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Essential weekend reading: LDS in the USA

January 27th, 2012 by admin

With Mitt Romney doing well in the Republican race, many have begun asking, "Is America ready for a Mormon President?" The fact that this question is being asked is one of the many reasons Lee Trepanier and Lynita Newswander wrote their new book LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture (February 1).

In anticipation of the book's release next week, here is a short excerpt from the introduction, titled "For Another Thousand Years."

The role of Mormonism in America has been simultaneously both exaggerated and undervalued. On the one hand, Mormons are seen with suspicion as part of a secret organization that seeks domination over the United States; on the other hand, they are marginalized and often excluded from national conversations about religion, culture, and politics in America. The fact is that neither account is accurate: Mormons have played a substantial role in the shaping of the social, cultural, political, and religious makeup of the United States, a role that is neither conspiratorial nor marginal and that has not been properly acknowledged in the academy or by the general public. This book is intended to remedy this deficiency. In it, we will explore the contributions Mormonism has made to American civilization and to the values that civilization claims to espouse.

When we speak of American civilization, we are attesting to those qualities that make the United States unique as a social, cultural, religious, and political entity. For example, the sociologist Claude Fischer argues that community (family, church, job, and nation), abundance (material wealth, improved health, social opportunities, political freedoms, and self-mastery), and volunteerism (civic engagement) are at the core of the American character. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. contends that the right to revolution, federalism, the consent of the governed, equality of women, the melting pot, freedom of worship, public education, voluntary giving, technology, and evolutionary progress are the characteristics of American civilization; while Harvard President Charles Eliot points to peacekeeping, religious tolerance, universal suffrage, the practice of political freedom, the welcoming of newcomers, and the diffusion of material abundance as the cornerstones of the American experience.1

The role of Mormonism in American civilization has been shaped by, as well as exposed the limits of, some of the values that Americans continue to espouse: religious tolerance, social pluralism, federalism, separation of church and state, the definition and importance of marriage, and Christianity. Mormons have been instrumental in representing and challenging these values in the realms of popular culture, the family, politics, and religion in the United States. As we will see, Mormons have not been completely accepted in mainstream American society. To a certain extent, the pattern of suspicion, accommodation, and eventual acceptance they have experienced is familiar to immigrant groups arriving in the United States, but what makes the Mormon experience unique is that they began within the United States and became outsiders within their own country. That is, the Mormons were forced to flee the United States—to become emigrants—before they became accommodated and accepted.


1 Charles William Eliot, "Five American Contributions to Civilization," in The Oxford Book of American Essays, ed. Brander Matthews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914), 208–307; Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., "Our Ten Contributions to Civilization," Atlantic, March 1959, 65–69; Claude Fischer, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Other works to consult about American civilization are Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); David Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, 4th ed., 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001–5).

For a PDF version of the full introduction, click here to download.

If you would like to request a copy of LDS in the USA for review or inquire about an interview with the authors, please contact Billy Collins at Billy_Collins@baylor.edu.

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