Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

People of Paradox

Terryl L. Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion and James A. Bostwick Chair of English at the University of Richmond. His newest book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture not only traces the development of Mormon culture from Joseph Smith through today, but also looks at Mormon culture in the context of society at large. In the article below Givens uses Mormon history to elucidate why discussion of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney‘s religion is irrelevant.

On the 10th of September, 1846, the bombardment began and continued sporadically for three days. As many as 800 (some Mormons said 1800) U.S militiamen and area citizens with six pieces of canon had surrounded the virtually deserted city of Nauvoo, Illinois. The two to three hundred remaining Mormons converted some steamboat shafts to canon and threw up barricades in a feeble attempt to survive. After a stubborn resistance by the besieged, and a daring sortie that brought temporary respite but at a cost of three Mormon lives, the combatants signed an agreement of capitulation on September 16th. By October, the Mormon temple in Nauvoo—finished at such tremendous sacrifice even while persecutions raged—was desecrated, the beautiful city that had recently rivaled Chicago in size was a shell of its former self, and the last weary and infirm Mormons had joined their fellow believers in forcible exile. They left behind not just the “City of Joseph,” but the very borders of the United States of America.

At almost the same time and thousands of miles away, the Mormon Battalion, a group of Mormon volunteers, trudged toward 9780195167115.jpgSanta Fe to rendezvous with the federal Army of the West on their way to fight the Mexican War. On October 9th the battalion arrived, and Colonel Alexander Doniphan of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers ordered a one-hundred gun salute to honor the Mormons for their loyalty to the United States. They had just completed the longest march in American military history, on behalf of a government from whose territory they had just been expelled at cannon-point.

It is one of the great paradoxes of the Mormon experience in the nineteenth century that the American flag suggested to the Latter-day Saints both promise and oppression; it was both an emblem of God’s purpose and designs and bitter ensign of a nation that expelled, disenfranchised, and persecuted them.

Today, the situation is markedly different, yet the paradox persists in modified form. The Latter-day Saints express as one of their Articles of Faith, an unswerving devotion to patriotism and civic duty (Article 12). Mormon teachings ascribe to America a providential role in world history and even in millennial events. One Mormon scripture proclaims this a “land choice above all others” (Ether 2:15). Another Mormon scripture, certainly unique in the canons of Holy Writ, makes the specific claim that the Constitution of the United States had been established “by the hands of wise men whom [God] raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80D&C 101:80). Yet in the looming election, the question recurs: can a Mormon president be loyal to the country and constitution first?

Good reasons may exist to question the qualifications or judgments of Mormons or any other candidate this year. Yet it seems ironic that the candidate with the most explicit theological grounds for special loyalty to the American constitution and rule of law, is the only candidate whose theological attachments are singled out as possible disqualifiers for presidential office.

Mormon culture has thrived on this and kindred paradoxes. A church that embodies hierarchy and centralized authority surpassing that of the Catholics while celebrating a conception of individualism and agency that in some regards surpass Pelagius. A religion filled with the rhetoric and promise of theological certainty, which at the same time conceives of salvation as an educative process that will reach into the eternities. And a people whose isolation from the mainstream is marked in blood and history, reflected in a language of exceptionalism and difference, and reified by architecture and physical space, even as that same people aspires to search out, proselytize, and bind together the entire human family living and dead.

It could be that to call these conflicting tendencies in Mormon culture paradox is to resort to euphemism for what is really the simple inconsistency so often at the heart of human ways of ordering experience. Or paradox could be a sign of immaturity, an indication that Mormon ways of articulating their values and preferences have not yet found a synthesis free of fault lines. In any event, exploring the ambiguities and tensions at the heart of Mormon culture reveals a faith tradition more complex and multi-dimensional than the caricatures often generated by the simplistic language of sound-bites and presidential campaigns.

The odyssey of the Mormon faith in American history is perhaps in this case the greatest paradox of all. The church has gone from being a public enemy to be exterminated, in the words of a 19th century Missouri governor, to the quintessential American religion, in the view of more recent observers. The status of Mitt Romney as a contender for the presidential ticket is a sign of that progress. That his religion is, in the eyes of many, a potential disqualifier for that office, is a sign of progress yet to be made.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Religion , A-Featured , Politics , Media , Current Events on November 7, 2007 | Share This After Terryl Given’s post earlier today about Mitt Romney I thought that it would be a good time to post this podcast […]

  2. caedmon

    Religion is a divisive force in American and world politics. I would strongly oppose any religious “test” for a political candidate for any office. However, respectfully questioning how a candidate’s religious beliefs might inform his or her decision making and actions is not necessarily out of bounds religious intolerance.

    The US Government cannot eliminate a candidate from running for office because of religion. However, individuals are free to apply any standard of measurement they wish when deciding who to vote for. Romney has stated that he believe the American people want a “person of faith” in the White House. If so, then the details of that faith are open to discussion.

    When Romney went through the secret LDS temple endowment ceremony he would have taken the oath to observe the Law of Obedience. He would also have promised before God, angels and witnesses to “accept the Law of Consecration as contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, in that you do consecrate yourselves, your time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed you, or with which he may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the building up of the Kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion.”

    The LDS church maintains a racist doctrine which teaches that blacks were “less valiant” spirits in what Mormons believe to have been a pre-existence. Church leaders have taught for 175 years that being born with black skin and features (the mark of Cain) was punishment by God for their “less than faithful” actions. Based on this doctrine, the Mormon Church prohibited blacks from holding the LDS Priesthood until 1978 when it lifted the ban following tremendous public pressure including a threat to revoke their tax exempt status.

    Romney has publicly stated that he is not a “cafeteria” Mormon who picks and chooses which doctrines he will accept. Romney was 31 years old at the time the Church lifted the ban which means that for a significant portion of his adult life he accepted his church’s teaching that blacks are inherently inferior.

    Does Romney still believe that he is more “valiant” or “worthy” than blacks and other non-whites by virtue of being born Caucasian? If he didn’t believe that people of color were inferior during his adult life before the ban was lifted, then why did he remain a member – tacitly supporting the ban and its doctrinal underpinnings? Why did he support church leaders who repeatedly taught black inferiority as doctrine? Did he counsel members to not accept this church teaching when he was a church missionary, bishop or stake president? Did he publicly criticize or renounce any of the racist statements made by his church leaders? Did he lobby his church leaders to disavow the doctrine and change their teaching?

    Please note that while the church has changed its policy of prohibiting blacks from holding its priesthood, it has never renounced the doctrine that led to the ban in the first place. It has never disavowed or removed from the church cannon the scripture that the doctrine is based upon (i.e. Book of Abraham). It has never renounced or apologized for racist statements made by its leaders. It is interesting to note that while nearly 30 years have passed since the ban was lifted, not a single black face appears in the upper echelons of Mormon church leadership.

  3. […] post by Rebecca This was written by . Posted on Wednesday, November 7, 2007, at 10:04 am. Filed under […]

  4. Nathaniel


    I think the reason that the Mormon church has never renounced the doctrine that blacks were less valiant or worthy in the pre-existence is that that view has never been doctrine in the first place. I can see how you might think that it was that reasoning that led to the ban on blacks holding the priesthood, but in fact it was the other way around.

    As far as leadership positions go, the Church hierarchy is structured in such a way that significant changes in demographics take a very long time. About 1/2 the members of the Church live outside the US, but every single member of the 12 Apostles is a US citizen. This is because they are chosen from the lower ranks (as a general rule) who were in turn chosen from yet lower ranks. It takes decades for the change in Church membership to be reflected in leadership.

    But it is being reflected. Even a quick survey of the echelons just below the 12 (these are called the Quorums of the 70) reveal an increasing number of leaders from areas where the Church is spreading: predominantly S. America. It’s quite common for high-ranking leaders who address the the congregation during the semi-annual general conference of the Church to speak with a heavy Spanish accent. There is one member of the 12 from Germany, and there have also been high-ranking members from Japan and other countries.

    But most Church leaders are white Americans because they are chosen from the church members who started various adult church service when they were in there 30’s and 40s and are now in the there 70s and 80s. In other words the leadership now reflects the population 30 – 50 years ago.

    The Church’s growth in the African Americans is such that they still constitute a very small minority of membership, and as a result it shouldn’t be a surprise not to find many of them in high leadership positions. This will change. In point of fact, the first General Authority (level just below the 12) of African American descent was ordained nearly 2 decades ago in 1990. His name was Helvecio Martins: http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org/martins.html

    The ban on priesthood ordination of blacks was, by definition, racist. But the supposition that it reflects an overall racist institution is without basis. There have been, and for all I know still are, racist Mormons. This is a fact. But Mormon doctrine, since 1978, has not been racist and there is no discrimination whatsoever based on race within Church leadership.

    (Full disclosure: I am a Mormon.)

  5. RomneyExperience

    […] highly respected LDS scholar Terryl Givens has a short blog post musing on the meaning of Romney’s run for the presidency over the background of the paradoxes […]

  6. […] , Literature on November 13, 2007 | Share This Last week, after Terryl Given’s piece about Mormonism and politics, I started to wonder about one of my favorite Mormons, Orson Scott Card. I’m not a huge […]

  7. […] description Review by Salon (pretty interesting; don’t be put off by the part about vampires) Oxford University Press blog entry Advance excerpt of the book at Religion & Ethics News Weekly Page 99 excerpt at The Page 99 […]

  8. veteranraver

    All statements made in Mormon scriptures declaring that dark skin is the result of a curse of God; (“And he had caused the acursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity… the Lord God did cause a dskin of eblackness to come upon them.” Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 5:21,22,). HAVE NEVER BEEN REMOVED NOR RENOUNCED.

    Presently, early Mormon theology is openly reaffirmed every Fast Sunday and on other occasions. Members of the Mormon faith stand and begin (or ends) the testimony with this statement “I know the (Mormon) church is true” and “I know Joseph Smith is the true prophet”.

    The statement (“…all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color” June 9, 1978 press release to the Deseret News), IS INADEQUATE.

    Combined, the statements articulate;

    Black skin as a curse was taught at BYU after the June 9th,1978 aforementioned statement. As of the 1984 Winter Semester at Brigham Young University, in the Genealogy 263 class, the instructor Brother Bloxham explained the curse to a student. The subject came up when Brother Bloxham was explaining the Mormon concept that a spirit in heaven selects the body to live within. A student asked “Why would a spirit select the body of a baby who was born to starvation in Africa?” Brother Bloxham gave the explanation of the curse. The same student asked “Why would a spirit choose the body of a white baby who is born addicted to crack?” Brother Bloxham’s answer was; “Poor choice”. I was a student in that class at the time Brother Bloxham made that above mentioned statements.

    Mormon scriptures, (Pearl of Great Price-Book of Moses 7:8; Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 5:21,22, Alma 3:6, Mormon5:15) and many statements made by Mormon church presidents that Blacks are inferior STILL STANDS.

    The foundation of Mormon theology (stating people of dark skin people are inferior), is not erased by as simple statement that blacks can now hold the priesthood. Stating that blacks can hold the priesthood does not equate and is immaterial to the Mormon scriptures and the Mormons racist beliefs.

    Go to the below referenced website (Institute for Religious Research) for further information.

    I refuse to accept any defensive rationalizations. Until the scriptures are renounced and statements regarding people of color have been cursed by God is removed, I see Mormon theology as white supremacy.

  9. […] http://freedomwatch.blog.de wrote an interesting post today on People of Paradox : OUPblogHere’s a quick excerptDoes Romney still believe that he is more “valiant” or “worthy” than blacks and … Beacon Broadside; Harvard University Press Publicity Blog; Indiana University Press Blog; MIT … […]

  10. Suzette

    As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-saints I am always intrigued by the debate over what our religion really means. I live by the simple teaching that was part of my early upbringing…we are all children of God. I found an interesting website that placated my questioning emotions on denying blacks the priesthood(it was “changed” when I was quite young). http://www.blacklds.org/

  11. Blaine Jay Smith

    The scriptures are what they are. Our understanding and utilization of them is what differentiates our acceptance or rejection of them. Some here are choosing to take offense where none was intended by cherry picking difficult verses and reviling their most negative possible interpretations. The true spirit of all the scriptures (Bible, Book of Mormon, D&C and PGP) is found in verses like 2 Nephi 26:33:

    “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them ball to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”

    Our understanding of the preexistence is imperfect at best. There is a reason why God placed a veil over our memories. Some BYU and CES teachers may still need to do what Elder Bruce R. McConkie did when the 1978 revelation came out. He had been among the most vocal ‘curse of Cain’ defenders, but he humbly declared: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

Comments are closed.