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 Santa 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.