Political Lessons of Mormon History

One nice thing about blogging here is that I can talk about topics I don’t get to on my blog – specifically politics. However what I find interesting is what Mormonism can bring to the political arena. One thing that has long been on my mind are the lessons of our past. The example of Mormon history was often discussed back in the days following Waco and the tragedy there. However what has been little discussed is how the problem of Mormonism and pluralism in places like Illinois, Ohio, or Missouri can help us learn how to deal with the problem of assimilation of Islamic people in many places – especially Europe.

I bring this up due to the events surrounding Theo van Gogh who was murdered in the Netherlands last week. Yesterday, on the Diane Rehm Show they had a discussion of the situation there. One thing I noted as I listened to the analysis on the raido was just how closely the situation seemed to parallel early Mormon history. For instance they were shocked that something like 1/3 of all surveyed Muslims in Europe said that eventually all countries would have to join Islam. That sounds scary, until you think back to the rhetoric of the ball from Daniel, rolling and taking over the world. That sort of imagery of how the gospel would fill the world, bringing everyone to Mormonism was very common early in the church. Further it wasn’t exactly proclaimed with caution or consideration to how the neighbors of the Mormons would view it. The whole salt that lost its savor speech helped inflame passions as well.

I’ll not go through all the details. I think many here have read many of the histories of the period and are familiar with at least the basic rhetoric of the Saints. Add to this the various secret militant organizations, like the Danites, and you start to see many more parallels. Even if you think Joseph unresponsibile for many of the actions of these groups, you must admit that passions were quite inflamed among the people themselves.

Now it is dangerous to push the parallels too far. Mormons were often the victims of rather strong violence and persecution to a degree that I don’t think we see in Europe with Muslims. (Although there reportedly is far more persecution of Muslims there than here in America or Canada) Likewise our ancestors didn’t target innocent civilians to the same degree that Islamic terrorists have, Mountain Meadows Massacre not withstanding. There is a huge degree of differences due to the different settings. Most importantly Mormons were extremely pro-American and had a dream of what America could be. Yes we sought to establish a theocracy, but a theocracy far more limited and open to alternative voices than I think we find among most Islamic movements. Even in the Utah period, for all the excesses, you never had Brigham Young attempting to attack Washington because of the attacks by the US military on the Saints here in Utah. In a certain way, despite some attrocities such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and a few of the killings rumored to have been done by Hickcock and Rockwell, Brigham Young was remarkably restrained. When you consider that one of the generals brought by the Federal government from California talked publicly of genocide against Mormons and the native Americans of the region, that retraint is even more amazing.

What I wish to ask, however, isn’t just about the parallels or non-parallels. Rather it is what we can learn from our experiences that would be of aid to decide what to do with Muslim assimiliation into the expanding west. In a way, Mormons tried to remain a unique people, with a clear divide between us and the rest of America. It didn’t work. Under threat of violence we were forced to give up our different views of familiy, of economics, and most of our local government. If Muslims in Europe are unique in trying not to assimilate, and if many of the political-religious views parallel early Mormons, will Muslims in Europe face a repeat of what Mormons faced from 1838 – 1894?

11 comments for “Political Lessons of Mormon History

  1. Wilfried
    November 19, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    Welcome, Clark!
    Waw, you touch upon a very complex problem. I am not sure comparisons with Mormonism at its beginnings are feasible. Islam represents a billion people in the world, no central head, hundreds of tendencies and factions. There is no coherent, monolithic Islam in Europe. The few millions of European Muslims are in various stages of assimilation and non-assimilation, from one extreme of almost total assimilation to the other. There are generation gaps between them. Etc. Comments will have to take into consideration the many complex facets. Quite a challenge!

  2. November 19, 2004 at 12:57 pm

    I think the issue is less the religion than it is the question of assimiliation. Mormons most explicitly were not trying to assimilate into America. We had a very unique view and kept to ourselves. Further violence was engender because of that difference. In Europe, Muslim immigrants reportedly are also not assimilating. Some of that is because European nations are so seculatr and impose a secularity to such a degree that it foisters resentment. France comes immediately to mind. But other nations are far more open. Yet among the Islamic culture, sociologists are finding that the rising generations are less assimilated than their parents. The exact opposite of any other wave of immigration.

    So I find that issue of pluralism is what is interesting.

    Certainly a big non-parallel is the fact that Mormons were a new religion originating in America while Islam is an established religion with a huge body outside of Europe. But the issue of pluralism and integration is, I think, a place where there are lessons we can learn from Mormon history.

    Specifically when were the Mormons best integrated into the community? There was that period towards the end of his life, When Brigham was a bit more accomodating. (During a certain period of the Godbeit movement when Young was open to pluralism in SLC — however many might suspect that was more for political expediency)

  3. November 19, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    Also, along with Wilfried’s comments, keep in mind the territorial aspect of things. Under Brigham Young, Mormons were colonizers: they occupied land which gave them a base of resistance and support (though, as you note, there was little inclination to use it as such). Muslims in Europe have no such territory. Now, an interesting way to extend the analogy, and thus perhaps make it more fitting, might be to look at the EU, as representing “civilized” society, and then look at the question of whether the EU can or should admit Turkey as a member. To the extent that “European civilization” is associated with a kind of secularized Christianity, the Muslim population of Turkey is a threat to civilization, and hence incorporating them within the EU will require a massive “assimilation” program. But of course, even there the parallels aren’t that strong; Turkey is an avowedly secular state, despite the fact that nominally Islamic parties have recently won power there, and Turkey isn’t the “homeland” of any except a small minority of European Muslims in any sense. Still, worth thinking about.

  4. November 19, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    For those interested, Van Gogh’s short film that started this can be viewed here: http://www.genoeg.nu/ (There is some nudity, and the monologue is very unsettling, not to mention offensive to Islamic sensibilities)

  5. November 19, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    The biggest parallels are, I think, in the early Illinois and Missouri periods. Then we weren’t colonizers to the same degree. (Well Nauvoo is a complication) If anything the Utah period probably bears more resemblance to the Afghan situation.

  6. chris goble
    November 19, 2004 at 3:14 pm

    Reading through “Bigley’s� book that I recently borrowed, I to think the big distinction is the availability of “free space�. While obviously this was less true of early settlement projects, I think it is what complicates the issue of assimilation.

    I think the real difference however, is the relative need for government in each case. During early Mormon history, the governmental organization seemed to lag behind what was needed. Indeed I think this is what helped to cause some of the tension in Utah. The imposed government was more of a hindrance than an aid. With the Islamic community, I think the hindrance is more theological. While early church leaders obviously resented Gentile influence, many of the problems can be seen as arising attempts to block rather efficient procedures. Trade monopolies, communitarian settlements, para-military forces, etc seem to be good examples of this. I don’t know if many Muslim groups in the West are chaffing under the blockage of their governmental strategies. Yes, they may dislike the assimilation pressure, but they are fighting against a more efficient government, rather than against a less efficient one (for their situation). Now I will say I think this mainly applies during the Utah settlement phase.

    Perhaps this is what creates a lot of tension against the Muslim world. People think they are fighting to organizational regression. I don’t think that same argument is as easy to apply to the Mormon situation. In fact, I think Mormon zealousness in this area is what got them into trouble. People like to suppress both ends of the bell curve.

  7. David King Landrith
    November 19, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    Do Muslims proselyte?

  8. November 19, 2004 at 4:49 pm

    So that’s where my copy of Bigley went…

  9. November 19, 2004 at 4:56 pm

    BTW – Chris, I think one of the bigger concerns by Islamic groups in the middle-east is the blocking of governmental strategies, especially as the US flexes its economic muscle in various ways. Take a look at all the economic aid Egypt gets. Most of it is tied to buying from US firms which then prevents local economies from developing. I think that the Iraq war, in a strong way, helped strength a pan-Arabic nationalism in the economic arena. This allowed companies to develop Islamic brands competing with American food companies like Pepsi or Coca-cola and similar groups. But I think the valid middle-eastern anger with the US ends up being over government expression. Of course the fact that the governments themselves are typically so corrupt and authoritarian doesn’t help.

    But you raise a good point in that a lot of the Mormon experience can be explained without an appeal to religion. Consider the effect of land speculation and the Kirtland bank on Mormon persecution along with the recognition that many of the persecutors were former Mormons who felt wronged – often due to social or economic pressure by the Mormons. Likewise in Missouri, what we call the Missouri guerrilla war basically continued after the Mormons left. Indeed if anything it got worse, not better, culminating in the events around the Civil War.

    At the same time you might want to listen to that Diane Rehm show, since you have high speed bandwidth up there in Lethbridge. One big contributing factor to a lot of Muslim social problems was that many European countries, until recently, considered them guest workers. Thus they were never allowed citizenship, never allowed a voice in government, and thus their government voice was being repressed.

  10. chris goble
    November 19, 2004 at 8:04 pm

    Clark, you could be right about the concerns of Islamic groups about governmental interference. After all, certain large southern countries have been pushing democracy and human rights issues like they are on a crusade, convinced that the benefits these give outweigh the baggage that is brought along. However, I wonder what specific goals are being blocked. While I don’t know much, I wonder if Muslim concerns aren’t more about control than anything else. For instance, having a democracy or dictator may matter less than having one that is not externally imposed. In this sense, I don’t think concerns are as much about corruption as they are about a feeling empowerment. I notice this in the native communities around my area. What happens seem less important than the “face� that is perceived. In Deseret, I think the balance was fairly different.

    It seems like Mormons could tolerate having a Gentile figure head more than they could someone who interfered in the organizations they wanted to create. Things like the Egyptian Air investigation make me think that the figure head role is much more important in many Muslim countries. It seems like this state of affairs comes with extremes in self esteem.

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