The Mormons Reconsidered

October 1988By Bill Kauffman

Bill Kauffman, who has appeared in The Nation and Utne Reader, writes from the Burned-Over District in the colony of upstate New York. His first novel, Every Man a King, is forthcoming from Soho Press.

For one week every summer, the spiritual epi­center of Mormonism removes itself from Utah to the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Joseph Smith’s home­land of Palmyra, New York, smack dab in the mid­dle of upstate New York’s now quiescent Burned-Over District. On the Hill — site of the Book of Mormon’s apocalyptic battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites — a cast of hundreds dramatizes events central to the Mormon holy writ.

Joseph Smith’s 1823 epiphany, in which the Angel Moroni is said to have revealed to him a set of gold plates later translated into the Book of Mormon, was just one of many revelatory fires to set this territory ablaze in antebellum days. Most of the brushfires were quenched long ago. But Smith’s vision persists, long outlasting those of John Humphrey Noyes and Jemima Wilkinson and his other contemporaries; a century and a half later, Mormonism enjoys seven million followers in 100 nations, and those numbers are expanding apace.

Mormonism is very much a product of its times, which is not such a bad thing if those times happen to be the Jacksonian era. A potent egalitar­ian strain runs through the Book of Mormon; it’s no surprise that Smith grounded his abortive 1844 campaign for the U.S. presidency in solid Revolu­tionary bedrock: “liberty and equal rights, Jeffersonian democracy, free trade and sailors’ rights, and the protection of person and property.”

Excepting the Iroquois Indian faith founded by the Seneca named Handsome Lake, Mormonism is the most impressive of America’s aboriginal reli­gions. Yet it remains, among our elite classes, a re­viled faith. The contempt that intellectuals rain upon this Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) tells us much about the state of the American clerisy.

I worked for a couple of years on Capitol Hill, for a liberal Senator. I expected to hear the usual anti-Catholic sniggers; to my surprise, I heard none. We papists have been replaced by far more inviting targets for New Class Bigotry: fundamentalist Chris­tians and Mormons.

“He’s a Mormon,” a NOW grimalkin once snarled at me, explaining in shorthand why a judi­cial nominee ought to be rejected — as though the LDS is the only church that subordinates female worshipers. (Feminists forget that the federal gov­ernment that coerced the Mormon renunciation of polygamy also forced Utah to repeal its landmark women’s suffrage act of 1870.)

Watching the cast of the Hill Cumorah Pageant greet visitors, “saint” and “gentile” alike, I won­dered: Do these gentle people know that the world outside — or at least the self-styled intellectuals who shape and control the flow of mass informa­tion — despise and belittle them, not so much for their theological eccentricities as for the simple, unalloyed fact that they are, simultaneously, ordi­nary and different?

I can’t help but think that the chattering class’s loathing of Mormonism is symptomatic of the vir­ulent elitism that courses through the national veins. In Joseph Smith’s era, Mormonism was a populist eruption, borne westward by the turbulent winds of the Burned-Over District.

Today’s church has lost touch with its popu­list origins, but — if you leave the ornate mauso­leums of the Salt Lake City bureaucracy — it re­mains a remarkably loving, cohesive movement of ordinary folk. If the more sluggish LDS mission­aries ofttimes adopt robotic demeanors, far com­moner are the cheerful believers who greeted my wife and me at the Hill Cumorah.

They were two cute, perky, evidently fun-lov­ing college-age girls, who giggled and ribbed each other and acted like devout Gidgets. Until, that is, they witnessed to their faith. After a lucid synopsis of the Book of Mormon, one girl said, “I want you to know that I know that all these stories you’re going to see tonight are true, and reading the Book of Mormon has brought me more joy than I ever imagined.”

It was a powerful testament, delivered by a nice young woman of the sort that David Letterman would skewer. She is like ordinary folk of all faiths, who, clothed in unpretentious fabric, live unimaginably rich lives, abundant with faith, love, and charity. They live in places called neighbor­hoods, little platoons of brotherhood from which too many of us blanch and flee.

The demotic, relentlessly middle-class com­portment of the Mormons makes them a plump target for ridicule. So, too, do the church’s mulishly unfashionable teachings. The emphasis on mutu­al aid as a means of avoiding the public dole gets the Mormons unfairly stigmatized as reactionaries. But isn’t the spirit of former LDS President J. Reu­ben Clark Jr.’s avowal — “No man is politically free who depends upon the state for his sustenance. We Mormons have cared for the essential needs of our own in the past; we can do it now” — similar to the kindly anarchist philosophy of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin?

I do not mean to defend the unsavory aspects of Mormonism, particularly the acts of its latter-day apostles. LDS missions abroad work hand-in-glove with the CIA; the hierarchy at home assists the Utah police apparatus in the sedulous persecu­tion of fundamentalist Mormons, primarily polygamists and tax-protestors; LDS functionaries harass independent Mormon scholars and are zealous in the (probably untenable) defense of the treasure-hunting, black-magic-dabbling Joseph Smith.

But against the homogeneity of mainstream culture, Utah and its Mormons stand as a defiant monument to particularism. A few years back, a University of Utah dean reassured the rest of the nation that “the Mormons, for the most part, are no longer a ‘peculiar’ people so much as a typical people with a ‘peculiar’ past. The gradual accommodation of the Mormons to national norms has been a slow process…but there is no question that it has occurred.”

In the dean’s world, this accommodation is something to be desired. Diversity, idiosyncrasy, regional and religious pride — these can be factious traits, especially in a land in which the centripetal forces of giantism seek to sweep us all into one huge Cuisinart, obliterating ethnic, racial, regional, sexual, and philosophical differences.

Before we acquiesce to uniformity, we ought to ask ourselves: what is wrong with an ethnic or religious unity so intense that members choose to separate themselves in small communities, beyond the molesting hand of outsiders? Why have “Mor­monism” and “Utah” become code words for clan­nish intolerance rather than symbols of devotion and solidarity that they so manifestly are?

DOSSIER: Wacky Theologians & Theological Wackiness

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