By Hugo Olaiz and John-Charles Duffy
He might be called the Thomas Kinkade of Mormonism . . . or perhaps Glenn Beck with a paintbrush. To his already extensive catalogue of LDS-themed paintings—including temples, scenes from the life of Jesus, and episodes from Mormon history—Utah artist Jon McNaughton (mcnaughtonart.com) has now added detailed allegorical tableaus portraying American history as taught by the late Mormon archconservative, Cleon Skousen. McNaughton’s best-selling piece, One Nation under God, has gained wide notice, in and out of Mormon circles, for its dramatic fusion of Christian piety and conservative ideology. The painting has attracted international media attention, inspiring a number of online parodies and sparking some controversy at Brigham Young University, where the artist alleges that his work has become the victim of “liberal” censorship.
At the center of the controversial painting stands the imposing figure of Jesus dressed in a golden robe. Raised in his right hand is the U.S. Constitution. Arrayed behind him, against the backdrop of the Capitol and the Supreme Court building, and under a starry sky turning red with the dawn, is a pantheon of historic American figures. Standing or kneeling closest to the Savior are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and James Madison.
At McNaughton’s interactive website, visitors can hover over each element of the image to read an explanation of its meaning. Among those arranged at lower left—that is, at the right hand of Jesus—are a white farmer (“the true backbone of America,” McNaughton explains), an Asian immigrant (reacting with “a look of shock” to this revelation of “the source of America’s greatness”), and a black college student, who holds Cleon Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap (a book Glenn Beck admires). At Jesus’s left hand is a Supreme Court justice hiding his face in shame at the sight of offensive rulings scattered at Jesus’s feet. These include Roe v. Wade and Everson (a 1947 decision McNaughton blames for initiating the removal of prayer from schools). A sneering movie producer represents the “liberal slant [in] Hollywood.” A college professor embraces a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. And a pale, red-eyed wraith, Satan himself, appears in the corner—a reminder, according to McNaughton’s commentary, of “the reality of the adversary and that he interferes in the affairs of men.”
One Nation has attracted polarized responses and international publicity. Stories about the painting appeared at the Telegraph, Mother Jones, and many blogs. While admirers praised the painting for its detailed composition and inspiring message, others criticized its conservative ideology. Ridicule was also a common response. The LDS group blog By Common Consent posted more than 500 parody haikus inspired by the painting, including, “Jesus was a Jew/ Who knew Jewish carpenters/ Had Nordic features?” and “Christian Minister/ Sees Tree of Life on Jesus’/ shirt. Mormons were right.”
The comics website ShortPacked.com created an interactive webpage that mirrors McNaughton’s but with tongue-in-cheek explanations of the figures. For instance, when the visitor hovers the cursor over the figure “U.S. Marine,” ShortPacked’s commentary reads, “He was kicked out of the military for being gay.” Hovering over the figure of black orator Frederick Douglass, barely visible at the back of the tableau, elicits: “A famous abolitionist and fighter for women’s suffrage. He gets to stand in the very back.” Another humor site, BlameIt-OnTheVoices.com, posted a gory parody called One Nation under Cthulhu, a reference to a monster from early twentieth-century horror writer H. P. Lovecraft’s works. In the parody, many figures have been defaced or covered in blood, and the central figure of Jesus has been replaced by Lovecraft’s bat-winged, tentacle-faced monster. One Nation under Cthulhu may have been inspired by Cthulhu-themed parodies of the didactic comic strips of Protestant fundamentalist Jack Chick. The point of such parodies is to suggest that the vengeful Christ of fundamentalism is indistinguishable from the pangalactic monster.
McNaughton cites visions and personal revelation as the (literal) inspiration for One Nation and other paintings. “In the middle of the 2008 elections . . . I was sitting in the gallery in front of my easel when I saw what I can best describe as a vision,” he explains at his website in a Q&A about One Nation.
McNaughton’s second most controversial painting after One Nation is a political allegory titled The Forgotten Man. McNaughton has implied this painting was created in response to a divine call he received as he was praying in dismay over passage of the Democrats’ health care reform bill (“Obamacare”) in 2010. “I think that the Lord often waits for us to simply come to Him and ask the question . . . what should I do?” McNaughton wrote about that prayer.
What McNaughton decided the Lord wanted him to do was paint The Forgotten Man, which he says “came” to him as a mental impression. The pain-ting is a tableau of U.S. presidents, with the White House in the background. In the foreground, Barack Obama is depicted trampling on the U.S. Constitution. The presidents appear in two loose groupings—good and bad. Toward the viewer’s left are the good guys, gathered in concern around the painting’s titular figure, a despairing everyman slumped on a bench, robbed (McNaughton’s interpretive text explains) of his opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Clustered behind President Obama are the bad presidents, whose sins, the artist’s commentary alleges, are chiefly economic: raising taxes, deficit spending, and contributing to the creation of the welfare state. In general, McNaughton’s division of the presidents into heroes and villains corresponds to the small-government fiscal conservatism championed by Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ronald Reagan stand on the right—in every sense—while Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and FDR rank among those who literally trample the Constitution underfoot. However, Andrew Jackson, who figures as a principal villain in Glenn Beck’s account of American history, ends up on the side of the just in McNaughton’s tableau—his virtue being that he was “the only president in United States history to have paid off the national debt,” McNaughton explains.
Given the conservatism of most American Mormons, it’s easy to see why McNaughton’s political work has won admirers among the Saints—admirers and customers, who may pay over $3500 for a framed reproduction of One Nation under God. Likewise, it’s easy to see why McNaughton’s work has attracted criticism and mockery from liberal quarters. Less predictable, perhaps, is that his work would become embroiled in controversy at Brigham Young University, which shares the general Mormon reputation for political conservatism.
This past April, McNaughton announced to readers of his blog that BYU was censoring his art “for being too conservative.” In the following media flap, a BYU spokesperson explained that because of “negative feedback,” school officials had decided that the BYU bookstore would no longer sell One Nation under God, despite the painting’s popularity with customers. “The Vice President over the Bookstore was ‘uncomfortable’ with the painting,” McNaughton complained in his letter to the Daily Universe, BYU’s campus newspaper. “Why is this painting, which is supported by Church doctrine (D&C 101:80), such a taboo image to display at BYU?”
Signs of trouble had appeared a few months earlier: In fall 2010, the BYU bookstore unexpectedly withdrew McNaughton’s paintings from display but promptly put them back when a local news station came sniffing for a story. Then in March 2011, a month before the bookstore announced it would no longer sell One Nation, BYU canceled McNaughton’s invitation to speak about the painting at a BYU conference. Officials cited concern that the presentation would violate the university’s policy of political neutrality. Protesting the cancellation in a letter to BYU president Cecil O. Samuelson, McNaughton accused the university of succumbing to liberalism: “Has Liberalism so infected this university that speakers can be invited to speak about the truths of Darwinism, but a simple artist who wishes to speak about the Constitution and its importance in America is too controversial?”
In the wake of the BYU controversy, McNaughton has found a renewed sense of purpose. “As I look at the coming nineteen months leading up to this crucial election, I feel that my purpose as an artist will be to wake up as many people to our situation as possible,” he recently wrote on his blog. “As Americans, we must protect our liberties as defined in the Constitution and make the kind of responsible choices that will guarantee a future for our children and grandchildren.” Worried about the prospect of Obama’s reelection, McNaughton believes that “the 2012 election will be determined by how well the Republicans can rally behind a single candidate.” Of this candidate, McNaughton adds, “He must be a conservative, not a moderate like John McKane [sic].”
At the same time, McNaughton appears uncomfortable being pegged as political. “I rarely delve into the fray of politics,” he maintains. “Even my painting ‘The Forgotten Man’ is more about principle than politics. I watch what is happening and I hope with all my heart that someone will come along that will have what it takes to turn this country around . . . both economically and morally.”
Meanwhile, McNaughton remains a magnet for criticism. On 1 May 2011, he became the target of yet another parody, this one from Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley. Titled “WWJD (Who Would Jesus Damn?),” Bagley’s editorial cartoon portrays an angry Jesus, with a pistol tucked inside his robe, shielding his human flock from the forces of evil, who cower away toward Jesus’s left. As on McNaughton’s interactive website, hovering over the different figures in Bagley’s cartoon reveals written explanations. Among the damned: “Charles ‘Monkey-Boy’ Darwin,” a “hoax-pulling climate change scientist,” a reporter representing the “lame stream media,” Barack Obama, and Pat Bagley himself in the act of sketching Jesus. Among the righteous shielded by pistol-packing Jesus: Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, a Wall Street banker brandishing his bonus . . . and at the back, with paintbrush and easel, a certain unnamed “Provo artist with inside scoop on who is Jesus’ BFFs.”