AMERICAN JESUS

 

To a European mind, the Mormon religion seems intrinsically American - but is it? A visit in the church´s headquarters in Salt Lake City, and at the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

 

Published in FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE SONNTAGSZEITUNG

 

 

"Wow", says a Japanese journalist on her walk across Brigham Young University Campus in Provo, Utah. "All of these people are virgins?" Among the blooming apple trees and the pretty tulip beds, hundreds of students hurry along between classes, some nap in the sun on the accurately cut grass. Jessica Moody, spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, nods. BYU is the church-owned university, and students are required to adhere to a strict honor code: honesty, compliance with the law, clean language - and chastity before marriage. Violations of the code are taken seriously. When the star of BYU´s hopeful basketball team was discovered to have slept with his girlfriend, he was suspended from the team for the rest of the season.

 

It´s about moral integrity, explains Jessica Moody, which is a central pillar of a religion founded as recently as 1830, which today counts six million Americans among its members and has its center in Utah. Ninety-eight percent of the students and faculty of America´s third-largest private university are members of the church.

 

Lately, Moody has been giving quite a few tours on the campus. Journalists from all over the world are showing up to see what the Mormons are all about, whose most prominent member is running to wrest the U.S presidency from Barack Obama in the fall.

 

At first glance, this campus below the dramatic backdrop of the Wasatch range seems like any other.

It takes a closer inspection to make out subtle differences. Regardless of the 82-degree midday heat, nobody here is sleeveless, skirts end at the knee. Students are carrying water bottles, not Starbucks mugs, and the young men, some of them in shirt and tie, wear their hair short and are clean-shaven.

 

The Mormons, who consider themselves a lost tribe of Israel in America, are known as a tidy, industrious and ambitious people who refrain from alcohol, cigarettes and other stimulants, who value a modest appearance, moral integrity and service to their community. Their religion is regarded as modern and optimistic and is respected for its worldwide charitable activities. Too good to be true?

Yes, say some - among them Park Romney, 56, a cousin of the candidate, whose great-grandfather is also Mitt Romney's.

"Mormonism", says Park Romney, "is a socially dangerous religion." Behind the rhetoric, he says, stands a disregard for the balance between the individual and the community, between a radically positive outlook on life and the moral obligation to call  out injustice and grievances.

 

The Romneys are an old and influential Mormon family, and Park Romney spent more than 40 years of his life in the church before he quit and wrote "Apostasy of a high priest" last year, a stark critique of the church. He accuses the church of undermining critical thinking and a responsible attitude, and his resentment finds angry words. "Hitler came to power with the aquiescence of a Christian society whose members had abandoned the human obligation to ask tough questions."

His analysis won him few friends in the American media, which, citing freedom of religion, have been largely avoiding the critical discussion of relgious beliefs. The "Washington Post" called him "Mitt Romney´s crazy cousin".

 

American pop culture predominantly associates Mormonism with a morally questionable practice: polygamy, as portrayed in the HBO series "Big Love" or on the reality show "Sister Wives" about fundamentalist factions. Mainstream Mormons routinely roll their eyes at the mention of this word. "People who practive polygamy today have nothing whatsoever to do with us", says Mike Otterson, the publicity director of the church.

 

Ottersen´s office sits across from the imposing temple in the heart of Salt Lake City, the center of the religious culture. Non-Mormons have no access, and even Mormons are admitted only with a declaration of their "worthiness". This is where the

masonically inspired rituals are celebrated which give the church the flavor of a cult: the oath to dedicate oneself and all of one´s talents and possessions to the building of the kingdom of God on earth; the sealing of marriages for eternity; the vicarious baptisms for those who have passed on. Esoteric stuff like clandestine handshakes and the assignment of secret codenames for the access into paradise is still practiced. But polygamy was officially abandoned by the church in 1890 - at least in this life. Polygamy, says Otterson, today leads to excommunication.

 

But the attitude of the church towards polygamy is a pivoting point of the Mormon faith - and of the scepticism of the church´s critics. The Mormon doctrine forms in consecutive revelations, received by the current head of the church (currently the oldest of the exclusively male, fifteen-member strong executive committee) from God himself. And the fact that God first commanded polygamy and later, when it was politically opportune, abandoned it, is among the many contradictions which make critics and even some followers of the religion doubt its veracity.

 

Joseph Smith founded the church in 1930 after he felt called upon from God to restore a corrupted christianity. An angel named Moroni purportedly lead the young New Yorker to plates buried in a hillside, which contained a lost gospel of ancient American prophets. Smith translated it as "The Book of Mormon" - with the aid of a "seer stone", which he also found in the hillside, and a hat.

 

The news about an original American gospel wherein not only the Garden of Eden but the coming Kingdom of God are located on American soil spread like wildifre among the Americans of the early nineteenth century. The critique that Mormonisms holy scriptures are rooted in the hair-raising stories of a young man who in his youth earned money as a psychic treasure hunter and who thus was summoned to court for fraud in 1826 does not faze the church leaders. "The parting of the Red Sea is equally unproven", says Mike Otterson. "Are the stories from the bible more believable just because they are millennia old?"

 

Smith continued to build the Mormon doctrine through divine revelations. In 1843 he had a revelation in Illinois in which God declared polygamy - polygyny, to be exact - to be a sacred duty (and which also contained a direct order to Smith´s sceptical wife Emma to be obedient). In the non-Mormon community, this scandalous notice led to outrage, and when Smith ordered the destruction of a printing press of a newspaper which was agitating against the ideas of the Mormons, the ire knew no bounds. Smith was arrested and shot to death by a lynchmob in the jail of Carthage, Illinois.

 

Forty-six years later - Smiths church had established itself under the leadership of the second Prophet Brigham Young in remote Utah and was facing mountin pressure by the US government to end polygamy - God declared through a revelation to the current prophet Wilford Woodruff that polgyamy was to be abandoned. "Otherwise, the church would have been disowned", explains Mike Otterson, "and under these circumstances, the Lord withdrew the commandment."

 

The church deals pragmatically with contradictions in the doctrine: Not all questions are immediately answered by God, although in time, believers will surely know them. On touchy subjects - the death penalty, for instance - the church is simply silent, quite a modern PR-strategy. "The church has no position on this" is an oft-heard statement in Salt Lake City and Provo.

 

In the academic community of Brigham Young University, too, a cool pragmatism prevails as a useful strategy for bridging disparities. Ross Spencer for example heads the department for Physics and Astronomy. He traces his lineage back to the pioneers who followed Brigham Young on the exodus from Illinois to Salt Lake City in 1846. "As soon as Young´s people had a roof over their heads and food in the fields, they established schools", says Spencer. In 1850  Brigham Young founded a university that would become BYU, and today an inofficial motto of the institution reads "God´s glory is intelligence". The declared goal of the Mormons is to become more god-like themselves. Ideally, they might someday ascend to a level in the afterlife where they might create their own universes and populate them with their own DNA.

 

Seriously, professor Spencer? "I don´t know how all of this makes sense", says the physicist and laughs. To him, faith and scientific knowledge are not at all incompatible - after all, the sudden inspiration for the solution of a mathematical problem is strongly akin to the spiritual elevation in prayer, he says, and the world view of the church founders was similarly limited as that of physicists before the launch of the hubble telescope.

 

But Spencer concedes that academic inquisitiveness and clerical obedience are at odds. "It's difficult for me to bring this together", he says. "But even in science I sometimes have to suspend my belief. I have no clue how my soul is connected to the cells of my body, yet it sure feels like it. And if God is limited to light speed, he doesn't get around much in this universe." Spencer smiles. "So for better or for worse, I will have to trust that someone else knows what's really going on."

 

Among the prejudices discussed in Christian Clement's German seminar a few buildings over is the one that Mormons are gullible weirdos. "We're not a bunch of brainwashed sheep", says one of the students. "We are encouraged to form our own opinions." The university boasts a vast foreign language program. Many BYU students have experiences abroad, because the church expects young men to enlist for a two-year mission. And ten percent of the young women here feel that calling as well. (Mitt Romney, by the way, spent thirty months in France for his church between 1966 and 1968, and he was known to colleagues to be extra zealous; it was this experience, Romney would later say, that made him, a merely moderate Mormon at first, a true believer).

 

German professor Clement has been discussing the controversy surrounding Guenther Grass' Israel-poem, and in the ensuing discussion the students largely agree that no one should prohibit Grass from writing such poetry. Freedom of speech, this is the consensus in the classroom, is very important. But whereas the students are quite serious about their moral integrity, intellectual integrity is often paid mere lip service. The ideals of a liberal education and freedom of speech are honored only insofar as it leaves the official history of the church and the decision of the clerical leaders untouched. Like all Mormons, students and faculty are discouraged from materials critical of their churc; scepticism is, at least in regards to the church, undesirable.

 

In 1993, the church fired six faculty members who had engaged in research on topics like feminism and the fascination of the early church with superstition and the magical realm. 2006, yet another professor was made to leave, because he denounced the opposition of the church to same-sex marriages. "It is as if modernism and feminism never happened", says one who knows the circumstances here well. "The church's culture intellectually still exists before Nietzsche and Freud."

 

In Pleasant Grove a few miles north of Provo, a bulldozer tears up a neighborhood street. There is much construction going on in Utah, the beehive on the state's roadsigns still today symbolizes the industrious people who came into the long valley west of the Wasatch range 160 years ago to build a better world. The bulldozer's digging has been shaking Martha O'Connor's house since January, anyone else would be filing angry complaints with the city. But as the machine backs up with a warning beep, O'Connor merrily waves at a young couple ambling along in front of her house. Mormons believe that happiness is God's plan for humankind, and to see things in a positive light is a highly held merit.

 

"It is a very optimistic religion", says O´Connor, a mother of six. She converted as a young woman, and in her hallway hangs a family tree covering six generations. She likes the sense of community which pervades everything here, she says. The bishop assigns a pair of house teachers to every household who once a month check on the family and hold scripture readings with them. Those that slip into dire circumstance can be granted access to a system of relief which encompasses education, job-search aid and food stamps by their bishop. "It's nice to know that people care about you", says Martha O'Connor.

 

But Mormon women especially are under high pressure, says Kay Burningham. A lawyer, feminist and and author of the book "An American Fraud", she sits in a Salt Lake City Restaurant between two dispositions. Burningham comes from an old pionier family and until eleven years ago was a devout Mormon. "Many women in the religion suffer from low self-esteem", she says, "because they are kept intellectually immature by the church."

 

Women, says Burningham, can only get into the highest of the three celestial worlds with the help of their husbands. They cannot hold clerical office and are revered before all other things as mothers. "People live in a patriarchal, paternalistic system here", she says. "It took me 45 years to realize this, and I am surely not dumb." Utah has the hightest rate of antidepressives in the nation, and Kay Burningham believes that this is a direct result of the high expectations the Mormon church pins on women to be happily beaming mothers, wives and housekeepers. Local psychiatrists have labeleld this the "Mother of Zion"-syndrome.

What some see as the ideal of a purposeful life is hell on earth for others. Recently, Kay Burningham says, a good old friend of hers took her own life. "She was 41 and still unmarried, a smart, beautiful woman - and a virgin until the end of her life."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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