Chosen Land, Chosen People: Religious and American Exceptionalism Among the Mormons

Philip L Barlow. The Review of Faith & International Affairs. Volume 10, Issue 2. 2012.

Religious Exceptionalism: Dominant and Recessive Genes

To discern the ambiguous character of American exceptionalism in Mormon culture, it helps first to consider Mormonism’s claims of religious uniqueness, which, taken as a whole, are similarly ambiguous. The dominant gene in this sphere, especially during the movement’s first 150 years, was a pronounced religious exceptionalism. In 1820, the teenage Joseph Smith was driven to prayer in quest of forgiveness of sin. He was also motivated by confusion at the cacophony of religious competition in a nation newly shorn of established churches. Which of all the existing denominations and sects was correct? In one account of his first vision, written in 1838 and later canonized, the boy encountered Deity, who instructed that he must join none of the churches, “for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt” (Joseph Smith History 1:18-19). Smith subsequently received, at the hands of angels, an exclusive priesthood, whose restoration to the earth was necessitated by a general apostasy over the centuries from the once-pure Christian church.

With this authority, Smith organized the Church of Christ, which the Lord declared to be, Smith reported in 1831, “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which I the Lord am well pleased” (Doctrine and Covenants [hereafter abbreviated D&C] 1:30). This single line of scripture has assumed a life of its own among many Latter-day Saints, who express their faith to their own congregations by the phrase, “I know the church is true.” Other Christians who convert to Mormonism are required to receive a new baptism by proper LDS authority. Because the Mormon view of heaven is a relational rather than a merely individual affair, only those married or “sealed” to each other by appropriate priesthood authority are seen as heirs of the highest realm in the hereafter (D&C 131:1-3; 132:15-16; 76). Also restored were spiritual gifts, such as healing and prophecy, and ancient, pure doctrines.

Today, these claims to be the restored and uniquely true church retain majority status in Mormon discourse. Many Mormons are apt to respect honorable traditions and wisdom in other faiths, but think of them as incomplete, subject to correction, refinement, or completion in a Mormon context bolstered by living prophets and divine authority.

A recessive Mormon gene, however, dilutes and challenges this self-understanding. Believing Mormons treasure truths they hold as distinctive and sacred, but Mormon prophets make no claim to a monopoly on truth itself. The Book of Mormon insists that God is God to all of His children. One of the book’s preeminent figures, Nephi, condemned an exclusivist confidence too constricted to value God’s word wherever it surfaces. “Know ye not that there are more nations than one?” he asks.

Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? … I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak … I shall speak unto the Jews … and I shall also speak unto the Nephites … and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth. (2 Nephi 29:7,11,12)

A later Book of Mormon prophet, Alma, similarly decried the religious conceit of a sectarian tribe called Zoramites:

Now the place was called by [the Zoramites] Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand. Now, from this stand they did offer up, every man, the self-same prayer … We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish. (Alma 31:22, 28)

As against this narcissistic arrogance, the mature Joseph Smith in 1842 adapted the language of the biblical Paul while couching a passage now canonized for Latter-day Saints as part of the culminating 13th Article of Faith: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Rather than being a threat to the Mormon gospel, virtuous and lovely things, whatever their immediate source, are to be embraced as a part of Mormonism. Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, taught similarly:

You say you belong to the Presbyterians; it is no matter if you have got the truth. Are you a Calvinist, or a Wesleyan? It is no matter … that truth is “Mormonism,” it is my property. Are you a Quaker? It is no matter … Are you a Catholic, and have got the truth? That is my doctrine, and I will not quarrel about it. “Well,” says one. “I am a Jew; I guess I can get up a quarrel with you.” No, you cannot. I shall not contend with you, for the Jews have got true principles, and they possess no truth but what belongs to “Mormonism;” for there is not a truth on earth or in heaven, that is not embraced in “Mormonism.” Another steps forward and says, “I am a Pagan; I think you will not agree with me.” Yes I will, as far as you follow the path of truth. (Journal of Discourses 1:244)

Moreover, to be a “chosen” people does not necessarily mean, in Mormon scripture, to be superior; it can mean simply to be chosen for a role or task. There are exceptions, but as Jesus put it baldly to those he thought hypocrites hiding behind their heritage as “chosen people”: “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to [as] our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matthew 3:9, following the common Mormon translation: King James). Joseph Smith never retreated from claims that his movement boasted fresh revelation, distinctive truths, and exclusive authority for his religious mission. Nor was he above criticizing other faiths. Yet his Mormonism also entailed forthrightly learning and borrowing from them, and indeed from any source of truth whatsoever. He also recorded revelations wherein the Lord alluded to “holy men that ye know not of” whom the Lord had “reserved unto [him]self,” suggesting that the saved and righteous were not exclusive to the Mormons (D&C 49:8).

Thus the Mormon impulse to religious exceptionalism has a history that dates to its beginnings; it thrives even today. But a discernible and more inclusive countercurrent dates to Mormon beginnings as well, and has deepened in the most recent generation as the Saints have grown internationally and in cultural stature, having more meaningful and informed dealings with a wider world. The dominant and recessive genes comprising the church’s relative religious exceptionalism has a parallel in, and sheds light on, its views of American exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism

Not until Ronald Reagan’s 1980s did the term “American exceptionalism” approximate the meaning expressed by contemporary (especially Republican) presidential candidates. The concept of an American space providentially set apart from ordinary places, however, has roots preceding the formation of the United States, preceding even the mass migration of Europeans to the New World. John Winthrop’s famous 1630 address aboard the Arabella in effect renewed the Abrahamic covenant between God and a chosen people brought to a chosen land with divine expectations upon them. The ordained mission of this incipient Puritan community was to be as a “city upon a hill,” claimed Winthrop. This “errand into the wilderness” must become a light shining abroad to the nations, forming “a model of Christian charity” and order, signaling to the world that God’s hand was upon New England.

So chosen was this land that, a century later, Jonathan Edwards discerned it as the likely future place of Christ’s second coming. The subsequent American century saw the rise of a new, experimental, different sort of nation: A democratic United States possessed of an exuberant sense of freedom and innocence and possibility, partially ensconced in its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. Here was a “new order for the ages” (Novus ordo seclorum) superintended by God (Annuit cœptis), as the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States cast it in 1782 and as dollar bills since 1935 proclaim. Less formally, the United States was to become a “redeemer nation,” intoxicated with both civic and religious millenarian expectations and aspirations. The 19th century also witnessed the conquest of the continent—the fulfillment of an allegedly providential destiny of annexation and growth that seemed “manifest” to so many non-Native occupants. Despite his brooding ways and his untraditional religion, Abraham Lincoln described the embattled United States and the freedom it promised to all as “the last, best hope of earth.”

The idea, then, of America as a unique land and nation with a unique mission and destiny held sway long before and during the rise of Mormonism. During the last 30 years, US politicians and cultural analysts have adopted the specific term “American exceptionalism”—which in popular parlance has come to suggest that the United States is not only distinct from, but superior to, other countries; it is the natural leader of the free world. References to this term in print media increased from two in 1980 to almost 3,000 in 2011.

Dominant and Recessive Traits in Mormon Versions of American Exceptionalism

The rise of Mormonism added to the historical stream designating America as chosen. Even before the church was organized in 1830, the newly published Book of Mormon gave the nation its most sustained tract supporting exceptionalism. The book purports to be a modern translation of an ancient record, inscribed on metal tablets. Reprising the Hebrew Bible’s predominant motifs of covenant, exodus, entry to a promised land, and striving for righteousness, the narrative tells of a Jewish family’s God-directed departure from a hardened, corrupted Israel about to fall to Babylon and into exile (circa 587 BCE). Lehi, the visionary patriarch of this family, was led across the seas to a land God had prepared for them. “Notwithstanding our afflictions,” he would say,

we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord … Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity. (2 Nephi 1:6-7)

Prophecies in the unfolding story seem to identify this land as what would, two millennia later, become known as America. They allude to the new land’s future, to the joys and travails of Lehi’s erring descendants, whose fortunes during the subsequent millennium would hinge on their fidelity to their covenant with God in the land of promise. The prophesies further speak of the eventual arrival of Gentiles who would, by God’s might, emerge from their own captivity and be lifted in the new world above all other nations. The prophets preached righteousness and warned of the demise of the people if faithlessness and sin should abound. There were to be “no kings upon the land” (1 Nephi 2, 13, 22; 2 Nephi 10:11).

But, as in the original Israel, kings did come, and often enough along with them came sin and tribal corruption. The people “dwindled in unbelief.” Civil war eventually exterminated one faction of the civilization, while their conquerors turned degenerate. One message of the Book of Mormon is that a special burden is placed on the inhabitants of this chosen land to obey God’s commandments, to remain faithful, to maintain a just and merciful society. Should faith dissolve and iniquity flourish, “cursed shall be the land for their sakes” (2 Nephi 1:7, 10; Ether 13:3; passim in the Book of Mormon).

The gold plates on which this record was etched were abridged by the ancient warrior-editor, Mormon, and buried by his son in the 5th century CE in what became upstate New York. By supernatural assistance, the record came to light again through Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, who translated the work. The resultant Book of Mormon launched a new religious movement, bestowed upon it a nickname, and set it apart as a distinctive brand of Christianity. In the eyes of believers, it also bequeathed to the new American Republic a powerful sense of providential oversight.

Outside of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith reiterated and augmented these themes of America’s special calling. He added that the millennial New Jerusalem is to be built upon the American continent (10th Article of Faith). He reported the Lord as saying, in the context of antebellum America, that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood” (D&C 101:79-80).

More recent Mormon leaders have extended these teachings. In an era of communist threat, Ezra Taft Benson, Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture and later President of the Mormon Church, went so far as to speak of America as “the Lord’s base of operations.” J. Reuben Clark, erstwhile US Undersecretary of State, later ambassador to Mexico, and eventual prominent member of the LDS Church’s First Presidency, championed beliefs taught from his infancy: That “the U.S. Constitution [is] inspired and that the free institutions which it creates and perpetuates are God-given.” “I am,” he said, “a member of that class which has a firm and unshakable determination to guard our institutions and our Constitution at all cost; that believes that ours is the greatest and best government upon the face of the earth.”

Mormonism was born in the United States only a generation following the birth of the nation itself. The religion’s infancy was harbored in the nation’s adolescence; both took form together. Early Mormonism naturally appropriated, as well as contributed to, diverse American ideas and values, including an orientation to the nation’s place in past and future history. The religion treasured its motherland. Despite international growth since World War II, the church’s administrative headquarters remain in Salt Lake City. During most of its history, American exceptionalism has enjoyed high station in the Mormon genome.

But the genome includes other genes; Mormonism is complex. In parallel with its ambiguous claims of religious exceptionalism, a recessive gene increasingly challenges believers’ sense of a privileged America. In the Book of Mormon, America is a land of promise … until it is not. Once the migrating Jews are established in their new promised land, the narrative tells of recurrent departures of disparate subgroups from peoples and lands grown decadent in affluence, arrogance, social injustice, and lust for war (1 Nephi 22:3-5; 2 Nephi 5:5; 2 Nephi 10:19-22; Omni 1:14-17; Mosiah 23:1-20; Helaman 8:21; 3 Nephi 15:19; Ether 1:38, 42-3; 2:9-10, 12). There appear in the record, over centuries, an impressive series of promised lands and peoples who succeed or fail to live into their chosen roles. These who fail become unchosen. Indeed, the overarching prophetic promise of the Book of Mormon, tragically fulfilled in the end, is as much a threat as anything: A threat of demise and destruction if the people should lose their moral fiber and forsake their God. And, as with claims of religious elitism, Americans as “a chosen people” and America as a “promised land” can mean “selected for a role” rather than “spiritually superior.”

Furthermore, a central preoccupation of Mormonism for the past 40 years, amidst its vast international growth, has been how to shed its American presumptions and function in and honor the diverse cultures of the world. This is an incomplete process, but it has been more than a century since LDS authorities urged converts to gather to Utah, once thought of as the Mormon “Zion.” Instead, converts are encouraged to build Zion in their home cultures. Not since 1996 have most Mormons lived in the United States, and the gap is widening. Mormon growth predominates not in the United States, much less in Europe, but in such areas as Africa and in South and Central America; these people are proud of their own cultures, their lands full of promise. In the near future, there will be more Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking Saints than English-speaking ones.

Moreover, the very notion of a “promised land” as a single location begins to blur upon careful study of Mormon scripture and history. For example, 19th-century Mormons assumed that the Book of Mormon explained the origins of North American Native Americans, who were construed as wild descendants of the peoples portrayed in the Book of Mormon. Faced with a paucity of anthropological and archeological evidence to make such a case in the modern era, sophisticated though controversial arguments have been marshaled in recent decades by Mormon scholars at Brigham Young University and elsewhere that the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon actually were contained within a geography of only a few hundred square miles in Mesoamerica or South America. To the considerable extent that the modern Mormon faithful subscribe to these theories, however, it would seem to draw into question notions such as those of Apostle Ezra Taft Benson that the United States is “God’s base of operations.”

Such elements as these reflect a recessive gene in Mormon awareness, undercutting simple and monolithic assessments of Mormon notions of American elitism.

Mitt Romney: A Case Study

As of this writing, it appears that Mr. Romney will secure the Republican nomination for President of the United States. In any event, he provides a convenient example of the difficulty of presuming that general Mormon notions of American exceptionalism dictate the perspectives of any particular Mormon candidate for high office.

Candidate Mitt Romney has argued that Barack Obama’s alleged lack of belief in American exceptionalism is leading the nation to decline, and that this danger should define the 2012 election: “We have a president now who thinks America is just another nation,” says Mr. Romney, “just another nation with a flag.” “President Obama seems to think that we’re going to have a global century, an Asian century.”

Romney’s proposed foreign policy contrasts sharply: “I would be guided by an overwhelming conviction that this century must be an American century, where America has the strongest values, the strongest economy, and the strongest military. An American century means a century where America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.” Unlike President Obama, he says, “I will never apologize for the United States of America.”

There is room in Romney’s vision of the coming century for Providence: “This is a time where America has got to return to principles that will keep us the hope of the earth and the shining city on the hill. That light from that shining city has dimmed over the last three years, and I will help restore it.” “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will.”

Now people want to know how a president Romney’s religion would affect his judgment. Is it possible, even if only unconsciously, that Romney’s view of America’s proper role in history is tinged with his Mormon sensibilities? And might that color his judgment in crafting foreign policy? Yes, of course, it is possible. Just as it is possible that President Obama’s religion—or his parents’ divorce, or his Hawaiian background, or his experience in law school—inform the way that he thinks. But the limitations on this observation are many and severe; the contours of any such influence are difficult to discern. No more than with Obama’s religion can Romney’s faith be responsibly used to confidently assess, much less to predict, his prospective policy outlook.

One limitation is the difficulty of psychoanalyzing anyone, let alone a mass analysis performed on a public figure, based on press reports, television glimpses, or superficial and often distorted impressions of his religion.

A second difficulty is that, as we have noted, American exceptionalism has deep roots antedating Mormonism. If there exists a Mormon current influencing Romney’s position, it is likely an eddy in a wider stream. Other Republican candidates in this campaign have professed strong versions of exceptionalism, with or without citing God.

A third problem is that Romney is a complex figure, and Mormonism is but one strand of his background. His trumpet of exceptionalism might derive from his personal competitive drive, his faith in capitalism, or his secular patriotism as readily as from his religion.

A fourth reason for caution in assigning a controlling religious influence to Romney’s thinking is that Mormonism is itself complex, as we have glimpsed previously. Its notions of American exceptionalism are ambiguous and evolving, bearing dominant and recessive genes. What any single Mormon politician might deliberately or unconsciously extract from this complex religious heritage, as it applies to practical political policy, is neither obvious nor inevitable. Mormons are not made from cookie-cutters. The mere presence on the recent national political stage of such Mormons as Orrin Hatch, Jon Huntsman, and Harry Reid should help to make the point.

These limitations do not eliminate the possibility of Romney’s Mormonism affecting his mind and character; doubtless they do. But neither do they lend themselves to easy assignment of Mormon thinking as a causal agent in his political judgment.

Conclusion: Romney and Obama

As a final point, we should note that Barack Obama, despite his critics, also has spoken of American exceptionalism. His version is not based on the nation’s military prowess or economic dominance. Americans, says the president, “have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.” The United States is to be a nation whose true strength comes from “the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope”; and, above all, a place of ceaseless innovation and an abiding sense that “anything is possible.” “I believe in American exceptionalism,” declared the president, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

We live in a dangerous world. The two men’s contrasting assessment of the sources of American exceptionalism have competing strengths; they merit debate. It remains worth noting that one could extract from Mormon history, culture, and scripture reasons for supporting either man’s understanding of what makes the nation special. Religion may inform, but it does not presage, a candidate’s political choices.