sunday School and was youth group leader. . . I converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after studying the Bible and the Book of Mormon, praying and fasting, and receiving a confirmation of the Holy Spirit/Ghost. . .

  • Travis

    Mormons are only Christians by their own definition. That definition is: “One who worships Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, as taught in the Bible.”
    We all know that’s not what a Christian is. Of course the definition of a Christian is: “One who adheres to the Nicene Creed, which is not in the Bible but is somehow authoritative even though it requires one to believe that one plus one plus one equals one.”
    Those crazy Mormons! They think that one plus one plus one equals three!
    (My point is not to mock Trinitarianism so much as to mock those who think that it’s their prerogative to decide who gets admitted to the club of Christianity.)

  • Tim Suttle

    Dan – I most certainly do! I’m still learning. Mostly I’m not interested in LDS as a cultural phenomenon. I’m more interested in it theologically.

    Travis – the mocking was both well conceived and executed. Point taken. Although, do you think there’s a difference between Nicene Creed/Christianity and adding 2 books of scripture (Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants), which fundamentally redefine the faith? The way I would say it is that there is nothing in the Nicene Creed that negates something in the Bible. The same cannot be said for the Book of Mormon or D&C. Again, I’m not an expert – still just learning 🙂

    • Tim, it was interesting to read your take on Mormonism. Obviously, this church’s doctrines are extremely controversial in their bold claims of heavenly visitations, restoration of lost ordinances and teachings (polygamy, temple rituals, etc.), and modern-day prophets. To be sure, The LDS Church is quite different from Protestant sects, but that does not make Mormons un-Christian. We have account in the gospels of the contest between varying sects in Israel at the time of Christ. They all contested how they should be following God’s law. They disagreed on some very fundamental theological questions. Yet, to the Romans they surely lumped them all together as Jews. See, these definitions are a matter of perspective. To Mormons, like me, being told I’m not a Christian is deeply insulting. Obviously, I do not take offense, and I see where you are coming from. But, I believe that my faith more closely follows the teachings of Jesus than any other religion. But in the end, I would never tell my Evangelical friends they aren’t Christian. I think in this time of divisiveness with the dissolution of our world’s moral fabric, we could do a lot more if we embraced our common love of Christ. Anyhow, I appreciate your views and that you choose to express them and participate in this dialog. I hope that you can learn what I have learned and see the clarity of these doctrines.

    • Dave

      Tim – I very much appreciate your learning approach. One honest and sincere question I have for you regarding the Book of Mormon and D&C. Which passage(s) in The Book of Mormon and/or D&C in particular “negate something in the Bible”? The Book of Mormon in particular–from my reading–completely substantiates what I read in the Bible. I commonly hear this accusation, but when pressed I find that accusers have either 1) never really read the Book of Mormon, or 2) cannot provide specific passages that support their argument.

  • I joined the Mormon church just out of high school some 35 years ago, I joined of my own free will, I have never looked back. I was not brainwashed but after looking then at many of the so called “christian churches” and what they had to offer and what they claimed to belive just never was acceptable to me. I now look at many of those same churches and they have radically changed, they now accept homo-sexuality and women in the priesthood and embrace social justice.
    The Mormons are uniqe and different and that is part of why they are what and who they are, people see in them stabilty and vision for the things which are to come. I see in the 182 years of our history a church which is fresh and young and looking to a brilliant future as we move quickly towards our bi-centennial in 2030. The church is growing and adapting to the world around us the future is filled with faith and in spit of what our critics may say about us, the future will be determined by us not by others. I have seen for myself the great good this church is able to do, it has done that for me, I am a staunch supporter of this work, and let others say what they will of our history and defame as they will, we move forward and we are different and unique from the world, God help us to always be so. The mormons will write their own story and it will be a story of faith in the future and a foundation of faith laid for us by our pioneer ancestors who sacrificed and labored to bring about the day we are now wittnessing.

  • chris

    With all do respect, what are you talking about? Nothing in the creed negates the bible, but the Book of Mormon negates the bible? If you want to start identifying motes, look to the beam in your own eye (creed). Not only that, but look to the beam in your (our) bible! If one wanted to interpret things uncharitably, broadly, and then narrowly as it suits their purpose, there is in fact much in the bible that negates the bible!

    Millions of Latter-day Saints do not see the Book of Mormon as negating the bible. In fact, within the pages itself, the Book of Mormon at several instances bears a witness of the divinity of the bible. In this day and age where scholarship is attempting to undermine much of the bible, the Book of Mormon stands as a witness that testifies the Bible is true.

    Yes, we could certainly zero in on a verse here or there and blow it out of proportion and claim there is some disconnect. But we could do the same thing with the bible itself, not to mention some of Jesus’ own words as recorded in the NT.

  • Jettboy

    The problem in your use of “fundamentally redefine” and “negates something in the Bible,” is that Mormons see Orthodox Christianity as having done those things. In fact, for a Mormon the Nicene Creed is post-Biblical philosophy rather than even scriptural exegesis. To be blunt, Mormons see modern Christianity as more pagan than Paul. For sure there has been defenses of it using Bible based textual arguments, but the plain language of the Bible is considered missing from much of the creeds.

    You have preconceived ideas of what the Bible says and Christianity teaches that Mormons don’t share. Your “Biblical” is Mormon non or post-Biblical just as Mormon’s “Biblical” is seen by you and others as non-Biblical, but both support their teachings from the Bible. Yes, even the Book of Mormon or D&C is considered by Mormons as absolutely compatible with the Bible (both the New and Old Testaments). Anyone who has actually read both of them can’t help but come away impressed, or even concerned and critical, that it fully utilizes the Bible texts. Just look at the award winning footnotes of any Mormon collection of Bible, Book of Mormon, etc. to get an idea of how Bible immersed these are regardless of what you might say about the usage. To say “Mormons aren’t Biblical,” is really only saying “I disagree with the Mormon interpretations of the Bible.”

    So you want more Mormon theology and not just history? If you are honestly wanting to know, then I will give you some suggestions to start out with:
    The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens. (hardly Scripture text based, but it looks at the spiritual core of the religion).
    An Introduction to Mormonism by Douglas J. Davies. (not Mormon and I have some disagreements, but on the whole a well researched and thought out theological discussion of Mormonism).

    Don’t have time to read the above yet? I’ll give you a few shorter explorations: (the comments on this one come down to, is the definition of Christian expansive or strict. My guess is you will pick strict, but I hope you at least read the main article). (where the above came from, but there are more examples). (a good discussion of what Mormons believe about the Bible, and in particular the use of KJV). (argues that Mormons might be far less than Orthodox, but they are hyper Christian).

  • Al Pratt

    It’s not exactly true that the mainstream Mormon church ended polygamy in 1890. That was when they *officially* stopped polygamy, but in reality the practice continued under wraps in the U.S., attritting over the next few decades, and continued in the open under church direction in Mexico (Mitt Romney’s ancestors were in the latter group).

    Nor is it exactly true when today’s mainstream Mormon church claims to have “nothing to do with polygamy.” They would be more honest if they added, “not any more” and “not at this time.” The mainstream Mormon church defends its early polygamy as God-mandated, allows for multiple wives in the hereafter, suggests that God may be a polygamist, and reserves God’s right to reinstate polygamy if and should He so please.

    The book “It’s Not About the Sex My A**” by ex-polygamist wife Joanne Hanks does a good job explaining much of that. (Google the title, it’s an enjoyable read and easy to find.) Also read the Doctrine and Covenants (which the Mormons regard as scripture), Section 132; it is the original “revelation” to Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith wherein God states that taking multiple wives is a commandment.

  • Terrie Lynn Bittner

    If I were to write a book about you (I’m an author), how would you feel if I told you I would not be talking to you at all, since you’d naturally be biased to make yourself look good. Instead, I would only go to your enemies because my goal is a juicy story that will discredit you? I think you’d be pretty upset about that. The Bible asks us to treat others as we want to be treated. Think about what you would want me to study if I were to write about you, or for that matter about your faith. I am sure you would not send me to books written by whoever hates your religion. When I was choosing a church, I read only what that church taught, not what others thought it taught. That is, I feel, the Christian way to operate.

    I am always interested when people say Mormonism is a violent religion. There are a very few instances of violence and in any group, a few people may be violent, particularly people who today would probably be diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder. Did you know that the mobs, most likely made up of Protestants, burnt Mormon homes, forced them out in the middle of winter, murdered women and children–all in violation of the Constitution? Did you know Governor Boggs issued an extermination order on all Mormons? Despite this, no one reacts with surprise at what a violent religion Protestantism is for condoning such behavior in that time period. We really do have to apply the same standards to other faiths we apply to our own.

  • Claude

    Mark Twain on the Book of Mormon:

    The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print.