Monday, October 15, 2012
Book Review of The Mormonizing of America by Steve Mansfield
The Mormonizing of America
By Stephen Mansfield
Reviewed by Clint Walker
Although this review is a little later than I had hoped, I have just read a stellar book about the Mormon Faith. The book is The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield. I would strongly recommend this book for just about anyone who is curious about the LDS movement, and who wants a perspective from a person who is clearly outside the movement, but who also has great admiration for the LDS people and accomplishments.And that is really what this book is primarily about. The book may also cover issues of history and doctrine, but truly, the author is trying to write a book about how LDS has come to a "critical mass" and thus become an influence in American culture as a whole. He is, as a religious writer, trying to understand and share the Mormon story, especially as it pertains to how it risen to the level of influence it has now.
In the town I went to high school in, the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church were the largest two churches in town, and the LDS Church was by far the best attended. I grew up with coaches, friends, fellow students, and teammates that were Latter-Day Saints. I still keep in touch with a few of those acquaintences today. Whenever I have discussed religious matters with those friends, I have found that we tend to talk around each other. Often we use terms that mean different things to us, and there are several things that I would try to talk to LDS persons about, and simply run into brick walls.
Having said all this, my years in Homer, Alaska taught me to have a high level of admiration for LDS people. Often, it was the more committed LDS kids that were high achievers in school and in athletics. And although not all LDS kids were models of moral virtue, many of the other people who abstained from drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex in high school were Mormons. This meant that although I did not share a theology with my LDS peers, we did share a commitment to similar values.
Like I said, there were things about Mormon life and faith that remained elusive to me, especially as I compared them to my own belief system. Most of these questions were "why?" questions. And many of those questions came to much clearer answers as I read. Also, I came to a clearer understanding of what is happening in regard to our current political climate, both in regard to the presidential election and with media leaders such as Glen Beck.
Let me give you an example. As an evangelical Christian, I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. I do not believe that other documents, especially political documents are. In the Mormonizing of America, Mansfield claims that most LDS folks believe that the US Constitution is a divinely inspired document, elevating it to the level of holy writ. When I learn this, I come to a greater understanding of the artwork of Jon McNaughton, who places the Living Word and the words of the founding fathers as equal in divine authority in his painting, One Nation Under God
Also, when I see Mitt Romney working hard to align himself with the ultra-conservative prime minister of Israel, it makes more sense to me when I come to understand that Mormon theology sees God's kingdom on earth in the future ruled from Salt Lake and Jerusalem. It also makes me nervous, in the same way I am nervous about Iran's President, when I think about Romney being in a position to accelerate his view of the end times.
Another helpful thing about this whole book for me was understanding the importance and nature of the "priesthood" for adolescent and adult men. I had heard this whole phenomenon talked about by LDS friends, but never really came to understand what the priesthood was all about. Not that I know a lot more now, but I see where the whole concept is important.
This book also had a helpful timeline of Mormon history. I think some of us think we understand a little of LDS history as mainline and/or evangelical Christians, This book will help non-Mormons understand more. Particularly informative is the description of persecution of LDS persons in the United States.
The chapter on the "Engine of Mormonism" and the "Mormon Machine" is extremely insightful. I was especially intrigued by the language of testing in the LDS faith, and it made sense of a lot of attitudes and behaviors among Mormons that I appreciated but did not fully understand before.
There is also a section on "Mormon beliefs in plain language". I found this helpful and informative. Mansfield does a much better job than "The Godmakers" of presenting these beliefs in a forthright and non-judgmental fashion. I do suspect, however, that some LDS persons would object to his summary.
As the book of The Mormonizing of America concludes, Mansfield echoes the heart of many bible believing Christians in relationship to LDS persons. He says, "'There is a case to be made that the Mormon people have often been better than their leaders and better than the doctrines their leaders have given them.' This is certainly true. The faithful will object because they have been taught that obeying their leaders is essential to salvation. We can let them object. What we can know from Mormon history, though, is that it is the Mormon people who have accomplished the greatness of Mormonism."
In other words, many other evangelicals and myself can cast aspersions on people like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and think a lot of the doctrines about the afterlife and about not drinking coffee and wearing funny underwear are a little kooky. In spite of this, there is something many of us greatly admire about LDS people and what Mansfield calls the "Mormon Machine".