My presentation at the last MHA conference revolved around some ideas I?d been working with related to Mormon collective identity. A while ago I became fascinated with the way that Charles Taylor has been using the concept of ?social imaginaries? in his work in social philosophy. To him, a ?social imaginary? is basically the perceived social world of an individual, and Taylor?s work shows how these perceptions are critical for understanding how societies function.  This is an idea similar to the basic premise that Benedict Anderson introduced in Imagined Communities. Anderson focused on the phenomenon of the nation, and he described how the shared perceptions of citizens of were truly the element that made a nation possible.  In my view, both of these ideas ? ?social imaginaries? and ?imagined communities? have an important connection to the question of group or collective identity.
Mormon group identity and its initial formation is something that I?ve seeking to better understand, and so far, these concepts have proved very helpful. In keeping with my interest in lived religion, I prefer thinking about identity in these terms because they give a phenomenological perspective. ?Social imaginary,? for instance, implies an internal view of identity; identity as it was lived and experienced. Of course, that can only take us as far as our subjects? consciousness before we need to adopt a different stance, but there?s much there that has not been explored or appreciated.
En route to sketching out an initial account of the formation of a Mormon identity, my MHA presentation had a few different parts: I tried to address, somewhat, a decline in American patriotism evident through at least the mid-1840s. I argued that that decline opened space for an alternative sense of sociopolitical identity (the ?Kingdom of God?). I also suggested a few other factors: the fact that Mormons were ?gathered? ? relatively insulated from social contact and often at odds with state and national government; the fact that they were unfavorably viewed and underwent adverse collective experiences; the fact that they united under a very distinctive religious vision. All these factors (and many more) contributed to the formation of a unique identity. A ?Mormon? identity was born and developed.
This is, of course, a vast oversimplification of the process, and I?m still trying to get my head around all the elements that fed it. In getting ready for a Sunday School lesson on Daniel and one of the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar earlier this week, though, I was reminded of one of the these components that I cited in my MHA presentation and that appears to factor into this process one way or another.
David Whittaker wrote a very interesting article twenty years ago about ?Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought.? In it he traced the significance of Daniel typology for Christianity generally and for the LDS movement in particular. As he shows, the images, language, and concepts of the Book of Daniel became distinctively embedded in Mormon discourse, and that this happened relatively early on. They also, I suggested at MHA, influenced the way that Mormons understood their collective.
Images are vivid, powerful things, especially as they become imbued with symbolic meaning. The ?great? and ?terrible? image of Nebuchadnezzar?s dream in Daniel 2 is one of the more striking images, perhaps, in Christian scripture, and (according to Daniel, at least) it has deep symbolic meaning. Some of this symbolism was transferred into Mormonism. Whittaker points out how Wilford Woodruff reported that Daniel 2 was one of the texts quoted by Moroni in his first visit to Joseph Smith. And the prayer revealed in October 1831 (now D&C 65) explicitly likened ?stone?cut out of the mountain without hands? to the ongoing restoration of God?s truth. Whittaker continues to show how this imagery figured significantly in many contexts through early Mormon history. At MHA, I steered Whittaker?s thinking into the question of a ?social imaginary? or a distinctive Mormon identity. Daniel?s kingdom and its presence in Mormon discourse represent, I think, one example and theater of this identity formation. This overlaps, of course, in many ways with the Zion paradigm and a number of other related concepts.
My questions to you: what are the other major influences, ideas, factors that contributed to a distinctive Mormon identity? I alluded above to factors beyond the powerful factor of religious ideology: spatial and geographical factors, political factors, a crucible factor, etc. There are aspects of identity that are derived by opposition (negative) and those that are positive and independent. But still, this is a very complex question, and I suspect there?s much more to take into account. I?d like to continue to isolate some of the most significant of these contributing elements. Your thoughts?
 Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 1983).
 David J. Whittaker, ?The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought,? in By Study and Also By Faith, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990): 155-99.