'A Peculiar People' The Mystical and Pragmatic Appeal of Mormonism
of Mormons and the Mormon Church--officially the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints--tend toward one of two extremes. On
the one hand, accounts of Mormonism from the church's founding by
Joseph Smith in the 1820s have emphasized the sensational, the lurid,
the scandalous, the heretical and the titillating, for the reason
that, well, there is much in Mormon history, culture and doctrine
that is sensational, lurid, scandalous, heretical and titillating,
as measured against mainstream American culture then and now.
Mormons had (and some dissident Mormons still have) lots of wives;
they do not smoke or drink or even drink coffee; the genuinely devout
ones wear funny underwear and do strange rituals in temples closed
to outsiders; Mormonism's presumably deeply oppressed women bear
an unfashionably large number of children, and up until just a couple
of decades ago, the Mormon Church denied blacks full participation
in the church. From the 19th century down to the present day, Mormonism
has succeeded in pushing American society's hot-buttons on religion,
race and sex.
On the other hand, other accounts of Mormons--accounts of the people
rather than the articles of their strange faith--have often emphasized
the cheerful virtue, the upright and yet often relaxed, pragmatic
goodness of its adherents, their ability to hold together families
and raise decent children and provide the consolations of community
in the confusing modern world more successfully than many others.
These accounts often pass over in discreet silence the sometimes
embarrassing tenets of faith that, especially if one were Mormon,
might have been thought an inestimably important part of making
that moral success possible.
If opponents of Mormonism have often asked, "Can't we stop
the Mormons from being Mormon?", ostensible admirers of Mormons
as people have often asked, at least by implication, "Can't
we have Mormons--but without Mormonism?" This is a circumstance
not unknown to minority religions with their peculiar beliefs and
But Mormonism is unique in this country's historical experience
for being so thoroughly American--deeply intertwined with the history
of the United States, especially the West--yet with enough deviation
that it becomes more jarring than a religion genuinely alien to
American culture. For that reason, Mormons and the Mormon Church
have reason to be glad that Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling's
new book, Mormon America, succumbs to neither extreme in
reporting on Mormonism.
The Ostlings (the co-authors are husband and wife, both journalists
and non-Mormons; Richard Ostling was a long-time religion reporter
for Time magazine) have succeeded splendidly in their aim
to produce a "candid but non-polemical overview written for
non-Mormons and Mormons alike, focusing on what is distinctive and
culturally significant about this growing American movement."
It is a scrupulous, fair-minded account, one that neither shies
away from the controversies that have shaped the perception of Mormonism
nor has any particular ax to grind about them.
I say this as a lapsed, inactive Mormon, someone who was raised
in a devoutly Mormon home and many years ago served a two-year mission
for the church, someone who today is non-practicing, although fundamentally
sympathetic to the church and its culture (this bit of autobiography
is important in a field in which so many commentators bring agendas,
hidden and otherwise). I object to accounts that caricature or pathologize
Mormonism--starting with what much of educated America today takes
as its source book for Mormonism, Tony Kushner's Angels in America--even
if I do not find enough in the doctrine that I could believe to
count myself a practicing adherent.
But reading Mormon America, even with my faculties for
detecting patronization and pathologization turned up high, I found
the book remarkably careful, fair and untendentious. Whether the
Mormon Church and its hierarchy will find it so I am unsure; in
dealing with many things in Mormon history and culture, it has seemed
simply to hope that if no one discusses them, they will go away.
Of course they do not, and Mormon America is a useful introduction
to the Mormon Church even from the church's point of view because
it discusses scandal and controversy in a plain, unadorned fashion
with none of the prickly defensiveness alternating with spin-doctor
insincerity--what the Ostlings aptly call "isolationist,
and defensive reactions to outsiders"--that, alas, regularly
afflicts the Mormon Church's own department of public relations.
And matters of scandal, controversy and embarrassment abound. The
religious claims could be considered embarrassing enough, starting
with Joseph Smith's founding vision in which, he said, he was visited
by God the Father and Jesus Christ in a grove in upstate New York,
followed by slews of angels from on high, naming Smith as the person
to reestablish Christ's church on Earth in "these latter days."
Nonbelievers, religious or irreligious, will find these claims preposterous.
Yet they are not, it should be noted, different from the mystical
claims of visions and revelations and visitations made by innumerable
Christian and other mystics across history, which are always preposterous
to unbelievers; I find accounts of visitations by the Virgin Mary,
for example, as absurd as any Catholic must find Joseph Smith's
accounts. But the fact that so much of the foundational mysticism
of Christianity is alleged to have taken place in the suitably distant
past gives it no greater respectability than Smith's more recent
It is not mysticism, recent or distant, whether in Joseph Smith's
visions or St. Paul's hearing a voice, that creates special problems
for Mormon religious belief. A much more intractable problem is
that Joseph Smith's claims go far beyond the mystical to claims
of fact which ultimately are historical. The Book of Mormon, for
example, the first work of Mormon scripture, purports to be a historically
true account of pre-Columbian people in the New World; it teaches
that they were part of the Tribes of Israel who were visited and
converted in America by the resurrected Jesus.
As a matter of Christian doctrine--leaving aside the peculiarity
of the geographical location of its story--the book's content amounts
to a fairly traditional call for reform of Christ's church. It is
all about faith, repentance and baptism and has little to say about
the later, vastly more radical religious doctrines Smith preached,
such as polygamy and the plurality of Gods, the idea of a Mother
in Heaven (accepted from the church's earliest days in principle,
although calls by Mormon feminists to recognize prayers to her constitute
apostasy in the view of the church hierarchy) and the defining doctrine
of Mormonism today, that human beings may individually progress
in goodness and knowledge themselves to become gods.
The Book of Mormon also says that Native Americans resulted from
a final ethnic war among those people; that they were cursed by
God with a dark skin, although the book promises their eventual
blessing and return to God. Curiously, the offensiveness to today's
ears of such a teaching--the Mormon Church has been quietly and
systematically excising the most egregious of those scriptural passages
in recent years--is not the only reading these passages of the Book
of Mormon have been given.
In the 1980s' El Salvador war, for example, guerrilla forces were
reported to have included at least a few indigenous Mormons who--quite
contrary to the official Mormon Church--had taken those scriptural
verses as evidence of having been blessed by God in a just war against
white oppression. I recall speaking with a couple of indigenous
Mormons in El Salvador in those years--rural political supporters
of the guerrillas although not themselves fighters. What they emphasized
in their reading of Mormon scripture was a deep satisfaction that,
at last, here was a religion that thought them important enough
to have been visited by the risen Christ, not merely relying on
events in faraway Palestine.
It seemed to me then, as now, no worse an ethnic creation myth
than what contemporary makers of myths of indigenismo, the Rigoberta
Menchus and so on, elaborate, and who anyway ultimately rely in
their narratives on various white American and European romanticisms
about revolution and armed struggle or the supposed eco-awareness
of indigenous culture or New Age presumptions of Native American
The underlying problem, however, is that, notwithstanding the heroic
efforts of devout Mormon scholars, researchers and scientists, evidence
is not exactly mounting to support the Book of Mormon as a genuinely
ancient document. Nor is it safely off in realms beyond proof and
disproof, the stuff of mysticism, in the way that most religions
are careful to do in the face of rational science. It purports to
be the historical fact of the world--one of numerous claims by Smith
and early Mormons that could not be disputed at the time but that
in today's world appear in trouble on the facts.
The problem of the Book of Mormon for devout believers illustrates
why, within Mormonism, the relevant subject, the most threatening
subject, is history and not theology. A religion that has made,
so to speak, many seemingly rash claims about historical matters
is specially liable to assault from the discipline of history; likewise,
too, a religion that has with scandal and controversy in its past
but that also has made a concerted attempt over decades to scrub
and polish and airbrush away that past in the interests of achieving
respectability must worry about prying historians.
To a significant extent, historians with sufficient interest in
undertaking these questions of early Mormon practices, sources and
doctrines have themselves been Mormon. They have been caught, however,
between a genuinely deeply held Mormon theological principle that
the advancement of all knowledge is to grow closer to the glory
of God and the institutional church's awareness that history is
dangerous. Mormon America cites perhaps the most reactionary
of the Mormon senior leaders, Boyd K. Packer, who said in 1981 that
"the writer or teacher who has an exaggerated loyalty to
the theory that everything must be told is laying a foundation for
his own judgment. . . . [S]ome things are to be taught selectively
and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy."
Notwithstanding this troubling tension, these Mormon historians'
inquiries have taken them into the roots of Joseph Smith's beliefs
in magic, sources of Mormon temple ceremonies in Masonic rites,
the role and status of women in the early Mormon Church and, of
As might be expected, their findings and conclusions have not always
been congenial to the church, especially insofar as those findings
have been deployed by the (very tiny) band of Mormon intellectuals
and--sometimes the same people but not always--social activists
who would like to reform the Mormon Church, particularly in matters
of gender and sexual orientation.
The church has reacted sharply in the last decade by removing
various of them from teaching posts and excommunicating them. The
Ostlings document these struggles with admirable dispassion, understanding
fully, as everyone involved does, that an institution that has constructed
so elaborately a sanitized past for itself is likely to continue
to find itself discomfited by history.
I sometimes wonder if I might have remained a moderately devout
Mormon had I done what I suspect many educated Mormons actually
do in the face of uncomfortable historical evidence, which is to
conclude implicitly--very implicitly--that none of this matters
in its literal truth or falsity.
What matters is the evolving institution of the church and particularly
its modernization and globalization; let us not be disposed, in
other words, to throw the baby out with the bathwater over such
quibbles as whether there really were horse-drawn chariots in pre-Columbian
America or to what extent Joseph Smith drew his conceptions of Mormon
temple ceremonies out of Freemasonry.
Perhaps the spiritually mature way to deal with these things is
to do as all religionists have done over the centuries when confronted
with inconvenient facts: Undertake a strategic retreat into an un-disprovable
mysticism that protects both the religious institution and the possibility
of spirituality as a higher, indispensable value. I have no quarrel
with mysticism, but it is problematic for Mormon theology in a way
more pronounced than for many other religions.
A Mormon withdrawal into mysticism is made difficult by the fact
that the theology of Joseph Smith and his successors, such as Brigham
Young, is not in its form of expression, mystical. On the contrary,
the immense spiritual attraction of Mormonism's doctrines--particularly
on the eternal nature of families, the essential goodness of human
beings and the idea of eternal progression--is precisely that however
mystical they might ultimately be as ideas, they are presented and
understood within Mormon life as preeminently reasonable.
The tone of the early Mormon prophets even when speaking of the
most astonishing doctrines never has the mystical quality of, say,
a St. Teresa; rather it is always marked by a reasonableness, a
common sense quality that locates it--in discursive tone if not
precisely in substance--firmly within the Enlightenment. It deliberately
invites judgment on reasonable, rational grounds; it appeals to
the faculty of natural reason.
This peculiar commingling of mystical (as well as historically
unsupported) doctrines on the one hand and pragmatic rationality
on the other is a strong feature of contemporary Mormons as individuals.
Educated Mormon culture has long been characterized, for example,
by outstanding physical scientists and engineers, as strictly rational
as possible in their worldly work yet devout in their adherence
to many historical beliefs that would not pass the test of rational
science, and believers, moreover, in deeply mystical ideas, even
if they would not represent them as such.
My own father spent his career as a chemistry professor and university
dean, a dedicated and rational teacher of science. Yet in the Mormon
Church his function--in a church staffed by lay clergy--for many
years has been to deliver blessings, to put his hands on the heads
of church members and tell them things as moved by God, which are
recorded, transcribed and kept by the church member as a meditative
guide to God's intentions for him or her in life.
Surely, to an outsider, this is very close to wild mysticism,
yet my father is far indeed from being a wild mystic. Nor is it
that he bifurcates his rational life from this mystical experience
and has some sort of existential disconnect between them. On the
contrary, his experience of giving these Mormon blessings is that
the process of "following the spirit" is itself "reasonable,"
in a way that is highly characteristic of the Mormon trait of perceiving
mysticism as rational practice.
This ability to wrap a mystical worldview in Enlightenment language
of reasonableness and rationality has, however, an important consequence
for the tasks of modernization and globalization that the contemporary
Mormon Church has set for itself.
The very fact that doctrines and views that the church itself
wants to reform are already expressed in a language of utter reasonableness
and rationality makes it considerably harder--not impossible, but
harder--to jettison or reform them also in the language of reason
and rationality; one is, so to speak, deprived of the tool of language
as a tool of modernization because one has already used it as the
tool of that which one wants to modernize.
Vatican II, by contrast, had an unreformed practice and a hitherto
under-deployed language of modernist reform at its disposal, which
made the task of reform greatly easier, if only by clarifying what
was old and what was new. The Ostlings make very clear that the
institutional Mormon Church has, by its own standards, undertaken
a deliberate march toward modernization even if it cannot quite
characterize it as such; yet the unreformed church has long been
set in its ways in a modernizing language.
In a hierarchical church, in which authority comes from the top
down, this may not seem an important consideration. If the hierarchy
seeks to modernize the church, to get rid of old and embarrassing
and disreputable doctrines, then it seems self-evident that it can
simply do so and the faithful will follow. What matters to Mormons
is their "living prophet"; the Ostlings are correct to
quote the late Mormon Church president and prophet Ezra Taft Benson
that "a living prophet trumps dead ones."
But when the institution is a church and a religion, then the
rhetorical tools by which that trump is played matter a great deal.
It matters whether the tools of modernizing language have in some
sense already been used and used up; for the attempt to reuse them
inevitably raises questions of authenticity and legitimacy, even
in a religion which prizes obedience above everything else.
And rhetoric matters especially, one might think, in a church which
purports to operate by direct, divine revelation. A belief in direct,
divine revelation has the virtue of allowing great flexibility at
critical moments, as when the early Mormon prophet Wilford Woodruff
announced by divine revelation in 1890 the abandonment of polygamy
following the passage of draconian federal laws--some of the most
radically unjust in the history of the republic--dissolving the
But it also means that the Mormon Church does not have available
to it, for example, Catholicism's post-Vatican II understanding
that the Catholic Church is a "pilgrim" church, seeking
with deep humility a partly hidden and uncertain path through the
world; Mormons may individually have the virtue of humility, but
the Mormon Church as an institution does not.
The Ostlings cite a commonly held Mormon view that "some
may see change in the teachings and practices [of the church] as
an inconsistency or weakness, but to Latter-day Saints change is
a sign of the very foundation of strength," viz., that a "living
prophet" guides the church according to God's will. But of
course this reflects a certain amount of nervous bravado because
all it means is that neither consistency nor inconsistency with
past doctrines constitutes evidence of anything. Plainly, among
Mormons and their leaders, a certain anxiety and a certain lurking
concern for inauthenticity and illegitimacy--has the all-knowing
God really changed His mind or was it just His leaders?--remains,
even with the implicit acceptance that what really matters is not
doctrine for its own sake but the forward march of the corporate
Questions of authenticity and legitimacy in the march toward change
are most evident at the fringes of the Mormon world. By and large
Mormons worldwide are happy--relieved even more, perhaps--with the
tendency of the church to draw itself more into the mainstream of
Christian denominations and to simplify, rather than complicate,
the theology in order to make it more universally appealing to populations
around the world.
In no matter was this modernization of greater relief than the
final abandonment in the 1970s by the Mormon Church of its official
racism, its refusal to allow blacks full standing in the church.
(Historically the Mormon Church's position was complicated; despite
the theological racism, the church was anti-slavery, and the antebellum
presence of sizable numbers of nonslaveholding Mormons in uneasily
pro-slavery Missouri was one of many reasons Mormons had troubles
with their non-Mormon neighbors. Joseph Smith himself favored the
"return to Africa" movement that off and on attracted
some followers, black and white.)
The Mormon Church was far later desegregating than other American
churches, in part because the doctrine was not one of a separate
but equal, segregated social order merely but one of actual theology
and doctrine. It is possible to speculate that an ordinarily very
Mormon language of pragmatic, natural reason was not as readily
available as it might have been as an internally legitimate ground
of appeal against racism because it had already been elaborately
deployed to the ends of racist theology. And this cost the Mormon
Church decades not merely in desegregating but in carrying its worldwide
mission to Africa and elsewhere--although as the Ostlings observe,
it is rapidly making up for lost time in places like the South African
townships while hoping against hope that over time the ugly, embarrassing
racism of its early theology will be quietly forgotten.
The Ostlings document very well, however, that resistance to the
march by the institutional church toward mainstream Christianity
and reform has produced at least a small wave of reaction, something
that has come to be called "Mormon fundamentalism." Mormon
fundamentalism is characterized by a return to the defining feature
of early Mormonism, at least in the eyes of the world: polygamy.
The attitude of mainstream Mormons toward polygamy is much more
complicated than libertarians or liberal do-gooders or conservative
Christians have any idea. On the one hand, although Mormons often
find it embarrassing to talk about, they--we--are certainly not
ashamed of it. The Utah elites that run the Mormon Church, after
all, are its descendants.
On the other hand, there is complete acceptance that, whatever
its theological status in the hereafter, it is gone for good in
the temporal world. If mainstream Mormons are not alien to the idea
of polygamy because some of them are descended from polygamists,
they are no more comfortable with it in today's world than are their
suburban neighbors. Among the millions of converts worldwide who
will soon constitute the majority of Mormons, it is a dead letter,
a matter of the distant Utah past. However much polygamy, through
various breakaway Mormon sects, may wind up on the daytime TV talk
shows, it has little to do with contemporary worldwide Mormonism.
Still, as Mormon America correctly notes, Mormon fundamentalism
and its polygamy are here to stay, and no matter how much the official
Mormon Church seeks to separate itself from today's polygamy by
excommunication or other means of ostracism, it will inevitably
be associated with Mormonism.
While making Mormonism mainstream and "respectable" within
the culture of suburbia has provoked reaction and radicalism, Mormonism
has also experienced the growth of another modestly disaffected
group, a small but growing body of intellectuals within Mormonism
who experience these days what the Ostlings describe as "palpable
worry and alienation." It is, however, important, as the Ostlings
observe, not to overestimate the relevance of this intellectual
class and its discontents to the Mormon Church just because it is
a group which naturally tugs at the heartstrings of intellectuals,
writers and journalists outside the church. After all, church discipline
in the 1990s aimed at purging Mormon dissident intellectuals, as
Mormon America says, "barely registered on the Richter
scale" of reaction among the church's rank and file.
These Mormon intellectuals tend to exhibit two characteristics
in their relationship with the church. First, dissenting Mormon
intellectuals sometimes appear simply to wish that Mormonism, with
the help of a few opportune divine revelations, would take on all
the elements of contemporary liberal culture that befit the social
and cultural mores of contemporary liberal intellectuals who also
happen to be Mormon--broadly speaking, the political and social
views of the National Public Radio constituency, on abortion, feminism,
gay rights, the environment, race and ethnicity in America and so
In that respect, at least, Mormon intellectual dissenters sometimes
resemble those ostensible friends of the Mormon people who wish
that they could have Mormons without Mormonism. Second, however,
increasingly what characterizes Mormon intellectuals is that, although
sometimes dissenting, they desire deeply to stay Mormon, to raise
their children as Mormon and to stay within the church. Although
church authorities deny that there can be within Mormonism a "loyal
opposition," an intelligentsia that is able to express itself
within a certain range of tolerance of opinion, as a counterpoint
to blind obedience to the church hierarchy, in fact it is an indication
of the growing intellectual and moral confidence of Mormonism that
its intellectuals do not simply drift away--I suppose I am a minor
case in point of drift--rather than remaining to dissent.
I do not suppose that the Mormon Church hierarchy will recognize
it as such, but the fact of intellectuals remaining to dissent indicates
some success in the modernization march that the church has undertaken;
there is something spiritually there that even those who have all
the resources of secular intellectualism at their disposal find
they are invested in and are not willing simply to give up and walk
away from, not even when pushed. It ought to be, in fact, some small
source of pride to the institutional Mormon Church.
Yet dissent will always remain difficult in a church devoted to
obedience, and the Mormon Church is not about to go so mainstream
that it adopts Protestant doctrines of the primacy of conscience
over obedience to religious hierarchy. And it is, after all, incumbent
on dissident Mormon intellectuals to recognize that the process
of modernization does not necessarily mean becoming secular liberals
and that the function of change in the Mormon Church is not, at
bottom, to make the lives of those drawn to secular intellectual
culture indistinguishable from those of their secular friends.
It is, rather, to promote a singular vision of the kingdom of
God, and in that endeavor, whether ultimately it admits of prayers
to a Mother in Heaven or a hundred other things that would put Mormonism
on the cutting edge of secular ideology, it is certain that Mormons
will remain what they always have been, as God in Mormon scripture
describes them: a "peculiar people."
Kenneth Anderson Teaches at American University Law School, Washington,
D.c., and Is Legal Editor of Crimes of War: What the Public Should
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 28, 1999