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Matthew Bowman received his Ph.D. in American religious history from Georgetown University in May 2011, and a master’s in American history from the University of Utah. He is the associate editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and currently teaches at Hampden-Sydney College.
A “Mormon moment” usually works like this. Every few years Mormons edge their way into the American national consciousness: Mitt Romney and his stiff smile, the whiskey-less 2002 Winter Olympics, state raids on polygamous compounds in Arizona in the early 1950s, and so on back to the life and death of Joseph Smith. Whatever the inspiration, in a Mormon moment Americans scrutinize Mormon history and beliefs with an eye for absurdity, and Mormon theology and practice with faint worry that these things are incompatible with the assumptions, unspoken and not, by which American public life functions. In a Mormon moment, Americans look at Mormonism and, generally, fail to see themselves reflected back.
But this failure tells us something. On the surface, Mormon moments might seem the sort of helpless gawking at oddity that fuels reality TV, but in fact they are far more serious business. Mormon moments are always political. They are really debates over the role of religion – not simply Mormonism, but religion more generally – in American public life. The things which Americans find curious or threatening about Mormonism are a distillation of what Americans might fear or desire from religion at any given moment. Depending on where you stand Mormonism represents the tragic fall of the respectable Protestant establishment or the dangerous rise of religious irrationality; the spread of ecclesiastical tyranny or a reassuring commitment to traditional values.
For instance, in 1878 the Supreme Court heard the federal government’s prosecution of George Reynolds, Brigham Young’s secretary, a polygamist, and a willing foot soldier in the Mormons’ attempt to persuade the Court to overturn federal laws targeting polygamy. The case was the Court’s first opportunity to define what precisely the religious freedom clauses in the First Amendment actually meant. Eight members of the Court ruled that under the Bill of Rights Congress was free to regulate religious behaviors “which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.” Polygamy, hence, demanded criminalization. In 1893 the Mormons ceased to practice polygamy and Congress voted to return to them the church property seized during the prosecutions, patting the LDS church on the head because it “no longer encourages or gives countenance to any manner of practices in violation of law, or contrary to good morals or public policy.”
These two statements bracketed one Mormon moment. The federal government used Mormonism to signal that acceptable American religion was that which encouraged the moral precepts of late Victorianism. The government read polygamy to be in violation of the Victorian moral order, to be religious tyranny, to corrupt the sanctity of Victorian womanhood. In the intervening years federal marshals swarmed Utah and Mormonism had few defenders. The feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and stolid old Grover Cleveland stood shoulder to shoulder in condemnation of polygamy. The evangelical leader Josiah Strong warned that Mormons’ dependence on a priestly class sapped their moral virtue; the famous agnostic Robert Ingersoll concurred.
No longer is there a de facto American religious establishment that takes Protestant ethics for granted. But Mormonism continues to stand as a mirror to Americans’ debates over the role of religion in public life. To some evangelicals the rise of Mitt Romney is distressing because Mormonism remains what it always was: a strange and arcane heresy, a threat to the long standing Protestant goal to make the United States a morally upright city upon a hill. Evangelical Americans celebrated the decision in Reynolds v US, and they continue to distrust Mormonism because it is not Protestant Christianity: because it has a priestly hierarchy, because it deviates from the historic Christian theological consensus, because its notions of authority and freedom are not so radically autonomous as those of Protestant evangelicalism. David French, for instance, the leader of a group called Evangelicals for Mitt, insists to his brethren that they’re voting for a Commander-in-Chief, not a Pastor-in-Chief. The argument presumes, essentially, the moral order that Reynolds v US created: an America in which belief matters less than behavior, and Romney’s beliefs, however unacceptable they may be, are less relevant than his campaign promises.
But while evangelicals believe Mormonism represents all that’s worst of religious heresy, Mormonism’s more secular critics believe it represents all that’s worst about religion more generally. Its doctrine is simply a particularly garish and unbelievable version of any religious doctrine and its ecclesiastical hierarchy merely a formalization of the “control” or “brainwashing” they believe all religion exerts. If Protestant evangelicals mourn that Mormons are denied a personal encounter with Christ, Mormonism’s secular critics complain that it denies people individual rights. Harold Bloom and Maureen Dowd have repeatedly used the pages of the New York Times to pillory Mormonism for its patriarchy and the strength of its priestly authority – things which, it seems logical to them, destroy the individual liberty essential to lead a satisfying life in America.
The irony here is that beneath the surface, both sides share similar assumptions about the nature of American religion. Americans expect “good” religion to promote moral behavior, but they bristle at any intimation that another’s religion might be “forced on” them. A certain degree of eclecticism – combining meditation with prayer, say – is acceptable. Good religion should be personal, an intimate, and generally private, spiritual experience. It should place no authority beyond that personal experience – evangelicals expect that common sense will easily enable them to learn what God may want of them in the pages of scripture, while secularists insist that all religion bow before the philosophy of Enlightenment rationalism.
To both of these groups, Mormonism, with its powerful ecclesiastical hierarchy, the seeming irrationality of its sacred history, its aggressive missionary work, its exclusive theological claims, seems tremendously threatening. The irony here is that Mormons themselves also claim this language of freedom, personal experience with God, and individual liberty. The concept of “personal agency,” what philosophers call “libertarian free will” is central to Mormon theology. Mormons tend to scorn traditional Christian creedal theology for its irrationality and insist that their theology makes much more sense. They are as much a product of the expectations of American religion as those who deem them a threat.
In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, religion seems primarily interesting to the media for what it signals about how somebody might choose to vote. Today, too often, “Christian” means simply a particularly virulent form of the slightly more numerous species of “intolerant social conservative” or “Republican.” The term has been drained of the transcendent imagination which animated the Puritans and the civil rights movement alike. This is the fault both of the political mobilization of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition and of liberals who have come to see Christianity as primarily a political opponent. But nonetheless, the same debate over what an American church should be like still rages, and beneath the surface similar assumptions still hold true. This is why Mormon moments have not yet become obsolete.
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