Mormons and the American Project: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part III

Fulfilling the promise of the gospel requires embodying it in concrete and active living, in a particular time and place. Since living the gospel is a social matter, this means embodying it in institutions, with design, policies, and practices that reflect and serve gospel ideals. There are particular challenges to doing this in the conditions the church finds itself in today. In this post, I continue developing the themes from Part I and Part II, considering the situation of the church in the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an international, even global church. Still, its founding, much of its history, and the lives of a very large number of its members, have unfolded in or just outside of the United States.

Seeing the radical social implications of the gospel, after founding the church, Joseph Smith quickly laid plans to found cities. The Saints’ efforts to embody their beliefs in the form of a distinctive society in Missouri and Illinois met with such resistance that they were ultimately expelled from the borders of the United States. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, however, they continued the project of building Zion in Deseret, located in what at the time was Mexico. The Saints thus had the opportunity to build their own institutions, not just for the church narrowly understood, but for a complete society, including government, education, and economic life.

Since Deseret became part of the United States, however (Utah), the Saints have been forced to accept and participate more and more fully in institutions whose roots are not Mormon and that frequently do not reflect or in some cases even accommodate Mormon beliefs and values. Unable to implement our own vision, and in some cases punished or intimidated for it, we have retreated nearly across the board to a far more limited conception of the gospel and its implications. We sometimes act as though outside the walls of our chapels and homes, the gospel’s implications are limited to such incidentals as our choice of beverage.

Of course, many of the ideals that structure American life, at least in its better moments, have significant affinity with LDS principles. Mormons believe in individual freedom and responsibility, and in the dignity and worth of all human beings. The Book of Mormon affirms democratic forms of government, and the contemporary Church runs by the principle of common consent. We are explicitly pluralistic in our theology and affirm the need for religious freedom. We believe that the U.S. Constitution displays a measure of divine inspiration.

Given these affinities, perhaps it is appropriate that to a large extent Mormons feel at home in the larger streams of American social, economic and political life and do not feel the need to develop a different approach of their own. I am not sure that the external forms of Mormon life in Deseret were always a more complete embodiment of Mormon ideals than the forms it takes today, in an era of partial assimilation. American institutions reflect Mormon aspirations for a harmonious society to a quite large extent, and probably better than in any other society on earth today (though there is room for debate here).

However, the fact is that we need to renew our efforts in developing our own ways to socially embody the gospel, for several reasons. First, we need to choose wisely among what is available from non-Mormon sources in the U.S. There are many tendencies and even explicit ideals present in U.S. social and political life with which we should not be satisfied, and some we should proactively resist, such as materialism, atomistic forms of individualism and nationalism, and moral subjectivism. We remain under the injunction to be the salt of the earth, and we must not lose our distinctive flavor, or our independent sense of our standards.

Second, the American project is still a work in progress. There is much room for improvement in meeting current challenges, and we must also face new ones, which call for new solutions from one year to the next. We must work in concert with our fellow citizens, but Mormons must be active participants and sometimes leaders, to successfully address these challenges. In keeping with the role of leaven, there will be ways in which we contribute elements that no one else can, for the improvement or even transformation of the whole loaf.

In my view, there is nothing in Mormonism that is fundamentally in tension with the project of America. The principles of democracy, freedom of religion, and the rule of law articulated in the Book of Mormon sound eerily American. In many ways, I would argue that Mormonism embodies the spirit of America more than any other religious tradition, not least in its deep pluralism (as discussed, for example, in this post, and this post). This should not be surprising, given its roots in the early days of the Republic. Hence I would like to think that Mormon contributions to the American experiment will tend to be received quite well and valued by our fellow-citizens.

At times, we may be able to articulate or instantiate the American vision more faithfully than anyone else can. Despite various flaws in other aspects of his campaign, Mitt Romney’s position on religious freedom, expressed in his speech on “Faith in America” during the 2008 presidential race, was arguably the most faithful to the American moral and political tradition of any of the candidates, as well as being the most natural position for him to take as a Mormon. Part of what will allow us to advance the project of America will be to listen to our own unique perspective, not merely to follow others. Obviously, though, not everyone agrees on what the American project is. Some of what I regard as an aberration, someone else may see as part of its essence, and vice versa. The ongoing struggle to define and develop America is arguably an integral part of the project, and we should not shrink from participating in that struggle, but embrace it with hope and goodwill.

Third, while the institutional and cultural center of gravity of the Church is in the United States, the Church is a global organization with global goals. A majority of baptized Mormons now live outside the United States, and they need to both participate in and shape their societies in their own way, based on the principles of the gospel. They cannot rely on a mere transfer of American political thought, which would often be of limited relevance to their context anyway.

When the Saints stopped gathering to Utah, we did not cease gathering to Zion. This means that we must pursue the ideals of Zion throughout the world. As we do so, we will find many ways in which patterns, policies, and practices worked out in one context need to be adjusted and revised, and even suspended or replaced in other cases. We need to apply the simplicity of the gospel message to the manifold circumstances and cultures in which human beings build their lives. All human beings are our spiritual brothers and sisters, and as Mormons we cannot afford to be spiritual isolationists. We need to affirm what they have that is good, and add something new.

For now, perhaps this will suffice for outlining the expansive context in which I want to think about Mormon (intellectual) culture. In future posts I will turn more directly to matters of intellectual ecology and of institutions and initiatives that support it.

6 comments for “Mormons and the American Project: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part III

  1. I agree that we cannot be “spiritual isolationists” (and I love that phrase). But how can we retain the peculiar nature of our faith as we engage with others? I don’t want us to become just another form of Protestantism in America.

  2. Well, one of the more significant, distinctive things about Mormons is our religious pluralism. We specifically believe that God works through other religious traditions. This puts us in a unique position with regard to the American project, because we can do much more than merely tolerate the other religions practiced by our fellow-citizens, or maintain a kind of cease-fire. We can actually affirm the spiritual value of their religions and religious practices, while also remaining loyal to our own.

    My post on Bibles in the military reflects the fact that in contemporary America, from a cultural perspective, it is not easy to actually inhabit neutral ground regarding religion. There is a strong tendency toward secularism on the one hand and a tendency toward religious partisanship on the other. Certainly there are lots of people in the middle who are just not too worked up about it either way, but inertia is not really the same thing as a principled neutrality. As Mormons we have a theological reason to maintain a principled neutrality.

    As our nation becomes increasingly polarized over religion, with church attendance now being one of the best predictors of how people will vote, we need people who can transcend the partisanship, not just by being wishy-washy in the middle, but by taking a positive, active position that bridges the two camps. Though I’m not sure many of us are actually doing this just yet, it is a position that is natural for Mormons, because of our theology, and it seems to me this is part of why Mitt Romney is able to articulate the American vision of freedom of religion better than any other major political figure today.

    I will have more to say about how we can actively engage without losing our distinctiveness, in future posts in this series.

  3. Something that’s implied in this post is that the gospel has been flattened and correlated partly because its tried to make itself workable outside the American context. The kind of Mormonism you (and I) want, that can engage with the American project and have its own social projects, is probably also a Mormonism that accepts sub-communities, or orders, and such. Whether I also want that is a question.

  4. It’s interesting you would say that, Adam. I wasn’t thinking about how we have flattened the gospel to make it workable outside the U.S., though I think we have. I was thinking mainly about how we have flattened it to make it workable *inside* the U.S. In the long run I think there may be much to gain from these processes of adaptation and integration, if we approach them actively enough, rather than merely conforming.

    As for subcommunities and orders, I agree to some extent. However, I’m not sure what I have in mind is terribly radical. Southern Virginia University, Richard Bushman’s Mormon Scholars Foundation, and the Wheatley Institution at BYU are interesting examples of church-related organizations with goals of their own, that seem to operate fine within the scope of doing much good of our own free will and choice. I suppose this blog is another. Certainly I think we would need more such organizations to fill out the texture of a Zion society, but I’m not sure it has to be something we search our souls over. I would definitely like to see more of a Mormon civil society, with institutions like schools, hospitals, maybe organizations with political goals . . . also more businesses that reflect a Mormon agenda (e.g. longer shorts, higher necklines, etc.), but we already have some good representative instances of these. Do you have mixed feelings about them?

  5. Ben H.,
    it may be because I grew up in a small Mormon town that used to be in its own world and now has largely assimilated, but the kind of stuff you describe sounds to me like the lingering remnants of the old system or else fairly inconsequential.

  6. Hm. Well, let me put this differently, Adam. One way to develop the implications of Mormonism to encompass and shape all aspects of life, is to build a community apart from the world, which has the full life of a community, work, recreation, etc., conducted in a distinctively Mormon way. As beautiful as that is, what I would ultimately hope for is something more ambitious, a way of life, including work, recreation, and political activity, that reflects a Mormon inspiration, in full engagement with the rest of the world. Are we up to it? Well, not just yet . . . Compared with this, the little bits and pieces I mentioned (a school here, a business there) are, yeah, fairly inconsequential. But they are steps which if extended, by the same principle, to a great many more institutions and practices, could become something quite remarkable.

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