Harold Bloom’s recent NY Times article on Mormonism & politics was tremendously disappointing. The sheer volume of poorly (or dishonestly) researched writing on Mormonism this season is exhausting; and to get this sort of long worn-out, conspiracy minded expression of clichés from someone as well educated as Bloom is downright disheartening (though to be fair, we’ve gotten a good deal of serious journalism as well).
But I’m actually not much interested in that side of Bloom’s article. Let me quickly bring up two other points from the article.
First, Bloom states this:
The founding prophet Joseph Smith[’s]…highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.
We could take note here – it’s a succinct and accurate response to those who criticize us in this vein.
Next, I’d like to use Bloom as a way into a much more worrisome point – that is, a point that I worry a good deal about. He writes:
However, should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor. The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy.
The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage.
I recall prophesying in 1992 that by 2020 Mormonism could become the dominant religion of the western United States. But we are not going to see that large a transformation. I went wrong because the last two decades have witnessed the deliberate dwindling of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into just one more Protestant sect.
What worries me is not that I think he gets this particularly correct – especially the intentional blurring of the economic and theological potentates of SLC. What worries me is that I see a consensus among the (admittedly few) very smart non-Mormon (and some Mormon) observers concerning not just significant changes in Mormonism (which would hardly be surprising and is quite apparent to all of us), but the positing of a significant break, a lack of continuity between Joseph Smith and Thomas S. Monson, coupled with the claim that we are very quickly (in a matter of a few decades) becoming virtually indistinguishable from the host of Protestant sects today. It’s an anxious worry because, first of all, it’s quite plausible; and the precedence of the Community of Christ, for example, is rather close to home. But second, I think the Harold Blooms and the Jan Shipps and the Noah Feldmans and others are dead wrong on this point; more relevantly, I want them to be wrong. An educated consensus on the point is a stubborn thing, however, it forces me to consider the probability of a significant blindspot in my own vision.
And wrestling with this point, for me, is far more difficult than wrestling with, say, the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the racism of past leaders.
By way of response, I’m going to offer three reasons why I think the Mormons-have-gone-institutional-Protestant is simply wrong (i.e., why outsiders have genuinely missed something), together with a prominent possibility that may be a fourth reason. Then I’m going to try and explain why I think it’s so critical that we do maintain a distinction; that is, I want to (very briefly) articulate what I think is, at the meta-level, responsible for our distinctiveness and part of why it would be a tragedy should we apostatize from the Restoration.
First the reasons why I think we are currently and perhaps inexorably not on a path to Protestantism:
- Distinctive and blatantly anti-traditional Christian doctrines. There’s no softening of our theological narrative concerning the history of Christianity. There’s no movement on the trinity. The possibility of future scripture (e.g., whether we’ll canonize the Proclamation) is one of our favorite conversations – and all of us attend General Conference hoping we’ll hear something really new and exciting (1978 and 1998 met thunderous applause from the ranks). Perhaps most significant of course is The Book of Mormon. Emphasis and scholarship on this book proliferates, as do translations, publications, and the myriad of ways we take it up culturally (colloquial speech, names, common knowledge passages, Deseret Book ketch, and all the rest). We’re not exactly shying away from our Egyptian texts, inspired translations, and other unique scriptures either. But also significant are our doctrines concerning embodiment, eternal progression, the lack of hell, and even the darned location of the Garden of Eden. It’s all still discussed in General Conference, written in our manuals, taught in CES classes, and many of these unique doctrines still play prominent roles in our conversion stories. What’s more, most of our current apostles would’ve been raised in homes where the truly distinct kinds of Mormon doctrine and practice were the essence of normal spiritual life. We have and maintain a unique cosmology, and it remains the content of our pedagogy.
- Joseph Smith. Feldman’s article during the 2008 election campaign is the antithesis of Bloom’s lazy drek. Nevertheless, he comes to much the same conclusion concerning the fact that Mormonism has gone a long way toward becoming a decent and viable [read: Protestant] religion. He argued that the final step needed was for us to more completely distance ourselves from our early days, and especially Joseph Smith. It was shortly after I read the article that the church announced that for the next two years we would be reading the words of Joseph Smith in our Presidents of the Church series. This was followed soon thereafter with the Joseph Smith Papers publicity – undoubtedly the most important scholarly work undertaken by the Church, and one that clearly strengthens the bond between us and Brother Joseph, even as it shapes our people in new ways. The timing was for me a significant “tender mercy.” The church is facilitating and actively nourishing both our theological and scholarly connection to our history generally, and to Joseph Smith particularly.
- Temples. I find it very interesting that Pres. Hinckley, who surely did as much or more than anyone else to tack our ship toward Protestantism, is also the one who – perhaps irrevocably – kept us out of the good ‘ol boys club of Christendom by tripling the number of our temples and putting in place the institutional mechanisms for sustained temple growth. This includes our ever-growing attachment and practices with regard to genealogy. It’s almost as if there was a Benson-Hunter-Hinckley conspiracy to ensure our distinctiveness even while we work doggedly to appear to the public like we’re just another normal sect. Clearly tacking toward is not the same as sailing toward Protestantism. The temple will remain the center of our worship and connection to God and history and a wedge between Protestants and us.
- Growing ties with Islam and Judaism. This one is the possibility as opposed to the already accomplished. Our ecumenical spirit of late has not been limited to Christian groups. While much of the world nurses a knee-jerk reaction to Islam, and while anti-Semitism continues to flourish, Mormons are actively reaching out and partnering with the other “Abrahamic traditions” at all levels. Should we continue to do so, I think it inevitable that we will recognize and appreciate, reflected in these other traditions, those aspects of our own religion that simply do not square with Protestantism.
Now let me try and say what I think is at the “core” of Mormonism, that which, should we abandon, we will have clearly abandoned our dispensation, irregardless of whether current doctrines, practices, or institutional organization give us a more or less Protestant physiognomy. Mormonism carves out a distinct position with regard to the epic theological battles waged in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Polytheism vs. Monotheism, Priestly vs. Rabbinic Judaism, Esotericism vs. Exotericism, and Orthodox vs. Reformation Christianity. It’s easy to look at these battles and conclude that Mormonism takes a middle-ground approach. But far from being a spew-worthy, lukewarm reaction, Mormonism works out a distinctive way of framing the theological battles themselves so that, far from being pitted against one another, the polar ends of the warring dichotomies actually become the cherished aspects of a unified tradition.
Now to do justice to my claim I would need to set up the frameworks involved in each of these epic battles and show how Mormonism reframes each one. But for now at least, I’m going to leave that up to your imagination – this is, after all, only a blog post and I’ve waxed long-winded enough. Fortunately, I suspect many of you are already familiar with how this looks (with regard to Orthodox and Reformation Christianity if not the others). In closing I want to simply point out that Mormonism’s reframing of these debates both distinguishes and unites us to theological history and provides us with a narrative framework within which the Restoration unfolds—our unique framework is critical to both our identity and our raison d’etre.
I believe that this is our critical “core.” So on the one hand, as long as we maintain our framework, reinterpreting the way one ought to understand the stakes of the major battles in the Judeo-Christian tradition, then it doesn’t much matter if we superficially appear more Protestant. On the other hand, it’s difficult to ignore the collective weight of substantive institutional shifts and their accompanying shifts in doctrinal emphasis.
This is where the worry of a blindspot comes in. Transformations resulting in General Authorities functioning no differently than a General Church Board as opposed to functioning as Prophets, Seers and Revelators; emphasizing church institution and activity over peoplehood; exalting the exoteric and sweeping the esoteric into the dustbin of our history; electing a Christian Jesus in a fit of ecumenical zeal rather than testifying of a brother appointed as our Messiah; these kinds of trends are capable of combining in such a way as to transforms us from our Restoration alternative – an alternative I believe in, heart and soul – into merely another, if somewhat eccentric, Protestant faith. Maybe, as several perspicacious observers have claimed, we already have and I just can’t see it.
But again, for at least the reasons outlined above, I don’t think so. Nor do I think the Lord or his prophets want us to. Nevertheless, as we know from our own narrative account of history, the Lord and his prophets are constrained by what the people are willing to accept and do. God won’t ultimately stop us from abandoning the Restoration if we elect to do so. It’s my hope that we’ll all resist a collapse into Protestantism. As I see it, the best way to do this is by following the lead of the prophets and presidents who stand at the head of the Church and Kingdom of God, emphasizing the Restoration and teachings of Joseph Smith, the accompanying scripture, and the temple practices and covenants designed to make us a people of God.
 He openly, blatantly delivers not arguments but personal prejudices and preferences, wrapped in self-indulgent, well-turned phrases, and does so while setting himself up in stereotypical fashion as the ivory tower guru – one who knows what only can be known by those who have fully immersed their toes in the cold waters of religion (he did after all, spend two years “wandering” about the Southwest). It sounds almost as if Bloom has read all of the glowing praise and seen how often we quote his short passage on Mormonism and Joseph Smith’s genius, and was annoyed, and so decided to publicly pat Chris Hitchins on the back over the mutual joke of Mormonism.
 It’s analogous to the way Brother Eyring, far from taking a “middle road” in the Darwin vs. the Bible debate, instead became a faithful, biblically religious, Darwinian scientist. Building off of earlier intellectuals in the church, his theological and scientific understanding was a reframing of the debate, such that he didn’t need to abandon the core of either position, but instead made them complimentary pillars in his overall understanding.
 That is, if we interpret the stakes in such a way that we maintain an equal and complimentary allegiance to both God and Gods, both scripture and priestly practice, both prophets and institution, both hierarchy/mediacy and democracy/immediacy, both individual and community, both faith and works, then continual evolutions in structure and emphasis don’t much matter.