The Mormonizing of America

Because I returned from my mission in July 2012, I missed most of the run up to the 2012 election including all of the Republican primary. By the time I got back, the focus was already on the build up to the conventions and the contest between President Obama and Governor Romney. As such, I hadn’t read much of discussion of Mormons and the “Mormon moment” leading up to Mitt Romney’s nomination. ( For all of the mudslinging of the campaign, I believe the Obama campaign is to be praised for refusing to make Mitt Romney’s religion an issue.).

One of the books that I fortunately missed when it first came out is Stephen Mansfield’s The Mormonizing of America. I recently saw this book on sale in Wal Mart, and briefly glanced over the indroduction. I was at first glance impressed by the respect the author seems to show members of the Church, and so downloaded a free copy using my Kindle Unlimited subscription.

The acknowledgements section and the introduction offer the reader great hope. In the acknowledgement section, Mansfield relates the reaction of a class of BYU Students when he jokingly suggested that they “adopt him.” A student jokingly responded by asking if Mansfield would want to meet with the missionaries. Such lively stories of encounters with members of the church pepper the acknowledgement section and suggest an author sincerely interested in understanding the faith of Latter Day Saints.  The introduction is also phenomenal. It has been excerpted almost in full on the Huffington Post, and despite my misgivings about the rest of the book I highly recommend that you read the excerpt.  I will quote two of my favorite paragraphs

Plant Mormonism in any country on earth and pretty much the same results will occur. If successful, it will produce deeply moral individuals who serve a religious vision centered upon achievement in this life. They will aggressively pursue the most advanced education possible, understand their lives in terms of overcoming obstacles, and eagerly serve the surrounding society. The family will be of supernatural importance to them, as will planning and investing for future generations. They will be devoted to community, store and save as a hedge against future hardship, and they will esteem work as a religious calling. They will submit to civil government and hope to take positions within it. They will have advantages in this. Their beliefs and their lives in all-encompassing community will condition them to thrive in administrative systems and hierarchies–a critical key to success in the modern world. Ever oriented to a corporate life and destiny, they will prize belonging and unity over individuality and conflict every time.

These hallmark values and behaviors–the habits that distinguish Mormons in the minds of millions of Americans– grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. They are also the values and behaviors of successful people. Observers who think of the religion as a cult–in the Jim Jones sense that a single, dynamic leader controls a larger body of devotees through fear, lies, and manipulation–usually fail to see this. Mormon doctrine is inviting, the community it produces enveloping and elevating, the lifestyle it encourages empowering in nearly every sense. Success, visibility, prosperity, and influence follow. This is the engine of the Mormon ascent. It is what has attracted so many millions, and it is the mechanism of the Latter-day Saints’ impact upon American society and the world.

 These thoughts are insightful and intriguing. They left me quite excited to read the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book did not live up to the high standard of the introduction and instead turned into a cliche ridden anti-Mormon look at LDS history. How bad is Mansfield’s account of history? He repeats old and discredited ant-Mormon statements about Joseph Smith’s childhood verbatim, suggests that Joseph Smith’s faith emerged as a result of an Oedipal obsession with his father, and distorts the words of Mormon historians such as Richard Bushman to make specious arguments. His treatment of the Book of Mormon is no better. It is clear that his reading of it was cursory at best, and he repeat discredited anti-Mormon attacks such as the argument that no evidence of reformed Egyptian has been found.  

However, for me, the most glaring error of Mansfield’s book is the lack of serious consideration he gives to Mormon doctrine and teachings. He states quite quickly that he believes that what draws members to the Church is not its theology. He mentions unique doctrines such as the pre-assistance, the plan of salvation, baptism for the dead, etc… with incredible brevity. For many members, myself included, these doctrines are what inspire and enliven the soul. Without those doctrines, I would not have been interested in the Church. Without those doctrines, I would find little reason to remain (after all, membership is a good country club would provide good friends and social opportunities). Most egregiously Mansfield almost completely leaves Jesus Christ out of the picture. While the savior is mentioned tangentially in a few unavoidable places (when discussing the first vision for instance), it at times feels as if the savior is deliberately omitted from the discussion. For instance, the Melchizedek Priesthood is discussed without a single reference to the belief that it is the priesthood of Jesus Christ. When discussing the manifestations to Joseph Smith at the Kirtland Temple, Moses and Elijah are mentioned while the miraculous appearance of Jesus Christ is omitted. Doctrines connected to Jesus Christ are also omitted. For instance, belief in the atonement is only mentioned twice: once in a critical quote by minister Alexander Campbell, and once in the appendix in order to suggest that Mormons do not believe that the atonement is sufficient for salvation. The Sacrament is only mentioned in a fictional father and son dialogue about the priesthood.

Reading Mansfield’s account is to behold a Mormonism stripped of the doctrines that lead it to be so spiritually compelling for millions across the world. A reader of Mansfield’s book would walk away without understanding why Mormonism appeals to thousands of converts across the world each year. While Mansfield extensively explores, why Mormonism leads members of the Church to be hard workers, value education, and serve at high levels in government and society, he unfortunately misses the heart and soul of Mormonism.

I regrettably cannot recommend this book aside from the introduction to anyone. Those curious about Mormonism will be better served reading articles by those that actually understand or respect the faith. For instance, Stephen Webb’s wonderful article about how Mormons are obsessed with Christ. Mansfield’s book unfortunately falls far short. 

 

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