For American Protestantism, Mormonism was the other: you defined yourself against those nuts. Indeed, to this day, Joanna Brooks tells us, Mormons perceive their persecutors to be not atheists or secularists, let alone Jews or Catholics, but Protestant Evangelicals.
My mother put her hand on my knee as we made the turn. Anger burned between my temples again, and tears stung my eyes. Forced out of New York by an earlier version of that fierce Protestant hostility, Smith and his followers began their years of wandering. Wherever they went, they infuriated the non-Mormon locals, and also managed to infuriate one another: the early history of the movement involves a bewildering series of excommunications, internal banishments, and the increasing threat of violence to enforce new rules as Smith received them. Smith was eventually martyred by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, while in the local jail awaiting trial for treason.
Which of his doctrines enraged the mob is hard to grasp, but it may have been sex more than heresy. You could have as many doctrines as you liked, but not as many wives. There the story might have ended. Yet as a rule the success of a new religious movement depends not so much on the mystical visions of its founder as on the executive energy of its first evangelist. Brigham Young inhabited this role for the Mormons, and about as fully as any apostle ever has.
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As the first governor of Utah—he preferred the Mormon name Deseret—he ruled more or less alone over a huge chunk of Western territory, including a lot of what is today Wyoming, Colorado, and Nevada. That is what Jesus Christ meant. Blacks were excluded from the priesthood and from temple ceremonies. Young was in power at the time of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in , in which more than a hundred peaceful non-Mormon emigrants were disarmed under an elaborate promise of safe conduct and then murdered en masse. All the elements for full-scale religious warfare seemed set, and the thing might easily have ended in a counter-massacre and the collapse of the Mormons as a force in North America.
In the end, Young backed down and accepted federal supremacy in the territory.
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He knew that his people had little hope against the Army—but this is not a thought that has stopped religious zealots in the past, from Masada on. Had Young somehow found a way to repel that pre-Civil War Army, a large tract of the continent might now be a religious state called Zion. Something more was at work. His brand of Mormonism might at times have been extra-planetary, but it was scarcely otherworldly. Right here on earth, he insisted, men became saints and even approached godliness.
Smith taught that Gods and men were one species; Young made this idea a practical guiding principle. There was no virtue in letting your enemies send you to that other, better place, if Salt Lake City was essentially just as good. The implicit social treaty to which the Mormons in Utah agreed meant giving up their claims to autonomy and the practices that their countrymen found most distasteful notably, polygamy , in exchange for recognition of their primacy in Utah and a readiness in the rest of the country to tolerate their faith. Mormons effectively turned away from spiritual adventuring toward the gospel of prosperity.
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Still, the stores were there to sell Eastern goods to Utah shoppers. An emporium civilization had taken over from the territorial one. It was a victory of Gilded Age capitalism enforced perhaps by the railroads, which made indefinite isolation an unrealistic goal over Great Awakening spiritualism.
Fluhman writes of this alteration a little regretfully, as a kind of spiritual sellout. The Sacred Tabernacle had allied itself with the Big Store. But, as usual in America, the squalid turn toward vulgar prosperity was also a sane turn toward social peace. Mormonism remained more or less theologically whole, with its holy book and its distinctive doctrines.
But this sublimation of the energy of the faith into the energy of commerce seems always to have marked it afterward. Many faiths know a moment when a territorial practice gets pointed toward a symbolic and indoor activity: thus, most famously, the move from the Temple Judaism of ancient Israel to the Talmudic, rabbinical Judaism that arose after the destruction of the Temple. Less noted, perhaps, is the retrenchment of Roman Catholicism in France from the aggressive political role it played as recently as the Dreyfus affair toward the inward-turning N.
For Mormonism, the intensity of the faith got sublimated into missionary zeal and commerce.
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No, no, we Mormons were taught that our works must carry us there. Mormons know they will. Work and grace are not in tension but in neat accord. A mercantile church and a missionary church move in the same holy direction, and the vector that points both forward is the energy of enterprise. Yet how much do specifically Mormon beliefs matter to contemporary Mormons? She writes, often quite movingly, of the persistent ambivalence of her feelings about her natal faith, but any strayed member of a tight community of believers feels this way about it.
Nephi, the Lamanites, the approaching apocalypse in Missouri—these things hardly come up. What resonates for her is the Mormon elder who said that heavy-metal music had secret satanic codes—the same preacher you find in any fundamentalist camp.
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These stories of attachment and repulsion are being played out in or around Hasidic communities in Brooklyn every day, and surely, for that matter, among Sikhs and Jains in Queens, too. A critique of the creed, even a rational one, feels like an assault on the community. One has a strong sense, reading the literature, of a contemporary Mormonism that has deliberately placed its most distinctive doctrines and icons in eclipse. Mormon art produced one camp genius, the mid-twentieth-century painter Arnold Friberg—he won non-Mormon fame as Cecil B.
But these eccentric triumphs have been largely hushed, and Mormonism now emphasizes its congruence with conventional Christianity rather than its differences. Walk by the Latter-day Saints church on the Upper East Side of New York, and you will see only images of Jesus and scenes from the Gospels, even if the Mormon Jesus looks more corn-fed and burly than the gaunt, ascetic one in the Protestant church around the corner.
The continuing Mormon suspicion of Evangelicals, and the Evangelical hostility toward Mormons, could be politically significant only if the guy on the other side is a credible Evangelical, at least in emotional style. When the other guy is at best an intellectual and at worst an Arab, political solidarity is bound to trump inter-sectarian mistrust.
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The image seems to have turned yet again, and now the Mormons of the popular imagination are not so much honest as innocent. All of which leads to the inevitable question: To what degree is Mormonism responsible for Mitt Romney? Is there a thread, dark or golden, that runs from Moroni to Mitt? Garry Wills has argued, after all, that Irish Catholic ideas about sin—that sin is negotiable currency, to be practiced, done penance for, forgiven—allowed John Kennedy some serenity as he screwed his way through the White House typing pool, just as the habits of Protestant Evangelical belief, in forgiveness and temptation and forgiveness, in a never-ending cycle, helped Bill Clinton find a common language with working-class people.
Romney, according to Romney, never favored the individual mandate, or supported abortion rights, or opposed the auto-industry bailout, or did any of the other things he obviously, and on the record, did. One could presumably make a case that beleaguered faiths always shy from admitting errancy in public. Dominant faiths can afford tales of failure and redemption, with sinners becoming saints and saints dropping in and out of the calendar like blue-plate specials; beleaguered ones have to put on a good face in public and never lose it.
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