Planned Utah park honoring Book of Mormon, U.S. founding raises talk of Christian nationalism

Backers hope the Heber City attraction will teach visitors young and old that this nation is a promised land with a divine birth and destiny.

(Monument of the Americas) The proposed "Monument of the Americas" park includes plans for a visitors center and amphitheater.

Latter-day Saint plastic surgeon and artist Steven Neal says nearly 30 years ago he received a vision: Images depicting stories from the Book of Mormon formed in his mind with the understanding that he was to sculpt them and someday make them available to the world.

In the years since, Neal has been chiseling dutifully away at his home in Oregon, putting tens of thousands of hours into creating sculptures without knowing where they would find a home.

(Monument of the Americas) Steven Neal and former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and wife Jeanette pose next to one of the 60 or so statues Neal hopes will one day find a home in a planned private park in Heber City.

Then, nearly four years ago, a private donation from a developer of 10 acres near Utah Valley University’s Wasatch campus in Heber City put an end to that mystery. Now a team of professionals is hard at work designing a site that will pay tribute, according to the project’s website, “to our Savior Jesus Christ, America as the promised land and the Book of Mormon.”

Called the “Monument of the Americas,” Neal hopes it will be a place where the public can learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ signature scripture and the “blessed land” he and many other of the faith’s members believe the book foretells.

“There are a number of us who still love America,” he said, “and still believe in its promise.”

Current designs for the site

City Manager Matt Brower said the sculpture garden is “tentatively planned” on private property within a roughly 40-acre arts district, complete with a performing arts center, park and amphitheater.

Designs include a section dedicated to telling a version of the country’s origins that, Neal lamented, “Washington, D.C., doesn’t show or talk about,” including the Founding Fathers’ religious beliefs.

“We’re going to teach some people, hopefully children,” he said, about the country’s founders, including that “God raised them up.”

A second, larger section focuses on stories from the Book of Mormon, including the volume’s highlight: Jesus’ visit to the Americas.

(Monument of the Americas) Based on the famous World War II photo of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, this statue shows Moroni holding the “Title of Liberty,” a declaration of freedom taken from the Book of Mormon, while George Washington and U.S. soldiers offer support. Once complete, it will measure 25 feet.

Neal, who traveled around European sculpture gardens for inspiration, said future visitors to the Monument of the Americas will be able to view more than 60 statues and 20 bas-relief panels, including works by fellow Latter-day Saint sculptors Michael Hall and Jerime Hooley.

The crown jewels will be a monument featuring an 18-foot Jesus standing atop a depiction of the plates church founder Joseph Smith said he used to translate the Book of Mormon, with the Earth below them. On the opposite side of the park will stand a similarly larger-than-life depiction of Book of Mormon warrior-prophet Captain Moroni. Inspired by the iconic World War II photo of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, the statue shows Moroni holding the “Title of Liberty,” a declaration of freedom taken from the Book of Mormon, while George Washington and U.S. soldiers offer support.

The grounds will also feature an amphitheater, as well as a neoclassical building that will double as a visitors center and an event space available for rent.

Planting private beliefs in the public square

Religion scholar James Bielo has written about Bible-based theme parks, gardens and museums and the role they play in the life of believers.

The planned sculpture garden in Heber, he said, reflects sites like Kentucky’s Creation Museum, dedicated to depicting a “biblical” telling of Earth’s history, and its sister attraction, the Ark Encounter, where visitors walk through a ship built to the specifications given to Noah in the Bible.

According to the Northwestern anthropologist, these physical and highly visual storytelling projects are a way for religious groups to express their beliefs outside the “confines of church” and assert them in the “public square.”

(Monument of the Americas) Surgeon and artist Steven Neal is pictured working on a panel depicting Book of Mormon prophet Nephi along with Christopher Columbus, pilgrims, the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers.

They typically represent the more socially and politically conservative strains within a tradition — bands of believers who tend to take a literal approach to their faiths’ foundational texts and teachings.

For them, spreading their message with nonbelievers is paramount, as is reinforcing traditional views among those already within the fold. By creating physical spaces open to all, they strive to achieve both simultaneously.

A common theme in many of these sites is the blending of conservative politics with the subject matter, which these projects often treat and view as inseparable. He was not surprised, then, to see “Christian nationalism is written all over” the Heber undertaking.

Neal agreed that the park interprets history “according to the Book of Mormon, which is definitely a Christian source,” explaining that “God himself said these things, so I feel I’m safe with that source and make no apologies.”

Other textual sources he plans to feature include the Mayflower Compact, as well as several he discovered through the writings of Tim Ballard. Neal said he does not agree with all the conclusions Ballard draws in his books, which have been panned by historians. Nonetheless, he said, he feels “indebted” to the embattled anti-human-trafficking activist for introducing him to historical documents dating back to the Colonial and Revolutionary War eras that have helped shape the way he thinks about U.S. history.

Among these are Congress’ 1776 proclamation setting aside an annual day of fasting and prayer throughout the colonies and Thomas Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom, a precursor to the First Amendment.

Going forward

Neal said he and his team, which includes former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, have secured $2 million in cash, a tenth of the $20 million they anticipate they’ll need to accomplish their mission. Still, the surgeon isn’t worried, convinced they’ll be able to raise the remainder in time.

“Utah,” he said, “has got some very patriotic people.”

According to Brower, the city manager, Neal and his team have yet to submit details regarding the sculpture garden to the city.

“I’m of the understanding,” he said, “that the details are still being worked out between the developer and principals of the sculpture garden.”

(Monument of the Americas) One of the collection's two crown jewels, this statue features an 18-foot Jesus standing atop a depiction of the plates church founder Joseph Smith said he used to translate the Book of Mormon, with the Earth below them.

Heber City Council member Mike Johnston did not anticipate much squawking from locals about the project or issues with the planning process. The church’s Heber Valley Temple has run into some resistance.

“I believe a park is a permitted use for the area,” Johnston said, “so its approval will not come before the council.”

He was also not aware of “much public discussion” on the subject.

“It’s not,” he said, “been a topic in the newspaper or on local social media.”

He personally liked the idea of a park the city did not have to maintain, calling the project “most likely more of a positive than a negative for the city and the future residents in that area.”

(Monument of the Americas) Religious sculptures planned for a private park in Heber City celebrating the Book of Mormon and the founding of the United States.