The Catholic Church helped preserve Roman civilization. Can Mormonism do the same for America?

How it will happen.
Aug. 7 2009 7:00 AM

How Is America Going To End?

The Catholic Church helped preserve Roman civilization. Can Mormonism do the same for America?

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Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

When America disappears 100 or 500 or 1,000 years from now, it will be gone but not forgotten. As the world's leading military, economic, and cultural power since World War II, the United States will linger in the global gene pool and influence whatever comes next. But how exactly will Americanness get transmitted to the civilizations that replace us?

The physical structures we've built won't be our legacy. Our houses, schools, and stadiums will eventually crumble; in The World Without Us, Alan Weisman even imagines the Statue of Liberty getting knocked into the ocean by a glacier, leaving the real world in a similar state as Planet of the Apes. The ideas, art forms, and inventions that we've transmitted around the world will outlast our monuments' inevitable decay, and not just because our national backlog of McRib sandwiches may never biodegrade. While the current financial crisis has cast doubt on free-market capitalism, I'd wager that American-style economics will outlast this country's run as a political entity. The global rise of basketball, a game surpassed in worldwide popularity only by soccer, ensures that at least one artifact of American leisure will persist. America's native musical forms—jazz, rock 'n' roll, and hip-hop music—also seem like good possibilities to serve as cultural carriers.

But for America's intangible qualities to get preserved—our shared history, our ideals, our passions—someone needs to do the preserving. Edward Gibbon argued that the introduction of Christianity doomed Rome: "[T]he last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister." There's a stronger case to be made that the Christians kept Rome from being erased from our collective memory—that the Catholic Church was the one entity that maintained Roman hierarchies, Roman thought, and the Latin language as the rest of the continent descended into illiteracy.

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A religion is also a good candidate to keep America alive. The history of Catholicism shows that religious movements can outlast the political systems in which they arose. Our idealized conception of what America stands for has its origins in religious belief as well: the Puritans' values of industry and self-reliance, and their desire for the nation to be a "city upon a hill."

What religion might serve as America's preservationist? In the 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr. imagines a group of monks playing the same role as their European forebears, preserving knowledge in a post-apocalyptic America. Considering this country's microscopic monk supply, it's hard to imagine monasteries banding together to combat data rot. Evangelical Christians seem like a more logical contender: Around 100 million Americans identify as evangelicals, and the idea of the United States as a promised land is pervasive in evangelical thought. But while they're often thought of as a homogeneous bloc, evangelicals are really a diverse and fragmented lot. That makes the movement resilient and adaptable but not exactly the best vessel for preserving a culture. The early Catholic Church, in contrast, was more disciplined and hierarchical, a far better candidate both to survive a collapse and to carry forward societal traditions.

A better candidate to serve as America's time capsule: the Mormons. In an aside in 2007's Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy posits that Salt Lake City could become "the Vatican of the third millennium," with the Mormon Church "propagating a particular, canonical version of America."Orson Scott Card, the Mormon science-fiction writer, lays out a similar premise in the 1989 short-story collection The Folk of the Fringe. In "West," a group of Mormons sets out for Utah after a societal collapse brought on by nuclear war, biological warfare, and climate change. Despite finding that Temple Square is about to be submerged by rising waters, the travelers manage to keep the world alive by sticking together even as "places without Mormons were dying or dead."  

Why does Card think the Mormons will live through a disaster? He explains via e-mail that Mormon culture "has strengths and weaknesses, but it has almost all the attributes of a civilizational winner. … We have organizational practices and ideological elements that make it highly likely that wherever we are, we will outlast the collapse of governments and civilizations." As far as organizational practices go, a 2007 church pamphlet recommends that families put together "a [three-month] supply of food that is part of your normal, daily diet" as well as stores of wheat, white rice, and beans for "longer-term needs."* (Seventy-two-hour preparedness kits will suffice in a pinch.) The church, practicing what it preaches, owns a silo in Salt Lake City filled with 19 million pounds of wheat. The Mormons' ideological preparations for the end of America include the widely held belief that the United States will not endure—and that when the Constitution "hangs by a thread," Mormons will be there to save it.

Mormonism is an American religion. It was birthed in this country, and the church's missionary work has made the religion one of the most-recognizable American institutions around the world.   If the U.S. government dissolves or the continent gets submerged by rising seas, the Mormons have more reason than most to stick around. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds that the framers of the Constitution were divinely inspired, that American Indians are partly descended from an ancient Israelite tribe called the Lamanites, and that upon his return, Jesus Christ will rule both in the old Jerusalem and on American soil.** In Mormonism and the American Experience, Klaus J. Hansen refers to the church's vision of the continent as a holy land as America's "religious declaration of independence" Like the early Christians—a group the Mormons consider their direct ancestors—the early Mormons prepared for the end of the world as if it were coming next week, and coming to their backyard. In 1831, one year after the first publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith received a revelation that the end times were nigh and that the New Jerusalem should be built in Missouri. Church newspapers soon began recording "signs of the times": earthquakes, epidemics, and steamboat explosions. The belief that the Messiah was coming, says LDS scholar Michael Austin, generated lots of enthusiasm from early believers. It also led the Mormons to do "a lot of incredibly stupid things." Austin says that Joseph Smith's conviction that the millennium was afoot may have contributed to the 1837 failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, an Ohio bank started by Smith that issued notes in a manner that bore no relation to the capital on hand.

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