This post is loosely a continuation of my previous one (regarding Mormonism and Anglo-American cultural conflict); both are part of an effort to examine the dialogic relationship between early Mormonism and larger elements of early American culture.
The primary impetus for this post was my recent reading in Daniel Walker Howe’s “What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848,” where Howe makes a claim that Mormons of that period “embraced a particularly extreme version of American exceptionalism.” The claim is striking to me because it seems to casually (and perhaps uncritically) connect Mormon attitudes to the much larger and longer tradition of American claims to divine favor.
For me, Howe’s claim raised some intriguing new questions. Mormonism, like many other religious traditions, certainly contains an exceptional element, which over time has given it both strength and trouble. But was and is this exceptionalism related to the American variety? Was early Mormonism somehow tied, as Howe suggests, to that sense of Providential sanction surrounding the great American political experiment or earlier theocratic projects? Is Mormon theology tied to American nationalism? In a modern environment where American exceptionalism is becoming ever more frowned-upon, and where the LDS Church is going global and yet is still often regarded as an arm of corporate or imperial America, these questions seem worth asking.
By almost all accounts, American exceptionalism originated in American Puritan theology. John Winthrop’s oft-cited vision of a “city upon a hill,” is perhaps its exact point of genesis, although that prophecy owed much of its power to the Biblical experiences of Israel. In this sense, American exceptionalism was simply an appropriation of earlier Biblical themes. In any case, the Puritans fully expected to set up the Kingdom of God, and their confidence in themselves as equal to the task has colored America’s sense of self ever since, though in ways that are hard to track. Basically, we might say that the convictions about the elect/millennial role of America that seemed so literal to the Puritans gradually moved to the realm of metaphor in American religion (with some exceptions). The explicit references to America as God’s new Israel were softened. The ideas also gravitated to politics, creating the liminal realm of “civil religion,” which vaguely blended religion and politics and rested, at bottom, on the old exceptionalist myths. From this position, American exceptionalism has exerted an incredible amount of influence on a wide range of activities in American history.
However, Mormonism, Howe might say, went against this quiet diffusion after some two hundred years and defied it. Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon apparently reconnected it to its literal, prophetic, religious roots. The cultural question, then, is if Mormonism – seen as an “afterclap” of Puritanism (for this very reason?) by Mark Twain and Emerson, and acknowledged a kind of “reenactment” of Puritanism by Terryl Givens – really shares much of Puritan thinking about America.
I think it clear that it does – the Book of Mormon of course presents the American continent as a promised land reserved as a place of inheritance for God’s faithful. America is the site of the New Jerusalem and the place of gathering preparatory to the Second Coming of Christ. Like the Puritans, Mormonism applies Biblical prophecy to itself, consciously designating itself a new Israel. Clearly it foregrounds America in many of its texts and doctrines.
If Mormonism does partake of American exceptionalism– and it seems evident that it does (at least of the type the Puritans articulated) – this invites us to ask a thornier question: How tied is Mormon theology to other forms of American exceptionalism that have become American nationalism? Does Mormonism inherently have a political commitment? This is a loaded question which draws on the a whole range of anxieties: those that attend our postcolonial age, those that surround the separation of Church and State, and those which inform the expanding politics of a global Church.
It seems to me (I’m sliding into speculation about the present…) that while Mormonism acknowledges that America has an exceptional place in global history, the significance of that exception – despite Church members who conflate their theology with civil religion – is quite small. While Mormons may have a long tradition of exceptionalism (Givens traces it back to the apostasy rhetoric of the First Vision), and even of participation in American exceptionalism, their theology has a surprisingly limited commitment to America as a political entity. And it is political imagination, according to Benedict Anderson, that is at the heart of nations and nationalism.
Two brief notes, one historical, one doctrinal, that I think bear upon this point. First, I cannot overlook Brigham Young’s willingness to leave the United States of America in order to find a place of refuge from persecution. This would have been unthinkable if Mormon theology was significantly anchored to the American Republic.
Second, while the Book of Mormon does emphasize the Americas as an insuperable land of promise, it also recounts the consequences of people who polluted it and were swept off. Readers of the Book of Mormon do not come away from this account with a sense of superiority or egotism, but rather with an awareness that its God is truly no respecter of persons. The commitment here is to geographical, not ethnic, America.
I’d appreciate your insights to other doctrinal or historical points that might be relevant here.
 Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford UP, 2007), 316.
 Deborah Madsen contends that this discourse “permeates every period of American history, and is the single most powerful agent in a series of arguments that have been fought down the centuries in defining America and Americans.” See her American Exceptionalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1998), 1.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, as qtd. in Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); Emerson was parroting Mark Twain to vague effect.
 Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).