Friday, January 4, 2013

The Mormon Moment and the Everlasting Prophecy

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Six
Stephen Mansfield, The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture

A faith with only seven million American members, and another seven million internationally, seems unlikely to sway world affairs. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, in one century, gone from fringe sect to secular and spiritual powerhouse, steering national and global policy. Newsweek calls this America’s “Mormon moment.” But Stephen Mansfield repositions Mormonism as a quintessentially American movement facing a 21st Century trial.

Outsiders question Mormonism based on outliers and extreme beliefs. The Protestant fixation on Temple underwear, polygamy, and Joseph Smith’s strange appetites has colored how the larger world sees the faith for nearly 200 years. Yet Mormons themselves think these small tea in their larger faith story. To them, that resembles judging Christianity by the Inquisition, or Islam by the Great Jihad, a fixation on the past that obscures the beauty of the present.

To Mormons themselves, their faith stands on a direct, personal experience with God. Where Protestant churches have grown calcified in struggles over doctrine and orthodoxy, Latter-day Saints perceive God as a constant presence who addresses the human heart directly. This may seem on the surface like Pentecostalism. But where God, to Protestants, speaks with continuity, building on established revelation, to Mormons, God always renews and reinvents His word.

Thus, one of Mormonism’s most important tenets serves only to confuse outsiders. Mormons have no creed, no theology, no professional clergy. Instead, God speaks into every believer’s heart, constantly improving his revelation. When old revelation proves inadequate, new revelation may simply replace it: polygamy was first forbidden, then permitted, then required, and since 1890, forbidden again. Thus judging Mormonism by its history proves confounding at best.

Yet that history requires judgment in modern light. Joseph Smith, the faith’s founding prophet, emerged from a series of occult experiences and a reputation on the shady side of legality. He propounded a new scripture based on hidden plates that others may have seen, or may have had approved divinely, or may have never seen at all—documents disagree. And he had a propensity for new revelations that confirmed him, personally, as sole divine interlocutor.

Smith’s scripture posited Jews colonizing America twice, most recently around 600 BCE. This history proved tenable in the 19th Century because, like his theology, it accorded with popular ideas of the time. But his scriptural history has proven immune to archaeological evidence, linguistic verification, or genotyping; Mormon scientists tasked with corroborating Smith’s history have come away frustrated, though hopeful of new future evidence.

Such empirical challenges little bother true believers, since topography and genetics seem far away. Today’s Mormons perceive God very close, a perception reinforced by the fact that Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, bequeathed the faith a spirituality and organization that speak to unfolding material needs. Where “gentile” churches often feel fossilized, even to their firmest adherents, the LDS Church remains alive to a changing world.

Because Mormon spirituality manifests in concrete ways—fasting, mission, education, law—believers share a slate of experience that binds them to one another beyond “mere” shared belief. And because it emphasizes direct personal experience with God, not one mediated through clergy, it speaks to many converts’ thirst for spirituality. This is emphasized by the lack of codified theology, which makes mainstreaming into the established Church easy.

Mormons’ love of history, education, and genealogy give them a mutual identity. Events like the expulsions from Missouri and Illinois, religiously motivated persecutions in the mid-19th Century, and the federal invasion of Utah, feel very close to modern Mormons. Mutual tribulations bind generations in ways the well-heeled mainstream lacks. Thus the Saints, like Jews and Muslims, share something that most American Protestants lack: a sense of themselves as a people.

This spirituality, this identity, and a spirituality based on striving to emulate God on earth, result in a faith noted as much for its earthly success as for its beliefs. Though the Mormon leadership would minimize this aspect, the fact remains that LDS spirituality translates directly into secular prosperity. Mormons don’t bank on “pie in the sky when you die;” they see rewards for their piety unfold, immediately, before their eyes.

Mansfield documents the Church’s ascendence from an outsider’s perspective. Its influence, disproportionate to its size and beleaguered history, makes the Church a timely topic. Outsiders’ common mistakes make the faith terra incognita to those most influenced by Mormon power and wealth. And the challenges it will face in coming years will impact nearly everyone. Mansfield’s primer prepares believers and doubters alike for the coming upheaval.

Also by this author:
Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Mansfield, and the Spirits of the Age

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