The Forthcoming Mormon Memory Wars
Over the past several years, the nation has been torn apart by memory wars. The conflict usually centers on a monument that reflects different historical narratives for different groups. The Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse and the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville are two high profile examples. Memory wars are fought when there are conflicting historical narratives that are essential to the identity of a group. While disagreements about race and the legacy of the civil war will continue to dominate the headlines, other clashes over memory are worth noting. One of such is the forthcoming Mormon memory wars.
Religion is often a key aspect of group identity, which makes it a prime motivating force to generate a memory war. There is currently a revolution taking place concerning how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church) understands the key events of its foundation. For over a century, the problematic details of Mormon history were swept under the rug. As the late apostle Boyd Packer said “some things that are true are not very useful.” In the era of the internet, the LDS Church no longer has a monopoly over its history. Several significant attempts have been made to be more transparent with its history. The Gospel Topics, the Joseph Smith Papers project, and even a new Church history are all part of this new strategy. This opens the door for more competition over traditional Mormon historical narratives.
This is planting the seeds for a Mormon memory war. Mormonism is unique among American religions in the role it plays in a person’s identity. The institution has a significant role in creating and maintaining a community that each member operates in. Since the early days of Mormonism and the accompanying persecution, Mormons have always been a “peculiar people” with distinct barriers between those outside the Mormon community and those within. LDS theology outlines a purpose for adherents, and the institution adds cultural facets that further contribute to one’s identity.
There have been critics of core LDS historical narratives since the foundation of Mormonism. This has never resulted in something that one could call a memory war because the critics were traditionally outside the Mormon community. In addition, there was little to fight over because most of the symbols of the key narratives do not reside in the public space, giving outside groups little authority to engage in any memory war.
The current era of internet transparency will result in key differences. The clashes will mostly be fought within Mormonism with outsiders only playing a secondary role. The flash points will be determined by several factors. First, it will surround issues from LDS history that contradict key elements of modern Mormon identity such as polygamy and racism. Second, institutions and monuments will be the focal point, as in most memory wars.
There are several key narratives currently open for discussion including the historicity of the Book of Mormon, polygamy as an inspired doctrine and practice, the relation between women and the priesthood, the role of racism in LDS theology and practice, and more recently LGBT rights. These all reflect key elements of LDS identity for many of its members.
Most flash points will likely be related to Brigham Young. Though the above mentioned points are also relevant to Joseph Smith, he most likely will not bear the brunt of the flash points. First, there is very little symbolic value tied to Smith’s name (aside from the Joseph Smith Memorial building and the Praise to the Man hymn). Young ruled the LDS church for 30 years and is commemorated in ways that are more likely to be flash points. He is also commemorated in multiple visible ways including the This is the Place Monument, a Brigham Young monument in down town Salt Lake City, and statues in the Capital building. This is, of course, in addition to Brigham Young University.
During his reign, the controversies of Brigham Young were also more visible and more controversial than those of Joseph Smith. Young’s historical impact will be a point of conflict for the following reasons: racism, fostering a culture of violence towards others, and polygamy and misogyny. Lastly, engaging in memory wars related to Brigham Young come with a lower cost of engagement for members, as they are not fighting against the foundation of Mormonism but rather the path it took under Young. It also is not a direct confrontation with current leadership. Mormon memory wars could already be upon us as one statue of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young was recently stolen (it was later found unharmed). A petition has also recently been launched to rename Brigham Young University.
History has always been complex, and LDS history is certainly no exception. In the era of transparency, many Mormons are trying to reconcile how their history could contradict the key elements of their identity and the tenets of their faith. The LDS church put out a statement condemning the Charlottsville violence and noted that “no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.” That is problematic because Brigham Young does not then fit the definition of a true disciple. The LDS Church also has a priority of supporting traditional marriage as a key institution for society. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s practice of polygamy goes against this very teaching.
The positive note about the forthcoming Mormon memory wars is that because they are likely to be based within the Mormon community, hostilities will remain low. In addition, the intra-community nature of the memory war may result in a win-win scenario where the LDS church and its members are able to accept new historical narratives. These narratives may be problematic in the understanding of their past, but do not need to have a destructive impact on the future of Mormon community as they could still serve to confirm existing pillars of Mormonism. These memory wars will be worth remembering.