Sunday, November 13, 2011

Harold Bloom on the Mormon Moment




I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one?


This is how Harold Bloom ends one of the best essays I've read in a long time, found here. It seems I've read more about Bloom than by him, though there is a copy of The Western Canon on a bookshelf somewhere in the house. In the November 13th NYTimes, he addresses the significance of our first Mormon presidential nominee. If it were just that, I would not give the article much attention. Bloom, however, uses the issue to speak much-needed truth about American culture, religiosity and money/politics, while putting the invented Mormon faith in the context of all the other faiths we have invented.


I predicted the 2012 GOP ticket back in March, and I stand by that prognostication. I do not give a whit about Mitt's Mormonism. I will not be voting for him for other reasons. And for all the blather about it on the right, the last time we elected anyone who acted as though they took this Christian business seriously was back in 1976, and as I recall, that did not work out too well. Besides, I believe we generally get the politicians we deserve.

But on to Bloom. I have copied a number of passages, below. I encourage you to read the entire article linked above. It is quite good. Enjoy.

Mr. Romney…is directly descended from an early follower of the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.

However, should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor….The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage. Though I read Christopher Hitchens with pleasure, his characterization of Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjuror” is inadequate. A superb trickster and protean personality, Smith was a religious genius, uniquely able to craft a story capable of turning a self-invented faith into a people now as numerous as the Jews, in America and abroad.

Persuasively redefining Christianity has been a pastime through the ages, yet the American difference is brazen. What I call the American Religion, and by that I mean nearly all religions in this country, socially manifests itself as the Emancipation of Selfishness. Our Great Emancipator of Selfishness, President Ronald Reagan, refreshingly evaded the rhetoric of religion, but has been appropriated anyway as the archangel of American spiritualized greed….The American Religion centers upon the denial of death, literalizing an ancient Christian metaphor.

Obsessed by a freedom we identify with money, we tolerate plutocracy as if it could someday be our own ecstatic solitude. A first principle of the American Religion is that each of us rarely feels free unless he or she is entirely alone, particularly when in the company of the American Jesus. Walking and talking with him is akin to receiving his love in a personal and individual relationship.

A dark truth of American politics in what is still the era of Reagan and the Bushes is that so many do not vote their own economic interests. Rather than living in reality they yield to what oddly are termed “cultural” considerations: moral and spiritual, or so their leaders urge them to believe. Under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women, they march onward to their own deepening impoverishment. Much of the Tea Party fervor merely repeats this gladsome frolic.

As the author of “The American Religion,” I learned a considerable respect for such original spiritual revelations as 19th-century Mormonism and early 20th-century Southern Baptism, admirably re-founded by the subtle theologian Edgar Young Mullins in his “Axioms of Religion.”

A religion becomes a people, as it has for the Jews and the Mormons, partly out of human tenacity inspired by the promise of the blessing of more life, but also through charismatic leadership. What we now call Judaism was essentially created by Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph to meet the needs of a Jewish people mired under Roman occupation in Palestine and elsewhere in the empire....Joseph Smith, killed by a mob before he turned 39, is hardly comparable to the magnificent Akiva, except that he invented Mormonism even more single-handedly than Akiva gave us Judaism, or Muhammad, Islam.

I recall prophesying in 1992 that by 2020 Mormonism could become the dominant religion of the western United States. But we are not going to see that large a transformation. I went wrong because the last two decades have witnessed the deliberate dwindling of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into just one more Protestant sect. Without the changes, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a fellow Mormon, would not seem plausible candidates.

The accurate critique of Mormonism is that Smith’s religion is not even monotheistic, let alone democratic. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer openly describes their innermost beliefs, they clearly hold on to the notion of a plurality of gods. Indeed, they themselves expect to become gods, following the path of Joseph Smith….Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts, hoping to join the plurality of gods, even as they insist they are not polytheists. No Mormon need fall into the fundamentalist denial of evolution, because the Mormon God is not a creator. Imaginatively liberating as this may be, its political implications are troublesome. The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.

13 comments:

Alma said...

I have enjoyed Bloom's comments in the past; but he's jumped the shark here. His summary of LDS theology is simply full of factual errors. It's too bad.

John said...

Such as...

Alma said...

The old canard that a Mormon man gets "a planet all his own" is perhaps the most ludicrous. If someone made that claim in an LDS meeting, I can guarantee there would be laughter--and not a few rolled eyes. I have taught LDS theology for over 20 years in a university setting for the LDS Church; and that is simply bogus. If I taught that in one of my classes, I would be relieved of my teaching responsibilities. Secondly, his claim that "Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts," is equally false and ludicrous. Bloom studied Mormon origins extending to about 1840 but he is in over his head as he reiterates typical trope found on Protestant websites "explaining" Mormonism.

Wide Mouth said...

Beware of the Mormon Church - Exposed http://www.squidoo.com/mormon-church

John said...

Alma, I do not pretend to be an expert on Mormonism, but I probably have had more exposure than your average gentile. First, I do genealogy--in a big way. I have spent so much time hunched over a microfilm reader in the local LDS Family History Center that the staff takes me for granted and talks about normal, mundane Mormon stuff right in front of me. I find it comforting that the level of discourse is on no higher spiritual plane than one would find around most any other church hall in this country. Second, I have actually read the Book of Mormon, cover to cover (no mean feat, that.) And I did not undertake the task with the notion of trying to disprove it. I have also read other foundational LDS documents, though admittedly that has been some years ago. Finally, I enjoy being around Mormons. A joke around our house is the time I let my Southern hospitality get the best of me and told the missionaries at my door--"Y'all come back again the next time you are in the neighborhood."

I did not consider Bloom's piece an anti-Mormon diatribe. Had it been so, I would not have posted it, as there is plenty of that sort of thing to go around already. I will also grant you the 2 points you raise. The first point is perhaps a poorly-worded attempt to explain the Mormon cosmology--which you must admit, differs greatly from the Protestantism from which it sprang, much less the historical Church. The second issue you reference seems to be perhaps a bit of unnecessary and ambiguous piling-on to a point already made.

But even if you are spot-on in your criticism of Bloom, these matters are peripheral to his main subject, and in now way discredits the thrust of the essay. The points I take from Bloom's piece are as follows:

1. Mormonism "was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is." But then, SO ARE MOST OTHER AMERICANIZED CHURCHES.

2. Mormonism is uniquely American precisely because w have mad a cottage industry of reinventing the church (I say this as a former, now repentant, Restorationist.)

3. American religion, like American culture, is centered upon the denial of death.

4. Our religion is shaped by individualism, "freedom," and the American Jeezus.

5. The LDS is evolving into just another Americanized Protestant sect.

Alma said...

John, I wrote a response to your comment, but it exceeded the size limit. I have posted it on my blog in case you're interested.

http://byteline.blogspot.com/

John said...

My responses to Alma's post are on his site listed above.

s-p said...

Personally I think it is spooky that evangelicals are buying Glenn Beck's "Mormonized American Exceptionalism" hook, line and sinker. (BTW John, one of Joseph Smith's original "right hand men" was a former church of Christ guy.... go figure.)

John said...

s-p,
Yep, the evangelicals would be surprised at how much common ground they share with the LDS when it comes to American Exceptionalism. Mormonism can't really exist without it, imo. Just look at the goofy painting at the top of the post--Anglo Jesus holding copy of Declaration of Independence and flanked, not by the Apostles or martyrs, but by the "Founding Fathers", our soldiers etc. I'm not sure, but I think I even see Ronald Reagan in the crowd.

And s-p, you are correct. You are thinking about Sidney Rigdon, whose defection is an inconvenient footnote in Church of Christ history. But it really wasn't such a stretch. Restorationism is restorationism is restorationism.

John said...

s-p,
Yep, the evangelicals would be surprised at how much common ground they share with the LDS when it comes to American Exceptionalism. Mormonism can't really exist without it, imo. Just look at the goofy painting at the top of the post--Anglo Jesus holding copy of Declaration of Independence and flanked, not by the Apostles or martyrs, but by the "Founding Fathers", our soldiers etc. I'm not sure, but I think I even see Ronald Reagan in the crowd.

And s-p, you are correct. You are thinking about Sidney Rigdon, whose defection is an inconvenient footnote in Church of Christ history. But it really wasn't such a stretch. Restorationism is restorationism is restorationism.

Kirk said...

John, You gave good responses to Alma's posting. With all due respect to him, it is clear that the two of you come from such different perspectives that you cannot converse.

With respect to one point, the cultural and American-religious denial of death, I would say that a person caught up in that culture would not be able to even perceive that they are in such denial. And so we see a gradual but steady increase in the instance of cremation over burial. Christians perceive that cremation was once considered inappropriate, but they are not able to tell you why their churches and ancestors believed that way.

I have personally attended two Mormon funerals, and I can attest to the denial of death, as I perceived it anyway. From what I gathered, it is customary to have a short graveside service first, followed by a memorial service at which time people reflect upon the life of the departed.

As an aside, I will also observe that Mormons do not view the cross as an appropriate religious symbol, because they do not tend to focus on Christ's death, but His resurrection.

--Kirk

Alma said...

John (and Kirk), I was pretty certain that I had not misunderstood Bloom's premise when he referred to a supposed "denial of death" among Mormons, so I sent him an email asking him to clarify what he meant. He replied this afternoon with the following comment: "I had in mind excessive literalism in speaking of ancient Christian resurrection."

John said...

Alma,
Thank you for checking with Bloom on this. First, I did not expect him, an agnostic Jew, to accept the truth of the resurrection. In the article, he spoke of it as a "Christian metaphor," and in his reply to you as "excessive literalism." So, what does he mean when he writes "The American Religion centers upon the denial of death"? He could mean simply the belief that Christians hold that the grave is not the end--that is our great Hope--just as our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the grave and ascended to heaven, so shall we too, through Him, be resurrected. That is the central tenet of Christian orthodoxy and has been the faith of the historic church--Orthodox and Catholic, Protestantism and Mormomism alike. If that were what Bloom was saying, then he was commending American Christians--which I don't think he was doing at all! Why would he say that, particularly, when the rest of the article was saying something completely different? It would be nonsensical. The full quote was as follows: "Marxist slogans rarely ring true in our clime, where religion is the poetry (bad and good) of the people and not its opiate. Poetry is a defense against dying. The American Religion centers upon the denial of death, literalizing an ancient Christian metaphor." This passage immediately follows his equating American Religion with the "Emancipation of Selfishness." So, he speaks of our selfishness, then equates religion with poetry and characterizes our poetry as a defense AGAINST dying. Christianity teaches us to face death head-on, knowing that, through Christ, we have victory OVER death. The language he uses--"denial," and "defense against" speaks to another type of philosophy--the very American Religion he describes in the rest of the article--a broad, superficial, self-satisfied churchianity far-removed from the ancient faith.