Mormons and their love-hate relationship with America
As Americans celebrate the nation's founding, some Mormons may outdo their neighbors next week in fireworks, fanfare and frenzy to express their outsized patriotism.
Love of America, they believe, stretches beyond appreciation and gratitude. It is theological, prescribed in holy writ.
When it comes to American exceptionalism, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recently said, "Mormons sort of have an extra chromosome."
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly lauds the crucial role this country has to play in human history.
"I am one of those who believes America is destined to remain as it has been since the birth of the republic," Romney wrote in his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, "the brightest hope of the world."
The Republican nominee-in-waiting asserts the country has declined because President Barack Obama doesn't share his vaulted view. Alluding to a biblical metaphor, Romney has said, the "light from that shining city [on a hill] has dimmed over the last three years, and I will help restore it."
Other Mormons caution against linking political perspectives on American exceptionalism to specific theology or teachings.
LDS views run the gamut from believing that this nation is distinctive to seeing it as better than others, says Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson. "I don't think the church's position on the divine origins of the U.S. Constitution and teaching that America is a special place have really clear implications for policy."
Besides, Mormons aren't the only ones who see a transcendent mission for the United States. Many other politicians, including Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, see it much the same way.
In political terms, American exceptionalism has come to mean, according to an article in Foreign Policy magazine, that "the United States and the United States alone [is meant] to lead, save, liberate and ultimately transform the world."
That perspective fits some elements of LDS theology, but not others.
The real story of Mormons and the United States is complicated even contradictory.
This country gave birth to their restored religion, but saw the murder of their prophet amid his presidential campaign. The First Amendment provided shelter for their faith, but couldn't protect them from wholesale expulsions across the Midwest. Their signature scripture trumpets the promise of America, but is filled with the pain of a fallen nation.
Today, the Utah-based faith is growing more rapidly outside the United States than in it, which makes it essential for the church to play down its Americanness. Zion, the church now teaches, can be anywhere the faithful gather and worship.
History • From the start, the Puritans viewed their new home as God's chosen land.
In his famous 1630 sermon aboard the Arbella, John Winthrop urged his people to make their colony a paragon of Christian virtues, or a "city on a hill," says Utah State University historian Philip Barlow. "It was to become a light shining abroad to the nations, forming an example and signaling that God's hand was upon New England."
These Puritans gave Northeastern towns biblical names such as New Canaan and Salem, reflecting their view that they were on God's errand to mold a promised land.
Jonathan Edwards, the fiery preacher who launched the Great Awakening in the mid-1700s, and many others thought this country would be the site of Jesus' Second Coming.
Even the Deists among the Founding Fathers, who believed God was mostly removed from human affairs, felt that the Almighty had helped them triumph over the British to create this sacred land.
That attitude persisted through the 19th-century idea of the country's "Manifest Destiny," extending the boundaries from east to west.
U.S. leaders continued to believe God had "given them a mission to spread democracy and virtue over all of North America," says David L. Holmes, professor emeritus of religious studies at William & Mary in Virginia.
That vision continued after World War II, when U.S. presidents were deeply involved with their battle against communism, Holmes says in a phone interview. "They viewed America as the last best hope of stopping communism."
President Ronald Reagan repeatedly employed the notion of American exceptionalism to promote his optimistic message about the future. And it has been a Republican mainstay ever since.
"References to this term in print media increased," Barlow notes, "from two in 1980 to almost 3,000 last year."
Added upon • Since its founding in 1830, Mormonism has been seen as the quintessential American faith.
After all, it was launched on U.S. soil and its sacred text, the Book of Mormon, tells the story of a band of Israelites who sailed to the New World. After his death in Jerusalem, the scripture says, Jesus brought his redeeming doctrines to the Americas.
Church founder Joseph Smith taught that Missouri was home to the Garden of Eden of the past and the New Jerusalem of the future. It is, he preached, where Jesus will return.
Latter-day Saints also regard the U.S. Constitution as an inspired document and the nation's founding as pivotal step in the unfolding of God's plan to restore true Christianity to the Earth.
Throughout early Mormon history, however, this country was not always a haven for Smith and his followers.
"America is a land of promise [in the Book of Mormon] until it's not," Barlow says. "The narrative tells of recurrent departures from peoples and lands grown degenerate in affluence, arrogance, injustice and lust for war."
Many of those Latter-day Saints pushing American exceptionalism "forget the Book of Mormon is a tale of woe about America, full of warnings," says American religion scholar Kathleen Flake, who teaches at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "They've completely lost the sensibility of first-generation Mormons who believed that America was indicted for having killed the prophet [Smith]."
They also misread Smith's statements about God's hand in the founding of America, which were not narrowly focused on the United States, she says. For early Mormons, the prophet's discussion of America was meant to include "the Western Hemisphere in salvation history, not limited to 30 guys writing a document in the last third of the 18th century."
When the beleaguered band of believers were pushed out of their homes in the Midwest, they wanted to flee America.
"It is with the greatest joy that I forsake this republic," LDS apostle Orson Pratt wrote in 1845. "If our Heavenly Father will deliver us out of the hands of the blood-thirsty Christians of these United States and not suffer any more of us to be martyred to gratify their holy piety, I for one shall be very thankful."
On July 4, 1885, Mormon pioneers lowered the American flag at Salt Lake City's Temple Square and church-owned businesses to half-staff to protest federal encroachment on their religious liberties.
After Utah statehood in 1896, though, Mormons became superpatriots to show the country their loyalty. By the 1960s, then-LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson would declare: "With all my heart I love our great nation. â¦ This is part of my religious faith.''
Who is chosen? • In the Book of Mormon, those who fail become "unchosen," says Barlow, USU's chair of Mormon History and Culture, and plenty are.
To be "chosen" may not mean to be superior, Barlow says. "It can mean simply to be chosen for a role or task."
Thus, he says, Americans as "a chosen people" and America as a "promised land" can mean "selected for a role" rather than "spiritually superior."
That, Barlow believes, is likely how Obama sees American exceptionalism.
"Americans have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional," Obama said in April 2009. "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
A Latter-day Saint could, Barlow argues, find support in Mormon history, culture and scripture for either Romney's or Obama's vision of a nation set apart.
What LDS scripture says about the New World
"And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands."
Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 2:20
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