Fulfilling the promise of the gospel requires embodying it in concrete and active living, in a particular time and place. Since living the gospel is a social matter, this means embodying it in institutions, with design, policies, and practices that reflect and serve gospel ideals. There are particular challenges to doing this in the conditions the church finds itself in today. In this post, I continue developing the themes from Part I and Part II, considering the situation of the church in the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an international, even global church. Still, its founding, much of its history, and the lives of a very large number of its members, have unfolded in or just outside of the United States.
Seeing the radical social implications of the gospel, after founding the church, Joseph Smith quickly laid plans to found cities. The Saints’ efforts to embody their beliefs in the form of a distinctive society in Missouri and Illinois met with such resistance that they were ultimately expelled from the borders of the United States. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, however, they continued the project of building Zion in Deseret, located in what at the time was Mexico. The Saints thus had the opportunity to build their own institutions, not just for the church narrowly understood, but for a complete society, including government, education, and economic life.
Since Deseret became part of the United States, however (Utah), the Saints have been forced to accept and participate more and more fully in institutions whose roots are not Mormon and that frequently do not reflect or in some cases even accommodate Mormon beliefs and values. Unable to implement our own vision, and in some cases punished or intimidated for it, we have retreated nearly across the board to a far more limited conception of the gospel and its implications. We sometimes act as though outside the walls of our chapels and homes, the gospel’s implications are limited to such incidentals as our choice of beverage.
Of course, many of the ideals that structure American life, at least in its better moments, have significant affinity with LDS principles. Mormons believe in individual freedom and responsibility, and in the dignity and worth of all human beings. The Book of Mormon affirms democratic forms of government, and the contemporary Church runs by the principle of common consent. We are explicitly pluralistic in our theology and affirm the need for religious freedom. We believe that the U.S. Constitution displays a measure of divine inspiration.
Given these affinities, perhaps it is appropriate that to a large extent Mormons feel at home in the larger streams of American social, economic and political life and do not feel the need to develop a different approach of their own. I am not sure that the external forms of Mormon life in Deseret were always a more complete embodiment of Mormon ideals than the forms it takes today, in an era of partial assimilation. American institutions reflect Mormon aspirations for a harmonious society to a quite large extent, and probably better than in any other society on earth today (though there is room for debate here).
However, the fact is that we need to renew our efforts in developing our own ways to socially embody the gospel, for several reasons. First, we need to choose wisely among what is available from non-Mormon sources in the U.S. There are many tendencies and even explicit ideals present in U.S. social and political life with which we should not be satisfied, and some we should proactively resist, such as materialism, atomistic forms of individualism and nationalism, and moral subjectivism. We remain under the injunction to be the salt of the earth, and we must not lose our distinctive flavor, or our independent sense of our standards.
Second, the American project is still a work in progress. There is much room for improvement in meeting current challenges, and we must also face new ones, which call for new solutions from one year to the next. We must work in concert with our fellow citizens, but Mormons must be active participants and sometimes leaders, to successfully address these challenges. In keeping with the role of leaven, there will be ways in which we contribute elements that no one else can, for the improvement or even transformation of the whole loaf.
In my view, there is nothing in Mormonism that is fundamentally in tension with the project of America. The principles of democracy, freedom of religion, and the rule of law articulated in the Book of Mormon sound eerily American. In many ways, I would argue that Mormonism embodies the spirit of America more than any other religious tradition, not least in its deep pluralism (as discussed, for example, in this post, and this post). This should not be surprising, given its roots in the early days of the Republic. Hence I would like to think that Mormon contributions to the American experiment will tend to be received quite well and valued by our fellow-citizens.
At times, we may be able to articulate or instantiate the American vision more faithfully than anyone else can. Despite various flaws in other aspects of his campaign, Mitt Romney’s position on religious freedom, expressed in his speech on “Faith in America” during the 2008 presidential race, was arguably the most faithful to the American moral and political tradition of any of the candidates, as well as being the most natural position for him to take as a Mormon. Part of what will allow us to advance the project of America will be to listen to our own unique perspective, not merely to follow others. Obviously, though, not everyone agrees on what the American project is. Some of what I regard as an aberration, someone else may see as part of its essence, and vice versa. The ongoing struggle to define and develop America is arguably an integral part of the project, and we should not shrink from participating in that struggle, but embrace it with hope and goodwill.
Third, while the institutional and cultural center of gravity of the Church is in the United States, the Church is a global organization with global goals. A majority of baptized Mormons now live outside the United States, and they need to both participate in and shape their societies in their own way, based on the principles of the gospel. They cannot rely on a mere transfer of American political thought, which would often be of limited relevance to their context anyway.
When the Saints stopped gathering to Utah, we did not cease gathering to Zion. This means that we must pursue the ideals of Zion throughout the world. As we do so, we will find many ways in which patterns, policies, and practices worked out in one context need to be adjusted and revised, and even suspended or replaced in other cases. We need to apply the simplicity of the gospel message to the manifold circumstances and cultures in which human beings build their lives. All human beings are our spiritual brothers and sisters, and as Mormons we cannot afford to be spiritual isolationists. We need to affirm what they have that is good, and add something new.
For now, perhaps this will suffice for outlining the expansive context in which I want to think about Mormon (intellectual) culture. In future posts I will turn more directly to matters of intellectual ecology and of institutions and initiatives that support it.