Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
Mormons of La Mancha
01/16/2018Posted by on
I spend a decent amount of my time observing Mormons, most recently the drama that has followed Russell Nelson’s accession at the head of the First Presidency and appointment of Dallin Oaks as First Counselor, and Dieter Uchtdorf’s release from the same body. Uchtdorf is perceived as a “liberal” – an especially loaded term in deep-red Utah – and a leader committed to a compassion first attitude. Oaks is literally a lawyer and has a reputation for being conservative and legalistic. And in this melodrama, Mormons are teaching us despite themselves something important about America.
Actually, drama may be too severe of a word. See, Mormons, at least on Twitter don’t get mad and swear – they get sad and talk about how heartsick they are. It’s a very restrained form of culture war between factions that the winning, conservative, side has mostly pretended doesn’t exist. It’s a very false sort of civility but one that in these trying times I take comfort in as I observe one of my favored subjects. Despite being a nevermo (never having been a Mormon) I’m familiar with them through my oldest surviving friendship. My best man was and is a Mormon and through him and a long study of American religion I’ve fallen a little in love with the quirkiness of the culture and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints itself. Like all religions and people worth knowing, they’re weird. Weird in a particular and often deliberate sort of way – a setting apart.
Mormons, everyone agrees, is a profoundly American faith. They are led by a President of the Church and his two counselors (vice presidents), and then a 12 member body called the Quorum of Twelve that everyone compares to the College of Cardinals but is really more like a board of directors. Then there are a series of quorums and regional presidencies and ranks of priesthood all the way down to the bottom where two 19 year olds with black ties, white shirts and bycicle helmets come to introduce you to the Book of Mormon. There is obsessive invocation of keeping the sabbath as a special day for God and family, the valorization of the nuclear family, modesty, modesty, modesty, and of course the prudishness about cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine and other drugs. Eden lies in America in Mormon belief, literally (if unimportantly) in Missouri, more figuratively and imminently in a 1950s America that never was. And that is where the magic is. Not in the undergarments, but in how Mormons form their counter-culture.
Most American cultural conservatives wind up somewhere in the 1950s, where men could be men and women were women and there were no divisive politics. And that’s all problematic for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is that any responsibility of men in this vision is accessory to the privileges of the moment. When European men first started writing about the downfall of chivalry, they were writing about a time when rich, well armed thugs raped and pillaged their way through whatever they felt like, and oh yeah, something about how you’re supposed to write your love letters and the conditions under which you may stab someone of equal rank. Thuggery was reality, and chilvary is the dressing. The 1950s were a time of nuclear terror and systematic discrimination – Leave it to Beaver is the dressing. But just as Don Quixote bought into the fiction of chivalric Spain, Mormons aren’t selling us a fiction to get back to history. They’re trying to get back to the fiction. A bowderdized 1950s America, where the men don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t smoke, and don’t cheat. Good fathers and kind husbands. Women who are pure and kept away from the uncleanliness of politics, which itself has been stripped clean of all personal ambition. That vain hope echoes as Mormons struggle against each other and accuse one another of bringing in politics to the mere choosing of an ecclesiastic and administrative head of their church. As they pretend that any twelve men, however holy, could be in perfect accord without distinction and meaningful disagreement. That Mormons, alone among cultures, can be without faction but the good and the self-aware bad.
Mormonism, like all Christianities worth examining, is riven by the great paradox of believing in man’s inherent sinfulness, created in the image of God. Their solution is not mine, but it is beautiful in its own way. They exist not merely to perpetuate, but to instantiate a myth of America. A mere story. But what can a nation built on an idea be but a story that we choose to instantiate. And the Mormons have chosen to see the American story where men and women structure their lives to be pure, good, and full of joy. If I don’t believe in their version, I should still be trying to do them one better.