They had evidently not read Stanley Hauerwas. There were perhaps no actual American flags in the visitor’s center—and anyway, this wasn’t a sanctuary—but even so, it’s hard to imagine a more American aesthetic. The brand was boardroom Christianity: well-manicured lawns; well-dressed staff; the whole place conference room clean. “Successful” was mentioned several times, for children, for careers, never in a way that would imply the cross (the martyrs, etc.) as a success. The sculpture of the resurrected Christ was a copy, apparently in plaster, of a nineteenth century Danish marble: that great highpoint of assimilated Christianity, made infamous by Kierkegaard, in its new world simulacrum.
The strangeness here is that the Latter Day Saints have a deep genetic affinity both to the restorationist streak that runs obliquely through Kierkegaard—the church has been lost to the world and must now be restored—and the history of Anabaptist persecution that indirectly pushes someone like Hauerwas to be so critical of Americanist Christianity. Joseph Smith unearthed the golden plates from this hill; he received his revelations in and around these upstate New York farms; this is not the Utah of Mormonism only because they were persecuted out of it, first to the midwest, then to the Salt Lake basin. At Hill Cumorah, they’ll tell you of this persecution with authentic incredulity. They’ll be the most surprised that America could do such a thing.
None of this is quite fair. What they hold out as America is really a kind of possibility, one, like most, strung together from the selective actualities of a sepia-stained past. This gives them more critical purchase than might first appear; the emphasis on family in particular came through (no 2.2 children here). It also angles them rather well toward evangelicals, another Christianity inclined toward nostalgic national reconstructions. And this our guides did much to play up.
Now, they knew we had come from Mass, so this may have put them on the Christian script. Still, the whole setup seemed designed precisely, first, to establish Mormons as real Christians, and second, to suggest how their Christianity supplied the defects of a kind of evangelical biblicism. Thus we sat before the plaster Christ and listened to a recording of his sayings, a mix of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon (hard to tell the difference!). We were told how the Book of Mormon and the series of prophets through whom God continues his revelation clarify the Old and New Testaments. We were shown a video emphasizing how Joseph Smith received his revelation after praying to God to know which of the many competing preachers he should follow. How confusing it was in early nineteenth century New York, with all these people assuming the sufficiency of Scripture, claiming its authority for themselves, and then producing contradictory interpretations! If only there were some way to know which was right! The proximate injunction was to pray to God for clarity; the ultimate suggestion was that God provides this clarity to every generation through his prophets—excluding, as restorationists always do, the dark times from the death of the apostles to, in this case, 1820s New York. (At this point, it was clear that they didn’t have a special video for Catholics.)
I do not pretend to know the essence of the Latter Day Saints, to have gone up the mountain and come down with face aglow; this is mostly just a report of how their packaging affected an ostensible customer. But this claim to continuing revelation, including the ability of the prophets to reverse previous declarations (e.g. polygamy), immediately suggested two things that go beyond mere packaging. First, a group with this degree of flexibility in doctrinal development, one that feels the pressure to adapt to a certain kind of American mainstream, represents a tremendous opportunity for traditional Christians. To put the point from the evangelical side: The mask eventually becomes the face, and if evangelicals can induce them more and more to mask themselves in the trappings of traditional Christianity, they might more and more become traditional Christians. To put it from the Mormon side: Who is to say that God does not act in the ambient culture, that the church could not learn from those around it—provided of course that God ratifies any new teaching through the prophets?
Second, what kind of certainty is this church able to give if its revelation is subject to change, if everything is revisable and, in practical matters, reversible? If a young Joseph Smith were in Utah today, he might not need to ask God whom to follow, but he might still wonder which of his leader’s teachings would hold up in the long run. Biblicism, whether evangelical or fundamentalist, is itself a response to pluralistic societies, but ingredient in its response is an appeal to something ostensibly unchanging: the manifest teachings of Scripture. It is less clear that the Mormon response to biblicist pluralism can give the same assurances, neither to potential converts nor to political allies. In the parking lot afterwards, the conservative Catholics I was with wondered: What will the Mormons think about gay marriage in thirty years?
Ross McCullough is a writer living in Seattle, Washington.