Life on the Fringe

August 8, 2009 | 24 comments
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I’ve seen several links but no discussion of the Slate piece on the hypothetical future role of Mormons, “The Catholic Church helped preserve Roman civilization. Can Mormonism do the same for America?” It’s part of an eight-part series on the theme How is America going to end? by a Slate senior editor.

The nicest feature of the article is probably its references to Orson Scott Card’s collection of stories on post-nuclear Mormons in America, Folk of the Fringe. I read the book four years ago and posted comments about it at DMI. It didn’t make a big impression on me at the time but the stories and images have stuck with me. A straggling group of targeted Mormons trekking across the post-nuke Southwest trying to make it to refuge in Utah; a traveling troupe of roadshow actors presenting patriotic pageants to a string of post-nuke Mormon villages; prayers of the faithful etched on flotsam and jetsam lodged inside the flooded shell of the Salt Lake Temple. You’ll get more out of reading OSC’s book than from reading the Slate essay, I think. Here is the main paragraph from my earlier post on the book.

One can’t help but take some pride in the implicit prediction behind the alternate timeline seen in these stories: America could conceivably fall to pieces in the chaos of a post-nuke society, but the Mormons would still hang together. Yes, that’s a virtue that Mormons have perfected, hanging together through tough times, and I really do think that the Mormon sense of community runs deeper than anyone outside the Church is likely to realize. I have attended LDS services in ten countries and a dozen states, from wards liberally dotted with academics to branches full of peasants, and I always felt welcome. More than that — I always felt like I was at home, and I think I was. I know of no other denomination that has successfully fostered this degree of worldwide community. Bottom line: OSC is not overstating plausibility in the general setting of these stories.

I was going to add a paragraph noting the worst feature of the article, but thought better of it. This is probably the nicest thing about Mormonism that Slate has ever published … why spoil the moment? I liked the comment, paraphrasing Jan Shipps, that “the allure of yesteryear means Mormonism is always 25 to 30 years behind the rest of America.” That might have been true when she wrote her book in 1985; I think it’s more like 40 to 50 years now. It’s this ability to live in both the past and the present that gives Mormonism the stubborn sense of group identity that, according to Slate, makes us the ideal carrier of American core values in the hypothetical apocalyptic future sketched out in the essay. Of course, Mormonism’s view of American core values and Slate’s view of American core values are probably two different things, but the essay didn’t go there.

So, you gun-toting food-storing red-blooded American amazingly cohesive potentially post-nuclear Mormon readers, what did you like (or not) about the essay?

24 Responses to Life on the Fringe

  1. Rob on August 8, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Mormons Abide!

  2. Bob on August 8, 2009 at 11:12 am

    For Slate, I found the essay strangely full of contradictions and folklore. I have no idea what I was suppose take from the article, other than it’s one man’s opinions, with which I don’t agree.

  3. David Bohn on August 8, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Following Mosiah’s injunction, I think Mormons should save America by being out front by defending the persecuted, the downtrodden and the innocent. I think we should be in support of every good cause that seeks peace and goodness, yes in America, but also in the World. I think that we should care for the hungry, reach out to the poor and secure those who suffer illness. Somehow the call to “maximize one’s own self-interest” and “be everything that we can be,” loses sight of what it means to serve one another.

  4. Rachel on August 8, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I was just excited to see Canticle for Leibowitz (my favorite book in high school) and Folk of the Fringe referenced in the same article. Maybe as a Mormon, growing up with the end of the world imminent (although it seems to be getting father away now), so post apocalyptic fiction set in the American west had a lot of resonance. Even Stephen King’s The Stand is in the west (although not Mormon). Stephenie Meyer’s The Host steps into this tradition as well.

  5. Michael Umphrey on August 8, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I’m struck by how widespread apocalyptic narratives have become. Visions of the end of America frequently occur in the popular media. We have the global warming narrative of the end of civilization, the banking collapse narrative of the collapse of the world economy, the Electromagnetic Pulse narrative of the destruction of the electric grid, the Islamic narrative of the final showdown with the Great Satan, and on and on.

    There are so many of them it gets hard to believe they can all be wrong.

    In any case, it’s making the Mormon story make more sense as time goes on and people continue sorting themselves into the available stories.

  6. Tatiana on August 8, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Folk of the Fringe played a large part in my conversion, I now see looking back. I saw something in the book that seemed like the essence of Mormonism, the fact that Latter-day Saints are still civilized when the world has gone crazy, that their civilization comes from inside themselves and is not imposed from the world around them. That the world could come to chaos and destruction, but Mormons would go right along building, making, working, saving and creating positive change, serving others, maintaining their community. It just struck me that I wanted to be a part of that. That it was extremely worthwhile and important. Not just in times of chaos but in all times. I’m so glad that OSC, though his books and through the community he fostered on hatrack river, exposed me to those ideas that made a way for me to find the restored gospel.

  7. Dave on August 8, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks for the comments. Rachel (#4), I read Canticle for Leibowitz when I was an early teen — I think I missed most of what was going on.

    Tatiana (#6), what a wonderful story to associate with the book. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding for an author than to find cases where the author’s book or story has made a positive change or impact on someone’s life.

  8. Bob on August 8, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    #5 & #6: I think Mormonism is about the world coming to an end, not being saved by it?

  9. Kruiser on August 8, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    T&S and other LDS sites spend alot of time talking about the past – what about the future? I bet there is just as much to be said about it. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I believe more in the dreams of the future than of the history of the past.” I am not so much interested in the Second Coming but on how we might get there. Or how do we get from here to half way there? What forms of government work in the interim? I find it curious that the expression, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves,” has been used so much lately. Does it have other applications?

    I liked OSC,s book but thought the post-A saints could have been more optimistic and expansionist. They certainly had the most to offer that world.

  10. queuno on August 8, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    I don’t want to live in a world where the Osmonds are considered the bastions of purity and entertainment. And I think the article indulge in a lot of wishful thinking (a less coordinated church doctrine and policy across the regions). I do think that the Church cares less about the preservation of America as it does the establish of the Lord’s Kingdom worldwide.

  11. Lincoln Cannon on August 9, 2009 at 1:45 am

    The article is insightful, not because the scenario is particularly likely, but because it acknowledges the resilience of the Mormon community and culture. It would have been even more insightful had it acknowledged Mormons’ long-standing embrace of education and technology. Although the Mormons of the future will surely try to maintain old-fashioned values of compassion, honesty and hard work, they will not be fundamentalists. They will be transhumanists. Sure. I’m biased.

  12. Randy R on August 9, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Getting back to the real America, maybe the Mormon’s should first try a shot at building a hospital outside Utah.

  13. john f. on August 10, 2009 at 10:32 am

    I had some nice discussion about the article on my FB page. Here are a couple of my observations from that discussion:

    – Very interesting ideas here, in some sense flattering for Mormons as well — one thing he definitely gets right is the quasi-scriptural status that the Constitution takes on in Mormonism, not to mention that the natural law/rights principles underlying the Declaration of Independence are literally canonized as scripture in Doctrine & Covenants Section 134 (http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/134).

    – The “survivor” aspect of the Slate article was good but it’s also the “Americanness” of Mormonism, which is actually a source of embarassment sometimes to Mormons overseas, and more than 50% of all Mormons live outside the US. This “Americanness” (see D&C 134 for example) is sort of written into the genetic code of Mormonism, so to speak, in how fundamental concepts of “America” — from the Puritans’ zeal to establish a city on a hill (Mormons call this establishing Zion) to Locke’s natural rights triumvirate of life, liberty and property (amended by Jefferson to be life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) as found in D&C134:2 (liberty, life, property) to the general atmosphere of preserving classical liberal values that prevails in Mormon culture — are intertwined with religious doctrine and cultural attitudes within Mormonism.

    [...]

    – A Mormon history will certainly be a Providential history, mind you — it already is, actually. If you read much Mormon history, you’ll see a lot of the hand of Providence in directing certain things in the establishment of America (a common theme with Evangelicals), the establishment of the Church, the migration of Mormons to Salt Lake City, etc.

    [...]

    – The article kind of considered the monks preserving culture concept and rejected it but [it is a good point to note] the interference of the information age with the [article's] comparison to Byzantine Christianity. I think a premise was the collapse of civilization although that was also a muddled concept in the article because if America fades away over the course of 500 to 1,000 years instead of collapsing suddenly due to a cataclysmic event, then you would have entirely different parameters considering the information age. . . .

    [...]

    – the Slate article didn’t really get it right with the bit about capitalism. The mistake was, however, entirely understandable given the enthusiasm for capitalism that is currently expressed by many Mormons — and it is difficult to know what the article means by it. Also, I think many [modern] Mormons would argue that the United Order would function in the context of the free market determining prices, etc. and that the “collectivist” aspects of the United Order would only really show up in the partitioning of “stewardships” based on need. I don’t really think this is true (i.e. I think that if some Mormons think this then they are mistaken) but a perhaps overly zealous attachment to certain strands of capitalism does seem prevelant among many Mormons. At any rate, I am on board with underlying free market principles existing in a United Order setting because I agree that such principles, when correctly emphasized, are conducive to real liberty.

  14. john f. on August 10, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Also, I thought it was interesting that reference was made to Folk of the Fringe.

    Dave, I thought that the Mormons in the story were making their way from the Southeast to Deseret — that story wasn’t set in the Southwest.

    The Slate article also quoted emails from OSC on the topic, which was interesting.

    I think two divergent broad scenarios have to be considered for this topic: (1) the collapse of America due to a cataclysmic event vs. (2) America fading away into replacement political systems/entities over the course of 500 to 1,000 years. The role that the Church could play, I would think, would be very different in each case and the Slate article leans more toward the role the institution and its culture could play in the cataclysmic event scenario.

  15. Ardis Parshall on August 10, 2009 at 11:04 am

    You realize, don’t you, Randy R, that the Church neither owns nor operates any hospitals *in* Utah, and hasn’t done since the years when half the world’s Mormon population lived within Utah?

  16. Kruiser on August 10, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    I liked The Folk of the Fringe because it is a good half way from here to there story. (#9) Of course such scenarios can take many different forms. The main thrust seems to be maintaining civilized life as much as possible in a bad situatiion. I think this can be done in many places throughout the world, and it wouldn’t have to take a majority LDS population in those places to do it. No – no gun-toting and moving to the mountains for me. People just have to get their heads together and decide to stay in town. Here we have a start where we can at least talk about it. I know the implications are enormous, and it is hard to develop a consensus when such calamities are not threatening us. It seems like discussions of this sort are on the psychological fringe. You gotta love that fringe.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 10, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    One of the significant stories collected in Folk of the Fringe was “Pageant Wagon”. Card had been asked to revise and update the HIll Cumorah Pageant script, and his thinking about the role such pageants have in giving a community a common understanding of history is played out in the story, almost the only background in the whole compilation about the events that led up to the demise of the United States government.

    The story “West” concerns a group of Mormons from Card’s own home state in North Carolina, reflecting the ethnic and racial diversity of that area, making their way to safety in the new Mormon republic. It shows how the sense of ethnic or national identity are incipient within the Church, able to emerge when other grounds for identity are lost.

    The story “Salvage” describes a radically transformed physical Utah, where Lake Bonneville has returned to fill up the valleys along the Wasatch Front, forcing the people to engage in a complex, long term project to make the desert productive, requiring intense cooperation among the surviving Saints. The protagonist pursues rumors of treasure within the walls of the Salt Lake Temple, its spires just above the water of the new lake, and finds a spiritual rather than financial salvation is the true treasure of the Mormon community.

    In the award-winning story “America”, the dissolution of the United States allows a resurgence in “Native American” populations, including the people of Latin America who have mixed with indigenous populations. The scattered tribes and communities with roots in pre-Columbian populations is able to unite around a new definition of “American” identity, reified in a leader born of a virgin, reasserting sovereignty and ownership of the continents, pushing people of European descent to return to their continent of origin, while tolerating a Mormon republic that is seen as fulfilling prophecies of Gentile support for native peoples.

    Clearly, Card’s vision in Folk of the Fringe is about survival of the Mormon community, but there is only incidental survival of US traditions and institutions.

    The fact is that there is a tradition of science fiction writing about a post-apocalyptic future in which Mormon communities manage to survive, including stories by Heinlein (Mormons are a pocket of resistance to a televangelist tyranny) and Niven and Pournelle (“The Gripping Hand”) and Turtledove.

    The Mormons are a sci-fi concept become real, a community of millions who live in an alternate reality where angelic beings and “super powers” of perception are real. Zenna Henderson clearly drew on her Mormon background to envision The People, shipwrecked on earth as refugees from an Edenic planet now lost, who are persecuted by the intolerant, and who have special talents beyond the ken of ordinary people.

  18. symphonyofdissent on August 12, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I wrote a pretty long post analyzing this article:

    http://symphonyofdissent.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/mormons-and-the-end-of-america/

    I thought it was great to see an article now in the mainstream press focusing on positive aspects of our faith. I did think that there were quite a few stereotypes that may not be so accurate, but overall I was thrilled to see that kind of coverage

  19. Velska on August 12, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Gotta come back to this.

    I was amused how much they relied on UTLM as their source. UTLM is not rated that high as anti-mormon publishers go…

    Nevertheless, I was happy that they talked up Folk of The Fringe. One of my favorites, which I read — again — this past spring, when something reminded me of it.

    Of course, Americans talk about America (or USA to be exact!), but there are plenty of saints outside USA and Canada. They are also likely to be the ones, who will keep civilization together, when something puts an inordinate stress on it.

    Who else would do it? Not those people, who give in to unbridled hedonism…

    For what it’s worth, I’d like to remind Americans and all other patriots that all worldly governments will eventually fail before the ushering in of the Millennium. All is all. Perhaps the chaos will not last so very long, but it will be there.

  20. The Celestial Heretic on August 12, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I love post-apocalyptic stories, but I hadn’t heard of Folk of the Fringe before. I had better check it out.

    I’m not sure that I agree with the idea of Mormonism as a time capsule. We’ve changed so much since our early beginnings. I wonder if Utah Mormon culture 100 years hence will even be recognizable to us.

  21. Bart Mortensen on August 13, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Frankly, I really worry about the future of our own system of government. As I watch the incivility that is taking place in our towns and cities, the outright lies of corporate America, who stand to gain $$$ with the status quo, the shrillness of voices—-it’s all very scary to me. And the LDS culture as a whole does not seem to be a “leavening” agent at all. Glen Beck, for one, could be doing so much to bring civility to the world and yet he throws kerosene around as though the fire needs stoking. Our LDS culture is also so caught up in the partisanship of ideas, that discourse and thinking flies right out the window. It is truly sad.

  22. Kruiser on August 13, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Can anything be gleaned from history about the purpose for events and institutions? Take the Roman Empire for example. As has been mentioned here, its influence carried on after it existed. Just as important, it made possible the spread of Christianity in the Mediteranean basin and beyond through the order and infrastructure it maintained. Even though the Romans opposed Christianity and the early Christians hated Rome, the Word was spread and preserved with the help of the Roman Imperial system. Strange how a remote Latin village could produce enough aggressive men and women, throughout the centuries, to build, against all odds, such an empire.

    Other purposes of history could abound such as, why America? I will leave that aside for others. Speaking on a smaller scale, can small events be a pattern for other happenings? As Mark Twain said, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” I think of the Zionist movement which brought together diverse people from around the world to create, against all odds, the modern Jewish state. Do we have, or could we produce something that rhymes with Zionism? One important difference would be that Jewish Zionism was exclusive to the Jewish people, but our Zionism would be all-inclusive. Our message is for everybody.

    The Folk of the Fringe is a Zionist story, like it or not. All the elements are there. A promised land, so to speak. People moving there to avoid persecution. A sense of purpose and continuity. Much detail is left out of the book, but all the more interesting for us to fill it in. Check out the Leon Uris novels (Exodus, Mila 18, Mitla Pass, The Haj) and get some ideas. Perhaps OSC will become our Leon Uris.

  23. Kruiser on August 16, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Yes, ideas from Leon Uris novels, what could that mean? These are exiting stories and a bit more heroic than the actual events they portray. With strong, silent, and cynical heroes they have all the ingredients for good sales. The Folk of the Fringe certainly rhymes with Uris’ Exodus. Most importantly for me, Uris spends time explaining how the movement to create a Jewish state got started and how it evolved through time. Here was a people trying to get something, not sure if they would, and not sure of how to do it. Yet they persisted by concentrating on the future. Likewise, LatterDaySaints who want to could make the future a part of their agenda. All we need do is talk about it like we do here. We need not go out looking for promised lands, predicting the future, or emphasizing material preparation. Psychological preparation is what I would call it. Whether what we do would be pre-Apocalyptic, post-Apolcalyptic, or no Apocalyptic, the immediate future would be our focus. We could start by developing a better sense of humor. That is one thing that can always be improved.

  24. Kruiser on August 18, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    We really need to get funny here. Won’t someone come and knock me off the pedestal? That should be good for a laugh. Who ever writes three comments in a row? OK I will finish with this one.

    Now we enter the world of perplexity. Perplexity, that is a word found in scripture somewhere – probably just once I think in D&C 88:78-80. My my, all those things it talks about, and I thought it was all supposed to be so simple. For sure, the bloggernacle has given us plenty of perplexity. I suppose what I have talked about suggests perplexity. Who could fail to notice the problems? The foibles of human nature, greed, factionalism, miscommunication, perfectionism, elitism, intrigue, failed expectations, and who knows what else? On the up side, what can I say? Empowerment, creativity, reliability, consensus, all of which has to be developed with effort. If we are to govern ourselves in this sense, we will have to take a new look at democracy. I sympathize with what Bart Mortensen (#21) said about the partisanship of ideas. We LatterDaySaints should do better, but we will only do so, like everybody else, if we practice at it democratically. We don’t have much chance to do that except in Utah I suppose. Maybe we can find more ways to practice. I know some will say that it will not unfold that way. That is OK. Tell me about it.

    In any case, this is all just specualtion. Who knows what will come or when? I like to think and talk about it.