By Mary Barker, Religion Dispatches, September 21, 2012
Growing up with Mormon narratives—a two-part memoir and reflection on the good, the very bad, and a dreamed-for future. - Mary Barker is a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s campus in Madrid, Spain as well as at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas
There are many stories on which a Mormon is raised: narratives of the elect, America and the Constitution, the latter days, and free agency—all of which play a role in Mitt Romney’s “severe” conservatism. The bombshell release of video in which he trumpets his disdain for moochers, and reveals a remarkably casual approach to Middle East politics, all resonate with the Calvinist heritage of Mormon theology, as well as with principal Mormon narratives. But Mormonism also holds the seeds of a decidedly progressive politics—a possible Mormon liberation theology.
Does Romney’s religion matter? It’s a question that has been asked many times this election season. My answer, below, is in two parts, as I journey from End Times theology (the “latter days”) through Mormonism’s radical social and political past.
I grew up at the end of the world. As a Latter-day Saint, I made my debut just before the final curtain. During my youth, rumors circulated about neighbors and boyfriends whose special “patriarchal blessings” prophesied that they would never taste of death. That fairly clearly set the limit on time. The rebellious Sixties just confirmed what the Cold War had already shown us—that we were in a final showdown with evil that would only get worse until the second coming of Jesus which is now.
Mormons have a smidgen of the survivalist in them. They expect total political and economic collapse, and are instructed to store what has come to be known as the “two-year supply”—a stock of water and imperishable food items to sustain them in the event of (the imminent) catastrophe. My dad used to tell us that he built our ranch to be able to house the extended family during the chaos to come; and possible treks on foot back to Nauvoo,Illinois, the site of the original Garden of Eden and the future New Jerusalem, punctuated normal conversation.
As an elementary school student, I used to draw crayon farms with imaginary fields that could provide for all our needs, and I am still plagued by an obsessive-compulsive ritual that must stem from these days. I harbor secret fears about being able to provide for my own children in the event of apocalypse, and play mental games in which I am magically granted all of the foods (“carrots, peas, beans, corn…”) or personal items (“soap, shampoo, toothpaste…”) that I can pronounce in my head before, let’s say, the subway door closes. (I’ve gotten good at it.)
End Times talk left me with an ingrained pessimism that took years to overcome.
The most sinister elements of the End Times narrative, however, involve the unconscious attitudes and orientations it engenders. These include a lack of social trust, militarism, and narcissism (a preoccupation with one’s own elect status and general safety and an interpretation of scripture in which ancient writings were really meant for us; the people to whom they were addressed being a sideshow in our drama).
Manichean and alarmist, it pits Light versus Dark—extreme dark. Those who belong to the Light “hear my voice” (i.e. recognize and believe the right doctrines—in this case, Mormon) and “follow my commandments,” which favor a “purity” understanding of religion. The Book of Mormon, for example, ranks fornication as “most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood” and Mormon leader Bruce R. McConkie wrote in his encyclopedic Mormon Doctrine that it is better to surrender your life than to allow someone to “steal your virtue,” leaving you “unclean.” It also encapsulates the class understandings of the Calvinist heritage.
Those of the Light should not be hard to identify, then. They are us. In these times, however, the wicked walk the earth disguised as the righteous, deceiving even the “very elect.” Despite a “veneer of piety,” McConkie warned, the Gentiles (non-Mormons) will be subject to “apostate darkness and… every form of evil.” “Any show of godliness is to be in form only,” he cautioned, “not in substance.” For the then-Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, this veneer was evident in the Sixties antiwar movement. He warned the faithful against wearing clothing or otherwise displaying “the broken cross, anti-Christ sign, that is the adversary’s symbol of the so-called ‘peace movement.’” The watchword, then, is beware.
In their nightmare scenarios, harsh punishments await the unbelieving and refractory. McConkie claimed that capital punishment was ordained of God and that sexual “perversions” were “worthy of death.” The fact that Western governments no longer applied such penalties simply attested to their “apostasy.” The God of Mormon scripture stands ready to damn the unbelieving, who are “ripe for destruction.” During the End Times, Jesus will lead God’s army with the “flame of devouring fire” to strike down the wicked, who will be “cast out,” “destroyed”—“the whole vineyard burned”—and become “as stubble.”
End Times talk fosters extremely conservative politics. Every change—in gender roles, in sexual mores, in the religious backdrop of national politics—represents a move toward Satan. This includes constitutional interpretations that allow for a living understanding of its principles. Shrouded in an aura of the Mormon divine, America’s founding documents must be preserved on stone tablets, not allowed to breathe and grow. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “We say that God is true; that the Constitution of the United States is true; that the Bible is true; [and] that the Book of Mormon is true.”
In its brashest manifestations, End Times thinking gives us Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theories, with their convoluted reasoning and circuitous connections. What sounds outrageous in the unapologetic, forthright discourse of Beck, however, springs from the unacknowledged or semi-conscious visions of a much larger segment of the population.
I have never met Beck, but I knew him as a child. His name back then was Cleon Skousen, and we had his books. The two brains think alike. Skousen’s The Naked Communist (1958) presented a paranoid and simplistic case for the worldwide Soviet-Communist conspiracy, with pages of instruction urging parents, teachers, students, and ministers to be ever alert to the stealth communist penetration of society (“education was infiltrated by the Socialist-Communist contingent over thirty-five years ago” and they have “ambitions to eliminate all local control”). From exposing left-leaning bias in the media to taking one’s children to church; being active in the PTA (“If you are not, Communists and centralized planners will take over”); fighting against the separation of church and state in the public schools; and subscribing to U.S. News and World Report; we were all to be vigilant or our children and our nation would soon be lost.
The Naked Communist was written at the urging of the Prophet David O. McKay, who also offered financial support; found a publisher; and recommended it over the airwaves at the 1959 Mormon General Conference (or “Conference”), the most important meetings in the Mormon year.
In Skousen’s follow up, The Naked Capitalist (1970), communists had already infiltrated the government, schools, media, and even the churches. Everyone was in on the conspiracy—especially the Democratic Party, but also Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. He backed his claims by citing the Bible as easily as he did presumed communist insiders, and defended Senator Joseph McCarthy, the “tough, frustrated, American ex-Marine” who was crucified by the “liberal press.”
Skousen casts a long shadow. His work has been praised and promoted not only by Beck, but also by Romney and Rick Perry. At his funeral, Apostle (and now prophet) Thomas S. Monson eulogized him, as did Senator Orrin Hatch from the Senate floor. On occasion, he overstepped even Mormon bounds, however, and the Church eventually withdrew its active support.
“When the Prophet Speaks, the Debate is Over”
Nothing is pounded into a Mormon’s head more firmly than that the Church cannot steer him wrong. From the Prophet Brigham Young in 1870 (“I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture”) to the Improvement Era magazine of 1945 (“When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe”), the message is clear. The Apostle N. Eldon Tanner put it succinctly in 1979, “When the prophet speaks the debate is over.”
“Follow the Prophet” is the theme of children’s songs, refrigerator magnets, breakfast mugs, and board games. The then-Apostle Harold B. Lee added politics: “You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church,” he cautioned. “It may contradict your political views… But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself… the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you.’”
No leader was considered more in tune with the Lord’s political counsel than the Apostle and Prophet Ezra Taft Benson, who continues to be read and re-read today. A tireless anti-Communist crusader and admirer of the John Birch Society, Benson’s packaging of the message parallels Skousen’s right down to the racial affronts (he claimed that the civil rights movement was a “tool of Communist deception”). And while the Church could distance itself from Skousen, it could not (and still cannot) from Benson. Moreover, Benson’s jeremiads resonated with that of the Church hierarchy generally. Any who disagreed (rumors abounded) failed to speak publicly.
In Benson’s view, the Book of Mormon (considered a record from the ancient Americas) prophesied the communist conspiracies of his day. God had made this record available to us for our instruction, to learn from them and their destruction. He summed it up best in a Conference talk of 1972 by stating, “There is no conspiracy theory in the Book of Mormon. It is a conspiracy fact.” Skousen-like, he saw communism as having already penetrated deep into American society.
That any central planning served demonic ends was as evident to Benson as the Soviet Antichrists who practiced it; and it was as easy for him to make the hop, skip, and jump from central planning to federal regulations and redistribution in democratic societies as it is for Beck to draw straight lines on a chalkboard today. Moreover, since we stood opposed to them, our system—capitalism (already ordained by the Calvinist heritage)—stood as God’s alternative to the socioeconomic designs of the devil. Finally it may be concluded that, as with all things godly, the purer the better. Libertarian economics thus intertwined with cosmic reality to animate policy debates. But even this is an older story of rightward bias.
The Church supported right-to-work legislation even before the dawn of the twentieth century. As early as 1886, the Deseret News opposed any binding union activities. The Apostle Joseph F. Merrill, speaking at the 1941 Conference, referred to closed shops as “Satan’s club,” and in 1965, the Prophet David O. McKay wrote to Mormon congressmen urging them to protect right-to-work legislation in the name of “free agency.”
“That’s Not Flip-Flopping”
A key principle of Mormon theology, “free agency” is foundational, with roots extending all the way back to the Mormon pre-earthly existence, which was also the scene of a momentous battle. God had centered his plan for our earthly salvation on freedom, and had to defeat the followers of Lucifer, who proposed to force us all to obey God and thus guarantee our eternal reward. Ironically, however, Mormon leaders don’t apply the concept where it seems to fit best (the freedom to “sin”) but instead to economic policy, where it is largely irrelevant. Lucifer would have forced us to obey God’s commandments, not tampered with tax schedules.
Nevertheless, “free agency” became the rallying cry of right-wing politics; one in which no distinction was made between totalitarianism and the American safety net. Benson argued that supporting the “weak, indolent, and profligate,” was “economic and social cannibalism,” and that we shouldn’t “deny the fruits of success to those who produce.” Cleverly drawing on John Locke (Thomas Jefferson is cited only as a proponent of private charity), he contended that welfare programs were the “legalized plunder” of “unscrupulous individuals” and that the minimum wage would inevitably end in “totalitarianism.” Even a little bit of socialism was bad, he argued, being akin to “a little bit of theft or a little bit of cancer.”
The choices were stark; no less than between “God and liberty” or “atheism and slavery” (Conference, 1965). Benson even urged Mormons to precipitate Church leadership in the struggle, thereby proving their “valiance.” The devil had succeeded in “neutralizing much of the priesthood” (Mormon men), he argued. “To have been on the wrong side of the freedom issue during the war in heaven meant eternal damnation,” and nothing less hangs in the balance today. The “choice spirits” take the lead, he cajoled; they don’t wait “to be commanded in all things.” After all, the prophecy did not say that the Church would save the Constitution, but rather that the “elders of Israel” would. “What are you waiting for?” he wondered.
In the style of Beck, he claimed that to remain on the sidelines was akin to collaboration with Hitler. “There has never been a greater time to stand up against entrenched evil.” What counted as evil? “No matter what you call it—communism, socialism, or the welfare state—our freedom is sacrificed,” He went on to mention both the minimum wage and foreign aid.
Individual welfare initiatives, he warned in 1966, though seemingly innocuous, nevertheless represented the small doses of Satan’s piecemeal advance. Once again the rallying cry goes out: “Are you prepared to see some of your loved ones murdered, your remaining liberties abridged… and your eternal reward jeopardized?”
If this all sounds eerily like Tea Party madness, then you’ll understand why Utah is awash in it, but End Times talk isn’t just about communism and its supposed cousin, the welfare state. Big Conspiracies are on the move. Any large, powerful organization of global reach (except the US military) is suspect.
LaVerkin, Utah, for example, passed an ordinance in 2001 making it a “United Nations-free zone” (the UN being a “sign of the times” and a horrendous mistake that Skousen thought we should rectify). The law banned the UN from La Verkin and required anyone collaborating with it to file an annual report and post a sign in the window stating, “United Nations Work Conducted Here.” It also protected native La Verkin soldiers against UN “involuntary servitude.”
The Cold War is over; both Benson and Skousen are dead; but End Times influence lives on. Even those who might squirm at the more brazen scenarios may nevertheless have absorbed some of the assumptions; namely that the good works of outsiders prove nothing about their intentions; we can only trust our own (if Eisenhower is suspect, how much more so a Muslim Kenyan); and we must turn back the tide of welfare encroachment.
End Times talk is all about division—it’s us versus them. Ironically, Mormons are so trusting of us that Utah has become the scam capital of America, and the them is so politically skewed that no amount of good works on the part of the political left frees it of suspicion, nor does any scandal or plunder detract from the right’s “elect” status.
Despite his profligate past (as the pro-choice governor of Massachusettsand author of Romneycare), Mitt is one of the Mormon us. My mom tells a Romney redemption story that illustrates this us-them divide. She did not vote for Senator Kerry in the 2004 presidential election because, as she explained it, he “flip-flopped.” So when the next election rolled around, I teased her about her support for Romney, pointing out that he, too, had “flip-flopped”—and on issues important to the faith. “That’s not called flip-flopping,” she replied, “That’s called repentance.”
When I first cut my teeth on politics as a young adult, my dad and I had an argument in which he said (hyberbolically, and for effect) that he wished that he could resurrect FDR just in order to shoot him. So intertwined is Mormonism with the socioeconomic status quo that its Utah members often take the Republican Party to be God’s Party.
Mormon Utah is arguably the most conservative state in the Union, being the only one in which the third-party candidate for president in the 1992 election, Ross Perot, finished second, beating Bill Clinton. Mormon narratives borrowed from Calvinism favor the job-creating elite (heroes among the Mormon “elect”) and speak words of tough love to the unregenerate poor. Others borrowed from John Nelson Darby and the Dispensationalists place us at the end of the world in a Manichean showdown with evil. These narratives foster a “severely conservative” politics.
Yet neither exhausts the plethora of Mormon narratives, and the minority of Mormon Democrats finds plenty of sustenance in their religious tradition as well. Take my father, for instance. Despite his words and ballots cast, my Republican dad acted with the noblesse oblige of a Roosevelt. As the police commissioner for Salt Lake City, he donated a pay raise to buy sports equipment for the Central City Community Center, and when the Republicans tried to block the police from forming a union, my dad not only defended their right to it, but also helped them to set it up.
My mom was surprised one morning by a Native American gentleman at the doorstep who handed her an envelope full of cash. It turns out that, years before, my dad, a lawyer, had defended the tribe’s water rights and never sent a bill. Now that it had the money, the tribe wanted to pay.
The Democrats of Utah loved him. A professor of mine once congratulated me in the hallway—for my dad’s great work, he said. The last fifteen years of my dad’s career were spent in the consumer protection division at the Attorney General’s office, mostly fighting Utah Power & Light. So while my dad may have followed Calvinist and End Times political imperatives at the ballot box, he was a “King Benjamin” at heart.
The temporal and spiritual leader of Zarahemla (a Book of Mormon people), King Benjamin gave a long discourse that Mormons quote much like other Christians do the Sermon on the Mount. It includes plenty of hellfire and damnation, but also this: “I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” It goes on to warn against denying the petition of anyone for sustenance or aid by claiming, for instance, that the petitioner deserves his fate:
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I… will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance… But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent… For behold, are we not all beggars?
If End Times talk is closed and divisive, King Benjamin talk is open and charitable, releasing some of the puffed up air of the “elect.” Kindness; compassion, service; they are so much the currency of religion that it’s sometimes easy to overlook them, but Mormons spend more of their time thinking about how to help the neighbors than they do worrying about communist teachers in the schools.Utah breathes volunteerism just as it does Tea Party platitudes, and the two are not unrelated; for the best of conservatism isn’t about astringent Calvinism, but rather the efficacy of private action.
Even critics of Mormonism attest to this spirit of King Benjamin in their characterization of them as “unceasingly kind.” Matt Stone, co-creator with Trey Parker of South Park, whose episode on the Joseph Smith story is punctuated with the musical refrain “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb,” has stated that “[e]very Mormon we’ve met is a nice person. And even when they know who Trey and I are from our work—work that some Mormons don’t really like—they’re totally nice to us.”
Beyond individual charity, however, a central pillar of Mormon doctrine is unabashedly communitarian. The initial Mormon movement broke social norms in a way so shocking that they were forced to flee the United States to what was then the wilderness. These early Mormons practiced polygamy, of course, but equally shocking was their following of the United Order—a short-lived communal sharing arrangement that while not eliminating private property altogether nevertheless substantially redistributed land and output for the benefit of all. Considered God’s plan for his children, this moves Mormons beyond individualism and towards a Christian form of socialism. Largely relegated to the dusty past, its theological standing is nevertheless much firmer than any right-to-work politics that has dominated the tradition of late.
Perhaps the best contrast between the jealous End Times mentality and the open King Benjamin heart, however, may be seen in what is referred to now as the “clash of civilizations.” In my day, it didn’t involve Muslims so much as it did Catholics, who are condemned by Mormons much more severely than others in that they are considered responsible for the “great apostasy” of the Church. The Mormon restoration narrative requires, of course, a previous demonic apostasy, and in Mormon Manichean discourse the Catholic Church is scary.
Catholicism, Mormons claim, was founded by “the devil” (Apostle Orson Pratt). It has produced nothing but “famine for the word of God,” profound “intellectual stupor,” and dense “spiritual darkness” (B. H. Roberts, Mormon theologian). In Catholicism, “Satan’s own culture flourished” and its sacraments have “befouled” those originally given by the Lord. The pope is the “son of perdition” and it all reeks with the stench of blasphemy, idolatry, and lust which do nothing but “defile the earth” (Apostle James E. Talmage). It is surely the “Church of the Devil,” the “mother of harlots,” and the “whore of all the earth” (McConkie). My own grandfather contributed to this narrative with works like Apostasy from theDivineChurch.
Yet, a separate narrative softens, if not negates, such judgments. When the first Catholics and Jews trickled into Utah territory, for example, the Prophet Brigham Young opened Mormon churches for their use until they could build their own houses of worship. Knowing something about the Catholic Mass, the Mormon director of the Saint George Tabernacle Choir directed his group in the singing of the Catholic liturgy, in Latin, so that a high Mass could be sung for the newly arrived Father Scanlon in 1873.
Catholics have been extended free airtime on Mormon-owned radio stations and Mormon largesse has contributed to the renovation of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City as well as to Catholic soup kitchens and other humanitarian efforts. Mormon and Catholic leaders have prayed in each others’ houses of worship and collaborated on a number of political initiatives. Speaking at the commemoration of the Cathedral’s one hundredth birthday, the Prophet Thomas S. Monson acknowledged the ecumenical spirit expressed in its tolling of the bells at the passing of each Mormon prophet since 1919.
Mormonism’s Calvinist heritage is trumped—at least theologically, if not politically—by the United Order and King Benjamin sensitivities. Its Manichean elements have been softened through its coexistence with the flesh and blood faithful from outside the tradition. Other elements of Mormonism similarly cut in more than one way. Central to contemporary debates concerning gender and sexuality, for example, are Mormon narratives of the priesthood (it is only for men) and the family. While the former has been channeled into an attack on feminism (the Church campaigned vigorously against the ERA), it has not prevented the Church from empowering women.
In the nineteenth century, Romania Bunnell Pratt was the second woman doctor west of the Mississippi(1877) and one of many Mormon women of the time who were encouraged to attend universities in the East.Utah Territoryextended women the right to vote as early as 1869, earning it a visit by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Martha Hughes Cannon, a physician (University of Michigan, 1881), and polygamist Mormon wife, successfully ran against her own husband to become America’s first female state senator. This should not be surprising coming from a tradition that includes a goddess, Heavenly Mother.
(Other traditionally marginalized groups may not fare so well with Mormon doctrine. Homosexual unions, for example, run counter to Mormon narratives in a way that working women do not. They challenge not only traditional marriage on earth but the whole cosmic Mormon family plan which requires heterosexual partners that progress to godhood, beget spirit children, and raise families for eternity.)
A Mormon Liberation Theology?
One of the best kept secrets in the tradition is that early on Mormons were overwhelmingly Democrats, so much so that the Prophet Brigham Young assigned certain families to become Republican in order to create a bipartisan environment. Utah voted for FDR four times and Truman thereafter. It did not become solidly Republican until the 1950s, and was undoubtedly influenced by the Cold War and then the turmoil of the civil rights movement and rebellious youth culture. The deal was sealed by Roe v. Wade.
With the Cold War fading, however, apocalyptic narratives may abate, opening space for new “King Benjamin” political alignments. Mormons have not followed some of their Evangelical counterparts in their substitution of Islam for the Soviet menace, for example, and there are no Mormon gaffes on this score akin to those of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham—even though End Times prophesies place Mormons squarely behind Israel in all land disputes with its Muslim neighbors. Abortion remains a challenge, but with no doctrinal obstacles to birth control, Mormons could join hands with likeminded Democrats to forge a more robust policy of prevention.
Most importantly, there are seeds for a Mormon left-leaning politics in its cosmic tales, and perhaps even for a Mormon form of liberation theology. “Free agency,” the lynchpin of the Mormon Plan of Salvation, emphasizes the individual’s right to choose his or her own path (to follow God or to go one’s own way); the narrative of King Benjamin; the United Order; and the conception of a Heavenly Mother (co-equal with God), along with Mormonism’s previous empowerment of women all provide potential resources for a discourse that speaks to the liberation and well-being of all.
So steeped was my childhood in King Benjamin sympathies that I await the catalyst that gives rise to a waiting-in-the-unconscious wave of social justice politics across my beloved Mormon valley. In my own restoration daydreams, the pre-Tea Party Romney once played the role of Nixon opening China—the Mormon politician who flip-flops one last time to let his King Benjamin heart flood the Tea Party plains. While Mitt has since dashed the hopes of this particular fantasy, there are certainly others waiting in the wings.