Mormon Patriotism and the Cultural Reading of Scripture

At the New York Review of Books blog, Garry Wills recently asked some important questions about Mormonism and the Constitution. Recalling discussions he had with an LDS student two decades ago who believed that America’s two founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were both inspired, Wills raised several provocative questions: Should every section and article of the original Constitution—including those that perpetuated slavery—be considered inspired? If the text constructed in 1787 was inspired, why did it require later amendments? How does viewing the document as inspired make one approach it differently than those who view it as a pragmatic compromise written by intelligent, if still flawed, politicians? And, most importantly for today’s political world, would this have any bearing on Mitt Romney’s presidency?

Harold I. Hopkinson, "That We May Be Redeemed" (1989). This painting, which depicts Wilford Woodruff's visitation from the Founding Fathers, was commissioned by the LDS Church in the Constitution's bicentennial year.

Though there were some unfortunate mistakes in Wills’s post, his former student is far from alone amongst Latter-day Saints in sacralizing the Constitution and America’s founding. Wilford Woodruff, who served as an apostle (and later, president) for much of the nineteenth century, claimed a visitation from the spirits of America’s Founding Fathers who requested proxy baptism at his hands. Twentieth century Mormonism has produced figures like Arnold Friberg (who painted the famous Prayer at Valley Forge) and Cleon Skousen (who wrote the popular Five Thousand Year Leap), just as the twenty-first century produced Glenn Beck and Jon McNaughton. Ezra Taft Benson, who was President of the Church at the time of the Constitution’s bicentennial in 1987, remarked, “I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me,” he continued, “its words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval on the constitution of this land.” Even today, Mormon homes in America often hang framed portraits of their nation’s figures and moments alongside the Church’s Proclamation on the Family and The Living Christ.

But there’s a problem: I’m not so sure this understanding is backed up in Mormon scripture and theology. I’m also not sure what role, if any, this patriotic theology will have in an increasingly international church. One thing I am sure about, though, is that this traditional—and parochial—reading of LDS theology is both a reflection of and extension from a vibrant American tradition of infusing contemporary culture with scriptural reading and religious belief.

The Mormon divinization of America’s founding documents has a complex history, based on a few vague references in the Book of Mormon, some explicit verses in Joseph Smith’s revelations (now contained in the Doctrine and Covenants), and a long tradition of LDS leaders interpreting these texts in attempt to sacralize American originalism. Yet a closer reading of LDS scripture finds many of these claims quite tenuous. The Book of Mormon primarily speaks of a chosen “land” rather than a chosen government—and many Mormons now claim that the land upon which the ancient narrative took place was Central and South America rather than what is now the United States, making connections to American exceptionalism all the more sketchy. And Joseph Smith’s two revelations that touch on the topic, received in the immediate context of being expelled from Jackson County, Missouri, seem to merely valorize the religious liberty clause in the Constitution—an important principle to Saints who were then being persecuted for their faith—as opposed to what the document dictates concerning, say, the size of government or the legality of universal healthcare.

But these exegetical limits have not stopped interpretive and eisegetical extensions. From these seeds of scriptural nationalism has sprouted an energetic tradition of Mormon patriotism. Though the nineteenth century witnessed a dynamic relationship between the LDS Church and America, increased attempts at assimilation following Utah statehood gave rise to an increased commitment to national mythos, including participation in founders-worship and the insistence of America as a Christian nation.

Importantly, Mormonism sought to emerge from a fringe sect to an American institution just as the country was developing a robust—and in some ways, anti-intellectual—response to pluralism, secularism, and the culture wars. The complexities and fragmentation of the mid-twentieth century spawned a conservative impulse that sought for unity through the fundamentalist mindset and belief that the answer to contemporary problems was a return to religion. This ideological turn had wide-reaching ramifications in religion, society, and, especially, politics. The period witnessed a cultural merging of provincialism and patriotism, with manifestations ranging from the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto.

Cleon Skousen's "Five Thousand Year Leap" (1981), which places America's founding at the crux of a Christianized narrative of western development, was recently re-released with a forward by Glenn Beck. It quickly became a best-seller with the Tea Party audience.

Mormons like Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen freely took part in this movement by associating with similarly minded groups like the John Birch Society. Built upon a cultural tradition that already emphasized the importance of the past and the allegiance to leaders, as well as a theological tradition that located sacred sites like the Garden of Eden and the Second Coming as taking place in the continental United States, Mormons were poised to partake of and contribute to divine nationalism. LDS discourse came to mirror the fundamentalist patriotism of post-World War II America, in messages delivered both from its pulpit a well as in print.

Simultaneously, Mormonism entered their process of correlation, a movement that not only streamlined church practice but also crystalized the period’s cultural image. By centralizing ideological authority and systematizing Mormon belief, correlation in essence froze the church’s persona to a moment in time: the hyper-patriotism of conservative America in the 1960s and 70s. While the LDS message has progressed—and will progress—since then, such progression has been slow, unsteady, and still imbedded in the framework in which the modern Mormon image was birthed.

These cultural tensions have certainly played a role in how Mormons read their scripture and imagined their country. The Book of Mormon in particular has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the last two centuries, often assuming a discursive life of its own. The very nature of scriptural reading often incorporates the readers’ assumptions and ideals, especially in a tradition that has lacks a formal clergy and relies primarily on amateur hermeneutics. Just as Christianity’s reading of the bible has evolved over the past two millennia, so too has Mormonism’s scriptural interpretations adapted to new cultural norms. It should be expected, then, that a predominantly American religion would read national patriotism into their sacred texts.

But it should also be expected that this merging of Mormon theology and American exceptionalism would not last forever. Besides the inevitable adoption of more sophisticated readings of Americanism, as seen with Apostle Dallin H. Oaks’s 1992 caution that too much “reverence” for the Constitution leads to mistaking it for scripture, Mormonism’s aspirations to be a global religion will probably entail a reframing of Mormon scriptural theology that is divorced from American culture. Though church headquarters may remain in Salt Lake City, Utah, the explosive growth of Church membership throughout the world (especially in southern hemisphere areas like Brazil), the internationalism found in the church’s leadership (even if it hasn’t reached the highest levels), and the desire to transcend local culture will likely distill a more cosmopolitan—and less parochial—flavor.

The implications this international shift will have on how American Mormons—including Mitt Romney—understand their country is unclear. The predominantly local nature of LDS practice may very well perpetuate an American cultural reading of Mormon scripture within the United States. But such interpretations that sacralize America will most likely become increasingly challenged and nuanced.

In many ways, it may end up that Romney’s particular political persona, in which he acknowledges the importance of his religion but doesn’t specify its relationship to his patriotism, will be the future of Mormon nationalism.

 

  • David Naas

    A good, informative article. And, having read many other articles about the Church recently, ie since Romney became a contender, I have a sense that a maturity and mature revaluation of “Mormonism” is happening. Less reflexively defensive, and far more contemplative than at any time since “correlation” began. Folk Mormonism, beloved though it may be, needs to give way to Latter-day Saint-ism. This exposure to thed world may be as significant as the first edition of the BoM off Grandin’s press.

  • Robert Isaak

    As a life long and devout member w/ unshakable testimony, I am utterly appalled and ashamed of my Church’s acquiescence to this wack brand of Mormonism. We have a history replete with myriad fawlty thinking policies of out and out bigotry, arrogance, ignorance, and supremacism. Most of that so called Mormon mythology is perpetrated on us by former Right Wing Fundamentalist, Evango-Nazi, Christo-Fascists, that have converted to the Church, but never changed any of their beliefs. These people in turn form cliques and clans within the Church who build walls of exclusion, supremasism, Hughtiness, Arrogance and myriad other abominations. In short they ARE THE NEO PHARASITES that we have been warned about. These people need to be overcome, rejected and defeated, or our beloved Church will legitimately become a national pariah. They preach your going to hell if you don’t become Mormon, or if your not a conservative Republican. These same folks are completely and utterly anathema and repulsive to every aspect of the Gospel and of Doctrine. They would incorporate abominationally bigoted ideologies of heinously evil men into our Doctrine. All their ideology is embedded into bigoted Church policies, that never were prophesies from God, ie policy on Racism (ignoramously & wickedly so) toward Blacks, and now LGBT people. None of that bigotry came from God, and no God I would ever care to worship would ask me to become a bigot. And no God would ever question my observance of the Gospel by saying, “your not bigoted enough”. And lets be clear, Racism, Classism, Sexism, Religiosityism, Homophobia, Transphobia,Islamophobia, Xenophobia, American Supremasism etc,… are all indeed bigotries. Just because one is ignorant of the bigotry they perpetrate or acquiesce to does not absolve the one of the sinful wickedness of the results and effects of your causes. We always say, ‘How great your reward if you bring but one soul unto me..”, well the converse is also true, “How great your damnation will be if you turn but one soul from me..”. Millions are being turned away by millions of Mormons committing the heinous act of exclusion and supremacism. Millions of just desserts will be served. When we pass ourselves off as an extreme fundamentalist right wing conservative Church, BILLIONS are turned away, by no fault of there own, but by us. I will never acquiesce to that, instead I will reist, reject and fight it, and always include everyone, no exceptions. God is no dis-respector of persons. My 14 yr old sister committed suicide 20 yrs ago today. I blame the Church culture heavily for this, as she did in her letter. She was physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually bullied by churchmembers for being perceived LGBT. It is a disgrace nothing has changed in those 20 yrs. The Proclomation on the Family is routinely trotted out as a tool and excuse to attack people, when ther is only affirmations in it, no disaffirmations, no disedifications. What planet do these ignoramouses live on, planet hate. In regards to Americas founding, Columbus was a joker, having nothing to do with God, he never even made it here. He did however bring a wave of wack job WASPs after him to wage genocide on the people already here.(and no, they were not all Lamenites, those tribes were formed on political grounds not racial-it says they intermixed, and skin color was not the issue) The genocide of 80 million North American Aboriginal people can never be called from God. That could only be Lucifers will. Thats the God the Neo-Pharasite Religioistic Fascists are worshiping, wheather they know it or not. What those heinously flawed and sinful so called ‘founders’ came up with, was no more inspired, than any group of people today who prayed for guidance could come up with. In fact, I think we could do better, because we have rejected so much evil sinful bigotry, we are closer to god even before the prayerfulness. And no, No Mormon President is supposed to treasonously co-opt and usurp the civil government to bring a Mormon Supremacist Theocracy to America. That ludicrously asanine! Check out D&C 134, and youll see that can never be so. We would be much better respected if we trotted out the Proclomation of D&C134 hal the time PontheF is trotted out to spew evil hatred. We can NEVER SEEK TO CODIFY ANY OF OUR DOCTRINE, anybody who tries and or acquiesces to such, is an anti-Christ. We need to get a life….and live life…..and love one another, no walls no excetions, no exclusivity. Period. Bottom line.

  • http://ernie1241.googlepages.com/home ernie1241

    It should be pointed out that there is a lot of fiction circulated by relatives and admirers of former FBI Special Agent W. Cleon Skousen.
    I am the first person to obtain Skousen’s FBI personnel file and a related FBI file pertaining to his post-FBI activities. My detailed report about Skousen may be seen here:

    https://sites.google.com/site/ernie124102/skousen

  • Ruff

    It would be wise that when studying any religion that you first separate the people from the doctrine. Regardless of the purity of the doctrine, the people will eventually blend it with the prevailing culture.


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