Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Mormon "Christian Nation"

As many of you know, my final project for graduate school attempted to apply Benedict Anderson's concept of nationalism -- the imagined community -- to those who advocate in favor of an American "Christian Nation." During the course of my research I found myself focusing primarily on Evangelical/Fundamentalist sources -- David Barton, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy and the like. However, I also attempted to incorporate other sources from Catholic, Mormon and even Jewish writers who were also apologists for the Christian Nation thesis. And while many if not all of these creeds hold to some of the same common themes in defending Christian nationalism, I couldn't help but notice some of the fundamental differences in how each specific religion chose to construct their ideas for American providentialism and Christian nationalism.

Such is the case with the Mormon Church -- officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While it is true that many Mormons accept and even embrace the traditional "Christian Nation" argument, there are some interesting and unique attributes to the Mormon "imagined community" that are not shared by their fellow Christian nation apologists.

To help illustrate my point I will turn to Ezra Taft Benson. Benson, who served as the Secretary of Agriculture under the Eisenhower Administration, was also the 13th president of the Mormon Church. During that time -- and the time he served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles -- Benson was a passionate and vocal advocate for American providentialism and political conservatism (you can see what I mean by clicking here and hearing him vehemently condemn communism and socialism).

In a sermon given in July of 1973, Benson echoes some of the typical sentiments that have come to define Christian Nationalism:
As American citizens...we need to rouse ourselves to the problems which confront us as a great Christian nation. We must recognize that these fundamental, basic principles—moral and spiritual—lay at the very foundation of our past achievements. To continue to enjoy present blessings, we must return to these basic and fundamental principles. Economics and morals are both part of one inseparable body of truth. They must be in harmony. We need to square our actions with these eternal verities.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands firm in support of the great spiritual and moral principles which have been the basic traditions of the free world. We oppose every evil effort to downgrade or challenge the eternal verities which have undergirded civilization from the beginning.
This belief that America has lost its way and is in desperate need to return to its moral roots is one of the fundamental beliefs that virtually all Christian Nation advocates adhere to. In this respect, the Mormon Christian Nation does not appear to be all that different than that of many Protestants and Evangelicals. However, the specifics of Mormon American providentialism do not stop there.

In a popular sermon entitled, "This Nation Shall Endure" Benson points out how specific components of Mormon doctrine are fundamentally embedded in American providentialism:

When I contemplate the great events that have transpired here [America], going way back to the days when our first parents were placed in the Garden of Eden, and recall that this garden was here in America, that it was here also where Adam met with a body of great high priests at Adam-ondi-Ahman shortly before his death and gave them his final blessing, and that to that same spot he is to return again to meet with the leaders of his people, his children--when I contemplate, my brothers and sisters, that here in this land will be established the New Jerusalem, that here in this land will Zion be built--when I contemplate that prophets of God anciently served here in this land, and that the resurrected Christ appeared to them--and when I contemplate that the greatest of all visions, the coming of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, to the boy Prophet in our day, took place in this land, my heart fills with gratitude that I am privileged to live here, and that I have the honor and pleasure not only of serving in the Church but also of serving in the government of this great land. I consider it an honor and a privilege.
Now, before we go any further, this quotation merits some additional explanation. It is important for us to recognize that many components of Mormon doctrine rests upon American providentialism. The notion that America is a land set apart does not begin with the Founding Fathers or the Mayflower, but in fact goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. As Benson states above, Mormon doctrine teaches that the Garden of Eden was actually located on the American continent -- Missouri to be exact. In addition, the Mormon Christian Nation does not end with the rapture/second coming/end of the word/whatever you wanna call it. As Benson states above, Mormon doctrine teaches that a "New Jerusalem" will be built on the American continent -- again, Missouri to be exact -- at some point after the return of Jesus Christ (reference Article 10 of the Mormon 13 Articles of Faith).

So, as noted above, the Mormon concept of American providentialism and the "Christian Nation" diverts quite a bit from its Evangelical counterparts. While both sides are likely to share in the belief that Christian teachings helped to inspire the early founders, Mormon doctrine teaches that America's providential destiny is rooted in the ancient past and will continue past the end of days.

Another important component to the Mormon Christian Nation can be found in The Book of Mormon. As most already know, The Book of Mormon is allegedly a record of the ancient inhabitants of the American continent and their dealings with God. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that he found the record via divine intervention and was able to translate it by the gift and power of God. The record itself is saturated with Christian language and teachings that advocate for Christian beliefs to be at the center of life.

In one particular chapter of The Book of Mormon we can see first hand just how powerful and important American providentialism really is. A man named Nephi, one of the Book of Mormon's first characters, claims to have a vision in which the Lord shows him the future that was to come to pass in America:

I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land. And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters. And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten. And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them. And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them. And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.
As can be seen from this line of Mormon scripture, God himself guides the gentiles (Europeans) from their homelands across the ocean to inherit the American continent. Once there, God blesses those who fought against their "mother gentile" nation, which had gathered against them to war.

This powerful image of God guiding the European settlers to the "New World" and supporting them in their eventual revolution is not necessarily unique to the Mormon concept of American providentialism. Many people of all faiths believe that God had his hand in the colonization and independence of the United States. However, no other religion -- at least none that I know of -- have these events injected into their scripture and doctrine. As a result, the Mormon Christian Nation has a special -- if not sacred -- place in Mormon theology.

In addition to the Mormon conception of America being a choice land of God, the role of the Founding Fathers is quite unique. In the Pearl of Great Price -- another book of Mormon scripture -- we read the following:

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
This particular verse illustrated the important Mormon belief in a pre-mortal existence. In other words, Mormonism teaches that all humanity lived with God in a pre-mortal stated, and that God himself chose some of his noblest, bravest and most faithful children to carry out specific duties in mortality (Earth).

Such is the case with the Founding Fathers. As President Wilford Woodruff, the 4th President of the Mormon Church, stated:

Those who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of Heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits; noble spirits before God.
It is here that another fundamental difference between the Mormon Christian Nation and mainstream Christian nationalism emerges. For the devout orthodox Christian, the founding fathers are judged based on their acceptance of basic teachings of Christian orthodoxy. It is for this reason that men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are often labeled as "infidels," since they regularly rejected many of the specific components of orthodoxy.

For the Mormon, however, -- whose Christianity is often brought into question -- the orthodoxy of the founding fathers is virtually irrelevant. As I mentioned in a previous post, the doctrine of vicarious baptism -- or baptism of the dead -- provides the faithful departed with a chance to accept or reject the gospel of Christ. And as mentioned in that post, Mormon President Wilford Woodruff ensured that the founding fathers were given this opportunity. As a result, Mormon doctrine essentially gives all "honest and just souls," who may not have had the chance to accept Christ in mortality, a second chance. In so doing, the Mormon Christian Nation is more accepting of the unorthodox "infidel."


Pinky said...

I don't know.
I've come to see "Prophetic Christianity" as creating something of a problem for a progressive America.
Any ideas that look into the future with an agenda--especially the ones of such prophesy--put up hard barriers to working toward change in any direction.
Mormonism, like much of evangelical Christianity is hard pressed and can hardly give up on their prophesies. In fact, they have serious problems even considering such.
But, in spite of that, America is on the road to change--and for the better, I think.
But, like my opening statement sez, I don't know.

Pinky said...

As a post script, I wanted to add that I think it will be great when Christians are able to give up on the prophecies that are being pounded at us on a daily basis from almost every Christian source.
We will have cut a heavy anchor loose.

Brad Hart said...

I appreciate and respect you opinion, Pinky but I think you missed the point I was trying to make.

I wasn't looking at the "future agenda" or prophesy found within Mormon doctrine (or any other religion for that matter), rather I was trying to illustrate that many American religions (all of which traditionally embrace the Christian Nation thesis) have some specific and unique reasons for doing so. It would be foolish for us to simply say that all Christian Nation apologists are wrong for X, Y, and Z because it's not that simple. First we need to dissect what "Christian Nation" means to its various supporters because, as I argue throughout the post, it means something VERY different depending on the group/person you are talking to.