Monday, February 13, 2012

Double Vision

It's got to be extremely disorienting.

Both eyes still function, but they can't converge, can't communicate effectively with one another.

So objects appear twice: displaced vertically or horizontally, maybe both. Must make you feel a bit like you're that kid in The Sixth Sense. Ghostly visions, haunted head.

The medical term is "diplopia." The popular term is "double vision."

It can throw off your balance. Complicate movement. Make it hard even to read.

All of which may sound oddly familiar on a metaphorical level if you're from a minority group...

When I saw the footage of the Twin Towers on 9/11, I remember praying: "Please don't let it be Muslims. Let it be white guys, like Oklahoma City. Let it be the pilots, with some homicidal grudge against the system. Just please don't let it be Muslims." And when it was Muslims, men who looked just like me, I was scared to go out to the store. I didn't know how people would react.

I printed off a picture of Balbir Singh Sodhi and kept it in my room after he was shot to death.

I've known American Muslims. Had a few good Muslim friends in high school--they didn't drink; they shared my deep investment in family. When we went on an overnight debate trip, it was the Muslims and Mormons who prayed before we went to bed at night.

But many Americans can't see what I've seen in my Muslim friends and neighbors. A lot of people can't see Muslims right because the story of everyday Muslim-American life is overlaid or displaced by phantom images of what the worst Muslims have done. So when many Americans see a Muslim, it throws them off balance. And when they research Islam, it's hard for them to read without jumping to negative conclusions at the first sign of historical complexity.

I'm not denying Muslims have problems, of course. But remember the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" debate? Planners called their project the "Cordoba House" to memorialize a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in Spain--a time when Spain was still famous for science and not yet for the Spanish Inquisition. But Newt Gingrich said the planners were lying, that the name was an insult and a reference to Muslim military victories, that New York Muslims who'd had relatives die in the Twin Towers somehow wanted to celebrate the attack.

It's classic double vision: Muslims had to compete with another, antagonistic version of events. And whatever Muslims tried to say in their own defense only served to convince many they were hiding something.

Latter-day Saints should understand a bit of what it's like to struggle against a society's double vision. (Maybe that's why Orrin Hatch was the only prominent conservative and practically the only prominent politician to speak up in support of the project.) I've felt the same kind of double vision in conversations with people who I believe to be genuinely nice, but who wouldn't believe a word I'd say in response to their more extreme claims about my own faith. I see it in the poll numbers that have high numbers of conservatives and even higher numbers of liberals saying they'd refuse to vote for a Mormon without even having to know his or her name.

And I felt that social double-vision bear down on me in the New York Times op-eds I've been responding to over the past week. Particularly when I noticed that even the New York Times didn't blink to publish a version of church political thought that goes like this:
Its founding prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., ran for president in 1844 advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government in favor of a Mormon-ruled theocracy. In the 1850s the U.S. waged “the Mormon War” against the theocracy established in Utah — where the church remains engaged in what a Salt Lake Tribune editor has called “a unique church-state tango.” In light of the theology and divine prophecies of the church, it would seem that the office of the American presidency is the ultimate ecclesiastical position to which a male Mormon might aspire.
You see? Like Muslims (and Catholics before JFK) our faith is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. We have secret plans and a thirst for conquest and oppression. Someone had better protect the nation's Protestants and their spiritual-but-secular children from us.

Sure, we love to quote Senator Reed Smoot's dictum that he'd rather be a deacon in the church of God than hold the highest office in the United States. But can you trust that we really believe that?

You'd think research would help. If you look at Joseph Smith's presidential platform you'll see proposals to abolish slavery and compensate former slaveholders for losses, to reform prisons and especially diminish their toll on the lower class, to raise tariffs as a protection for developing agriculture and industry. You won't see anything (unless you think Congressional pay cuts would bring the whole system crashing down) that sounds remotely like overthrowing the government.

But research also turns up another, unusual side of Joseph Smith's political thought. One that you can see as perfectly reasonable, or choose to interpret (Newt Gingrich style) as sinister or even (Sally Denton style) as treasonous.

Did Joseph Smith want to overthrow the United States?

Joseph Smith was a patriotic American. But his political thought wasn't just about the national issues of the day. By 1844 he was also thinking about what government would look like after the United States was gone. And starting to draft backup plans.

He probably ran for President more as what we might now call a publicity stunt than because he felt like being President would be the best possible use of his time. After all, like Jared Diamond today, he was pretty convinced the nations of the world were fundamentally out of balance and close to a collapse. Since he also believed, like the ancient apostle Paul, that Christ's return would come during or shortly after his lifetime, that meant Joseph Smith likely wouldn't have bet on the United States lasting past 1900.

If what I am saying sounds crazy, take a look at Joseph Smith's Christmas 1832 prophecy on war. While watching the nullification crisis unfold, Smith had some kind of impression or vision of war beginning in South Carolina and spreading over the earth. In the written text of the revelation, though, he doesn't try to spread it out into neat little boxes or brackets like history books do: this year to that year, in this corner or that of the planet. No, in the revelation war pours down and never really stops.

If the revelation was real, if Joseph Smith really caught a glimpse of the Civil War and the era of industrialized total war it would usher in, it must have chilled him to the depths of his soul. I'm not surprised he would have left the experience with a sense that the system of states as we continue to know it would have been untenable under the weight of Sherman's marches and Nagasaki bombs. If he saw the Civil War, the Franco-Mexican and Franco-Prussian wars, then the world wars, cold wars, resource wars, wars of and on terror all layered over each other in a prophetic blur of machines and blood, then of course, of course he would have believed he was living right on history's last cliff-edge.

Joseph Smith wouldn't have felt a need to overthrow the American government because he was pretty sure it was already doomed.

But he did believe in the fundamental virtues of government as protectors of human interest against anarchy, so even in his pessimism for the nations of the world, he looked ahead. Late in his life, Joseph Smith was trying to figure out how to separate democratic values he treasured from the corruption and partisan wrangling he found so troubling. He was thinking of a backup system which would operate after the inevitable collapse of current nations until the imminent return of the Savior and perhaps into the Millennium.

He realized, of course, that Americans didn't think a religious figure should be even thinking about government, so he kept his ideas quiet. But what's surprising about Joseph Smith's secret back-up political thought is not that it has theocratic elements. He was a prophet, after all, and he believed, for example, that if a future council of legislators failed to reach a position of honest unanimity, sincere prayer could reveal an answer and resolve the issue. What's surprising is that it also has democratic elements: he believed that it would be a council, not a single leader, who would welcome Jesus back--and he believed the council would include members from other faiths than his own.

Unusual? Sure. Treasonous? No--unless it's treason to believe the United States government will eventually fall, like almost every major civil structure older than it has.

I hope we don't consider that treasonous. Because as much as I love democracy, if an oil-eating bacteria broke out tomorrow and ended the world as we know it, I think my church would be better equipped than my oil-based country to give my family instructions on how to make it through the transition. And I won't be ashamed if our current religious leaders have put some thought to how to promote cooperation and promote the social welfare in such an extreme hypothetical emergency.

But if he didn't think the country would last, why did Joseph Smith run for President?

It's nice to think that Joseph Smith ran for President because he honestly hoped people would latch onto and pass at least some of his progressive policies. Maybe a part of him did. But it's pretty clear from history Joseph Smith ran partly because he didn't have anyone else left to support.

In 1833, Mormons had been tarred and feathered, beaten, driven from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri--partly because of rumors that free black church members in Ohio would be moving to the state. After the expulsion, the governor admitted to the refugee saints they still had a right to lands they'd bought, but refused to protect them should they return, and soon backed out of a promise to let them protect themselves if they could muster a force.

In 1838, after the Mormons had built some unwanted prairie land into a rising commercial center, violence broke out again. Mobs barred Mormons from voting, then sieged and expelled them from outlying settlements. When Mormons asked for militia protection against mobs armed with cannons, militia leaders responded (in writing which is kept in the Missouri archives to this day) that their units sympathized with the mobs and were likely only to make the violence worse. The governor refused to intervene and called it a private matter between the Mormons and their critics. But when Mormons stepped up to defend themselves, the governor interpreted it as a rebellion and responded by calling up numerous militia units and giving them instructions that the Mormons as a group "must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace."

Soon the Missouri militia had surrounded the main Mormon settlement and demanded that Joseph Smith and other church leaders be handed over. Joseph Smith thought he was going to negotiate an end to the troubles, but was immediately arrested. Only the moral courage of one lower officer, Alexander Doniphan, restrained the militia leader from summarily executing Smith without trial. Church leaders stayed in prison through the winter instead, while ten thousand faithful Mormons were forced to flee their lands and homes in the state and seek refuge in Illinois.

Subsequent appeals for justice through the political process failed. The story goes that when Joseph Smith went to Washington, D.C. and met with then-President Van Buren, he was told "your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you."

So in the fall of 1843, Joseph Smith sent letters out to the five leading presidential candidates asking whether they'd stand up for Mormons' rights. Since none of them said yes, and since any political party tended to respond with spite if they blamed a Mormon swing vote for losing them an election, Joseph Smith decided to run for President himself.

He was murdered by a mob several months before the 1844 election took place, though. Whether it's the editor of Slate making a joke about Joseph Smith's run or Sally Denton in the New York Times denouncing him, modern popular commentators never seem to mention that.

"Theocracy" in Utah

A few years after Joseph Smith's death, the majority of Mormons gave up on the eastern United States. They went out in search of a place "where none would come to hurt or make afraid" in the Rocky Mountains' desert shadow. For several years, they worked under the direction of Brigham Young in spite of devastation from crickets, difficult water conditions, and severe weather. They worked communally and placed significant temporal faith in their religious leaders. Few seem to have been in a hurry to revert to the sorts of frontier democratic structures that had presided over the persecutions in Missouri. And one U.S. President was willing to give them some time: in 1850, Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as territorial governor to allow the current Utah system to continue to operate as it had been.

Gradually, though, relations with the federal government soured. The next two presidents sent appointed officials to Utah territory who resented not only the popularly elected church leaders in the territorial legislature, but also local practices: from Brigham Young's break with colonial methods of handling of water rights in favor of new West-appropriate system, to the Mormon New Testament-based tendency to work out differences through the church community rather than referring all disputes to the federal courts, to the practice of polygamy.

Some of those appointees left Utah in the mid-1850s and told the story Sally Denton has passed on to this day: that Mormon deference for religious leaders wasn't a reasonable response to an ambitious communal project in a harsh landscape, but a dangerous theocratic regime that threatened the very idea of democracy. James Buchanan didn't even bother to inform Brigham Young of his dismissal as governor: he simply sent a replacement, backed by an army.

My great-great-great grandfather, Carl Heinrich Wilcken, was a German atheist who'd immigrated to the United States after participating in a failed revolt against Denmark. He signed up under an assumed name for the new westbound army because he couldn't find other work. Apparently, the army wasn't about to turn down a new recruit, though. As Wilcken later recorded:
I never had in all my experience seen anything like it that was called a military organization. As a rule, the American army was made up of the scum of the nation - a lot of men that are worthless to society. The drunkard, the loafer, and the depraved find, when they are at their rope’s end, an asylum in the army, and become the 'defenders of their country'. Everything was so unlike German — no discipline, no care of dress, no punctuality nor order — it seemed to me more like a mob than a regular army, and I soon became disgusted with my situation.
On the journey toward Utah, he said, the commissary officers often sold company foodstuffs to passing settlers or prospectors for cash and let the soldiers go hungry. The officers passed time time by talking about "what they were going to do after arriving among the 'Mormons', such as hanging the leaders and appropriating their wives and daughters."

Made cautious by triumphant press reports predicting comeuppance to the depraved Mormons, church leaders prescribed a policy of slowing and harassing the oncoming army without direct engagement until some sort of understanding could be restored. Brigham Young ultimately met with the new gubernatorial appointee and was perfectly willing to grant him the office. Young did insist on evacuating most of Salt Lake City temporarily as the federal army passed through, so most Mormons missed commanding Colonel A. S. Johnston's remark that he would have given "his plantation for a chance to bombard the city for fifteen minutes" and a Lieutenant Colonel's boast that he "did not care a damn who heard him; he would like to see every damned Mormon hung by the neck."

And so it was that the United States faced down a Mormon rebellion which didn't actually exist, and deepened a Mormon wariness about government that continues for many to this day.

So what?

Can Americans today agree that sending an undisciplined, deeply prejudiced army out against a religious group is a bad idea? That we should be ashamed about a military commander who would rather have leveled Salt Lake City than made peace?

Apparently not. For Denton, the supposed continuing threat of Mormon theocracy outweighs any concerns about the wisdom of the federal government's nineteenth century response.

Maybe the survival of her version of history into 2012 isn't a big deal. Maybe I'm overreacting.

But I don't know. I still feel like--even in our much more developed and stable democracy--the double vision thing often happens and that it matters. I still believe that important political decisions can be informed by preconceived notions of what a minority is thinking, and that if the dominant culture doesn't trust minority members to tell their own stories, there's cause for reflection and concern.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this matter. I have known only a few muslims very well. For the most part I have been impressed and felt a kinship to them as you mentioned. I took a course as an undergrad on Islam and found many parallels to our Mormon faith including some very beautiful stories.

    Thank you also for the thorough debunking of Denton's piece. As I read more and more "journalistic" perspectives on my faith it is astounding to me what can get published in the nation's most prestigious papers.

    1. Yeah, I was surprised what they wrote, too. But a sensationalist version of history that can play to people's fears in a sentence will probably always have some competitive advantage over a more detailed explanation that tries to put events in a proper context.

      This is why I think the real take-home lesson is to be careful to judge someone based on any one-sentence version of their "history."

  2. Nice. I'm glad someone out there is writing something to debunk what everyone is writing about minorities. I just wish that some big-time news source would run them. Then again, I guess that goes against the very idea and reason of "big-time news source".

  3. this is fantastic - you do a great job of laying it all out there.
    I'm LDS and I'm going to make myself sound pretty ignorant with this story, but I wanted to share it. I grew up in southeastern Washington and I was pretty ignorant about Islam. I do remember a trip I took when I was in eighth grade. I went with my second family - my across-the-street Roman Catholic neighbors - who were driving another of our friends to Seattle (about 4 hours) to see his father who was in the hospital, presumably for a surgery.
    I was not aware at the time that our friend, Cherif, was Muslim (he was very americanized, though his parents were first generation immigrants from I'm not sure where) but my "second parents" explained that it was the month of Ramadan and that Cherif would not be eating during the day. I remember waking up in our Embassy Suites hotel room around 4 am to the sound of Thundercats re-runs playing softly while Cherif chowed down on bowl after bowl of cold cereal.
    Thinking about that simple inconvenience, that confused moment of half-wakefulness, I am grateful that I grew up around people of different beliefs - and not just that, but that I was encouraged to be tolerant and loving towards others.
    Have I been good at that? Probably not any better than the next person, but it reinforces the idea that good individuals do more for the groups they are part of than the groups can do independent of their members. And I think that you are a great example of that concept as well. Thanks for your posts - keep it up.

  4. Religious News Service did a much better history of JS's candidacy than the New York Times. You can find it here:



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