Romney, Mormonism, and the American Compromise
by Terryl Givens, guest contributor
Mitt Romney is threatening to disturb the American compromise with Mormonism.
Nineteenth-century observers were largely indifferent to the new religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830. Most dismissed his claims about angels and gold plates as just another example of American gullibility. “Had we not seen in our own days similar impostures practiced with success,” yawned one Illinois contemporary, “[Mormonism] would have excited our special wonder; as it is, nothing excites surprise.” But in Missouri and Illinois local tensions erupted in violence, and national concern intensified when Brigham Young — relatively safe in the refuge of Utah — announced a system of plural marriage in 1852.
For the next forty years, from the popular press and pulpits alike, cries for the eradication of this “relic of barbarism” streamed forth from the pulpits, press, and party platforms. Then came concessions — but limited concessions — from both sides. Mormons abandoned polygamy and political isolationism. And America granted partial accommodation. The deal was signed in 1893 — but it was a devil’s bargain. Here is what happened.
At the choral competition of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, on Friday September 8, in front of packed crowds, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir dazzled the audience and the judges alike, to win the silver medal. (The general consensus of Mormon and non-Mormon alike was that they had actually earned the gold.) The recipients of rapturous acclaim, the choir had suddenly become America’s sweetheart. They were invited to provide the patriotic music for the placement of the Liberty Bell at the Chicago Exposition. Their farewell concert was standing room only, journalists raved to a receptive public about the singing sensation, and concert promoters lobbied the choir to tour the east. Suddenly, Mormons were not just legitimate, they were popular.
And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the festivities. In conjunction with the grandiose Columbian Exposition, organizers had planned a World’s Parliament of Religion for September 11-22, 1893, in order to “promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths.” Over three thousand invitations had been sent worldwide, to bring together representatives of every world faith and Christian denomination in a momentous gesture of interfaith respect and dialogue. Many faiths were underrepresented — but only one group was deliberately and conspicuously left out altogether. And that was, not unpredictably, the Mormons. So even while the choir was singing its way into history and America’s heart, the Mormon church was emphatically denied a voice in the nation’s first attempt at a comprehensive interfaith dialogue. What seemed like a contradiction was actually a compromise.
In the century since the Chicago fair, Mormons have been lauded for their choirs and their football. They are largely respected as good, decent, family-centered people, who are welcome to sing for presidents and dance with the stars — and everyone agrees to avoid theological questions. But as presidential nominations near, Romney’s candidacy threatens this compromise, because what a Mormon presidential candidate actually believes seems far too important to table. And when Mormon theology enters the public discussion, the words Charles Dickens wrote in 1851 strike many as still apt: “What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say, is mostly nonsense.”
But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy. But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction. And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community. What are these fundamentals?
- God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
- Men and women existed as spiritual beings in the presence of God before progressing to this mortal life.
- Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).
- God has the desire and the power to save, through his son Jesus Christ, the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most perversely unwilling, that will be our destiny.
- Heaven will principally consist in the eternal duration of those relationships that matter most to us now: spouses, children, and friends.
None of these beliefs is relevant to a political candidate’s fitness for office. But they should be the starting point for any serious attempt to get at the core of Mormon belief. And there should be no compromise on that point.
Terryl Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
The Three Christmases of the Holy Land
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor
In the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the first of three Christmas celebrations was on December 24, the Christmas of the English, or so we thought of it then in the years of my adolescence. My family — ethnic Armenians, Christians by subscription more than piety — had settled in Jordan, a largely Muslim country, where I grew into adulthood, pulled this way and that by the three Christmases of the Holy Land. Of course it was a misnomer to call it the Christmas of the English because December 24 was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Arabs as well.
In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Middle East was a very different place from what it has become of late. Unlike the Christians of Iraq today, we had little fear, did not hide our religious affiliation but did not brag about it either. In the Holy Land of those times, celebrations of Christmas were for us and Muslims, at least at our post-colonial school which had been run for many years by English missionaries; it had a mixed student body of Christians and Muslims.
For me, the home of the English Christmas was the Ahliyyah School for Girls, which I attended after third grade and all the way to the end. The Ahliyyah, which is still a thriving school, was the successor to the Christian Missionary School, whose British headmistress was whisked away in the wake of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The school’s name was changed, as well as the board. The Christmas celebrations persisted.
Tuesday Evening Melody: Saturday Night Tavern Storytelling with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People”
by Marcy Bain, guest contributor
As a Presbyterian minister I spend a great deal of time in sanctuary spaces, but I confess that my favorite spiritual music is not always sung by the Sunday morning choir. Often it’s sung in Saturday night taverns by mainstream folk artists like Over The Rhine, Patty Griffin, and Jennifer Knapp. Other artists shuffle in and out of my iPod rotation, but when I seek spiritual comforts, to these musical mainstays I always return.
The other day I was trying to locate that thing, that ineffable quality in their music that draws me into sacred space, and it proved a daunting task. Like a flash of creative insight, or a burst of beauty that wrecks the senses, I can’t really put my finger on the pulse of such mysteries; I can only receive them when they come to me. And so it is with these artists and their songs.
However, if I endeavored to speak in broad terms, I would say that these artists hold a few key characteristics in common. They make music that strikes a spiritual chord in me without being doctrinaire. They each pursue excellence in their craft. They defy labels and simplistic categorizations. Folk music at its core is story tellin’ music; each of these artists sings out their stories from the deep-seated wellsprings of spirit and soul. None of them make music specifically geared towards the Christian marketplace, but all of them have deeply nourished me in my journey of faith.
For those of you with New Year’s resolutions to expand your musical palette, start with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People,” dive in to Knapp’s “Mr. Gray,” and let Ms. Griffin take you to church with her stirring rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” If the Saturday night tavern happens to be your favorite sanctuary, who knows, you just might get to see a preacher overcome by “a juke box altar call” (to borrow a lyric from another OTR song) as she sits in the corner putting the final polish on her Sunday morning sermon.
Marcy Bain is an ordained Presbyterian minister from Dayton, Ohio. She believes that there is a special place in heaven for girls with guitars, and she is ever so grateful for all that they’ve contributed to her life.
Want to recommend a song for our Tuesday evening melody? Submit your suggestion and a little bit about the tune. We’ll take a listen for possible publication on the On Being Blog.
Sacred Choral Music in Worship Has a Power All Its Own
by Michael McGlynn, guest contributor
Participants in the Royal School of Church Music Cathedral Course (RSCM) perform in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. The RSCM promotes singing for people of ages by training choirs to sing church services to a high musical standard in cathedrals and churches throughout the United Kingdom. (photo: Richard Bloomfield/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. My parents endeavoured to give me every opportunity to be exposed to a vast range of music, strongly encouraging our explorations, be they rock or classical music. In school the main exposure to singing was musical drama in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan with a few hymns in unison at every church service. It is understandable, therefore, that when my first exposure to sacred choral music at last arrived at age nineteen in University College Dublin Chamber Choir, it was like being hit with a mallet on the head.
I clearly remember my first rehearsal. We sang two songs, “Christus Factus Est” by Anerio and “O Sacrum Convivium” by Messiaen. Suddenly much was made clear to me. Maybe this was why people still spoke fondly of the extinct Latin Mass, with its remote and mysterious ceremony? It also helped explain to me why services were structured as they are. Music wasn’t simply a chance for the congregation to sing together, rather it was a series of sonic sign-posts angled towards illumination of the underlying spiritual truth of the service.
The Latin language, with its soft and non-percussive sound, had a natural affinity to the music that it was carried by. Later I discovered the music of Tallis, Gibbons and Byrd, being struck by the beauty of the harmonic language and the mellifluous use of the less-musical English language. Simple, direct statements of belief were woven into a powerful lattice of spiritual affirmation. Exposure to more recent music written for the Church today plainly showed that composers were acutely aware of their musical ancestry and quite capable of working within the practical constraints of service structures and the capabilities of the performing groups that they composed for. Indeed, the love of singing contemporary music among the better choral groups was a great pleasure to behold, even if much of the music demanded skills that were just on the edge of what the singers were capable of.
With respect to my Roman Catholic upbringing, I had rarely understood how the odd hymn here or there and the simplistic one-line responses and calls in the vernacular could compare to the carefully constructed musical structures that I participated in while singing in my first Church of Ireland services. It irritated me that much of what was musically beautiful in the pre-Vatican II church had simply been consigned to performance repertoire, rarely heard within its originally conceived context.
Sometimes I felt like a starved man who eats as much as possible very quickly, deputising and singing at the two major Church of Ireland Cathedrals in Dublin, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals as often as I could. I sang for free at weddings, funerals, services — anything I was asked to do simply to experience this music in the context of its original conception.
By this time I was beginning to compose on a regular basis. Although the main thrust of my composition was towards the development of a new form of Irish choral music, I was consistently drawn to spiritual texts. Two early efforts I wrote for competitions organised for use in the Church of Ireland service were “Codhlaim go Súan I’d Chroí” (“I Sleep Softly in Your Heart”) and the anthem “Come Let us Sing” the former for a competition to find an anthem in the Irish language and the latter a setting of a more traditional Church text. This work eventually gave rise to my “Celtic Mass”, a combination of texts in Latin and Irish on diverse texts. Latterly my spiritual output has included the four “Tenebrae Responsories”, a “Missa Brevis” for St David’s Cathedral in Wales and a diverse collection of individual sacred works that include my “Agnus Dei” which was commissioned by the American choir Chanticleer in 2006 for their five-composer project “And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass”.
Despite it being nearly thirty years since I was so profoundly influenced by this music, it continues to be a part of my life. I attend regularly at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Dublin which has a fine and ambitious musical programme. I believe that the power generated by community singing of good quality has a ripple effect on the entirety of society. This music and literature has survived because it is simultaneously functional and art. It is important to bear in mind that composers who have written this music for over a millennium have done so with a desire to articulate their own spiritual ideas while transmitting genuine and heart-felt insight to a congregation. I now realise why this music has influenced and affected me the way it has. Choral music in worship can bring congregation, singer, and composer together in a unique and wonderful way. The power of this should never be underestimated.
Michael McGlynn is a composer, choral director, and founder of the Irish choral group Anúna. His music has been recorded and performed by vocal ensembles such as Rajaton, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, The Dale Warland Singers, Conspirare, the BBC Singers, the Phoenix Chorale and Chanticleer. You can read more of his reflections on life and music on his Pictures & Visions blog.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Church Bells in Tochimilco, Mexico: An Old Feud Revisited
by Christoph Rosenmüller
©Javier del Rio/Flickr
I spent a few weeks last summer in the Mexican town Tochimilco, a municipalidad in the state of Puebla. Set to a breathtaking scene with the majestic Popocatepetl Volcano in the backdrop, this charming town boasts a former Franciscan monastery built in the sixteenth century.
In this quaint town, which is about a four-hour bus ride from the bustling megalopolis Mexico City, the church bells ring every quarter of an hour. Every full hour the large loudspeakers mounted on Tochimilco’s town hall broadcast secular tunes such as the canción mixteca, a song on the emigrants’ plight. The chiming and broadcasting go on through the night. I found myself waking up at three in the morning to the sound of “Mexicans, at the Cry of War,” the stirring national anthem.
The government makes an audible point that it has the right to keep its citizens apprised of important civic events and the time, and does not yield this to the Church. In some ways this is part of the long-standing rivalry between the secular and religious power dating back to at least the colonial times of New Spain, as Mexico was then known (1521–1821).
In 1508, the kings of Castile obtained the patronato, the right to appoint bishops and other important clerics in the Americas, thus expanding the royal influence over the Church there. In the mid-eighteenth century, the crown began evicting the friars from the indigenous parishes (Tochimilco in 1767), and in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the crown seized much of the Church wealth that was given as credit to debtors. In the nineteenth century, the Liberals issued the Reform Laws, establishing religious freedom, and wresting from the Church the civil registry as well as much of the remaining Church land. Finally, the Constitution of 1917, born out of the violent upheaval of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), decreed the nationalization of even the church buildings. In practice, however, the laws have been loosely applied in the past decades, so that the priests retain much control over the buildings.
In 2010 the PRI, the party of the Mexican Revolution, was voted out in the municipal elections of Tochimilco and replaced by the more Catholic-leaning PAN party. Local relations between the municipality and the Church became more amicable. The government turned down the volume of nightly broadcasts. Still, Tochimilco (in the native tongue Nahuatl: the place where the rabbits abound in the corn field) remains by all measures a Catholic town. A bordello was recently shut down, and the Protestants play only a minor role, if any, here, although they flourish in other towns of the area.
In the neighboring town Magdalena Yancuitlalpan (in Nahuatl: place of the new land), one of the few remaining Nahuatl-speaking communities in the area, several people insisted that their town was even more devout. A large sign over the church entrance implored the Virgin Mary to protect the town’s offspring living in New Jersey.
All Church services, including weddings and burials, are broadcast via loudspeakers. At noon Schubert’s Ave Maria rings out, soon followed by announcements that fresh meat is sold at the stand next to the church. The temple uses the loudspeakers along with the auxiliary town hall (junta auxiliar). The community largely agrees to this arrangement, it seems, given its scarcer resources and the more traditional outlook. Even visitors from Mexico City find it remarkable that in times of electronic communication, which some inhabitants of the two towns use avidly, the loudspeakers still play such a commanding role.
In any case, the PRI on the national level emphasized the pre-Hispanic origins of Mexico and invested much in restoring the pyramids. In 2000, however, the PRI lost the presidency of the country to the PAN. The change fostered a greater political appreciation for the colonial arts and architecture that contributed much to the Hispanic and Catholic heritage of the country. The National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH) is busily restoring the colonial ex-cloisters. About a year ago, INAH finished its work on Tochimilco’s Asunción de Nuestra Señora church. This imposing temple is a part of a chain of stunning monasteries in the foothills of Popocatepetl, which were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This shines a bright light on Mexico, especially considering all the bad news coming from the border. Now if they could just turn down the speakers a little bit at night…
Christoph Rosenmüller is associate professor in the History Department at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of Patrons, Partisans, and Palace Intrigues: The Court Society of Colonial Mexico, 1702–1710.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Well, I think faith is just an interesting topic, and it’s something that I quite honestly struggle with. But I always find, however much I believe about the Catholic Church — and I have some major problems with it — I always find that going to church is a very peaceful and a really nice time for me. Sitting through Mass, and sitting in Mass. You know, the thought of forgiveness, redemption — those are things that hold an awful lot of beauty for me, and really relate to our lives, no matter who we are. So those are the kind of parts that I focus on. And obviously there are things that are really scary and awful that I try to forget about.
For many of Finn’s fans, you’ll probably enjoy this interview, but the Friday Night Lights die-hards will like it even more. I just wish the interviewer would’ve probed a bit deeper on this religion question rather than using it as a toss-away paragraph that doesn’t draw Finn out on the depths of his experience or at least follow up on his answer. What are his “major problems” with the Catholic Church? Forgiveness and redemption are present in many denominations and various religions; what is it about the Roman Catholic Mass that draws him in despite his misgivings? What does he think about and take back to his work and relationships? When he cites David Foster Wallace’s idea about “reading fiction as a form of meditation,” how does Finn put that into practice in his own life and art and faith?
Photo by dsopfe/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The news from St Paul’s comes in a brief press release received by Riazat Butt. It reads:
‘The Chapter has previously asked the encampment to leave the cathedral precinct in peace. This has not yet happened and so, following the advice of our lawyers, legal action has regrettably become necessary.
The Chapter only takes this step with the greatest reluctance and remains committed to a peaceful solution. At each step of the legal process the Chapter will continue to entreat the protesters to agree to a peaceful solution and, if an injunction is granted, will then be able to discuss with the protesters how to reach this solution.
Theirs is a message that the Chapter has both heard and shares and looks forward to engaging with the protesters to identify how the message may continue to be debated at St Paul’s and acted upon.’
In short: we’re officially sympathetic to you, but we’ll still call the police in.
During live coverage, The Guardian’s Peter Walker sums up St. Paul’s Cathedral’s stance as it seeks to remove Occupy London protestors from its steps. Only the Brits can cut through the muck with one succinct line.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor