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.
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.
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.
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."
In The Folk of the Fringe, Card writes that "civilization lives on among those folk whose bonds of faith, tribe, and language are strong." As a native New Orleanian, I couldn't help thinking of Hurricane Katrina. With the federal, state, and local governments all failing to mount a rebuilding plan, the city's revival was left to grass-roots, neighborhood-based organizations. It's not surprising group that the city's most tightly knit and most homogeneous group—the Vietnamese-American community of New Orleans East—came back the fastest. Partly inspired by a priest from the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church who traveled around the South persuading evacuated parishioners to come home, Vietnamese residents of the Versailles neighborhood turned out to help each other and help their church. Within nine months, 45 of 50 neighborhood businesses had reopened. Within two years, 90 percent of the area's pre-Katrina residents returned, double the citywide average.
In New Orleans, civilization lives on among those folk whose bonds of faith, tribe, and language are strong. In America, perhaps civilization will carry on in the same way.
* Correction, Aug. 7, 2009: This piece originally stated that Mormons are counseled to keep a two-year supply of food. In 2007, the church advised families to keep a three-month supply plus stores of food for longer-term needs.
** Correction, Aug. 8, 2009: This article originally said that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Jesus will rule on American soil. The LDS Church believes he will return, not be resurrected. In addition, the church believes that Jesus will also reign in the old Jerusalem.