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An Ensign Of One Nation?

I have been reading Richard Burton’s 1863 account of life in Utah, The City of the Saints. It is interesting to compare how Burton situates the Mormon “Kingdom of God” and how Mormons are seen today by foreigners (Burton was an Englishman). For Burton, Brigham Young’s “theocracy” was definitely a world unto itself, far removed from the United States. Today, when the foreign press talks about Mormons (usually polygamists), it is usually in the context of Americana. The Saints in Burton’s portrait are not really "American" and he describes the ambivalence-cum-hostility of the Mormons towards their former country. In 1863 Utah, the 4th of July was barely celebrated, for example, shunted aside by what would become known as “Pioneer Day” on the 24th. I had to smile when I read of how the words of the Star Spangled Banner were changed by the Saints:

Oh, see! on the tops of the mountains unfurled,
The ensign of promise, of hope, and salvation,
From their summits how nobly it waves to the world,
And spreads its broad folds o’er the good of each nation;
A signal of light for the lovers of right,
To rally where truth will soon triumph in might.
‘Tis the ensign of Israel streaming abroad,
And ever shall wave o’er the people of God

The evolution (revolution?) of Mormons from American outsiders to uber-Americans is well documented, but remains startling nonetheless. Mitt Romney tells the world that Mormonism is a “quintessentially American faith.” One wonders how Brigham Young would have responded to that. Certainly it is in Romney’s best interest to close the gap between his religion and his political ambitions and he is probably right: Mormonism is American. But where does that leave me and the many millions of other non-American Latter-day Saints? Do we really belong to an American religion? Is this something that missionaries would teach? (In France?!) If I were running for Prime Minister of the UK, could I say that my religion was “American?” Not likely.

So when we cheer Mitt on and nod in agreement of over his Mormon Americanism (or American Mormonism), spare a thought for those of us who have to justify our religion in other ways. Should we fall back on Brigham’s position, that the Kingdom of God is not beholden to one nation, that its destiny is apolitical and anational? Is it time to remove the Stars and Stripes from Temple Square and remind ourselves that the Ensign to the Nations is not a Tricolour, a Jack, or a Star Spangled Banner?

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Anonymous said ... (July 29, 2005 1:14 PM) 


Don't you realize that the Latter-day Saints were heartbroken that they were denied their Constitutional rights in the United States and had to flee for their lives from cities that they themselves had created out of nothing?

The "ambivalence-cum-hostility" Burton observes and that you find so ironic was an expression of this hurt and sorrow. Why should the Latter-day Saints have celebrated the 4th of July in 1863? At that time and for the next forty years, U.S. news weekly's like Harper's Magazine were running stories on the evil Mormons and quoting Congressmen and Senators on their latest proposals for the "Final Solution of the Mormon Question." U.S. Federal Judges assigned to Utah would give jury instructions such as "you are all brainwashed lunatics who believe God talked to ol' Jo Smith but you must put aside your slavish obedience to Brigham Young and decide this case." These were federal judges charged with protecting rights such as the religious freedom to believe that God talked to Jo Smith, yet these judges, for more than fifty years, were openly hostile to Latter-day Saints and their beliefs, even to the point of sending slanderous and blatantly false reports back to Washington about what the Mormons were doing and that they needed to be put down. There needed to be a "Final Solution to the Mormon Question."

None of this was sought out by the Latter-day Saints. They would have been content to stay and live in America and to respect federal judges. But America made it impossible for them to do so.

As for Romney's statement, I think it is unfortunate because the Gospel is for all nations and is not an exclusively American religion (which is not what Romney meant but is how it is being received, for example even by you, an educated man). The fact that it is "quintessentially American" by virtue of having been established in America under the American system of the free exercise of religion does not or should not imply that it is somehow less valuable for people in other countries.  

Posted by john fowles


Anonymous said ... (July 29, 2005 5:21 PM) 

I don't find Romney's statement exclusionary. Why do both of you take it as such? Just because the LDS faith "fits" comfortably within American values doesn't mean it can't, and doesn't, fit comfortably within the values of other nations. Can a religious faith only be "quintessentially" belonging to one nation?


Posted by lyle stamps


Anonymous said ... (July 29, 2005 5:35 PM) 

I've read Romney again, and to be fair it was more a case of saying that Mormonism stands for "American values" rather than Mormonism is an "American religion." So, in a way I've answered my own question: when I'm PM (!) I can comfortably say that my church supports "British values." Lyle is right.

But John, can you not at least understand that some of us who are not American sometimes struggle when our "American faith" is celebrated? Where does that leave me? 

Posted by Ronan


Anonymous said ... (July 30, 2005 3:36 AM) 

I see your dilemma, Ronan. (though I of course cannot understand fully) I've always thought of our religion as American in two ways. One, the way you described it, as even the culture of Mormonism can be quite American. Two, in that it is the only religion that believes America is a land chosen by God and where Jesus Christ is (supposed to be) the only sovereign. The only religion that thinks America is special and has ancient historical roots in the gospel.
Even this point of view I can see would be a problem for those living in your hemisphere. I guess the only way I could think of to reconcile that would be to focus on the fact that we preach, more then any other Christian church, that God and Jesus Christ care and work personally in the lives of His children the world over. 

Posted by Bret


Anonymous said ... (July 30, 2005 8:44 AM) 

I understand, accept, and even embrace the church's roots on American soil. But be careful: Book of Mormon talk about an "American" Promised Land can just as well mean Patagonia as Pennsylvania. And our (US) American roots do not mean we are "culturally" beholden to the USA. Perhaps I am being pragmatic: "American churches" in today's anti-American world are likely to struggle. We have more to offer the world than an apple-pie and bubble-gum religion. We claim to be the Kingdom of God on Earth. Last time I looked, the USA did not have a king. 

Posted by Ronan


Anonymous said ... (July 30, 2005 6:53 PM) 

I see your point. I don't even like bubble gum. I think the thing about equating the church's values with Aerican values is that we tend to use that as a way of justifying all things American. That is, because there was something good about the Americas for establishing the church, we have to like values like competition, which I was explicitly taught in first grade was an american value. The gospel doesn't stand for the value of competition, though it might not stand against it, or the value of strident nationalism, both of which are American values, though we may lament them at times whatever good they might do in some circumstances. It does stand for freedom, justice, mercy, and succoring the poor, things which I would like to believe can still be Aerican values. So while I think that the gospel stands for some American values, I wouldn't discount it by equating it with those values. I mean, hey, how quintessentially American is consecration? 

Posted by Steve H


Anonymous said ... (July 31, 2005 3:20 AM) 

Oh I'm sorry. I was a little confusing in that last comment. I totally agree with you. I just think many of us percieve it that way, NOT that we should necessarily go around preaching the goodness of the American way and that the United States is the only land made to be the promised land of God for His church.  

Posted by Bret


Anonymous said ... (July 31, 2005 5:47 PM) 

Well, i'm guessing it would be fairly unpopular to point out here that the Americas are described in scripture as a "land choice above all other lands", and also happens to be the location not only of Eden, but also of the New Jerusalem, which will be the political capital of the world during the millenium. Of course, that may occur after all the land masses have come back together, and dear old England may very well be squished up against Delaware. Ok, i'm drifting away from the topic here...

Personally I believe that the whole reason God brought about the United States was to provide a conducive environment for the Gospel to be restored. So I think rather than Mormonism being an "American religion" it is that the USA is a "Mormon nation", or at least, that is its destiny. obviously there is still a bit of missionary work and tare-burning left to do :) 

Posted by Rob


Anonymous said ... (August 01, 2005 3:30 AM) 

Yes. That was what I was basically trying to say in my first comment here, but you put it more succinctly:) 

Posted by Bret


Anonymous said ... (August 01, 2005 3:03 PM) 

Er Rob, if Romney told the press that the USA was a "Mormon nation" he could kiss his career goodbye.  

Posted by Ronan


Anonymous said ... (August 01, 2005 7:47 PM) 

"Er Rob, if Romney told the press that the USA was a "Mormon nation" he could kiss his career goodbye."

But, admit it, it would rock! 

Posted by John C.


Anonymous said ... (August 07, 2005 6:51 AM) 

i love my church and i'm from new zealand.... 

Posted by george mekuli


Anonymous said ... (August 07, 2005 6:53 AM) 

this church is tru..... 

Posted by george mekuli


Anonymous said ... (August 07, 2005 8:09 AM) 

the church of JESUS CHRIST of latter-day sainst is the only true church upon the earth today restored back to by the prophet joseph smith this is my testormony in the name of JESUS CHRIST amen...... 

Posted by george mekuli


Anonymous said ... (August 10, 2005 3:13 PM) 

Thank-you, George. 

Posted by Ronan


Anonymous said ... (August 10, 2005 3:25 PM) 

perhaps he should say that "mormonism is a faith that embraces the whole world and is not in contradiction with traditional american values"? Not much of a sound bite, is it?

and by the way, Romney's career IS over. He'll never be elected president, and probably not even a senator, at least not from Mass. Maybe he could move west and take over Sen. Hatch's job. 

Posted by rob


Rob said ... (August 10, 2005 3:28 PM) 

Harry Reid, on the other hand, could reasonably draw from both sides of the aisle, due to his LDS roots, pro-life beliefs, and left-leaning positions in other areas. However, he just doesn't seem charismatic enough. Shoulda been in the arena 30-40 years ago to run against Nixon.


Anonymous said ... (August 14, 2005 4:45 PM) 

"mormonism is a faith that embraces the whole world and is not in contradiction with traditional american values "

Rob: you should be Mitt's speech writer. That's perfect. 

Posted by Ronan


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