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The Mormonizing of America
How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture
By Stephen Mansfield
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2012 Stephen Mansfield
All rights reserved.
THE MORMON VIEW OF MORMONISM
I have trouble getting my head around the Mormons.... The history strikes me somewhere between incredulity and horror, from golden plates in upstate New York to massacres out West. The theology comes across as totally barmy. We can become gods with our own planets! And the practices strike me as creepy. No coffee and tea is bad enough. But the underwear!
—Michael Ruse, philosopher
Hugh Riddick has been preparing for this conversation with his grandson almost his entire life. It is a conversation fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons have been having in his family for most of the 180-year history of the Latter-day Saints. Now, Hugh will have a chance to help prepare a new generation of Riddicks for the true priesthood of God—just as soon as young Jacob cleans up from his baseball game.
Jacob Riddick is thirteen and tomorrow he will take his first steps toward priesthood. His father was a priest, Hugh—his grandfather—is a priest, and so it has been since Brigham Young led the Saints. This is what it means to be a male member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is what it means to be a Mormon man.
Hugh would have been happy to hear about this conversation secondhand. He would rather that his own son, David, had been here to guide Jacob. But David had chosen to be a US Marine. It was what he wanted to be from the time he was a little boy and Hugh was never able to change his mind. Perhaps he should not have tried. David was a "warrior's warrior," they said, and he rose rapidly in the ranks. That's what landed him in Iraq at the forefront of Operation Phantom Fury during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Command knew that he would lead well. And he did, but David was killed on the third day, November 11, 2004—Veteran's Day. Each year since, that flag-waving, parade-filled holiday has tortured Hugh Riddick and his wife.
Now, though, Hugh is sitting on his back porch enjoying the cool breeze off the pond and waiting for Jacob. When the boy appears, he does not look anything like anyone's image of a priest. He's wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt, his hair is wet and slicked back, and he has a slight bluish mustache from the powdered drink he's been guzzling. He sits down in a rocker, crosses his legs Indian-style in the seat, and takes another sip of his drink. Hugh just smiles. He knows that in spiritual things, appearances do not matter.
"How'd it go, sport?"
"We won. Wasn't that hard. They pretty much caved."
"I see. How'd you hit?"
"Two doubles and thrown out at first."
"Good! Nice going. Any RBIs?"
"Just one. And just barely, 'cause Danny Tomkins is so stinking slow!"
"Oh, I remember him. Runs like he's carrying a ton of bricks. Well, good job batting him in, buddy. Okay, you ready to talk?"
"Do you know what's going to happen tomorrow, Jacob?"
"Of course, Pawpaw. I'm going to become a deacon."
"Yes. That's right. And do you understand what that means?"
"It's the first step to becoming a priest. It means that one day I'm going to be part of the priesthood that Heavenly Father restored in the time of Joseph Smith. It means I'm being prepared to receive priesthood authority."
"You've been listening closely to Elder Clarke, haven't you? That's right: tomorrow you will become a deacon. Do you know what that word really means?"
"Uh, I think I do. It means, like, servant or someone who takes care of something, right?"
"That's it. Perfect. It means someone who serves. And after you're ordained, you will be allowed to serve by passing out the bread and the water in the sacrament meetings and serving the priesthood leaders in various ways and helping keep the meeting house in order and so on, right?"
"And then what?"
"Well, if I prove myself, in a couple of years I may be able to become a teacher. Then I can fill the sacramental trays and go with someone on home teaching visits and stuff like that. Then, maybe a couple of years after that, if I qualify, I can be a priest."
"Good. That's pretty much right. And all this is part of what? Do you know?"
"The Aaronic Priesthood, right?"
"Yes. Good, but Jacob, I don't want these just to be words to you. I want you to understand how much all this means. Not long after Jesus Christ lived on earth, the church lost its authority. It was corrupt and had warped doctrine. And so for centuries the Christian church was in darkness and chaos. It was a horrible time and Heavenly Father was deeply displeased. Then, finally, priesthood authority was restored. And you know about all that, right? You know that story?"
"Yes, sir. About the visitations from John the Baptist and Peter and James and John?"
"Yes, very good. So it is important for you to understand that this is all very important. Latter Day Saints died for this gift, Jacob. Your ancestors were slaughtered at places like Haun's Mill and Carthage for having this gift. You were determined for this before you came to this world. This is how Heavenly Father's plan for you is to unfold and how you become what you are made to be for all eternity. I'm hoping you progress on to the Melchizedek Priesthood and then, perhaps, to high priest and even further from there."
Jacob looks out at the pond. Hugh thinks perhaps he has given the boy more than he can absorb, but then he notices that Jacob's eyes are moist.
"Pawpaw," the boy says in a fractured voice, "what kind of priest was my dad?"
Hugh has to look away from Jacob to answer. The searching in the boy's eyes is too much. "He was going to be given the Melchizedek Priesthood when he came home, Jacob. He died before he could receive it."
Jacob ponders this for a few moments and then says, "I want to be whatever he couldn't be because he died, Pawpaw. I want to make it to the level he would have reached and then do it for him."
Hugh is too moved by this to speak. Jacob, seeing his grandfather's emotion, sets down his drink, gets up from his chair, and puts his arms around the man he loves most in the world.
"You make me proud, Jacob," Hugh says through tears, holding his grandson tightly. "Yes, do it for your daddy and all the Riddicks. And do it for the Latter-day Saints."
* * *
It is one of the great ironies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that while outsiders perceive it largely in terms of its unusual doctrines, the Saints see themselves in a completely different light. The outer world focuses, for example, on matters like polygamy. "Holy underwear" is also a favorite topic, as is their aspiration to divinity and their belief that God was once a man. The century and a half they banned blacks from their Temple and priesthood is much discussed. So is the iron-fisted rule from LDS headquarters at Salt Lake City's Temple Square. The Mormon opposition to California's Proposition 8 has made them look homophobic, their insistence upon being baptized for Jewish Holocaust survivors has made them look cruel, and their standard missionary presentation has made them look mindlessly robotic. All of these novelties frame the perceptions of Mormons in the wider world.
Ask a Saint about any of these, though, and an expression of confusion will likely flash fleetingly across his face. He knows that each is part of the Mormon matrix but he likely does not think of any as vital. Doctrine is not primary for him; experience is. The prophecies and the ordinances and the revelations from Heavenly Father are what make up his religion. Most of the doctrines so often discussed in the press are at the edge of his experience and are rarely on his mind.
Let him speak for a moment about his own Mormon experience and a far different picture will likely emerge. He may very well talk about what home teaching is like and how dear the community of the Saints has become. He'll likely describe, even with tears, how he's raising his children to be holy. If he is trusting, he will tell of the time he was sick and a priesthood blessing made him well. He may even speak, loosely, of his sealing to his wife for time and all eternity and of the endowment ceremony he has gone through. He will not give details, of course, but he will still make his point. It is not the doctrines that have won him. He sometimes isn't even sure what all of them are. It's the supernatural empowering of a holy community that is most important to him.
This is the great disconnect between how Mormons understand themselves and then how the rest of the world perceives them. It is easy to see the Latter-day Saints as extremists drawn to extreme teachings, as the descendants of a nineteenth-century cult who are now trying to give their scraggly batch of doctrines a modern, high-tech, public relations overhaul. Whatever truth there may be in this, it misses the central point of Mormonism as Mormons themselves try to live it. And this, in the end, is the version of Mormonism that is going to prevail in the coming century—the version the Saints are living out while asking others to join them.
* * *
What Matters to a Mormon
For a Latter-day Saint, the heart of Mormonism is the restoration of priesthood authority. It is impossible to overstate this. At the core of everything Saintly is the unshakable belief that something lost for centuries was restored through Joseph Smith. It is now present in the modern world. It is present only through the LDS Church. It is what all men will ultimately need.
Mormons believe that the pure Christianity of Jesus Christ lasted only a short while after Jesus left this life. The Christian church quickly became unrighteous and corrupt, and it stayed that way until around 1830. In other words, for centuries the Christian church was a perverse shell of what was intended. Then came Joseph Smith. He not only gave the world the Book of Mormon, but he also received, along with a man named Oliver Cowdery, the restoration of the true priesthood of God. Mormons speak of this as a restoration of "priesthood authority," which they believe was given in two defining appearances by glorified human beings: an appearance by John the Baptist and an appearance by the apostles Peter, John, and James. In these appearances or "visitations," the only real priesthood was restored—to Mormons.
This means that when someone asks, "Where has the great age of miracles and revelation gone?" The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says, "It is here, right now, with us." What Mormons believe they have in this "priesthood authority" is the ability to "bring Jesus Christ into people's lives" through "ordinances." It is the ability to give the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to have revelations, to bless, to dedicate, and even to heal. In other words, it is the supernatural power to do the "great works" that were done before the Christian church went astray.
* * *
The Heart of the Faith
Of course, the nonreligious think this is crazy. The traditional Christian thinks it is devilish. The Jew thinks it is evidence of a stolen legacy. And nearly non-Mormon thinks it is fruit of an astonishing Mormon arrogance.
Still, it is one of the most important truths we can know about what Mormonism is. Despite Joseph Smith's many doctrinal innovations, Mormonism is not primarily about doctrine. It is about the experience of a restored supernatural power, the all-important matter of "priesthood authority." This was what Smith built upon. It is what early Mormons sought. It is still at the heart of the faith. It is what outsiders most misunderstand.
Though it is risky to make the comparison, the best illustration of this vital truth is found in the thinking of the Prophet Muhammad, whom Joseph Smith deeply admired. For a man living in the sixth century, Muhammad was well traveled. His occupation for many years was leading caravans that crossed the known world carrying goods from place to place. This brought the future prophet into contact with nearly all the religions of his day. He likely sat by the campfires of Jews and Christians of every type and heard them talk about what they believed. He admired them both, but their factions and theological divisions disturbed him. Jews rallied around their rabbis and Christians rallied around their favorite theologies and even slew each other over seemingly slight doctrinal matters. Muhammad found it all too complex, too contentious. When he began claiming to have revelations and when this set him to the task of designing a new religion, he decided that simplicity was the key. It should be simple to get into the faith and simple to understand the main doctrines of the faith. The more difficult matter would be actually living it out.
The simplicity of Islam has historically been part of its power. A man enters Islam largely through a one-sentence confession, the Shahadah—"There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet"—and then understands the core of Islam with "Five Pillars" that describe his duties and "Six Articles of Faith" that describe his beliefs. This is the heart of Islam. And the genius. Islam conquered a huge portion of the known world in the first hundred years of its existence partially through the power of the sword and partially through the simplicity of its system. In this matter of simplicity, Islam was to religion what McDonald's is to food: easily remembered, easily consumed, easily replicated.
Though Mormons won't necessarily feel complimented by the comparison, Joseph Smith was much like Muhammad in this popularizing, simplifying work. Dr. Kathryn Flake, a Mormon who is also an esteemed professor at Vanderbilt University, has said, "Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one, and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he'd had, which was seeing God."2 Dr. Flake is referring to the same dynamic in the intent of Joseph Smith that we've seen in the doctrinal system of Muhammad. Though Mormonism appears complex to the outsider, it was actually an attempt to be something like the McDonald's of American religion.
Smith lived at a time of great spiritual upheaval, excitement, and division—as we'll see in the next chapter. Like Muhammad, he was put off by the constant bickering in Christianity. He claimed revelations in which he was told that all churches were corrupt, that none of them had the truth, and that none were worth joining. He wanted his "true Church" to move beyond everything that led to the infighting and destruction he had seen among Christians. This created the Mormonism we know today.
The faith of the Saints evolved by prophecy rather than by doctrine. Smith was opposed to creeds. He thought they were little more than invitations to a fight. As a result, today it is difficult to find a definitive, systematic statement of what Mormons believe produced by the Mormons themselves. By their critics? Yes. By Mormons? No. He also thought that a paid clergy is an abomination—he called them "hireling priests" who would "feed themselves, not the flock"—so most Mormon leaders are unpaid volunteers. They are also untrained theologically. The study of doctrine is surprisingly informal in the Church. As a result, there is little place for professional theologians among the Saints, unlike some denominations in which the theologians almost outnumber the members. And though there are dozens of titles a male Mormon can wear—from deacon to bishop, from high priest to president—none of them come with any academic requirements.
All of this stems from the fact that Joseph Smith was focused more on what a man does than on what he believes. He was interested in spiritual experience, not theories about the spiritual. He wanted revelations, not theologies; an open heaven, not just open books. "Deeds, not creeds," the Saints often say, and this is the intentional legacy of Joseph Smith.
The result is that while the outside world naturally identifies Mormons by the doctrinal oddities they have accrued through the years, Mormons think of themselves in terms of priesthood authority and the sacred life they share together as a result of this grand restoration.
* * *
The Mormons and the Media
Nowhere in American society does this create an occasion of people talking past each other as when it comes to the media pursuing a prominent Mormon.
Reporters naturally want to find something controversial about this visible person, so they ask about holy underwear. But the Mormon won't answer this question directly. He's offended by the phrase "holy underwear"—it is properly called a "Temple garment"—and he won't talk about Temple rituals in any case because they are far too sacred. Besides, betraying Temple rituals is forbidden.
Excerpted from The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield. Copyright © 2012 Stephen Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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