About fifteen years ago, Harold Bloom — a freakishly brilliant and productive literary critic at Yale — turned his attention to American religion and fell in love with Joseph Smith. Among other things, Bloom identified Joseph’s “religious genius” with what he called the basic insight of Jewish history: truely successful new religions transform themselves into a new people. In essence, he argued that one of the things that sets Mormonism off from other “American” religions (or as Bloom would say, manifestations of “The American Religion”) is that Mormons, unlike say Southern Baptists, became a people. There is a sense in which we are as much nation and ethic group as church. So, I am curious about the nature of Mormon nationalism.
If one compares American and European nationalism, there is a standard mode of analysis that goes something like this. European nationalism is essentially historical. European nations are defined in terms of a shared past instantiated most dramatically in a national language (German, French, English, Spaining, Basque, etc.), but also in a set of national myths, customs, etc. In contrast, American nationalism is ahistorical and idealistic. Being an “American” is defined in terms of certain political ideals. One becomes an American by pledging allegiance to the set of essentially liberal ideals enshrined in the Decleration of Independence and the Constitution. These ideals are thought of as timeless and universal. They are the self-evident principles of nature and of natures God.
It seems to me that there is a similiar dynamic within Mormon nationalism. We have a historical mode of Mormon identity that is centered around the story of the Restoration, the Exodus to Deseret, and the lingering memory of Mormon quasi-independence and the “lost” Zion of the 19th century. We have another, “American” mode of nationalism that is based on universal principles: the plan of salvation, personal revelation, modern prophets, etc. What is interesting is that it is the historical mode of Mormon nationalism — its “European” manifestation if you will — that is invoked (without apparent understanding of the irony) as evidence of Mormonisms distinctive “Americaness.” At the same time, it is the idealistic “American” mode of Mormon nationalism that seems to be most appealing in the global spread of the Gospel. It seems to me that one of the interesting issues to look at is the way in which these two nationalisms are combined. I think that the most common method is the rhetoric of “The Stone Cut Out of the Mountain Without Hands.” What I mean by this are the stories that we tell ourselves about institutional growth, convert baptisms, new stakes in far away places, and the like. A pretty standard line among “thinking” or “intelligent” Mormons (notice the scare quotes!) is to say that the language of growth, numbers, etc. is simply a repackaged version of corporate America. (We we mention “corporate America” it is supposed to sound very sinsister.) There is some truth to this, but I think that it is over played (alot). Rather, I think that what this rhetoric is doing is finding a bridge between the two forms of Mormon nationalism. The myth of growth provides a plot that connects new converts to the myths of persecution and pioneers. It makes them important — indeed central — characters in what might otherwise be a completely foreign story.