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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The apocalypse didn't arrive in the 1830s or any other time, but Mormons have never stopped preparing for it. According to Austin, "pretty much every generation of Mormons has perceived itself as the last generation before the end times."  

While the Mormons have never put their survival skills to the test during an authentic apocalypse, they have faced down continual threats to the religion's existence. Shortly after Joseph Smith's bank bubble, most of the Latter-day Saints consolidated in Missouri; the Missourians, fearful of a group they perceived as clannish, issued an extermination order that forced the Mormons out. In 1839, the LDS Church moved on to Nauvoo, Ill., where more amenable state officials briefly allowed the group to govern themselves. Five years later, Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob of settlers angered by the Mormons' quasi-theocracy and church leaders' polygamy.

Zoom forward to today, and the Mormons have transformed, incredibly, from vagabonds to the epitome of old-fashioned American values. Seen as honest and incorruptible, Mormons are recruited in great numbers by the FBI. Dubbed by Harold Bloom "perhaps the most workaddicted culture in religious history," they have proved spectacularly successful in both secular and Church business. (1999's Mormon America: The Power and the Promise pegged the church's assets at $25 billion to $30 billion.) They venerate the traditional family unit, rarely divorce, and live as much as a decade longer than the average American. They are just like us, only they're always on their best behavior.

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The Mormons' assimilation began after Brigham Young and his followers journeyed west following Smith's murder.   The LDS Church envisioned carving out a state of its own, Deseret, that would take up close to the entirety of present-day Nevada and Utah and large swathes of the rest of the Western U.S. Jan Shipps, the leading non-LDS scholar of Mormonism, describes the exodus to the West as a journey "backward into a primordial sacred time"—a re-enactment of the Israelites' trek through the desert.

American civilization soon extended westward to meet the Mormons where they lived. In 1848, the U.S. gobbled up all of modern-day Utah as part of the spoils of the Mexican-American War. The federal noose tightened on the Mormons once again, with only the Civil War offering a respite from increased enforcement of polygamy laws.   In 1882, plural marriage became a federal felony. Eight years later, with the church under increasing federal pressure to abolish the practice, then-President Wilford Woodruff declared that Mormonism's age of polygamy was over. The end of sanctioned polygamy jolted the church into modernity. By the middle of the 20th century, the Mormons had become more "American" than any other Americans. In a 2008 New York Times Magazine feature, Noah Feldman suggested that prejudice against the idea of a Mormon president might push the LDS Church to move "even further in the direction of mainstream Christianity." That theory, though, doesn't reflect the everlasting pull of pioneer-era Mormonism. In The Angel and the Beehive, Armand L. Mauss argues that assimilation brought about a "new predicament of respectability … rather than the old one of disrepute." Starting around 1960, the Mormon leadership renewed its emphasis on genealogy and the missionary program in an attempt to maintain Mormons' "identity as a special people."

Jan Shipps says the allure of yesteryear means Mormonism is always 25 to 30 years behind the rest of America. The church's strong stances against the Equal Rights Amendment and gay marriage, she argues, show that the Latter-day Saints lag behind the country's mores. (There's also the BYU dress code, which bans sleeveless clothing.)If and when the end of America comes, Mormonism will go even more retro—just as the end of polygamy brought the LDS Church into modern times, the dissolution of the United States would send them into the past. The Latter-day Saints' oscillation between contemporary society and their pioneer days makes them the perfect time capsule: They will always retain a piece of the American character, yet they have enough of a toehold in the past—and enough grain in the silo—to resume their pre-modern ways.

If the Mormon Church does someday become a proxy for the United States, what parts of American civilization will survive? "Things that used to be American—motherhood and apple pie—would be restored to primacy," Orson Scott Card says. Perhaps the wholesome Osmond family will come to represent the pinnacle of American entertainment, and Stephen Covey—the Mormon writer behind The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—will be hailed as our society's leading philosopher. Long sideburns will forever recede from memory. More seriously, a Mormon society would continue to speak English, to spread the gospel of capitalism, and to put forward the idea that America was and is a sacred place, a nation worth remembering and preserving.  

In the event of a collapse at home, the Mormons won't take over America or the world by sheer numbers. In 1984, sociologist Rodney Stark projected that if the Mormon Church grew 30 percent a decade—less than the 53 percent rate from 1940 to 1980—the Mormon population would be 60 million in 2080. With the LDS fertility rate declining, Stark's projection now seems like pure fantasy. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the LDS Church had roughly 12 million members worldwide as of 2006, with 4 million of those active churchgoers. The farther you get from Salt Lake City, the more likely Mormons are to fall away from the faith. The Tribune reported that around 200,000 Brazilians called themselves Mormons in 2000, while the church claimed 750,000 members in Brazil.

If America goes under, LDS scholar Michael Austin says, regional strains of Mormonism might develop "without the pressure from Salt Lake City to keep everything coordinated." Orson Scott Card emphasizes that post-collapse Mormons would be organized but open to others: "If we did not approach things that way, we would fail, because our very survival as an organized group would frighten others who saw us as a threat," he writes, adding that Mormons "learned that one the hard way" during the polygamy years. In the event of the American end times, Card continues, the church would likely continue to "regard the Constitution of the United States as a divinely ordered document—including a reasonable separation of church and state. There would be no Mormon Taliban, no Mormon equivalent of sharia imposed on non-Mormons."

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