See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Mormons of La Mancha

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.


5 responses to “Mormons of La Mancha

  1. Christopher Henne 01/16/2018 at 21:40

    A comment regarding the idea that the Quorum of the 12 is always unanimous. They are always unanimous by the time an official statement or decision is made but this can take time and they have been transparent with their process of achieving such unanimity.

    Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve related an experience common in meetings of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. He said that a proposal was brought to a meeting, and the president of the quorum at the time, President Howard W. Hunter (1907–1995), said, “This is so critically important [that] I would like to hear the feeling of each member of the Twelve independently about this proposal.”

    Elder Scott remembered, “We were going around the circle giving our feelings: ‘I think that’s all right; seems all right to me.’ [Then] it came to one of the members of the Twelve, and … he said, ‘I don’t know why; I can’t put my finger on any specific thing that I don’t feel good about, anything that I’d change, but I think we’re about ready to commit a disaster.’” Elder Scott said that this one comment stopped the discussion. He remembered that when the same item came up on the agenda at the next meeting, President Hunter looked around the room. No one said anything. Then President Hunter wisely said, “I see there’s still unsettled feelings about this; we’re not going to make a decision today.”

    Elder Scott continued, “Now that’s the way I think the Lord wants us to relate to each other—to not force things, not be in such a hurry … , but to truly let the Spirit guide, and sometimes that takes time. But it’s better to make the right decision guided by the Spirit than make one that meets a time schedule or to check off an agenda item.”

    The calling of 15 men to the holy apostleship provides great protection for us as members of the Church. Why? Because decisions of these leaders must be unanimous.13 Can you imagine how the Spirit needs to move upon 15 men to bring about unanimity? These 15 men have varied educational and professional backgrounds, with differing opinions about many things. Trust me! These 15 men—prophets, seers, and revelators—know what the will of the Lord is when unanimity is reached! They are committed to see that the Lord’s will truly will be done. The Lord’s Prayer provides the pattern for each of these 15 men when they pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”14

    The Apostle with the longest seniority in the office of Apostle presides.15 That system of seniority will usually bring older men to the office of President of the Church.16 It provides continuity, seasoned maturity, experience, and extensive preparation, as guided by the Lord.

    I would not say that we as members of the church pretend culturally that the Apostles operate under the idea of unanimity. We fervently believe as a matter of doctrine that they operate under divine guidance, which ultimately results in unanimity as a requirement.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Christopher Henne 01/16/2018 at 21:18

    I prefer the terms “friend of the church”, “dry Mormon”, or my wife’s favorite, “notyetmo”. Never say never! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. christianhendriks 01/16/2018 at 21:11

    Would you recommend any Mormon blogs or Twitter accounts?


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