[16 October 2002]
“I do not believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
Religious journalist/evangelical author Richard Abanes is at it again.
Only this time, thank Whoever, he has a found a more worthy opponent than say, little Harry Potter, whom he took on in The Menace Behind the Magick or J.R.R. Tolkien’s loveable hobbits and elves of Lord of the Rings‘s Middle Earth in Fantasy and Your Family.
In previous books and articles, Abanes has also gone nose-to-nose with a plethora of other menaces to conservative Christian orthodoxy, including New Age philosophy, end-of-the-age Armageddon doomsday-scenario prophets, the Islamic and Buddhist religions, and even writer Bettie Eadie’s near-death experiences, as well “cult” influences such as white supremacy and the American “patriot movement.”
In One Nation Under Gods, Abanes has turned his attention to what is, arguably, the largest and most influential of all “cults” in this country, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the process, he has turned out a well-documented, carefully researched, and remarkably objective work that sheds light on the unsavory beginnings of the sect, its lurid history, and then its amazing, phoenix-out-of-the-ashes resurgence in the mid-20th century as a major political and economic force. The most notable example of its prodigious influence is when the religion’s home state of Utah, controlled by a church that was in serious legal trouble (as well as being in terrible ill repute) not so many decades ago, pulled off a major coup by becoming the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, making it the official dimple of the sports universe and putting Mormons in a most favorable public relations light internationally, a side effect not lost on LDS Church leadership, of course.
Whether or not the Mormon church is a bona fide cult is a matter of debate and depends on one’s point of view. Even the definition of what constitutes a “cult” is difficult for different groups to agree upon. To a traditional Christian, any belief system that differs from their particular flavor of orthodoxy is open to accusations of being a cult. On the other hand, to an atheist, all religion might well appear to be a cult. In his book, Abanes goes to considerable lengths to expose the dark side of Mormonism, which involves esoteric teachings, doctrines of separatism, elitism and racism, secret ceremonies and oaths, leaders with “divine” power controlling the minds and lives of members, a remarkably docile membership accustomed to the denial of free will, and a past marked by deception, violence, bloodshed and continuous run-ins with the law and the government of the United States.
To prove its case, the book relies heavily on the history of Mormonism, a saga so outrageous that it might well have come straight from today’s tabloid TV shows. However, Abanes does not stoop to pandering and eschews sensationalism by stating “the facts, ma’am, only the facts” in the best tradition of journalism. Using old newspaper articles, letters and a vast wealth of fascinating archival material, Abanes presents the bizarre events surrounding the creation of a religion that today claims millions of members. Its founder, Joseph Smith, was a charlatan and huckster who earned a dubious living dowsing for water, gold and other valuables in the Eastern part of the US in the early/mid-1800s, practiced animal sacrifices, and had magic “seer stones” that enabled him to foretell the future. He shrewdly cashed in on a peculiar religious fervor that was prevalent in this country at that time, declaring himself to a prophet and claiming to have found a pair of golden tablets and a mysterious golden book that gave him supernatural revelations and divine authority.
Among Smith’s teachings, which evolved over time and grew ever more complicated and bizarre, were belief in many gods, the “blood atonement” (a doctrine sanctioning the murder of apostate Mormons by faithful Mormons), the origin of all humans on a planet named Kolob (yet to be found by astronomers), white supremacy, male superiority (to such a degree that men are believed to eventually evolve into gods themselves), and the one that got the church into the most trouble, polygamy. Early on in his checkered career, Smith started “appropriating” women (mostly minors or other men’s wives) as his own. After being run out of almost everywhere they settled, Smith’s band of followers ended up in the desolate and inhospitable territory of Utah in the late 1800s, a state they nearly lost at the beginning of the 20th century because of the polygamy issue.
Since the 1920s, the Church of Latter Day Saints has performed a well-orchestrated and amazing public relations about-face, transforming their image from a weird fringe group on the edge of society and “above the law” (in the words of early Mormon leader, Brigham Young) to a powerful organization solidly entrenched in the mainstream of American culture and with a finger (indeed, a whole hand) in every corporate and political pie. They have cleaned up their dirty linen, shoved the skeletons back in the closet, rewritten their history to make it tidier, and downplayed (though not renounced) the peculiar religious doctrines that put them at odds with the rest of Christendom. They have also made astounding inroads into the corporate world. A recent report revealed that more than 150 major US companies were owned and/or controlled by the LDS Church, including a major international hotel chain, a well-known computer manufacturer, a national truck rental company, and numerous others whose names one would immediately recognize.
An admirable display of ambition on the part of some underdogs trying to make good in the land of opportunity? Not exactly, when one learns that a major doctrine of Mormonism states that Mormons are chosen by God to rule the world, starting with? Yup, you got it . . . America. According to Abanes, there are all sorts of secret agendas going on here, fueled by a powerful PR machine and all those big, big bucks they’re raking in.
The currently popular version of this religion has thousands of clean-scrubbed, earnest-faced, dark-suited, likable young male “missionaries” knocking at our doors in a soft-spoken, soft-core attempt to make converts, as well as multi-million dollar ad campaigns on TV offering to send us Bibles, the Book of Mormon, and videos on how to have a happy family life . . . all gifts from “your friends, The Mormons,” as the voiceover in one commercial states. Mormon leadership, to this date, systematically denies and/or conceals well-known aspects of LDS history and doctrine in an effort to live down a shady past and “blend in” with contemporary society. And Gordon Hinckley, fifteenth president of the church, has become a celebrity in his own right and a familiar face on the TV, chatting with the likes of Jim Lehrer and Larry King as part of a strategy to make Mormonism appear to be just another Christian denomination. As Newsweek journalist Ken Woodward remarked in a recent article entitled “The Mormon Way,” Mormons are indeed “looking more Christian” to the rest of the world these days.
It is this latter issue that makes One Nations Under Gods a book of interest to a broader public than just theologians, historians, and students of comparative religions. The Mormons comprise a significant part of this country’s “religious right,” or “Moral Majority” as it is sometimes called. For those who don’t consider themselves to be part of this group, it is fascinating to see once again how politics makes for some very strange bedfellows. And for those who do identify with the movement, it should be worthwhile to find out exactly who you are in bed with.
Abanes has done a thorough job, providing a glossary, a bibliography as well as a list of recommended resources for further study, appendices detailing the failed prophecies of Joseph Smith and comparing the theologies of Mormonism and traditional Christianity, doctrine by doctrine, and 150 pages of elaborate (and interesting) footnotes. He leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions, as well he should. No matter what side of the great Mormon controversy you fall on, you would be hard pressed not to admit the man has stated his case comprehensively and without the self-righteousness that characterizes many current witch-hunters and “defenders of the faith” from the evangelical Christian sector.