The Nature of Mormon Nationalism

March 23, 2004 | 19 comments
By

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.

Tags: , ,

19 Responses to The Nature of Mormon Nationalism

  1. Karen on March 23, 2004 at 12:29 pm

    Your post set my wheels turning this morning. What I find most interesting is that the idea of nationalism is fairly double edged. It is, in my opinion, a necessary lubricant for a functioning civil society. Nation states which are roughly equivalent to an ethnic or historical population are, to make broad sweeping generalizations, more successful. (I point to the former Yugoslavia as a counter-example.) The type of patriotism that our American identity fosters is a catalyst to vote and participate in public service.

    However, nationalism also has a very ugly side. I again point to Yugoslavia. It has been used as a front for government abuse, and abuse of “others” who do not fall within the nationalistic characteristics. (One interesting social note–young Europeans are incredibly wary of patriotic displays. Apparently the only place you’ll ever see a German flag is at a soccer game…)

    Although not to the degree of political nationalism discussed above, I think we can see these same forces at work in church identity. Yes, it is a catalyst for inclusion in an international church, as new converts partake in spiritual experiences that mirror historical Mormon experiences, they become part of the heritage.

    However, this can be negative as well. I refer specifically to the religious animosity in SLC right now that grew out of the plaza issue. Mormons, en masse, can be insular and exclusive. (Despite a doctrinal understanding to the contrary.) I think that as a church, we have the same philosophical challenges in channelling our nationalism into healthy causes as do nation states.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on March 23, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    Interesting ideas, Nate. What you label “American” vs. “European” nationalisms might be better described in terms that have become quite common in political philosophy over the last 20 years. Many political theorists talk about–and critique–the presumed distinction between “ethnic/historical” and “civic/ideal” nationalities; depending on how one reads the historical data and the theoretical arguments, one might distinguish between the U.S. and other primarily immigrant societies on the one hand, and more historically and/or racially structured societies (Korea, for example) on the other. But it’s not clear that ethnic or geneaological bonds necessarily lack an ideological component (consider the role of Orthodox Christianity in the construction of idenities in polyglot and multi-ethnic Slavic nations), or that civic or “ideational” bonds lack any affective claims (surely the English phrasing of early American documents works on us in expressive, non-rational ways). The project of national construction is much too complicated for any one dichotomy to clarify.

    As for the relationship between such a model and Mormon identity formation, I think you’re confusing what is usually meant by “Americaness.” I suspect that the real point of connecting pioneer stories to the American experience is to make our history seem even more important to secular audiences; by showing the centrality and thoroughly “American” character of the trials of the 19th-century church to the development of the Western U.S., the evolution of federalism, etc., we make Mormonism a player in not just one divine telos (the redemption of the world), but a second one as well (namely, the rise of the American state, an association made explicit through such accounts as, for example, the appearance of the spirits of the Founding Fathers in the St. George temple).

    If you want to get really deep into the theoretical arguments here, it might be interesting to question the degree to which it is the current leadership’s–or, indeed, God’s–plan for Mormons to be a distinct “people,” or whether this dispensation is witnessing the “de-nationalization” of the covenant. Does Mormonism seek to conceive all the peoples of the world “ideally,” in the sense of unifying them around a single globally-applicable salvational and ecclesiastical narrative? Would that be, strictly speaking, “imperialism”? (What language would such a global church speak?) Or is more like a Kantian vision of universal principles being apprehended above and beyond any identity-differentiation? (In other words, is the modern church engaged in a globalizing project?) Or is it something else entirely?

  3. Dave on March 23, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    This is a “deep think” post, Nate. Plainly the link between American identity and Mormon identity is complex and changing. I think “American nationalism” is defined more by events than concepts and is not ahistorical. The Revolution was the key event, and the War of 1812 reinvigorated nationalism. In more recent times, Pearl Harbor was a focal event for American nationalism, and I think 9/11 is taking on that character as well.

    The Mormon sense of identity (which I think is a better way to look at it than “Mormon nationalism”) likewise utilizes historical events as a sort of baseline: getting chased out of Missouri, the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum, crossing the plains, the encounter with the US Army in 1857, and the struggle over polygamy are the key events. Interestingly, all these events highlight tension between Mormonism and America, whereas in the 20th century the commonalities have been emphasized. Yet those 19th century events still define us.

    The problem I see with moving from an American-Mormon identity, based on the events I noted, to a global-Mormon identity is that there are no particular defining events on which to build that global identity. I can’t think of any serious candidates for the project.

    I don’t think many people say, “I’m a global Mormon, not an American Mormon.” Although I’d say there are people who carefully distinguish between being a Utah Mormon and being from outside Utah.

  4. William Morris on March 23, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    I think “nationalism” is the wrong term. From my point of view, Mormons are more of an ethnos, a people. And I think that we represent a somewhat unique form as such. We exhibit characteristics similar to other ethnic identities. We are in one sense a people of Diaspora [although we have since returned to our holy land -- albeit not in quite the way we started out]. But at the same time we have more clearly defined ‘new’ homeland [Utah]. We have been incredibly successful at integrating with mainstream American culture, and yet at the same time remain a peculiar people. Unlike other ethnies, our sense of identity of culture is regulated quite vigorously by an offical discourse which means that while there is space for contesting what our culture is and means and should do [in art and literature, pop culture, etc.], those discourses are generally subsidiary to the official discourse. One thing is clear for me though — because of our pioneer history and the settling of West and the period when our political, religious and culture identities and relationships were closely intertwined, Mormons are more of an ethnic group, I think, than some other religious groups. We’re a very strange hybrid.

    BTW, in terms of nationalism and identity, I recommend _The Necessary Nation_ by Gregory Jusdanis. See: http://www.pupress.princeton.edu/titles/7070.html

    In the book Jusadanis defends the nation against the multicultural globalists, arguing that it is the best political entity to protect cultural minorities and cultural differences. He specifically deals with the link between ethnic bonds and ideology in relation to culture [i.e. related to Russell's post above].

    Also: See my review of Jusdanis’ _Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature_ [ http://www.aml-online.org/reviews/b/B20021A.html ]. Jusdanis focuses mainly on how Greece used culture to help forge its national identity, but I think that his concept of ‘belated modernity’ could have some interesting applications for Mormonism — at least Mormo-Americans [to steal a term from Michael Austin http://humanities.byu.edu/mldb/austin01.htm ]

  5. Russell Arben Fox on March 23, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    William,

    Jusdanis’s book is excellent, and I like his conclusions, though I have some problems with his thesis overall. He primarily views nations and nationalism, as you say, as political tools. He describes England, Canada, Brazil, modern-day Egypt and the U.S. as “political nations” which have carved out cultural identities in the midst of modernity through the political (that is, state-driven) appropriation of and respect for cultural sources. That is, he rejects the idea of purely political/civic nationalities, but sees nation construction as, in essence, a political “putting to work” of cultural resources. The idea that nationality, sovereignty, etc., might be essentially connected to the expressivity of one’s cultural or religious sources doesn’t seem to enter into his analysis. In other words, the organic character of national identity doesn’t register for him at all.

    Nice link to Mike Austin’s essay–he and I used to argue quite a bit about Mormon identity years ago. I’m basically doubtful of the “Mormo-American,” ethnos thesis, because the proselytizing, ideational character of Mormonism and Mormon faith stories mitigate or undermine the claims of those who would talk about their “Mormonness” absent ecclesiastical recognition (i.e., Michael Quinn’s poignant but ultimately ignored protest that he was a “DNA-Mormon”). Basically, while I think religions can be central to the realization of peoplehood, churches can’t–that puts the cart before the horse. (Consider the history of the various national Orthodox churches in this light.)

  6. brayden on March 23, 2004 at 2:39 pm

    I’m interested in how Mormon nationalism varies over time. If nationalism is a product of external threat to a group’s autonomy and functioning (see the current rise of nationalism in the U.S.), then you would expect Mormon nationalism to vary as members of the Church feel particularly threatened by external forces (e.g. government agents, other churches, mobs, etc.). In the modern age of the Church, we live in a fairly innocuous environment. We are generally accepted by legitimate figures in the public. Our members are succeeding in other walks of life and gaining recognition as important players in the political and business worlds. This seems like the best time to take the guard down and embrace a wider definition of peopleness, which is exactly what is happening.

    However, at the same time, the members of the Church still perceive the existence of sources of threat. Perhaps we can frame the same-sex marriage debate as a response to perceived threats from external agents wishing to redefine our basic moral standards. Although I personally do not see this as a great threat, I can see how other members and leaders in the Church imagine that extending rights to people of a different sexual persuasion somehow threatens our ability to regulate moral behavior among our own people. One way to innoculate our people from moral threats, I imagine, is to increase the negative rhetoric about the evils of “the world.” This is the New Mormon Nationalism (it’s always fun to attach a New to a concept).

  7. Nate Oman on March 23, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    An interesting issue, as well, is the existence of regional Mormon identities. For example, when I was in Korea there were certain well established stories that circulated about the foundation of Mormonism in Korea, especially the conversion of Kim Ho Jick, and the work of Lee Ho Nam, Han In Sang, and Whang Keun Ok.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on March 23, 2004 at 2:52 pm

    Brayden,

    While obviously threats to one’s territory, language, history, culture, etc., will clearly often have “rallying,” nation-building consequences, I don’t think the threat-response dynamic accounts for rise or decline of affective fellow-feeling among co-nationals or co-ethnics particularly well, at least not without significant tweaking. Case in point: the rise of Quebec nationalism in the 1960s and 70s, which exactly coincided with the striking down of obstacles to French-Canadian participation in society and the “Quiet Revolution” in Quebecois self-understanding. Cause and effect is pretty hard to disentangle here.

  9. Nate Oman on March 23, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    Con’t…

    On my mission, I remember making a concerted effort to collect these stories and then tell them to the youth when — as was often the case in many of the branches I served in — the Elders were the default young men and young women’s leaders. For some reason, I felt that it was very important that these members be aware of the story of Korean Mormonism and have “mythic” Korean Mormons with whom to identify.

  10. Russell Arben Fox on March 23, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    Nate,

    But what was or is that “regional Mormon identity” in Korea? Was there, or is there, a (relatively speaking) affective and binding “Korean Mormonism,” as you put it? I would like to think there is, but I’m doubtful. And to the extent that there isn’t, the stories you’re referring to (which you and I know third-hand, but which Jim in some cases knows in much greater detail) have nothing to do with regionalism, much less “nationalism,” at all. Rather, they’re just ways of inserting local color and significance into presumably globally-applicable methods of affirming faith in the church. (Which is not to knock your collecting and distributing of such stories–myths are important! It’s just a question of how best to make sense of what was actually being constructed through such story-telling.)

  11. William Morris on March 23, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    Russell:

    I agree with your characterization of the flaws in Jusdanis. He does overstate the importance of culture in national identity formation. I think that in particular, I seem to recall [it's been awhile since I read the book] not completely agreeing with his characterization of America and Americans. I think the way ‘mainstream’ Americans conceive of their nationality is tied into something much more fundamental than cultural ‘trappings.’ Although I’d be hard-pressed to express that in terms that make sense to others.

    On Mormo-Americans:

    Yep.

    I’ve been thinking about writing an essay titled “Are Mormo-Americans possible?” One of the reasons that I find Mormon literature so interesting as a field is that, as I mention above, it’s strictly a subsidiary discourse. How writers and literary critics deal with that frustration and how they try and increase the discourse’s legitamacy fascinates me. There’s a certain anxiety to the whole process [an anxiety that I share in to a certain extent]. And I think that it presents real barriers for the possibility of a broadening of the Mormon publishing marketplace.

    The question for me is — as LDS official discourse has tightened and become more world-focused and correlated, have [and will -- I think this process is more relevant to my generation [gen x] and the one after me] Mormon Americans turned to other discourses to inform and build their sense of Mormon-ness or perhaps not even Mormon-ness, perhaps just identity? What have those been? How have they operated?

    One thing that I don’t think has been fully documented is how Mormons have reinscribed mainstream American culture (and some sub-cultures). Outsiders [speaking from my experience living in the Bay Area] see us as basically conservative, suburban, white-bread Americans with just a hint of weirdness. Oh yeah, and we don’t drink. But while that may be true on the surface, I think that Mormons have made interesting modifications to how they express/consume/interpret mainstream culture.

    I think that your recent post on the persistance of 80′s alternative rock in Utah is an interesting example of how we re-read cultural texts [ http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000556.html#more ]. I always thought it was strange that the teenage Mormons I associated with in Fremont (Calif.) were so in to Depeche Mode and Erasure *and* Chicago. I was more in to the ‘heavy’ modern rock (what we called alternative) crowd and Chicago didn’t fly there.

    And the underlying question I have to this whole subject — is there a value in trying to develop a Mormon American ‘ethnic’ identity? Are there ways in which this process might help cohesion in the Church in America? I have mixed feelings about this.

    Finally: while I agree that the ethnos idea is problematic [thus my use of the term 'hybrid' in my previous post], how do you account for or what you label the uses of culture in Moromonism — esp. the home literature movement — in the formation of Mormon identity. Are we simply ‘a people’?

  12. Russell Arben Fox on March 23, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    William,

    I think we’re a sundered people, a religious collectivity that might have gone the ethnos route (witness the Amish), but were stopped from doing so by the actions of a dominant state. Please note: I’m not making a normative point here. I think there is good cause to weep for what might have been but for the U.S. government, but also good cause to perhaps be grateful. Identity truncation can also have an authenticity to it. A church forced out of peoplehood and into “modernity,” as it were, can do a much better job expressing (some of) its teachings than ethnic religious bodies (again, witness the Amish).

    Richard Bushman wrote an essay titled “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind” which applied some of this kind of thinking to Mormon identity. Basically, he argued that in trying to understand how Mormonism came to be what it is today, we mustn’t overlook the way in which 19th-century Mormonism’s failed defense of the State of Deseret and polygamy reduced us to a “colonial” possession of the U.S. in some ways. Some interesting Said-influenced psychological reflections in there.

  13. William Morris on March 23, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    Russell:

    That makes sense to me. In some ways I think that this give me hope for the future of Mormon literature — in many ways Mormons are uniquely qualified to critique, comment on and interact with American literature and culture in ways that ‘ethnic’ literatures perhaps can’t or don’t.

    On the other hand, there’s a real bind for Mormon writers who want to be published — the national market imposes its ideology which means that any treatment of the Mormon experience most likely will need to be at least somewhat critical and downplay the metaphysics of the faith and the Mormon market demands stories that don’t challenge in any way official Mormon discourse.

  14. Stephen M on March 23, 2004 at 8:11 pm

    Well “I don’t think many people say, “I’m a global Mormon, not an American Mormon.” Although I’d say there are people who carefully distinguish between being a Utah Mormon and being from outside Utah.” called to mind the people who say “I’m religiously LDS, not culturally Mormon” or words to that effect.

    I see a fair amount of that, with “Utah Mormon” and “Cultural Mormon” similar, but not necessarily synomous. I do think that we are still a people, but ever since the consolidated meeting schedule and the efforts the Church has made to stop the cultural isolation that was creeping along, what kind of a people we are is an entirely different story.

    It is interesting that BYU’s current mission is seen as providing a place where people can go to have a core cultural experience in what it means to be LDS. The implications are interesting.

    Oh, given that there is another “Stephen” I’m going to start posting as “Stephen M” to avoid confusion.

    My home page is at http://adrr.com/living/e01.htm and I’m Ethesis@aol.com for those of you who might know me from the early days of FAIR.

    Regards,

    Stephen
    http://adrr.com/living/

  15. Adam Greenwood on March 25, 2004 at 11:57 am

    Nate,
    You suggest that the growth narrative is one way of tieing together our ethnic identity with our ideological identity.
    In many ways, of course, American nationalism does the same thing. We have a historical identity–Washington, Lincoln, the Founders–but we also have a universal mission–democracy, freedom. The way we reconcile them is through a kind of growth narrative–the historical existence of America serves as a real-life example of our ideals to other nations, and perhaps even provides a platform for spreading them.

  16. Kent W. Huff on March 27, 2004 at 5:00 am

    Just a few observations. The “growth narrative” may be in need of an update. Probably not many people noticed that the church’s total number of stakes went DOWN by 5 last year. That might spur some thought.

    Samuel P. Huntington noted in his “The Clash of Civilizations,” p.42, “Of all the objective elements which define civilizations . . . the most important usually is religion . . . .” Is it time for the church to aspire to become the basis for a new worldwide civilization? What a change that would be from being a small and persecuted colony of a large country.

  17. Russell Arben Fox on March 27, 2004 at 9:58 am

    Kent, Huntington’s latest work–on the (in his view rather negative and possibly frightening) impact of Hispanic immigration on American culture–seems to suggest a modification of his original “clash” thesis; now, instead of religion, he appears to see language as the most fundamental civilizational/identity divider. (Huntington’s essay can be read here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=2495 ; I make some comments on his thesis here: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2004_02_01_philosophenweg_archive.html .) Given that we’re a multilingual church, I’m not sure how or in what way his observations might or should influence our own self-understanding.

    Still, there’s something interesting to what you say. Forget about Mormons as an “ethnos” (I think that option, whether or not it would have been good or appropriate one given the missions of the church, was lost long ago); what about “Mormon civilization”? That may sound rather grandiose, but it’s not entirely implausible, if one takes seriously both Shipps’s long-standing thesis that Mormonism is a “new religious tradition,” and the supposed de-territorialization that globalism has wrought. Could Mormonism, as its differences from the secular world mount, eventually distinguish itself sufficiently from post-Christian (and therefore, in a sense, still traditional) modernity as to constitute a literal alternative? Maybe some new kind of (spiritually? ecclesiastically?) “networked” civilization? (More comments of mine here: http://fistfulofeuros.net/archives/000375.php .) Of course, all of this runs counter to the unity between Mormons and conservative Christendom which Adam’s most recent post attests to.

    Sorry; as you can tell, this is a hobby horse of mine.

  18. Dave's Mormon Inquiry on March 24, 2004 at 7:03 am

    Bloom on Mormonism
    Nate at T&S discussed Harold Bloom’s The American Religion (Simon & Schuster, 1992) in an interesting post on Mormon nationalism. I just happen to have Bloom’s book on my shelf at the moment and want to do something with it

  19. Dave's Mormon Inquiry on March 27, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Bloom on Mormonism
    Nate at T&S discussed Harold Bloom’s The American Religion (Simon & Schuster, 1992) in an interesting post on Mormon nationalism. I just happen to have Bloom’s book on my shelf at the moment and want to do something with it