A German mirror on Mormons in American religion and politics

July 4, 2007 | 23 comments
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Gerhard Spörl, reporter for Der Spiegel, surely did not have an easy task. After his editors at the finest German-language news weekly on the planet took notice of a German Mormon apostle and a Mormon candidate for the U.S. presidency, they gave Spörl the responsibility for interviewing Dieter Uchtdorf, visiting the church offices in Frankfurt, and trying to explain Mormons and their religion to a million German readers (article in English translation here). Spörl also had to wrestle with the signature style of the Spiegel, which seeks to create the illusion of giving the reader a keyhole view on the unfolding of important events. But where is the keyhole through which to view Mormonism? Spörl’s editors couldn’t be of much help, as the Spiegel has difficulty reporting on religion, unfortunately. (The regular pre-Christmas and pre-Easter articles can be summed up as “God is dead,” “God’s greatest mistakes,” and “Just who does this God person think he is, anyway?”) While the Spiegel capably handles theology and the politics of religion, it usually fails to grasp belief and religious experience. In the end, the article seems to show Gerhard Spörl scratching his head, wondering (mostly between the lines) how a Lufthansa pilot and senior executive and a serious presidential contender could both be Mormons.

Overall, the two-page article is fairly good. Factual errors are minimal. The illustrations show Elder Uchtdorf in front of the Salt Lake temple, Mitt Romney speaking in front of an American flag, growth statistics since 1976, and the numerous offspring of a polygamous clan in the Utah desert, with a row of trailers and snow-capped peaks in the background (the article is careful to explain that polygamists are rigorously excommunicated, and that polygamist sects are associated with various problematic behaviors). But the article fails to find keyhole access to Mormonism, mostly because it doesn’t know where to look. The article visits the European headquarters in Frankfurt, but not any local congregations. Besides Elder Uchtdorf, the article doesn’t mention that German Mormons exist at all. Instead, the article tries to make sense of Mormonism as both exotic and simplistic.

The article notes several odd things about Mormonism: Mormons use strange words, like “stake.” Mormons believe their apostles are prophets who receive revelation, just like in the New Testament. Mormon temple worship is secret. “The history of this denomination is rich in oddities, and therefore Mormons like Romney and Uchtdorf are regarded in part with suspicion, in part with disdain, especially by the established churches, whether Catholic, Protestant, or the evangelical branches, which exercise considerable power, including political power, in America.” Thus the persistent image of polygamists on the wild frontier: although misleading, it captures, strikingly and simply, that Mormons are odd.

The other approach is to describe Mormons and their religion as simplistic: “Their faith has nothing refined, let alone intellectual, about it. Mormons do not, like the Pope, attempt to harmonize faith and reason. Neither do they deal much with theodicy, the justification of God in view of misery here below, unlike entire armies of theologians in other faiths….The Mormons like things simple, so they don’t maintain an elite corps of priests for an elaborated interpretation of the faith….God is for them an originary figure of flesh and blood, and also married, of course….A nice, childish faith….Christ’s return to save humanity is at the door. Faith rarely presents itself so simply….Firm in the faith, they seek expansion rather than a deepening of piety.” Elder Uchtdorf is quoted as saying, “Much in our lives is represented as being complex, but [Mormons'] simplification of life to its core purpose makes sense.”

Some of the article’s observations are possibly correct, while others are misguided. Most, I think, are merely beside the point. Insisting that God has flesh and bones, not blood, will not help matters, but neither will the naive and reflexive acceptance of others’ criticism. If a reporter is looking for a keyhole glimpse at the heart of Mormonism, where should he or she look? If a representation of Mormons as exotic or simplistic is not in our interests, what other narratives can we suggest?

But another essential element of Spiegel style is the ironic or reflective twist in the final paragraph. The article concludes, “It probably helps to see things as they appear to the pilot of an airplane, far above it all, the sun gleaming on the horizon and the earth below, so heart-warmingly beautiful, both ordered and endangered at the same time and perhaps even amenable to salvation.”

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23 Responses to A German mirror on Mormons in American religion and politics

  1. Peter LLC on July 4, 2007 at 7:13 am

    “what other narratives can we suggest?”

    How about unfinished? Joseph Smith continually expanded the Mormon understanding of the gospel, the cosmos, usw. as he went and with the principle of continuing revelation still firmly ensconced, there’s no particular reason to assume the narrative is complete.

  2. Bill MacKinnon on July 4, 2007 at 7:25 am

    Jonathan,
    Thanks for a very interesting essay. Is Der Spiegel’s article apt to be available in English translation? I’d be interested in knowing whether the article spends any time attempting to see Mormonism through the lense (or in this case keyhole) of the American West. As those of you who have served missions in Germany know, since the late 19th century practically every German lad has grown up reading the novels of Karl May, who wrote fantastic novels about Arabia and the American West –especially Utah — from a Bavarian jail cell where he served several sentences for insurance fraud and embezzlement. Later in life, after the novels had become a great success, May made one trip to the U.S. and eventually got as far west as St. Louis, but no mind — he still churned out novel after novel about the Far West, with Teutonic-style heroes such as Old Shatterhand battling against the forces of evil (frequently Mormon) with the aid of faithful Indian companions. May was sort of a precursor to the Zane Grey novels, the Lone Ranger, and maybe even Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, “A Study in Scarlet,” with all of its lurid accounts of violent Mormonism on-the-hoof in Utah and London. Karl May’s novels probably did more to influence popular German perceptions of the American West and Mormonism than any other force at the turn of the last century, and I suspect that over the years LDS missionaries spent a fair amount of time dealing with the stereotypes that arose from that background. (It’s as though Franklin W. Dixon had set the Hardy Boy novels in Salt Lake City rather than Bayport of the Atlantic Coast.) As far as I know, only one of the May novels, “Winatou,” has been translated into English (University of Washington Press). In his day Hitler was nuts about the Karl May novels and as an adult had hundreds of thousands of copies distributed to the troops of the Wermacht as wholesome reading material. Any signs that Spiegel’s fumbling for the keyhole included consultation of Karl May’s fantastic view of Mormonism?

  3. Jettboy on July 4, 2007 at 7:38 am

    I would have to see the context of the sentence to see how ironic or for what purpose it was used, but I did find ““It probably helps to see things as they appear to the pilot of an airplane, far above it all, the sun gleaming on the horizon and the earth below, so heart-warmingly beautiful, both ordered and endangered at the same time and perhaps even amenable to salvation” to be as nearly reflective of Mormonism as any news article I have read.

  4. john f. on July 4, 2007 at 7:50 am

    On the simplistic faith, you quote Spörl as follows:

    Their faith has nothing refined, let alone intellectual, about it. Mormons do not, like the Pope, attempt to harmonize faith and reason. Neither do they deal much with theodicy, the justification of God in view of misery here below, unlike entire armies of theologians in other faiths….The Mormons like things simple, so they don’t maintain an elite corps of priests for an elaborated interpretation of the faith….God is for them an originary figure of flesh and blood, and also married, of course….A nice, childish faith….Christ’s return to save humanity is at the door. Faith rarely presents itself so simply….Firm in the faith, they seek expansion rather than a deepening of piety.”

    With the exception of the last sentence, which is entirely untrue, I found this to be an extraordinarily accurate and good description of Latter-day Saints. I would go so far as to say that Spörl has found the keyhole through which to present/view Mormonism to Germans in this summation.

    We should be grateful that Spörl has observed this about us and has communicated this observation to readers of the Spiegel in Germany. This speaks very highly of us. This is exactly what Jesus had in mind with the religion he professed and commanded to be preached to the whole world.

    I should note that I do not see this statement as incompatible with the idea that plenty of Latter-day Saints are happy to take an intellectual approach to the religion itself and especially to its history; taking such an approach while at the same time harboring/fostering such a “nice, childish faith” (“childlike” would, of course, be much better a description) are not mutually exclusive. Recognizing that could not be expected of Spörl, I realize, so this description is great.

  5. Wilfried on July 4, 2007 at 8:14 am

    Very interesting contribution, Jonathan. Always good to have international perspective in our posts on T&S.

    Indeed, not easy for a reporter in Europe to grasp in one movement the simplicity, dynamism and grandeur of Mormonism. We seem an “odd” religion, indeed, viewed from other religious traditions. But I agree with previous comments by Jettboy and John f that this article is probably pretty positive and accurate (difficult to judge without having read it). I like reporters who are at least trying to understand with some respect who we are and what we believe. That’s already a far cry from the usual satiric rigmarole.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on July 4, 2007 at 8:19 am

    “It probably helps to see things as they appear to the pilot of an airplane, far above it all, the sun gleaming on the horizon and the earth below, so heart-warmingly beautiful, both ordered and endangered at the same time and perhaps even amenable to salvation.”

    The author may have meant that reductively, but it actually seems to me to be a conclusion filled with wisdom. Perhaps without knowing it, I think the writer stumbled onto something rather profound. It puts me in in mind of that line from E.M. Forster: “to see life steadily and see it whole.” Abandon that dream of holism, and, well, every religious faith is going to seem cheap and simplistic, right?

  7. Kevin Barney on July 4, 2007 at 8:34 am

    I’m not sure how to view Mormonism through the keyhole, but based on your description it sounds like the reporter did a pretty good job. It is true that the Church has both exotic arcana and yet at the same time appeals to a simple faith, and just successfully explaining that much to his audience strikes me as not a bad start.

  8. Jonathan Green on July 4, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Bill M., I hope that a translation will appear on the Spiegel’s English website eventually, but I don’t know if it’s likely. In the article, I don’t see any specific influence of May, but the American West remains an object of great fascination in German (and I assume also broader European) culture. Short of the Marlboro Man riding through Bryce Canyon, you don’t find a more apt expression of the exoticness of the American frontier than 15 polygamous kids in the desert with the Uintahs in the background. It’s probably an image we’re stuck with, unfortunately. It makes the church interesting to a lot of Europeans, but hard to imagine as a part of their own daily experience. Wilfried, if we embrace “Mormon”, how do we present an international and contemporary image of ourselves outside the U.S., rather than remain defined as stock characters in Western novels?

    John, the original German for “childish” is “Ein schöner Kinderglaube,” which suggests both a child’s faith, and a faith appropriate for children rather than adults. In some ways, it’s more positive than my translation of “childish.”

  9. john f. on July 4, 2007 at 9:50 am

    Jonathan, thanks for that. Such a simple faith is, arguably, what Jesus expects of us, so that makes a nice keyhole through which to view Mormonism, which claims to be the Restoration of Jesus’ original religion.

    And Spörl is exactly right about Latter-day Saints not having a systemmatic theology that has been created by doctors of theology and philosophy. It is debatable whether such a thing can exist alongside continuing revelation in religion. Arguably, it can, but its absence is not an indictment of Mormonism — or at least it shouldn’t be.

  10. Kevin Barney on July 4, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Here is the international version (in English). I don’t know how close it is to the original German:

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,491890,00.html

  11. Jon M on July 4, 2007 at 10:03 am

    They did post an English translation of the article on Der Spiegel website:

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,491890,00.html

    I thought they did a pretty good job in the article.

  12. john f. on July 4, 2007 at 10:28 am

    Kevin and Jon M, thank you for the English link — is it even up in German yet? I would very much like to read the German original. Jonathan, the childish/childlike thing did not even make it into the Spiegel’s English translation at all. Also, the bit about soaring high about the earth was not included.

    Thank you Mr. Spörl for that piece of reporting. I found that to be an exemplary news article about the Church. It does nothing to endorse the Church. It does not ignore that that Church contains many things that are strange to those who do not belong to the faith. But it does not speak derisively about the Church.

    Again, the point about the simple faith is actually a great compliment to Latter-day Saints, even if it was not meant to be.

    Jonathan, you should send a trackback to the online English translation so that T&S shows up in the Technorati link that the Spiegel site displays at the foot of the translation.

  13. Jonathan Green on July 4, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Wow, that was fast. Thanks for the links, Keven and Jon. I’ll add a link to the English translation to the original post. The German story is still not online and probably won’t be for a while yet, if ever, as there are still newsstand copies to be sold.

    The translator must have been in a hurry, as the translation pulls a lot of its punchlines. They deleted a crack about the apostles being older on average than ministers in the Kremlin during the days of communism. It was a pretty funny line, actually. Also missing is the suggestion that having polygamous leaders on trial must be embarrassing to Mormons in SLC, whose point I didn’t quite understand. The line about Kinderglaube got axed too, as well as the final paragraph about the pilot’s view, unfortunately.

    John, how do you add a trackback?

  14. john f. on July 4, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Put the URL of the online English version into the Send Trackback field on your dashboard. Go to manage, then to “edit” for your post, and then at the very bottom, put the URL in the trackback field.

  15. Margaret Young on July 4, 2007 at 11:57 am

    I’ve been pondering the basic and unique doctrines of our faith as I’ve been scripting narration to the documentary I’m working on. Elder Uchdorf himself often uses his pilot’s experience as a gospel analogy, as he did last Conference in his talk about “the point of no return.” After explaining what that term means to pilots, he said that in the gospel, there is no “point of no return.”
    When we interviewed African American Latter-day Saints on why they chose to join the LDS Church, some of the responses echoed Elder Uchdorf’s words. One told of her prior religion, which had an either/or scenario. She said, “I used to pray to God and I’d say, ‘Why do I have to go to Hell?’–because I knew I was bad.” The hope the gospel offered was one of many things which brought her in. Another concept which many loved was the idea of a pre-mortal life and limitless potential.
    Good article, Jonathan. I like the description of Elder Uchdorf’s smile. When he counseled our new stake presidency (which included my husband), he reminded them to smile, to let the people know that this gospel is joyful. I’ve joked about ways to increase sales of the _Ensign_–put a picture of Elder Uchdorf on the back cover. That is one handsome man. But part of his handsomeness is that joy which shines so beautifully in his smile.

  16. Julie M. Smith on July 4, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    Thanks for this post.

  17. Ray on July 4, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Amen.

  18. Wilfried on July 4, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Jonathan: Wilfried, if we embrace “Mormon”, how do we present an international and contemporary image of ourselves outside the U.S., rather than remain defined as stock characters in Western novels?

    That’s precisely the point, Jonathan. Outsiders will continue to refer to us as Mormons, there is no escape to that. So what we need is to tie other images to “Mormon” than what Karl May and similar Wild West stories have put in the minds of people. That’s why adding the adjective Mormon or “The Mormons” to positive contemporary images of the Church today is so helpful, like we did in the 70s and 80s with the Home Front Messages on TV (from “The Mormons”).

    Let it ring internationally as I explained here, because the word Mormon is the same in all languages worldwide: The Mormon Ballroom Dance Company is performing! The Mormon Humanitarian Services are giving goods to Caritas Catholica. The Mormon Perpetual Education Fund is providing grants to students in Bolivia. Come look up your ancestors at our Mormon Family History Center, sponsored by the Mormon Genealogical Society, etc. And, of course, each time we make sure the real name of the Church is also mentioned as the official umbrella.

    I like to quote Pres. Hinckley (GC, October 1990): “I suppose that regardless of our efforts, we may never convert the world to general use of the full and correct name of the Church. Because of the shortness of the word Mormon and the ease with which it is spoken and written, they will continue to call us the Mormons, the Mormon church, and so forth. We may not be able to change the nickname, but we can make it shine with added luster. All of this places upon us of this Church and this generation an incumbent and demanding responsibility to recognize that as we are spoken of as Mormons, we must so live that our example will enhance the perception that Mormon can mean in a very real way, ‘more good’.”

    Apologies for repetition… Hobby horse.

  19. William Morris on July 5, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    Wilifried:

    I wholeheartedly agree. If this is the brand we’re stuck with (and attempts by the Church to disassociate ourselves from it have not been very successful [although they have been able to get some of the mainstream media to make a distinction between the LDS Church and fundamentalist Mormons]), then we should re-co-opt it and make it our own.

  20. Bryan Stout on July 7, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    I\’m sorry I did not see the article right away. It now has an editor\’s note saying \”at the request of the Church of Latter-Day Saints to make clear that polygamists are not considered Mormons by the church.\” Apparently more was changed than that: I do not find the sentence about the pilot\’s view of the world, which I rather like. What else has changed?

    In general, I found it found the article mostly respectful though sometimes snide, reflecting what felt like an overall attitude of tolerant superiority tinged with curiosity. I\’m a bit surprised at its casual way of making judgements — some astute and some way off — without any humility at not possibly understanding everything. For example, it is rather ironic that it says Mormons do not seek an \”intensification of their piety\”, yet immediately afterwards characterizes temple worship as merely \”withdrawing\” into \”the company of other Mormons\”, a persecution-based defensive behavior.

    I agree with john f. about the value of a simple faith, but I also with Jonathan\’s description of the article\’s considering Mormonism \”simplistic\”, which is not the same thing. There is a big difference between the naive simplicity of youth and the consciously achieved simplicity of maturity; and between the simplicity of idealogues and the simplicity of pragmatists.

  21. Jonathan Green on July 7, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Bryan, most of the differences between the German and English versions are omissions, sentences that were never translated into English in the first place. The translation above of the sentence about the pilot’s world view is my own, as that conclusion never made it into the English article, unfortunately. Apparently, the original English version suggested that a handful of Mormons still practice polygamy, but that was quickly corrected. I understand that reaction among German members has ranged from rejoicing that the country’s most important news weekly noticed that Mormons existed and avoided most of the worst mistakes, to irritation over being depicted as uneducated simpletons. Comments here have convinced me to choose the half-full cup over the half-empty one.

  22. Jim F. on July 7, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    Given what the Lord has said about the wisdom of men and the simpleness of his servants in 1 Corinthians 1 and in D&C 1, perhaps we ought to be happy to be portrayed as uneduccated simpletons.

  23. Bryan Stout on July 8, 2007 at 10:37 pm

    “I understand that reaction among German members has ranged from rejoicing that the country’s most important news weekly noticed that Mormons existed and avoided most of the worst mistakes, to irritation over being depicted as uneducated simpletons.”

    In the one semester of German I had, the teacher said that where American insulting terms tended to be sexual, German slurs tended to be intellectual (ie. calling people stupid). If that was an accurate statement, I can imagine how the article may have rankled some.

    “Comments here have convinced me to choose the half-full cup over the half-empty one.”

    Amen! Even when I notice and point out both halves, I try to end with gratitude for half-full part. (For example, I found the Ostlings’ book “Mormon America” a frustrating mixture of gratifying respect and insight with surprising ommissions and misunderstandings. When I wrote a review of it I discussed both its strengths and weaknesses, and concluded with a hope that LDS readers would not treat it as an attack but rather welcome this fair-minded approach. I was very pleased when the church’s response to the PBS special “The Mormons” expressed the same attitude.)

    Sorry for not mentioning it, but I also am very glad the Spiegel article took us seriously and respectfully, and avoided the usual bugaboos.

WELCOME

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