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Sam Haselby
Sam Haselby
Sam Haselby is a visiting assistant professor of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. From 2007 to 2010 he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.
American sectarian
The history of Mormonism is deeply entwined with both American capitalism and American nationalism.
Last Modified: 18 May 2012 06:02
According to Joseph Smith, in 1823, an angel appeared and told him that the true path to God could be found on ancient, golden plates [GALLO/GETTY]

Perhaps the two best-known things about Mitt Romney are that he is a Mormon and that he made a lot of money as a venture capitalist. Since both of these facts present certain liabilities in US politics, his campaign for the White House has tried to make known that the potency of his American nationalism overpowers both his fortune and his faith. It is less well known that Mormonism has a complex history with both American capitalism and American nationalism.

The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's family epitomised the displacement that capitalism brought to rural America. In five generations in the New World, beginning in the 1630s, the Smiths lost their membership in the Congregational Church, a bit of capital in a failed investment in the China trade, and their land. Between the 1790s and 1816, in an unsuccessful attempt to maintain the family's status as landowners, Smith's grandfather and father migrated from Massachusetts to Vermont to upstate New York. In 1830, when Smith organised his church, his father, Joseph Smith Sr, found himself, at 58 years old, a landless farmer, a fall in status which in modern rural societies is almost impossible to reverse. 

 People & Power - Mitt Romney and the Mormon factor

Fleeing persecution and trying to secure land, Mormons continued moving westward. In the middle third of the 19th century, the growing community of believers moved from upstate New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, before settling in Utah. The distinctive Mormon practice of posthumous baptism, in which Mormons collect genealogical records so that the Church might baptise the dead, must be understood in this context of migration and diaspora. Posthumous baptism, or, as Mormons call it, "work for the dead", aims to forge what Joseph Smith called a "welding link" to bind families across generations. Amid attenuated or broken family bonds, Mormon "work for the dead" was a way to reunite families in the next world and must have held deep emotional appeal.

The contemporary crisis of capitalism also informs the story behind the Book of Mormon, in which gold and land, age-old indicators of prosperity and stability, play important roles. According to Joseph Smith, in 1823, an angel named Moroni appeared and told him that the true path to God could be found on ancient, golden plates buried near his father's farm. At the time, the US had no Federal Reserve and the US Treasury did not have the authority to print money. With no regulation, private banks issued their own currencies. 

Sacred texts and golden plates

As a result, paper currency values were volatile, and widely perceived as disadvantageous to farmers and rural people. This situation may help explain the odd detail of sacred texts on golden plates. After all, paper had been good enough for the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, and the Quran. Nor did the any of these holy books claim to come from the earth. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who idealised agriculture as the source of legitimate wealth and authority, noticed this peculiarity of The Book of Mormon. "On the whole," Tolstoy reportedly remarked, he "preferred a religion that professed to have dug its sacred book out of the earth, to one which pretended that it was let down from heaven".

The connection between Mormon beginnings and the crisis of capitalism in rural America is even evident in the physical production of The Book of Mormon. Among scriptures of world religions, The Book of Mormon must be the only one whose publication was paid for, in 1830 by mortgaging a farm, at the cost of about $75,000 in today's dollars. 

Like other holy books, The Book of Mormon describes an ideal society as one of relative equality, where all "dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them". Smith's scripture states: "It is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin." As recorded in an 1834 divine revelation, God told Joseph Smith, "Wo unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls." For a time, early Mormons even turned over all their property to the church government, which redistributed resources to foster equality and build public works.

Readers of No Apology, Mitt Romney's campaign book, will learn nothing about the strong egalitarian aspects of early Mormonism. Nor will they learn that 19th-century Mormonism was theocratic. During his quixotic 1844 run for the President of the United States, for example, Joseph Smith appointed a council to decide which federal and state laws were consistent with superior Mormon religious law. Mormon-dominated Utah did not join the US until 1896, and during the Civil War (1861-1865), the great American nation-making event of the 19th century, Utah remained neutral.

Mitt Romney's campaign for US President offers a good example of how deeply both American nationalism and capitalism have transformed Mormonism. Romney's No Apology has no index entries for "Smith, Joseph" but six for "Hussein, Saddam" and nine for "Reagan, Ronald". It has no entries for The Book of Mormon but two for the Quran, nine for "al-Qaeda", and 14 for "violent jihadist groups". The Danites, a 19th-century Mormon terrorist group, are not mentioned, but the American revolutionary John Adams is. Six times. Such omissions and emphases help counter a prejudice, common in the US, that Mormons may not be sufficiently loyal Americans. The subtitles of No Apology also reflect this concern. The original subtitle was The Case for American Greatness. For the paperback version, Romney changed it to Believe in America

"Romney believes that the US reached great heights during the Reagan years but has, under the current administration, fallen into decline."

Romney's understanding of the role of the US in recent history, and the present state of the world, will strike many readers as cartoonish. He credits Ronald Reagan's "double-digit increases" in US military expenditures, four decades ago, with what he describes as "unprecedented years of global peace, prosperity, and progress for democracy". In fact, the current US military budget is greater than that of the countries with the 29 next largest military budgets combined. At the same time, according to a 2011 report by the UN Refugee Agency, the number of refugees in the world has climbed to 44 million people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that, as of 2008, the US-led war on Iraq turned 4.7 million Iraqis into refugees. The "Costs of War," a 2011 study by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, estimates that the US wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are responsible for the deaths of at least 225,000 people. 

Romney believes that the US reached great heights during the Reagan years but has, under the current administration, fallen into decline. In fact, US power is in decline, but the trend is longer and deeper than Romney realises. At the end of World War II, the US owned a remarkable half of the world's wealth. By the early 1970s, the US share of the world's wealth had declined to approximately 25 per cent. In the past four decades, that figure has remained about the same, but its ownership has become increasingly concentrated among the richest Americans. 

America in decline

Romney's own position in relation to US decline is not simple. On the one hand, there is no reason to doubt, as he says, that he believes it is bad for Americans and bad for the world. On the other hand, in the past generation, as the quality of the lives afforded most Americans has deteriorated, Romney and other elite finance capitalists and corporate managers have been great winners. According to a study by the economist Jon Bakija, "managers, supervisors, and financial professionals account for about 60 per cent of the top 0.1 percent of [US national] income earners". Even more remarkably, it is the same small group of corporate managers and financial professionals, just one-tenth of the top one per cent of US income earners, to whom "70 per cent of the increase in the share of national income", between 1979 and 2005, has gone. In short, though times are tough for many Americans, for the tiny class of Americans to which Romney belongs, times have been good, very good. 

To distract from the awkward fact that he is asking Americans to be for an empire that has not been for them, Romney resorts to cloudy myth, writing, in No Apology, "I reject the view that America must decline. I believe in American exceptionalism." The phrase "American exceptionalism" originated as a Marxist term, referring to the apparent exception of the US to purported laws of historical development, laws Marxists saw as leading to the development of communism. What Romney means by the phrase is not entirely clear, though his understanding seems consistent with the essence of the original meaning: that the US somehow stands outside of history. 

History, however, happens everywhere, even in the US, and at present the US suffers from historic levels of inequality. In 1832, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith wrote, "Every man according to his wants and his needs, inasmuch as his wants are just". To be precise, Smith would not have said he wrote these lines; rather he recorded them. They were, he said, a revelation from God. God also told Smith that "The earth is full, and there is enough and to spare." 

As Mitt Romney's campaign for the White House moves forward, more questions about Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its past, and its role in American life will emerge. Anti-Mormonism, which remains fairly common in the United States, will color the discussion, steering it toward Mormon cosmology and the Church's history of polygamy. Regarding the crisis of inequality in the US, however, the Mormon past holds respectable and timely lessons related to the growing gulf between the rich and the poor in the US, and the separation of the prospects of the American super rich from that of the mass of their fellow citizens. In this respect at least, one might wish that Mitt Romney, and for that matter Barack Obama, were a bit more like Joseph Smith and the early Mormons.

Sam Haselby is a visiting assistant professor of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. From 2007 to 2010 he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and he has recently finished The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, 1776-1832, a book about religion and nationalism in revolutionary and early republic America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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