“The Most American Religion”?

“The Most American Religion”? December 17, 2020

 

The new temple in Samoa
The Apia Samoa Temple   (LDS.org)
Curiously, despite its image in America today as an all-white religion, Mormonism has long been a significant presence in Polynesia.

 

But, first, the latest installment of my biweekly column for the Deseret News:

 

“How the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, has survived conquerers and time”

 

***

 

The Atlantic has just published one of the better articles about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint

 

The Atlantic“The Most American Religion: Perpetual outsiders, Mormons spent 200 years assimilating to a certain national ideal—only to find their country in an identity crisis. What will the third century of the faith look like?”

 

Among others, I was struck by this passage regarding the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, a passage that strikes me as precisely right:  “But then I met a theater critic in New York who had recently seen the musical. He marveled at how the show got away with being so ruthless toward a minority religion without any meaningful backlash. I tried to cast this as a testament to Mormon niceness. But the critic was unconvinced. “No,” he replied. “It’s because your people have absolutely no cultural cachet.””

 

How to develop “cultural cachet”?  This is where a horde of faithful Latter-day Saint composers, playwrights, actors, novelists, artists, and thinkers would come in handy.  Plus, we have a really interesting history to tell, with lots of drama.  And our demographic center in the Great Basin West features a lot of spectacular terrain that should draw even more interest from tourists than it already does.  But I doubt that achieving “cultural cachet” is a realizable goal for us.  And we certainly shouldn’t seek it directly, or with pathetic desperation.  It would be very nice if we were to be more engaged with the wider culture, neither completely disregarded because of our seeming oddness nor having sold out by “aping the Gentiles.”  And perhaps that day will come.  However, even then our image as nice and polite, but prim, naïve, weird, and intellectually dull — the likable simpletons of The Book of Mormon on Broadway and in London — will almost certainly continue with us, whether or not it’s really deserved.

 

Our continuing (though much lessened) isolation in Utah and surrounding areas means that relatively few Americans or others get to know us.  And, since we don’t dress distinctively (i.e., wearing hijabs or yarmulkes), people elsewhere may well not realize that their dentist, carpenter, pharmacist, delivery man, nurse, attorney, plumber, kindergarten teacher, or accountant is a Latter-day Saint.  They’ll only know us as the Other, Out There.  Strange, foreign, and exotic while, at the same time, boring, stodgy, uninteresting, and to be avoided.  (I regard Gary C. Lawrence’s How Americans View Mormonism as a really fine treatise on the topic indicated in its title, with some very practical and easy recommendations for Latter-day Saints.)

 

Here’s a good comment on the Atlantic article:

 

Deseret NewsThe Atlantic interviewed the prophet. Here’s what it did right”

 

Dalsgaard's missionaries
“Mormoner på besøg hos en tømrer på landet” (Mormons visit a country carpenter)
Painted in 1856 by Christen Dalsgaard, this work hangs in the Statens Museum for Kunst, in Copenhagen.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

I want to return briefly, though, to the matter of “Mormonism” being “the most American religion.”

 

Years ago, a now-emeritus General Authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — let’s call him Brother X — mentioned to me a conversation that he had had some time before with Michael Deaver (d. 2007), who had served as deputy chief of staff in the White House under President Ronald Reagan.  Deaver congratulated Brother X on the loyal Republican conservatism of the Latter-day Saints.  Brother X, who may, as I recall, not have been a General Authority at the time of his conversation with Deaver — he was an expert on politics who owned an Ivy League doctorate (though probably not the person that some of you might be expecting) — told me with a twinkle in his eye that he responded to Deaver by noting that, actually, many members of the Church are socialists.  Not a few of them, he added, were Venezuelan Chavistas.  Deaver was somewhat taken aback, and Brother X savored that reaction for just a moment.  (If I had to guess, by the way, I would bet that Brother X himself is a conservative Republican.)  Then he explained to Deaver that his mistake rested upon the false assumption that all Latter-day Saints are Americans, whereas, in point of fact, considerably more than half of the membership of the Church lives outside of both the United States and Canada.

 

The first Latter-day Saint branches in England date to 1837, fully ten years before the arrival of the first pioneers in Utah.  The Church reached French Polynesia, too, several years before Brigham Young entered the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.  Something on the order of 17% of the inhabitants of both Tonga and Samoa belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Roughly 1.5 million members of the Church live in both Mexico and Brazil.

 

Obviously, Americans and the United States of America, and specifically the American West, still represent the power center of the Church.  But this is changing.  And, in some ways, it’s changing rapidly.

 

And the appeal of the Restoration was never merely to Americans.  I mentioned, above, that the first units of the Church in England pre-date the entry of the Latter-day Saints into the transmontane West.  But there’s more to be said about that:  With their first-generation children, immigrants from the British Isles and, secondarily, from Scandinavia made up approximately two-thirds of the population of Utah in the 1890 census.  Which is to say that it wasn’t only Americans who were gathered into the “gospel net.”  (I take that phrase from a 1943 book written about his mother by the Norwegian-born scientist and apostle John A. Widtsoe, In the Gospel Net: The Story of Anna Karine Gaarden Widtsoe.  Elder Widtsoe, by the way, earned a doctorate from the University of Göttingen, in northern Germany, after completing his undergraduate studies at Harvard.  He was scarcely the stereotypical Latter-day Saint provincial.)

 

So, for these reasons and many others, I bristle somewhat when I hear the Restoration being termed an “American religion.”

 

 


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