Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the author of “The Mormon People,” Matthew Bowman, did not acknowledge his Mormon background in the book. Bowman said in his acknowledgments that his family members were Mormon.
Has “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer accomplished more than just writing one of the new millennium’s blockbusters, a multimedia phenomenon that cast supernatural creatures as teenage heartthrobs? Two new books, one a work of history, the other of cultural analysis, seek to explicate the “Mormon moment” for American readers. And each cites Meyer’s success at mainstreaming the values of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But what if the romantic triangle created by a Mormon housewife turned novelist isn’t merely a story of young love that celebrates abstinence and family? Suppose it’s a parable for the 2012 Republican presidential primary.
The “Twilight” series’s main character, Bella Swan, buffeted by bad luck, is a stand-in for the voters. Suspicious of true love, she’s courted by combative suitors. Edward Cullen is tall, handsome and perfectly coiffed. Jacob Black is volatile and passionate, self-made and fond of the ladies. Edward is the scion of an ancient, close-knit family whose members, as vampires, are bound together for eternity. Edward’s a little wooden, while Jacob, a werewolf, has no problem expressing his emotions when the stakes are high. Could it be more obvious? Romney is the vampire aristocrat, Gingrich the up-by-his-bootstraps wolfman.
Americans seeking to know more about Mormons this election season could do worse than read the “Twilight” trilogy. Manifesting Mormon virtues in a small town beset by economic insecurity, broken families and rampant crime, the Cullen vampire clan is a living (well, undead) model of purpose-driven lives, self-sufficiency and wholesome values. They even play baseball together! Meyer makes her point without sacrificing her point of view. Moreover, she writes plain, keep-it-moving prose. These are important goals that the authors of these two nonfiction accounts of the LDS church should have taken to heart.
In “The Mormon People,” Matthew Bowman synthesizes previous scholarship to create a church history that is neither truly secular nor wholly sacred. Bowman is himself a Mormon, which inevitably shapes his work and his judgments. The issue is not whether he can write more or less objectively than a non-Mormon, but rather how his commitments inform his approach to the material. Knowing an author’s point of view, especially on sensitive religious subjects, helps readers evaluate the intellectual and emotional arguments threading through a given text. In this case, I spent a lot of the time looking for clues.
For example, Bowman’s retelling of LDS founder Joseph Smith’s religious journey in the 19th century takes all events at face value. Bowman treats Smith’s decision to marry for the first time and his discovery of gold plates inscribed with divine revelations as equally important. One would think that the irruption of divinity into the world would rate more than Bowman’s calm and measured narration and prose. Maybe he believes that, in Smith’s world, the secular and sacred intermingled. If so, he should say as much for the sake of readers who are less starry-eyed.
Bowman does say his aim is to introduce readers “to the faith of presidential contender Mitt Romney and bestselling author Stephenie Meyer” as well as to show that “the story of Mormonism is not merely the story of these believers and their ancestors, but the story of America itself.” He does the first task exceedingly well; he engagingly roots the Mormon story in the particular history of Smith’s time and place, and he reports thoroughly on Smith’s life, his spiritual journey and the birth of a new religion. Yet Bowman never really manages to bring Smith to life.
He also succeeds at describing the evolution of Mormon faith and practice. Using letters, diaries and newspaper accounts, he provides reliable firsthand testimony on the religion’s origins. We see Smith’s early outreach to like-minded seekers and his ability to attract a community of men and women looking for spiritual succor and material stability. In its early decades, the church was a countercultural haven, offering believers an alternative to America’s emerging evangelical synthesis of individualistic piety and free-market economics, a mix that seemed harsh and callous to many. Mormons pooled their financial resources, established a theological democracy and practiced an ecstatic religion that promised they could be like God, enjoying divine lives among families eternally bound through the ritual of “sealing.” Bowman also chronicles the faith’s transfer from charismatic leadership to institutionalized hierarchy and a concomitant shift in theology that erased its rough edges: By the mid-20th century, plural marriage, theocracy and communalism were long gone.
In recounting Mormonism’s most recent history, Bowman paints the church beige. Following a corporate model, it has standardized, rationalized and bureaucratized, becoming a model minority that excels at excelling. Bowman notes that Mormon paragons include hotel magnate Willard Marriott, former NFL quarterback Steve Young and motivational author Stephen R. Covey. But he does not mention the influx of Mormons into positions in government, the military and the CIA, and how their success is explained as much by their ability to follow orders unquestioningly as by their oft-cited patriotic fervor.
Still, for readers eager to know more about Mormon history and beliefs, Bowman’s book is well written and comprehensive. It’s organized chronologically, which helps make the case for the religion’s ongoing and organic relationship with the republic.
In “LDS in the USA,” Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander (an unidentified Mormon author) want to make a similar argument, but their book, unlike Bowman’s, is burdened by circular reasoning and repetitive prose. That’s a shame, because their premise is sound. Rather than write another history of the faith, they aim to appraise the Mormon contribution to American civilization. But chapters on culture, politics and religion are more descriptive than analytical. The authors detail the growing role of Mormons in Hollywood yet say little about their objectives or impact. Likewise, they discover an increasing number of Mormon politicians, but the only conclusion the authors draw is that many non-Mormons won’t vote for them.
Are Mormons just like the rest of us? Is their story quintessentially American? Have their struggles concerning federalism, church-state relations and religious freedom shaped American society in fundamental ways? Probably, maybe and definitely. But all major religious groups have distinctive characteristics, make salutary contributions to society and write themselves into our collective national history. Mormons are distinctive because their history still surrounds us. Unlike Jews, Muslims or Christians whose first generations have long since passed into dust, contemporary Mormons have letters, diaries and journals from their founding forebears. Mitt Romney’s great-great- grandfather was one of Joseph Smith’s first converts. That’s a different historical relationship than Jews have to Moses or Muslims to Mohammed. Similarly, Mormons’ bold challenges to marriage, government and conventional notions of Jesus and God the Father still reverberate, even if they are no longer practiced or widely preached.
All three authors fail to do justice to the fundamental complexity that their books highlight: Mormons are both us and the other. And Mitt, like Edward Cullen, is certainly tall, handsome and perfectly coiffed.
THE MORMON PEOPLE
The Making of an American Faith
By Matthew Bowman
Random House. 328 pp. $26
LDS IN THE USA
Mormonism and the Making
of American Culture
By Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander
Baylor Univ. 166 pp. Paperback, $24.95