The quintessential American religion

[Originally written by Mike Foley in August 2008]

BYU-Hawaii ICS prof publishes chapter on ‘shifting role’ of Church

Dr. Ethan Yorgason [pictured at right: photo by Mike Foley], an adjunct assistant professor in the history and International Cultural Studies geography professor at BYU-Hawaii, contributed a chapter on the “shifting role of Latter-day Saints as the quintessential American religion” to a recently published scholarly three-volume work entitled Faith in America.

The volumes tackle the expectations of pundits who claim religion would have “ever declining importance in public discourse.” More specifically Volume One, where Yorgason’s chapter is found, focuses on “transformations that have rocked organized religious life in the United States.”

Yorgason explains the word “quintessential,” as in “the quintessential American religion,” refers to Greek and medieval philosophical beliefs in “aether, the fifth element of the universe along with fire, earth, air and water.” He asks: “Could this label, like aether, become more of a reminder how people used to think than a notion that provides insight” and begins to explore if the label will have “staying power” for Mormonism into the twenty-first century.

He further explains “quintessential” arguments on Mormonism contain “four basic formal elements”: First, “Mormonism’s numerical success.” Second, “Mormonism possesses manifestly American origins.” Third, “Mormonism, according to many accounts, created something distinct from earlier religious categories.” Fourth, “Mormonism created strong, tightly integrated leadership and membership.”

“To the extent that those looking for the quintessential American religion find these formal characteristics attractive, few religions in America can match Mormonism,” Yorgason continues. “Add Mormonism’s theological statements about America, and the LDS Church becomes the quintessential American religion by near default.”

He points out that some observers have gone so far as to label Latter-day Saints “super-Americans or model Americans,” while others asserted “Mormon culture represented the essence of traditional, rather than contemporary, America. Mormonism’s presumed community mindedness, patriarchal gender roles, and strict sexual morality reminded many of an America that used to exist.”

Other arguments along these lines point to Mormonism’s nineteenth century movement to the frontier American West; subsequent “staying power over generations” that “created a separate culture — or at least a subculture, not just a tightly organized voluntary association — complete for a time with its own economy and spatial boundaries”; and teachings that “tapped into deeply rooted American cultural/religious/longings and habits.”

For example, Yorgason cites Yale literary critic Harold Bloom who stated Joseph Smith was a “religious genius. Though he insisted that no single group wholly embodies ‘the American Religion,’ Bloom regarded Mormons and Southern Baptists as those that come closest.” He added Bloom also “argued that much of what makes Americans Americans at the deepest levels is celebrated and developed within Mormonism.”

Following World War II, Yorgason attributed a “a ten-fold increase in membership in fifty years” outside of its “traditional core” along with statements from leaders “recommending that converts not gather to Utah and America, but instead build up the Church where they were. Hence by the 1960s, this growth was clearly international, with rapid increases in Latin America and East Asia.”

“…Church membership continues to grow. It now contains more than 12 million members, a bit more than half of whom live outside the United States. Latin Americans comprise close to 40 percent of Church members. Activity levels in the United States are substantially higher than those elsewhere, however. The hierarchy is still overwhelmingly American.”

Yorgason points out several trends which, if they strengthen, could partially wither the label. For example he noted, “the LDS Church may not be a majority American religion anymore. Central LDS leadership may lose its American majority at some point over the next several decades, though this will surely lag behind membership shifts.”

Other trends include “growth rates [that] slowed substantially over the past decade,” and a decrease in the percentage of Mormons living in Utah. However, he also notes these could be temporary situations.

“There is no such thing as a historically transcendent national essence, many scholars argue,” Yorgason writes. “The arguments for Mormonism as quintessentially American may well tell us more about America than about Mormonism.”

Yorgason also writes it would be “foolhardy” to predict that the “quintessential American” label will undergo “any sudden change. Too much scholarship, tradition, and perhaps even a validity exist for the label to disappear quickly.”

“In an era where religious and socially conservative nationals seem to determine elections, the ‘quintessential’ interpretation may still be on the rise. Scholars might also find an essential match between Mormonism and America as both entities participate in a globalizing world.”

Likewise, he adds “the momentum of the ‘quintessential’ label may simply overwhelm any or all of these potentially contrary trends. After all, most of its fundamental bases remained unchanged.”

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