Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and the Tensions of an “American Religion”

After a long struggle of nearly fifty years, Utah was finally admitted as a state in 1896. As part of the commemorations, a large American flag was draped from the Salt Lake Temple.

Various pundits, including no less a figure than Leo Tolstoy and Harold Bloom, have dubbed Mormonism a distinct—or, even further, the quintessential—American religion. Yet the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long maintained a tenuous relationship with the United States, much of which has been and will continue to be featured during Mitt Romney’s presidential run. While some have emphasized the “American-ness” of Romney’s religion, others have mused on the perceived chasm between the two. Most recently, journalist Sally Denton claimed, “Mormonism’s founding theology was based upon a literal takeover of the U.S. government.” While such opining seems disappointingly repetitious in a day where Krakauer’s aphotic Under the Banner of Heaven is used as a test case to better understand radical Islam (becoming the best-selling book on the LDS faith to date), it neglects and oversimplifies a complex history that offers much to learn about not only Mormonism but also the culture in which it developed. [Read more...]

A Peculiar People

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.
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Deuteronomy 14:2 (KJV)

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
- 1 Peter 2:9 (KJV)

There are still those who regard us as a peculiar people. Let us accept that as a compliment and go forth showing by the virtue of our lives the strength and goodness of the wonderful thing in which we believe.
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Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1997

Welcome to “Peculiar People.”   The phrase, of course, is drawn from scripture, and it refers to three things: first, the sense of a community of believers as particular, set apart by their faith, citizens of Augustine’s city of God and aliens in the city of man, exiles in their own country.   Second, it refers to the regard which the rest of the world has for those believers: the word here is used to emphasize awkwardness and distinctiveness.  Third, it refers to the regard which those believers have for the world: a place functioning according to slightly different rules than those assumed by their neighbors.

In the Hebrew Bible Yahweh dubs the Jews peculiar; in the New Testament the first Epistle of Peter does the same for Christians.  Innumerable small Christian sects have followed in claiming the term.  Among them, of course, have been the Latter-day Saints; the Mormons.

The title is elaborated in the subtitle: Mormonism through the World and the World through Mormonism.  Here we hope to unpack all three aspects of the term ‘peculiar.’  How does the world see Mormonism?  How do Mormons see the world?  More, how might we explore the world through the lens of Mormonism, and see ways in which this particular peculiar gaze might illuminate life in the United States, from the grand drama of presidential elections to the weird fascinations of reality TV?

Our topic, then, is commentary on culture, politics, the humanities, sports, the arts, and so on through the lens of Mormonism.  Every Monday and Wednesday, the column rotates among our various contributors.   We’ve got here Mormons of varying degrees of activity, people from various streams of the Mormon tradition, and a few interested non-Mormons to leaven the mix.   We aim for generosity, curiosity, and a genuine appreciation for the ways thinking about American life might educate Mormons and non-Mormons alike, and the ways the Mormon experience might enrich American life as well.