Menu

Essay

Backstory: The Mormon Moment

The media are calling it "The Mormon Moment." Perhaps you've noticed it. The GOP nominee for President is Mormon. The Book of Mormon remains by far the hottest ticket on Broadway. And, the ecclesiastical ad-men of Salt Lake City have launched an omnipresent, well-produced TV campaign featuring normal folks—a New York comedienne working for The Daily Show, a Haitian woman turned American mayor, a French opera singer—who are meant to strike most of us as unlikely Latter-day Saints.

Since its inception in the 1820s, Mormonism has provoked complex feelings—a mixture of admiration, incredulity, suspicion and revulsion, that has inspired, above all else, a persistent curiosity. There's a lot about Mormonism that speaks to the American character, to our sense of exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. Founded in Upstate New York by Joseph Smith, a famously charismatic, classically American, up-by-his-bootstraps fellow, Mormonism locates the Garden of Eden, and the New Jerusalem from which Christ will reign after the End Times in America, and it asserts that the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were divinely inspired. What's more, Mormon theology encourages a kind of acquisitive yet generous, civic-minded industriousness that seems to lead to both individual and communal prosperity with a minimum of government interference. Mormonism teaches that striving towards godliness in this life can enable us to achieve actual divinity in the next. Though this notion that we can become "the gods of our own planets" in the afterlife is oft-derided by outsiders, it sounds, in many ways, like the supernatural extension of the American Dream.

Yet, Mormons are not conventional American individualists. Mormon doctrine prizes obedience to God and the ecclesiastical authorities above all else, and Mormon productivity is, in many ways, the product of collectivism, subversion of the ego, and a quieting of independent thought and dissent that makes many Americans uncomfortable. Mormon clannishness has made the LDS authorities slow to renounce the church's more unsavory doctrines like polygamy (in 1890) and racial exclusion (in 1972), and Mormon block voting and fundraising are considered singularly responsible for the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment and the success of California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. And while the LDS have distanced themselves from fringe fundamentalists like Warren Jeffs, the violence, sexual abuse, intimidation, polygamy, incest and fraud routinely perpetrated by communities like his in Colorado City, Arizona are the product of a strict male authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism that is, if anachronistic in the early 21st century, indistinguishable from the practices of Brigham Young (Smith's successor) and his contemporaries in the middle of the 19th.

Of course, the official LDS church has evolved considerably since that time and continues to evolve. But the Mormon Country that Sam Hunter so often returns to in his work is still a world split in two, in which the same place wide open and rugged, with soaring peaks and expansive desert seems to those in the Church like God's glittering kingdom on Earth, and to those outside it, a bleak, lonely purgatory.

–Alec Strum, Associate Literary Manager
July 2012

BACK TO BULLETIN  BACK TO THE WHALE