How to be American and Mormon

July 3, 2008 | 16 comments

The anniversary of Shelby Foote’s death has just passed us and the Fourth of July is almost upon us.

When he died I wrote that he taught me to be both a Mormon and an American, conqueror and conquered alike. I’ve been thinking about that lately (thanks to the Volokh Conspiracy and the 4th), and about something Nate Oman said about the end of polygamy. I realized that we Saints treat the United States’ victory in its struggle with the Saints not just as a setback but as a providential revelation of God’s will through the unfolding of history. We aren’t biding our time to get back to polygamy and our desert kingdom. We’ve embraced Western marriage and America and capitalism and all the rest.

There are precedents. The Assyrians were not God’s people but God worked through them to guide and instruct his people. I do not believe that Deseret and polygamy and the United Orders were sins or mistakes, but I accept the verdict of the God of victories. I have pledged my loyalty to the American nation many times and taken an oath to the Constitution and its government on three solemn occasions. That loyalty is firm and those oaths are unbroken and I believe it pleases God that it be so.

Russell Fox, Jeremiah John, and I also touch on these matters in this thread, starting here.


16 Responses to How to be American and Mormon

  1. Kent on July 3, 2008 at 11:37 am

    The verdict of the God of victories is very similar to the belief in “might makes right” and the voodoo concept of the “big man.” I think the idea is built on a foundation of sand, maybe not in the particular instance you cited, but nevertheless fraught with contradictions.

  2. Adam Greenwood on July 3, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    The verdict of the God of victories is very similar to the belief in “might makes right” and the voodoo concept of the “big man.”

    Not really.

    And there’s nothing particularly contradictory about believing that God acts in history. Its complicated when you add in a belief that men and angels and devils also act in history so not all outcomes can be ascribed to God. But just because something is complicated doesn’t mean its false.

  3. Adam E. on July 3, 2008 at 1:20 pm


    I think your perspective of God acting in history is interesting.

    Regarding the end of polygamy, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that God worked through a secular, anti-Mormon government (at least many within the government seemed to be anti-) to enact a change in a key policy of the church, rather than acting through God’s own Prophet (without the U.S. government pressure).

    It would be much more convenient to my preconceptions of how God works if Wilfred Woodruff had received a revelation to cease the practice before the U.S. government applied any pressure to the Church. Alternatively, it would be convenient to my preconceptions of God to have the Saints continue to righteously practice polygamy in the face of the threatenings of the U.S. government, and to have God protect the Saints from harm.

    I agree with your conclusion, I think, because the end of polygamy has been a great blessing to our Church, but I’m not at peace with it.

  4. Nate Oman on July 3, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Adam E: I would point out that the Saints actually did actually fight rather tenaciously to hang on to polygamy. The first anti-polygamy law directed toward Mormons was passed in 1862. If one dates the end of polygamy to 1890 (which is not quite right, but not entirely wrong either) then that is about three decades, decades that included mass incarcerations, etc. Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto only when the feds were poised on the brink of complete anhillation of the Mormon community.

  5. Adam Greenwood on July 3, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    I endorse comments #3 and 5. What the hey, also comment #4.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on July 3, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    I realized that we Saints treat the United States’ victory in its struggle with the Saints not just as a setback but as a providential revelation of God’s will through the unfolding of history. We aren’t biding our time to get back to polygamy and our desert kingdom. We’ve embraced Western marriage and America and capitalism and all the rest.

    I suspect you are correct, Adam, at least insofar as American Mormons are concerned. And, as I said in a different context in the thread you linked to, this is something that we can exult in and mourn at the same time. Exult in it, because we’re Americans as well as Mormons (we’re “Mormon-Americans,” as my friend Mike Austin once put it), and hence the rolling forth and development of the American territory and ideology is our rolling forth and development as well. Mourn it, because that rolling forth crushed something that our ancestors believed in and fought and sometimes even died for, something that the absence of which is America’s loss.

  7. BHodges on July 3, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Actually I have pondered the case of polygamy as a possible way of God clarifying temporal constitutional principles, among other things. Thanks for the post, Adam.

  8. Clark on July 3, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    I think the more interesting thing will be what happens once polygamy is inevitably legalized. (Doesn’t anyone actually think it won’t be sometime in the next 20 years?)

    I don’t expect the Church to embrace it. But it seems hard to say it was all about clarifying constitutional principles.

  9. Jim Donaldson on July 3, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    There is a certain schizophrenia in the church’s attitude about government, especially our government. We have always proclaimed our “total” allegiance to the United States government, even in scripture, and have since the beginning. But I think that is mostly because others have always suspected that our loyalties were actually elsewhere, also since the beginning, so our public relations machinery kicked in early. We professed continually our willingness to obey the law of the land while fighting (and disobeying) anti-polygamy laws tooth and nail for 40 years. And don’t forget the armed resistance in Far West to the MIssouri militia, the Nauvoo Legion (what city has an independent army?), and the (very successful) guerilla war against Johnson’s Army. We’ve behaved better since, but somehow all of our assertions of loyalty haven’t made believers of many, especially not us.

    I have never lived in Utah and I don’t know how things are there now, but there were still some serious issues between the state of Utah and the federal government (especially the federal courts) up at least into the 1980s. There was a sense of irrationality about it that made it seem like old battles were still being fought, regardless of the merits of the current fight. And then ten years ago there was the centennial of Utah statehood vs. the susquecentennial of the pioneers entering the valley… which got the biggest party? I love it, but those things make others nervous.

    We have lately tried to be hyper-Americans in an attempt to make our behavior match our rhetoric. And many feel a kind of victory when some journalist remarks that we are the “most American” of religions and that our patriotism is second to none. But at bottom there is some suspicion still. On both sides. I think at least some small chunk of Mitt Romney’s difficulties, at least the ones he couldn’t do much about, are part of this. That suspicion remains. And it probably should. I’m no different from anybody else around here, but if forced to choose between my country and my church, I’m singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints” in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t most of us? I identify myself as a Mormon before an American. It is way fortunate that any choices that have to be made today are small and inconsequential and we can pretty much coexist as both. So far. But if push comes to shove…

    I’m not saying that any of this is bad, just that’s it is not as simple as everybody would like it to be.

  10. Bookslinger on July 3, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Paraphrase: The Lord uses the wicked to punish the wicked.

    That doesn’t mean might makes right.

    Quote: And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.

    Logically speaking, that which an omniscient and omnipotent God doesn’t cause, he allows.

  11. E on July 3, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Very thought-provoking post. I also appreciate your comment, #9. I feel the same way; I am far more loyal to the church than to the United States, and I consider myself a very patriotic person. I have mostly lived in Utah, and an interesting phenomenon to me is the resentment I have occasionally heard from non-LDS regarding July 24 (Pioneer Day) celebrations here. I have repeatedly heard the complaint that the 24th seems to be a bigger holiday than the 4th (not sure if this is actually true, but it might be). Pioneer day is celebrated with parades, fireworks, etc very similar to the 4th. When I hear anyone complain about the July 24th celebrations, my basic thought is along the lines of “you can go take a flying leap.”

  12. James on July 3, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    E. the question to ask anyone complaining in Utah about Pioneer Day parades and celebrations is this. “If you lived in New York or Boston would you be complaining about St. Patrick’s day parades?” Their answer will speak volumes about who they are inside.

  13. Gene O'Grady on July 4, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    If I lived in New York or Boston I expect I would be mortified by much of what went on at a Saint Patrick’s Day parade.

    I’ve always considered that the LDS in Salt Lake were lucky that the Pioneer Day parade was unlikely to occasion that sort of embarrassment.

  14. sam on July 5, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Every time a church president dies, it seems we have a discussion in either SS or priesthood on succession in church government, which is a good thing. But it also seems that every time we do some misguided soul uses the occasion to put down our national government by saying how much better church government is. As a member, I\’m proud of how our church works. But as a citizen, I find this offensive. It\’s comparing apples and oranges. Our country is a democracy which, in theory, works from the bottom up, unlike the church which works from the top down. Yes, our presidential campaigns often are ugly, nasty, even stupid, but the real test is what happens when the election is over: nothing. No riots in the street, no deployment of national guard troops…nothing. The winner prepares to take over, the loser goes off to lick his wounds. Life goes on. And it\’s been this way for way over 200 years, if you don\’t count that little detour in 1861. I would hope that we could resolve to be both good members of the church and good citizens. The church can stand on its own. We don\’t need to belittle our country to try to make it (the church) look better.They both have pretty good track records.

  15. Mr & Mrs Thoughtskoto on July 5, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Just dropping by here, to greet all our American friends especially you Adam and your family a happy independence day! Enjoy this holiday!

  16. Adam Greenwood on July 5, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Thank you, and happy Filipino-American Friendship Day to you.


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