Communal Religion and the Covenant Path
The End of the Cold War and the Rise of a New Synthesis
In 2009, an early and clear manifestation of millennial foodie culture reached my hometown. The menu was interesting, but the real innovation was in the layout. Down the middle of its deep but narrow space was a single, long table: people would gather and sit alongside strangers eating New American cuisine at "Communal."
The name and concept of this restaurant impressed me enough that I thought of it when listening to the Church’s general conference last October. The word “communal” was used twice in the same talk, by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:
…For religion to shape one’s life, it needs to be public and communal; it needs to be connected to the dead and the unborn.
If we will remember this, the Lord’s high hopes for us will inspire, not discourage, us. We can feel joy as we pursue, individually and communally, “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
I thought to myself that I wasn't aware of ever having heard that word in a church talk before, and I'd just heard it twice. In my response, I sensed a dawning recognition: ears attuning to a significant new direction, my intellect sensitively ingesting something I’d never heard before. I thought of the 2021 interview Terryl and Fiona Givens gave that spoke of the need to “rearticulate the gospel anew in subsequent generations.” I was, in fact, observing a change in language that represented this rearticulation underway.
Upon examination, what caught my attention is evidence of a new synthesis of understanding—an answer to the yearnings of the twenty-first century. I believe that we are witnessing the prophetic reclamation of conceptual territory which had previously been abandoned amidst concerns about global communism. As a student of international relations and economic history, I’ve always been fascinated by the way that WWII and the ideological struggle of the Cold War cast a long shadow over human institutions of the West. How we mortgage homes or purchase inexpensive consumer goods or participate in higher education reminds us of the Cold War’s enduring legacy. Because of this long shadow, we are only just now able to reclaim, rearticulate, and receive a prophetic synthesis of communal belonging infused with covenantal identity.
Below, I examine three phases:
1) an early phase defined by the utopian impulse to build Zion as a communal ordering of saints
2) the abandonment of these ideas amidst the struggle of the Cold War
3) the timely emergence of a new synthesis articulated by latter-day prophets in the twenty-first century.
“EQUAL IN THE BONDS OF HEAVENLY THINGS, YEA, AND EARTHLY THINGS”
It would be understandable to group the Latter-day Saint movement as one of many utopian experiments along the frontiers of the United States during the nineteenth century. Experiments that included Shakers, Transcendentalists, Perfectionists, and Separatists in various communities throughout the Northeast and Midwest—all were radical attempts to improve and protect social fabric that began to fray as a consequence of the early industrial revolution, population growth, and increased mobility. In almost every instance, structures of family, the nature of work, and the parameters governing human intimacy were part of the experimentation.
The Zion-building enterprise among early Latter-day Saints thus required specific temporal instructions about how to “appoint unto this people their portions, every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs.” “And all this for the benefit of the church of the living God, that every man may improve upon his talent, that every man may gain other talents, yea, even an hundred fold, to be cast into the Lord’s storehouse, to become the common property of the whole church—Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.” Gospel-living was an all-encompassing paradigm.
Scholars have noted that in nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint experience, theological, economic, political, familial, and liturgical concepts had heavy overlap. Indeed Joseph Smith revealed a Lord for whom “all things [are] both spiritual and temporal,” and early communities of saints often had their civic, ecclesiastical, militia, and economic authorities all combined into a single leadership role. Richard Bushman details the Navuoo experience of belonging to a dynamic religious society which was industrious but noncapitalist. Historian John Turner describes how Brigham Young led a territorial theocracy in Utah and infused spiritual meaning in community building in the Intermountain West. Lastly, as pointed out recently by legal scholar Nathan Oman, the ordinance of sealing in the nineteenth century was centered on kingdom structures in heaven connected together more by church priesthood leadership than by biological ties. This was a society which cared about shared work and shared outcomes along with robust, scalable conceptual structures to gather and build humankind.
If early decades of the movement saw the tying together of economic, political, theological, and liturgical experiences, the subsequent decades and following century observed an uncinching of those ties in the face of practicality or expediency. Latter-day Saints’ ability to articulate and follow new revelations undoubtedly proved key to survival in the face of persecution and violence, and also allowed for ongoing and future internationalization. The flexibility to pivot from addressing the exigencies of one era to those of a later one—all while maintaining a coherent sense of community—may have been what prompted the late Peter F. Drucker—the founder of the study of modern business management in the twentieth century—to go on record to say, “The Mormons are the only Utopia that ever worked.” Of course, even the Latter-day Saint version was never really a full, flawless utopia. Pain, suffering, and injustice too existed in this nineteenth-century community. But the reality remains that the Mormon idea of community proved strangely resilient, even when the cultural ethos began later to emphasize individuality and personal grit. Latter-day Saints of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have always been inheritors of the tradition of communal belonging, even if at times it was deemphasized, ignored, or downplayed.
LDS CONCEPTIONS IN COLD WAR VINTAGE
It turns out that the word “communal” has been used before in general conference, four times since 1970. One of them was an oblique reference. The other three uses of the word spoke to a very serious generational concern:
Communism introduced into the world a substitute for true religion. It is a counterfeit of the gospel plan. The false prophets of Communism predict a utopian society. This, they proclaim, will only be brought about as capitalism and free enterprise are overthrown, private property abolished, the family as a social unit eliminated, all classes abolished, all governments overthrown, and a communal ownership of property in a classless, stateless society established. A Witness and A Warning, President Ezra T. Benson, Oct, 1979
The Church never was, and under existing commandments never will be, a communal society, under the directions thus far given by the Lord. The United Order was not communal nor communistic. It was completely and intensely individualistic, with a consecration of unneeded surpluses for the support of the Church and the poor.”...The Church did not own all of the property, and life under the united order was not, and never will be, a communal life, as the Prophet Joseph himself said. The Purpose of Church Welfare Services, President Marion G. Romney, April 1977
With the rule of the radical ideas which are sweeping the country, there has come a breakdown of family ties which is despised in many intellectual circles. The country is seemingly plied with sex education, abortion, planned parenthood, pornography, women’s liberation, communal living, premarital sex, and postmarital permissiveness. … Strengthen the Stakes of Zion, President Harold B. Lee, 1973
From the perspective of someone born after 1980, what is surprising from these quotes is that “communal” is associated with shirking responsibility, premarital sex, and anarchy. If you take the above quotes and expand the search aperture to include words like “communist,” “communism,” “socialist,” “socialism,” you get over a dozen mentions in conference talks during the era and a sense of a real worldview threat. Warnings of a “descent down the soul-destroying world of socialism,” of succumbing “to the deceptive lure of the welfare state and socialism,” and guidance to “combat the falsehoods of socialism” and the “threat of Communism around the world.”
If being anti-communist was a cultural reflex during the Cold War, attributes such as personal responsibility, individual honor, private initiative, utility maximizing and magnifying behaviors, competition, hard work, and earned achievements represented cultural preferences of the day. The titles and phrases from general conference talks of this era demonstrate a decided emphasis on the importance of individual devotion and spiritual tenacity: “Maximize [y]our potential,” “Honor your covenants,” “Eternal life is a personal responsibility we must earn,” ”We are sanctifying ourselves one step at a time as we accept personal responsibility for our actions,” ”Success is gauged by self-mastery,” “Preserve our talents of self-sufficiency.”
All of these are inspired teachings. They may also be evidence of an era in which a perceived threat tilts an array of emphases in a particular direction.
Personal accounts of church life during the Cold War years are also telling. While messages like those listed above may have inspired and invigorated some members, others found them forbidding or even overwhelming. Jutta Busche, wife of a general authority, moved to the Wasatch Front in 1980. She encountered a community of strivers and maximizers, resembling a busy rat race.
“I continued to feel inferior as I watched the sisters in my ward and saw them planting gardens and canning the produce. They exercised daily by jogging. They sewed and bargain-shopped. They went on heart fund drives and served as PTA officers. They took dinners to new mothers and the sick in their neighborhoods. They took care of an aged parent, sometimes two. They climbed Mount Timpanogos. They drove their children to and from music or dancing lessons. They were faithful in doing temple work, and they worried about catching up on their journals.”
Jutta Busche found a “striving for perfection” culture which was intimidating and a shock to her self-confidence. She describes reflexes to compete, impress, guilt, and conform. Janet Bowen, married to church author Stephen Robinson, likely had many of these same experiences, and shared with her husband her conviction that she would not reach a celestial degree of glory in the afterlife. This led him to grapple with how Janet could reach such a conclusion. The result was a book about the grace of Jesus Christ, Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News.
If personal experience prompted reassessments of Cold War conceptions in LDS life, they resulted in reworkings, not rewrites, of those conceptions. For example, Robinson’s book, published at the twilight of the Cold War, came back into Latter-day Saint intellectual discussion via Adam S. Miller’s 2022 work, Original Grace: An Experiment in Restoration Thinking. While Miller acknowledges the important steps that Robinson was taking at the time with his work, he notes that Robinson does not refute self-guided perfectionism, but attempts to fit the concept of Christ’s grace into a prevailing privatized individualistic framework.
While [Robinson’s] version of the argument does acknowledge that as a practical matter this kind of flawless obedience where people “make themselves worthy by keeping all the rules all the time” is impossible, it nonetheless insists…that an individual moral perfection, free of any reliance on Christ, is “theoretically” possible and that “technically” there is nothing wrong with the original plan: salvation without grace. In fact, it is explicitly argued that “the gospel covenant was only necessary in the first place because of our disobedience and our inability to keep the commandments. Here, the “new” gospel covenant that offers perfection-in-Christ by way of grace is clearly plan B. Under the old covenant, grace was not God’s original plan. It was only necessary because the original plan, flawless, bootstrapped obedience—failed. And God’s ultimate goal is still for us to achieve a “private, individual perfection” that does not depend on our temporary partnership with Christ...an optional insurance policy for people who are too weak to save themselves.
Reliance-free, bootstrapped individualism and meritocratic peace of mind with the option of help when you need it. Aren’t these the touted benefits offered by democratic societies with market-economies vis-a-vis socialist communist ones? Political ideology interplaying with religious convictions, including what it means to follow Jesus Christ, are imaginable and likely—not only in a collective religious body but also in the yearnings of the heart. Borrowed ideological thinking may be especially understandable and acute during several decades in which global bipolarity was defined by two competing worldviews, frequently referenced in simplistic good-versus-evil terms. Add to these dynamics the strong voices in Church leadership referenced above—prominent among them the ardent anti-communist apostle and US Secretary of Agriculture during the Cold War, Ezra Taft Benson. In the aggregate, such influences would undoubtedly be felt at the individual level of church experience. Is an atoning sacrifice just a bailout for individual failings? Is it appropriate for a ward to provide more in monetary welfare than it brings in via donations from its congregants? If you have to mostly save yourself, wouldn’t you prefer to “go through the motions” to stockpile deposits into a spiritual bank account? Such is the long shadow of Cold War ideology overhanging some understandings in Latter-day Saint culture.
COLD WAR GENERATIONS WERE RIGHT TO FEAR COMMUNISM
“Communism is the deadliest fantasy in human history,” wrote Jonathan Rauch, an acclaimed commentator and public atheist on the American political left, in The Atlantic. Indeed, more violence and state-sponsored deaths can be laid at the feet of communist dictators than all others combined. Remember that similar ideologies consumed country after country during the twentieth century, with a terrifying air of near-inevitability. Still, because these scenes have begun to fade into the mists of history, many younger people in the twenty-first century may assume that warnings about the dangers of communism—and the scope of its related atrocities—are overblown. In the same way that a high school physics student might need to see a bowling ball on a trampoline to understand the way that space-time bends with mass to create gravity, those of us who are so far removed from the threat of communism and a bipolar world may need demonstrations of its severe injustices to which we can more easily relate.
Individual freedom was curtailed in communism, yes, but—perhaps ironically—what was lost were not just individual ambitions but also the full richness of communal living. Since 2020, we all have a new appreciation for the importance of physically gathering together. Stephen Kotkin and Jan T. Gross share narratives in their 2009 book Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment which speak to that power at work. The book’s thesis is that the Soviet regime failed precisely because it attempted to enforce isolation among people who had been made destitute by the communist economic program—poverty may have been untenable anyway, but it was entirely impossible when people could not enter into voluntary communal bonds. If the ideological dogma proclaims that social fabric is absolutely economically determined, then keeping citizens separated from one another when times are bad becomes a requirement for maintaining legitimacy. Some communist regimes were ruthless and the isolation was unbearable. In Ceausescu’s Romania, for example, the authors share, “The furious townsfolk...could call upon no forms of social organization other than their churches, which were under Securitate surveillance. Their workplaces belonged to the regime. Furthermore, crowds on the streets were permitted only in connection with scripted holidays and soccer matches.”
Gatherings of people, in and of themselves, were a threat—to say nothing of the state-sponsored violence and killings. Isolation-for-all was enforced, especially when economic conditions soured. The example of Romania during these years is extreme and, in some facets, unusual, but it demonstrates the potential paradox of a communist regime that effectively attempted to outlaw many forms of community. More broadly, loneliness was a common reality of the totalitarian state, and the suicide rate soared during years of Soviet decline.
This atomization of life was recognized as early as the 1950s in the personal diaries of Soviet intellectuals. Lydia Chukovskaya, a Russian writer and poet whose life spanned the Bolshevik Revolution to the fall of communism, chronicled the happenings of her intellectual circle. Below, she expresses the apprehension she felt speaking with a foreigner in 1956 because of her worldview borne of separation and misinformation:
In the absence of an honest press, our life has become so atomized that each of us is shortsighted: we only clearly discern those people and circumstances that are close by us. In a country deprived of collective memory—which might unite people—in a country bereft of literature and history, the experience of every person, group, and section of society can only be its own, limited, separate experience. The country is vast, but there's no sum to the country's experience; it's not connected or collected together; worse still—it's falsified.
Of course, it is not as if the Soviet Union specifically, or communist countries generally, maintained a monopoly on loneliness or isolation during the Cold War years. Indeed, even while American cultural mores celebrated individual tenacity, Western European and then American literature and arts began to increasingly reflect a concern about loneliness, isolation, and cultural atomization. Not for nothing did the Beatles sing about “all the lonely people.” Still, the point of all the above is that the communist system could be barbaric and even, ironically, deeply anti-communitarian. The atrocities committed in the name of the state were also real. Thus, stern warnings against communism and its related evils by Church leadership were understandable.
COVENANTAL IDENTITY, BELONGING, AND AN EMERGING SYNTHESIS
Even while we can come to understand the roots of American fears about communism (as often reflected in the comments of church leaders) during the Cold War era, as alluded to by Adam Miller and others, there are also dangers to shaping our theology and lived religion into fiercely individualistic affairs. Thus, I have been heartened to note a recent rearticulation and a new synthesis regarding the place of community and the communitarian impulse in our religion. This understanding can unlock empathy across generational divides sometimes apparent in Sunday School classes. It allows reclaiming conceptual territory which was yielded when a different set of priorities prevailed.
Absent the imminent threat of the worldwide expansion of the Soviet state, today we as a religious people are able to turn our focus to other problems—difficulties that have always been there but that now come more clearly into our view. Today we have a “loneliness epidemic.” While there is no state-sponsored, violent enforcement of isolation, many are either stuck in their paradoxes of choice or maximally enabled to choose their way into despair. Decades of market-driven rigor have left millions without friends, family, and homes. For those in such situations, escapism is an easier choice to make than to find one’s way back. In such a world, Latter-day Saints can turn to modern-day revelation from prophets and seers. A new framework is indeed being built by these leaders, which is robust enough to re-center those most marginalized by late-capitalist society.
In recent years, the concept of a “covenant” has transformed from an individualized, earned righteousness credential into the eternal bond encompassing God and His holy people. President Russel M. Nelson stands at the front of this rearticulation. He teaches us that a covenant isn’t only something you make, it is something to which you belong. Covenant-makers not only have the choice to honor or dishonor—belonging to a covenant is also something to which you “cleave” or “turn away”—it is an ongoing relationship.
With this transformation, new life is breathed into our study of the Old Testament and new lenses can be applied to many gospel topics. We’ve learned covenants give us an unchangeable part of our identity instilled in us by God’s covenantal love. We’ve learned that “covenant keepers are entitled to a special kind of rest that comes to them through their covenantal relationship with God.” We’re told of a “doctrine of belonging” and “covenant belonging.” We’ve heard that the awakening and “gathering of Israel is the most important work happening on the earth today.” A generational aching for purpose has been met by restoring the ancient drama between God and His people, a shared epic covenantal journey that is both “individual and communal.”
Centering covenantal identity as the fundamental concept of Latter-day Saint life is truly a new paradigm. In May 2022, President Nelson expounded this new mental model: “...Let us turn the question to you. Who are you? First and foremost, you are a child of God. Second…you are a child of the covenant. And third, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ…I plead with you not to replace these three paramount and unchanging identifiers with any others…Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that other designations and identifiers are not significant. I am simply saying that no identifier should displace, replace, or take priority over these three enduring designations.”
Like any paradigm worth adopting, this new one addresses several prevailing concerns simultaneously. For one who may fear that remaining a churchgoer would require denying a part of their lived identity, this new message speaks of relative identities—and asks us which are being emphasized in our words and deeds. For those who wonder if cleaving to a covenantal identity does enough to push back on the (commercial) materialism and secularization found in the world, keep in mind that the same articulators are calling on children of the covenant to “make time for the Lord,” “gather Israel on both sides of the veil,” and to “go forward with faith” towards family responsibilities. For those who worry about communion and belonging being an ethnocentric experience of privilege or marital status, consider signs of covenant belonging that are available to all: a ministering assignment, a temple recommend, a temple garment, a sacrament tray, and a Come, Follow-me manual. Perhaps a desired communion across time and space is actually available across time and space: a global utopian community wrought in streets and homes by a people channeling their wandering-in-the-wilderness forebears by constantly, spontaneously, and purposefully assembling and reassembling a traveling tabernacle of the congregation.
We are all “children of the covenant” stretching across the earth in nations and cultures on every continent, numbering in the millions, as we await the glorious return of our Lord and Savior. Shining as a light to those around us, we consciously shape our desires, thoughts, choices, and actions. Seeking with all our heart to know and love the Savior, we separate ourselves from the world through covenants with God, being distinct, uncommon, and special, as we honor Him and His teachings without isolating ourselves from others who believe differently.
All of us agree that community is important. Paradoxically, though, community can only be maintained and sustained by both support of communitarian structures and the use of individual agency. Thus, a Cold War survivor may frame the decline of community as a problem of personal responsibility, a tragedy of the commons driven by free riders. Subsequent generations today may attribute the disparity of personal capacities to a problem of uneven support structures and systemic gaps in specific communities. President Nelson's new synthesis is that both of these perspectives are true though incomplete. The “Lord loves effort” and covenantal communion is for everyone, and once entered, “you leave neutral ground forever.” Communion requires effort. Effort springs from communion.
Post-Cold War spiritual needs are powerfully met in the Church of Jesus Christ. Latter-day Saints are being shown by their prophets the way to move forward together arm in arm on a “covenant path.”
Artwork drawn from Hmong story cloths. Curated by Charlotte Condie.