History made and in the making: How do we understand Zion in this “new” America?

By January 21, 2009

First of all, I would like to thank the wonderful bloggers at JI for their recent flood of attention to female subjects of history, particularly sister missionaries. I hope to contribute to the discussion of gender soon.

And second, and more important, is the day at hand, the day that comes once every four years, the day of inauguration.

I am an unlikely one to take up the task I am assigning myself in writing this. I live in a world of political unreality, maintaining a steadfast distrust for those in power and those structures of power they work within and pining away for a world without pain or politics. In short, I long for Zion.  

Yet, today I met a political ideal I could actually get behind, an ideal that is very Mormon (as well as American) at its root and that accords with an ideal I have held for a while. At the same time, I was forced to modify my previously held ideal for one that is more accurate.

For those of you who heard or watched President Obama’s inaugural address, I need not remind you of Obama’s diction or delivery. Both were impressive. Yet I was more impressed with the vision he laid out for America, one that made me desire to be an active citizen of this country for one of the few times in my adult life and to be a better Mormon.

Jon Pahl of Religion in American History, in speaking of President Obama’s inaugural speech, noted, “Obama’s chief theme was that religions provide people with spiritual strength to be responsible citizens; to work for the common good. . . . This was a speech about the spirituality of work.”

Mormons, past and present, have strongly believed in the spirituality of work. The ideal of Zion, although diffuse and somewhat attenuated, is about work, spiritual and physical. It is about struggle and setback and slow progress. But many contemporary Mormons have the sense of Zion as a dream deferred, and this attitude lends itself to an ethos of passive waiting and fear for the future. In its crude form the argument would be, “America is pretty much going to pot–signs of the times and all. We should hunker down in our bunker and wait things out.” I have held this attitude for similar reasons.

I have been disturbed by the materialism I see among the members American LDS church that allow inequality to exist between them and their brothers and sisters, a disturbance that increased as I studied the Shakers, akin to Mormons in their utopian striving. Because Mormons could not, in the forseeable future, re-create Zion and because there was no hope of America improving either, I lost hope. I forgot that even Zion requires work, some of it messy political work at that (see Mormon history). Mormons have always struggled with the given political institutions of their day. I retreated into my own (again typically Mormon) gloom and doom speculations.

But Obama’s speech today reminded me of my glorious and inescapable duty as a citizen of this country and as a Mormon. I am required to work in the world to create Zion, not only in a spiritual sense (becoming pure in heart and all that) but in a material sense as well. Wherever there is inequality of any kind, I must face it. I must choose Mormons’ “better history,” a living history that does not lie down and submit to cultural pressures but that meets them head on with an “alternative reading of reality” provided by scripture and revelation (Brueggemann, A Pathway of Interpretation, 4). (Obama gave his own alternative reading of reality with his political vision for the country, which is difficult to do, but he used the language of scripture admirably to do it.)

Our better history as Mormons, however, is yet to come. We need not fear; we need only the faith and the will to work to create that history. It will not happen on its own. Perhaps Obama’s presidency is a test, exactly of the kind Mormons such as myself will not cede to political institutions: Can we live up to our destiny, one that we will create, one that must be earned and not passively accepted? At the same time, I remain skeptical–skeptical of government and well-spoken politicians and most of all my own abilities. Can I live up to this call or will I remain afraid? Again, in the words of our president:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted ? for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things ? some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction. . . .

This is the journey we continue today. For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends ? hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism ? these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility ? a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.


  1. Great post and insights. I think it is important to realize that Obama was tapping into this theme of the spirituality of work and responsibility. That is core to the American dream and is a much needed message at this time. Also, the speech wove threads of time-proven civic republicanism into this tapestry of responsibilities and duties. Very appropriate for our times and lives at this moment in history.

    Comment by john f. — January 21, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  2. Thanks for this, Liz.

    Comment by Ben — January 21, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  3. Liz, you’ve articulated quite nicely many of the reasons that Obama’s speech resonated with me today. Obviously, there is nothing distinctly “Mormon” about Obama’s words, but I think your post illustrates well what he was getting at today—that is, utilizing one’s own faith tradition (whether it be Mormon, Methodist, Jew, or Muslim) to help make sense of the American dream and to work for the common good.

    I wonder, though, how many Latter-day Saints (particularly the more conservative type)would agree that Obama laid out a vision that is “very Mormon.” That is, I wonder if (because of their partisan allegiances) they would choose to focus on aspects of the speech they see as less than Mormon (or less than American)—i.e., the line about how much government can and must do.

    Comment by Christopher — January 21, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  4. Thanks, Liz. I’m glad someone took up the topic of Obama’s speech.

    I also agree with Chris that someone’s political leanings also play a role in how they use their religious vision to interpret America. Religious views shape how people define the role of government and how individuals define the meaning of equality and justice.

    Comment by David G. — January 21, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  5. Cheers.

    Comment by Edje — January 21, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

  6. Hi Elizabeth – Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Obama’s speech, deferring Zion, and citizenship in the United States. The title of your post caught my eye tonight, and when I clicked on the link I wondered what you had to say about understanding Zion in this “new” America.

    Shortly after the election, I had similar feelings about Zion. My mind was taken back to a talk by Orson Pratt about the Redemption of Zion given in 1873. After reviewing the talk I realized – once again – that it is worth it to live up to our destiny in spite of possible “bondage”.

    And since equality seems to be an ill-defined word often used by political leaders, I find it of interest that things in our society seem to be moving towards two general types of “equality” sponsored by opposing systems of thought (for example, see Nibley on the Redistribution of Wealth). Although I know this is a gross generalization, I believe it does have some merit based on the history of our nation and where we appear to be heading (see Participatory Fascism).

    While I remain skeptical of “well-spoken politicians” as well, I take comfort in knowing we have been warned and forewarned about future events. In that sense, I am an optimist.

    Good luck in your studies at Yale!

    Comment by Greg — January 22, 2009 @ 1:51 am

  7. I think there is a clear deference in America, including most Mormons, for a wealth-based society, rather than a Zion. Over the last 20 years, we’ve forgotten the principles that have made us sacrifice for freedom, defeat the Soviet Union, and stand before the world as a city on the hill (to note Jesus’ and Reagan’s words).

    We’ve focused, instead, on getting gain. Getting gain to the point of attempting to forge wealth out of credit and debt. Forgetting that Reagan protected our manufacturing base from foreign players versus those today, who in the name of free trade at all costs, seek to get obscenely wealthy.

    One of the books that has affected me forever, and I reread it frequently so I don’t forget, is Nibley’s Approaching Zion. Too bad most members have forgotten Zion, as they seek to build summer cottages in Babylon. We’ve been caught up so much in political discourse, that we’ve forgotten to view things from the point of view of Zion. What course of direction, which president, which Congress, can we elect and encourage to help us achieve a Zion people.

    After all, Zion can only be established by a moral and just people. And America is farther away from that goal right now than they have been since 9/12/2001.

    Comment by Rameumptom — January 22, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  8. Chris and David, I agree that people’s religious views shape their political ones, particularly how much power government should or should not have. It is a great pity that dogmatic partisanship is still so prevalent in America and among Mormons. I do not know what the future will bring. Religion is a political venture as my OT prof. reminded me Wednesday. Perhaps what we need is a little more honestly with ourselves and political self-reflection as a community. Should we maybe ask how our politics hurt others, rather than maintaining strict doctrinal stances to defend “truth and right”?

    Comment by Elizabeth — January 22, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  9. I loved his speech. Part of me hopes the LDS leadership will resurrect the old practice of letting politicians address the Saints in general conference and we could have a speech from Pres Obama during a conference. (I have no interest in deifying him, but I love his speechmaking and agree that it has great relevance to us as we sort out the meaning of Zion.) Of course the other part of me is glad that politicians aren’t invited to conference anymore because of our historic difficulties in presenting balanced political views within the Mormon corridor.

    Comment by smb — January 24, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  10. I just ran across this blog. I am impressed by the quality of the post and the comments. I am a Nibley fan and especially enjoyed the two comments about him. Very few people that I know even know who he is. On the flip side those that do will die reading, rereading and quoting him.
    No one makes us hold up a mirror to our faces like he does. I often think about how he talked about why we go to school these days. Even in our church everyone goes so that they can make money. Even worse we don’t go into the fields that we really want to because there is no real money in those fields.

    Comment by Mike — January 26, 2009 @ 3:02 am


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