Part I: Widespread Mormon understanding holds that America—the United States in particular—is populated by a chosen people, governed by an inspired constitution, and possessor of a singular destiny. This belief has drawn attention outside Mormon ranks in light of Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the presidency: Would Mormon notions color a president Romney’s foreign policy? The role the US plays in Mormon thought and culture, however, is more complex than it first appears. Understanding this evolving role requires pairing “American exceptionalism” with “religious exceptionalism” as they function in the Mormon mind. In each of these spheres, there inheres an originally dominant exceptionalist gene and a contrasting recessive gene that challenges exceptionalist assurance. For instance, as Hebrew prophets reminded ancient Israel, “chosenness” may imply “selected for a role” rather than “superior.” Moreover, the proportional influence of these genes has shifted over time; the influence of the recessive genes is now stronger. All this means that exceptionalism, while common in Mormon culture, manifests in ways that are strong, mild, absent, or even inverted in individual Latter-day Saints. Part II: How did Mormons enter the twentieth century? How did the frontier church of Brigham Young become the polished, all-American faith of contemporary America? This presentation will explore the transformation of Mormonism in the early twentieth century, arguing that Mormonism found a place for itself in American life by recognizing in itself the ideals of the classic American progressive movement: optimism about humanity’s future, confidence in human potential, and faith in the power of organization to accomplish the fullest possibilities of what human society might become.
Philip Barlow, Matthew Bowman, Robert A. Rees