“Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, American philosopher
Recent political events have focused considerable negative attention on the LDS church, designating Mormons as the primary opponents to same-sex marriage initiatives across the country. Battle lines were drawn in California’s ballot initiative, Proposition 8, restricting the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman, effectively eliminating the right to same-sex marriage.
Due to the church’s stand for traditional marriage in that contest, it has since come under attack by the gay and lesbian community. Since the election, rancorous protests and demonstrations have singled out Mormons. Some of our temples and chapels have been defaced, individual Latter-day Saints have been accosted and the church has been demonized in the media by elements of the secular progressive movement.
Because we are in the forefront of the struggle to prohibit same-sex marriages, the gay community has used that as a rallying point against Mormons, declaring us bigoted and “unfair.” Political pressures are likely to escalate as the gay movement in the country continues to gather allies and strength in its push to achieve legitimacy and legal status.
Reflecting upon these recent events, Latter-day Saints would be well advised to recall another time, in the early days of the church, when such political opposition caused us great harm.
Look at our Nauvoo period. From the outset, the Saints had been well received by Illinois residents. Politicians, especially, were eager to court the Mormon vote, as they have been in our recent history.
The new city soon experienced exceptional growth as the highly successful missionary work in England sent converts by the boatload to the small Illinois settlement. The influx of converts overwhelmed the burgeoning frontier city. Joseph Smith and the Brethren were hard put to find room for all of them. Nauvoo eventually became more populous than Chicago.
Exceptional growth has also been a hallmark of the modern church since the early 1960s when Pres. David O McKay articulated the “every member a missionary” program. Since then, our numbers have grown dramatically from just over 1 million in 1961 to over 13 million or more today.
In 1992, a book entitled The American Religion by Harold Bloom, a literary and religion critic, examined Mormonism’s rapid growth. He wrote:
The nation will not always be only two percent Mormon. The Saints outlive the rest of us, have more children than all but a few American groups, and convert on a grand scale, both here and abroad. I do not know what figures they project for their increase, in the next generation, but my own guess is that by the year 2020 (when I will not be here), they could well form at least ten percent of our population, and probably rather more than that. Their future is immense … Salt Lake City may yet become the religious capital of the United States. (The American Religion, p.113.)
As Nauvoo, the beautiful city by the Mississippi, grew, so did tensions between the Saints and their neighbors. History repeated itself. Every time the Prophet and his people established roots — New York, Kirtland, Jackson County and now Nauvoo — they were ultimately despised and rejected by their neighbors.
Of course, every Mormon knows the tragedy at the heart of this story. The tide turned once again. The eventual outcome was the expulsion of the Saints from Illinois.
Could we experience a similar outcome today?
As with the Nauvoo Saints, today’s church has more political influence in the nation than its burgeoning membership would seem to indicate. Bloom recognized that reality. “Mormon financial and political power is exerted in Washington to a degree far beyond what one would expect from one voter in fifty.”
Our current political and financial power, brought to bear in the Prop 8 battle, is partly responsible for our present predicament. By affirming our belief in traditional marriage and putting our financial and political clout behind that doctrinal stance, we’ve once again made ourselves a target.
Like our predecessors in Nauvoo, remarkable growth coupled with our unique doctrinal views has thrust us into the political spotlight. Doctrinal issues certainly played a part in the Mormon expulsion from Nauvoo and would likely have a role in any future clash between Mormons and our neighbors. (An ironic correspondence: The doctrinal flashpoint in the Nauvoo period was polygamy; today, it is the sanctity of traditional marriage.)
Already other rival religious groups in America have labeled Mormonism a “cult,” thus downgrading our status in the eyes of their membership such that persecution of Mormons and our religion becomes more acceptable — even a sacred duty. Thus, Mormons are beneath contempt.
Thus far, sectarian abuse is only verbal and intellectual, but it could easily escalate. Add the in-your-face tactics of the gay community, which is infamous for its confrontational methods, and you have a volatile combination.
Today’s activist factions have taken lessons from the anti-war protestors and civil rights demonstrators of the 1960s and 70s. They’ve carefully observed the success the environmental extremists have had using the courts, beginning in the 1980s. Today’s gay rights activists employ all those lessons learned.
They will not go away, they will persist. The trend is already gaining momentum, in spite of noble opposition. In due time, Americans will be cowed and coerced by these tactics, if history is any indicator. Thus, the time will certainly come when same sex marriage will be given legal status in one state after another, until it becomes accepted nationwide.
What then? Those who oppose them will be branded as bigots and homophobes for wanting to deny civil rights to a segment of the populace. The tide will have turned. Once again, the Saints will see an emboldened movement rise up against us, empowered by law and the crushing authority of the state. It will then be forced upon us, and we will certainly be made to suffer, as did our forebears.
There will certainly be dissentions within the church. Out of fear of persecution, personal harm and reprisals for their beliefs, many will deny the faith. Those who stand firm will see themselves disenfranchised.
This eventuality has menacing implications and stunning echoes of the Nauvoo tragedy. Religious intolerance in that instance went hand-in-hand with political and social intolerance. Indeed, our stance today could consolidate otherwise disparate elements of American society to create an unholy alliance that would then present a united front against us.
Such a confrontation would take the shape and form it took in the Nauvoo period, pitting the church against other American institutions, the Mormons against their fellow Americans.
According to the statements in his book, Bloom believes “the twenty-first century will mark a full-scale return to the wars of religion.” Of course, that is what happened first in Jackson County and then in Nauvoo — a war of religion that cost Mormons dearly.
There are those who might say that such a thing could not happen in a time when such obvious prejudice and bigotry are nearly nonexistent, that the law cannot be perverted as it was over a century ago on the American frontier. But those who so believe ignore the lessons of history, and are thus doomed to repeat its mistakes.
This is the heart of the issue at hand. Today’s members could find themselves faced with a similar predicament to that of the early Saints in Nauvoo. The commonalities between the Nauvoo experience and the present are too significant to be ignored.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2008