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Three Paradoxes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
A Unique and Misunderstood Faith
There are three paradoxes that to my mind characterize the external view of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States today, and actually through the church's history.
PARADOX ONE: OPPRESSED AND SUCCESSFUL
In the history of the United States, there has never been a religious denomination oppressed formally, legally, and institutionally like the LDS church. Federal statutes were passed in the early history of the church effectively outlawing belonging to the church.
The founder and prophet of the church, Joseph Smith, was assassinated with some degree of governmental participation. Lynching, as we know from the history of lynching in the South, was not purely an act of individuals acting outside the law, although we sometimes depict it this way. The communities that practiced lynching thought of lynching as an extension of the political community. It was a murderous form of what is sometimes called “politics out of doors.” So in that sense, when a community engaged in lynching, the whole community was taking moral responsibility for the evil act that they were performing. And that I think extends demonstrably to the assassination of Joseph Smith. This was, then, a feature of the oppression that drove the early LDS church to seek a location where it could effectively control a state government—in the first instance, in order to make sure there was no prohibition on plural or celestial marriage. And by that effort, the church ended up in the Intermountain West.
Getting state status was extraordinarily difficult, long, and complex, but in the end, with tremendous compromise, the church was able to effectively create a state—unique in US history—in which the church and its membership has remained the dominant political part of the community.
Consider the beehive, which is both a symbol of the church and a symbol of the state of Utah itself. We don't have an endorsement doctrine for the establishment clause anymore. But if we had the endorsement doctrine, you would ask, is the beehive an endorsement? And it would be an archetypal endorsement, you would imagine. A symbol of the church is the symbol of the state.
From that base in Utah, members of the LDS church and the church itself have become nationally and globally powerful and successful. Church members are wildly overrepresented, especially in a wide range of elite circles—not only educational, but business and politics and so forth. And that disproportionate effect of the church's power remains true today.
And so that is a paradox: The same church that was so profoundly, uniquely oppressed in the United States has turned out to be extraordinarily and uniquely successful in so many ways. The oppression occurred openly in a country that claimed religious liberty as one of its core values from the beginning and yet never applied that to the LDS church. To be blunt about it, the US treated the LDS church as an exception in the other direction—subject to greater oppression. Yet the church not only prospered, but preserved Utah as, to a great degree, an LDS-dominated political entity. That is a paradox, and it is extraordinary.
PARADOX TWO: OPEN AND PRIVATE
Now to the second paradox: The LDS church is uniquely open and simultaneously uniquely private. It is uniquely open in that there's no other organized denomination in the United States or in the history of the United States that makes a comparable effort to draw in people to the beliefs of and the communal participation in its church. Nobody else has anything like as organized a system of missions, not only domestically, but globally. And to do that, an extraordinarily high percentage of members of the church go out and actively, openly seek to draw other human beings into the church, as well as provide support for existing LDS communities. Nobody else does that. It’s unique in its openness.
And simultaneously, the church is unique in the privacy (to use a term that I suppose I'm trying to choose for neutrality reasons) with respect to core temple practices, which remain ritually separate from the view of outsiders and even of an LDS person who doesn't have a temple recommend. But the teachings behind those rituals and the content of those rituals remain to a large extent protected from the public eye in a manner that is reminiscent of the ancient history of what are called mystery religions.
The category of mystery religion includes, by the way, many denominations of Christianity, including the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where to this day the moment of communion takes place behind a screen or a curtain—unlike in a Catholic church, where the moment of the consecration of the host occurs in public view. A historian of religion would likely say that, in the case of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the practice descends from ancient Greek practices like the Eleusinian mysteries, which is where the technical term mystery religion comes from. And saying nothing about the historical relationship between that and the LDS church, which is a very rich and complex topic in its own right, I would just observe that there is a similarity there and that the similarity is not any great outlier with respect to global Christianity.
But the mystery religion component is a great outlier with respect to contemporary US practice, since there aren't very many Eastern Orthodox people in the United States. And it's a remarkable paradoxical outlier when it's compared to the church's outreach.
This paradox—unparalleled openness coupled with highly unusual privacy or secrecy—deserves deep investigation. To me, it’s utterly fascinating from the standpoint of the history and the sociology of religion.
But it’s an ongoing challenge for the LDS church in terms of how it is perceived, because at once the LDS church is perceived as deeply committed to outreach, which of course it is. And at the same time, the LDS church obscures by divine design much of the content of its core ritual and indeed of belief. And that's something that is remarkable and paradoxical.
PARADOX THREE: MAINSTREAM AND MARGINALIZED
That leads to the third paradox. The LDS church, I would say, is uniquely a modern American institution, both modern and mainstream American. And simultaneously and paradoxically, the LDS church is uniquely “other” in its commitment to an alternative scripture. The unique scripture functions to make it at the opposite extreme of contemporary, mainstream American life and religion—both from the standpoint of the most literally believing evangelical Christians and also from the standpoint of secular, agnostic or atheist, or “none” Americans.
So let's just explore for a moment the two sides of that paradox. Mormonism isn’t the only denomination to have its birthplace in North America’s soil, but it’s the only one to have a scripture that fully integrates, accounts for, and makes central the Americas in the cosmic story of divine salvation and revelation.
The LDS church is therefore the only religious denomination to have fully grown up in the American context, to have fully both transformed that context and (I think) been transformed by it. That's the first part of the distinctively American aspect of the church. And it's also distinctively modern because the church’s evolutionary practices and pathways, including the reality of ongoing revelation, have enabled the church to become deeply mainstream American over its history—even though the early history of the church involved a set of church teachings that were in many respects disjunct from mainstream American society of the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s. So the gradual mainstreaming of the church has come to lead to a result where, from the outsider's perspective, Mormons seem archetypally like modern Americans.
That’s really noteworthy, especially when juxtaposed with the other side of the paradox. The other side of the paradox is that, in a country that remains overwhelmingly Christian and overwhelmingly Protestant, the LDS church is both a Christian church and simultaneously a church that is fundamentally, and I think irreducibly, committed to a new testament of the Christ that differs from that of other Christian denominations, and that renders the church “other” in a fairly fundamental way. The insistence on that truth as literal reality therefore differentiates church teaching from what I would call mainline American Protestantism, which already 120 years ago had reached a point of what you might call spiritualized metaphorization that still persists among many, though by no means all, American Christians, according to which one need not have a literal belief in, say, the passion and the resurrection, but could metaphorize and spiritualize those beliefs in order to reconcile those beliefs with modernity.
Now, 120 years ago, Protestant fundamentalism came into existence as a movement using the word fundamentalism precisely to oppose that metaphorized spiritualization. So there is simultaneous to the LDS church, a little bit later in historical time, but overlapping for much of its history, American evangelical fundamentalism that also remains deeply committed to the literal truth claims of scripture. So in that sense, the LDS church’s literal truth claims are not such an outlier. But what’s outlying is that the LDS church’s commitment includes and extends beyond the substantive beliefs held by American evangelical fundamentalists, and in that sense leaves the church at odds with those folks.
So what you see there in the second half of the paradox is that the LDS church is to a certain degree cabined on two sides. It’s cabined on one side by the metaphorization or full secularism of mainline Protestants and of people who've moved away from mainline Protestantism. And it’s cabined on the other side by evangelical believers who share a commitment to the literal truth of scripture, but the Venn diagram of what counts as scripture is a little bit smaller, and meaningfully so.
So when you take that and compare it with the uniquely American mainstream nature of the church, you get this third paradox: the LDS church is uniquely modern and mainstream American, but also in some sense uniquely “other” to mainstream American Protestant practice and tradition from both sides.
These paradoxes are so powerful that I think they are what characterize most non-LDS Americans’ views of the church. And what I mean by that is, most non-LDS Americans don't have any idea what to think about the church. They really don't. At a human individual level, they admire LDS folks. They admire the people they know from work, they admire the people they know from school. There is even a trend of idealizing social media representations of the LDS community. It's got its own complexity, but that goes to a certain phenomenon of mainstreaming as well.
In the long run, it will have attitudinal effects in the polls. I think those will probably be overwhelmingly positive, but because they’re social media images, they’re not real (since that is the nature of social media), and they won't resolve the paradoxes or contradictions. But when those same Americans who think very warmly of LDS people and are admiring of LDS people think about the content of what it means to be an LDS believer, their combination of ignorance, which is not entirely their fault, and uncertainty about the ways in which the LDS church is an outlier to American life leaves them in a position of uncertainty. I think that uncertainty is a product of these three paradoxes.
Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and advised the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law (its interim constitution). Feldman was previously on the faculty of New York University Law School and served as a law clerk to US Supreme Court Justice David Souter. A contributing writer for Bloomberg View, he is the author of eight books, including a forthcoming biography on James Madison. Feldman is a senior fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.