Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Mormonizing of America?

The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture
By Stephen Mansfield
Worthy Publishing, Brentwood TN, 2012
265 pages

I read this book while watching the Republican National Convention broadcast from Tampa, including the speech by Governor Mitt Romney accepting the GOP nomination for President. There had been much talk online about Romney's Mormon faith and whether or not he would downplay his religion in his speech.

Romney is one of the prominent Mormons mentioned in this book, along with business author the late Stephen Covey, entertainers Donny and Marie Osmond, former ambassador John Huntsman (who had contended with Romney for the Republican nomination), right-wing activist Glenn Beck, and others. Stephen Mansfield, who has written two books on the faith of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, sets out to look at the "Mormon Moment" as seven million Latter-Day Saints, two percent of the US population, seem to have a disproportionate influence in politics, business and entertainment.

Mansfield does this partially through a series of vignettes with Mormon characters - a student athlete, a boy preparing for priesthood and his grandfather, a couple wanting to add to their already large family - often interacting with "gentiles." I found these to a bit stilted, with dialogue that did not ring true, but they did make their points about Latter-Day Saints (LDS) beliefs and actions.

He argues that the success of Mormons in the US and the present "Mormon Moment" are the result of the Mormon religion creating "what can benevolently be called a Mormon Machine - a system of individual empowerment, family investment, local church (ward and stake level) leadership, priesthood government, prophetic enduement, Temple sacraments, and sacrificial financial endowment of the Mormon cause." In fact, Manfield claims, "plant Mormonism in any country on earth, and pretty much the same results will occur." Canadian Mormons do not yet have their "moment," but they make up only half a percent of our country's population, much less than in the US.

Mansfield makes the case that Mormon values and behaviours are also the hallmarks of successful people, and further that these values and behaviours grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. He then sets out an overview of the genesis and growth of the faith of the Latter-Day Saints. The history of the Mormons is laid out from the visions of the Prophet Joseph Smith, his translation of the Book of Mormon, persecution by mobs and governments, and the eventual trek west to Utah. Mansfield does not hesitate to depict Smith, and other early Mormon leaders, harshly when he feels it is warranted. At the end of the book he articulates a view, which he does not say if he believes personally, that Smith "completely imagined the religion he said he received by revelation" and that Smith can be understood as "a manipulative deceiver." Despite this, these "invented religious doctrines...have nevertheless fashioned a capable, ambitious people over time."

The historical and doctrine sections of the book are the most useful for me. The core Mormon beliefs are set out, and contrasted with those held by orthodox Christianity: that God the Heavenly Father has a physical body, and is married to the Heavenly Mother; that families exist prior to the earthly existence; that after his resurrection Christ appeared to Hebrews who had settled in North America; that the churches which were formed after Christ's life were corrupt; that the priesthood authority given to Mormon men is the power of the Holy Spirit to bless, heal, and have revelations; that the Book of Mormon is considered Scriptural on a level with Smith's own reworking of the Bible. Mansfield states that, given the depth of the doctrinal divide between Latter-Day Saints and orthodox Christian churches as well as Mormons' fervent devotion to Jesus, it may be time to move beyond debates over whether or not Mormons are Christians and classify the LDS Church as the fourth Abrahamic religion alongside Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Interestingly, the first version of this book was subtitled "How a Fringe Cult Emerged as a Dominant Force in American Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture." Presumably, there was an adverse reaction to "fringe cult" and the publisher changed it to "How the Mormon Religion Emerged." But Mansfield, who is not a Mormon, is sympathetic to the hard-working, faithful ordinary Mormons, despite the shadows of their religion's past of manipulation, polygamy, and racism. Mormons have both the advantage and disadvantage of belonging to a young faith tradition; the first Christian churches are 2,000 years in the past, while the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

The political and cultural references in this book may become dated soon - if Governor Romney does not win the Presidency in November, his prominence as a Mormon may soon be forgotten. But Mansfield's analysis of the ascension of Mormons in US society, while not deep, will stand as an introduction to the LDS Church and its members in America. It will certainly be of interest to anyone who wonders about the beliefs and practices of their Mormon neighbours, or what is in the mind of Governor Romney as he seeks to be President of the country in which the Latter-Day Saints originated.

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