David Mason’s Mythological Collectivism

David Mason wrote a prominently featured piece in the Washington Post in which he argues that if Romney followed his gut (at least his Mormon gut), he would have wholeheartedly supported the Affordable Care Act for “finally catching up with the Mormon vision.” Mason then takes his readers through a quick and dirty history of Mormon collectivism from Joseph Smith through Brigham Young.  As Mason would have it, Brigham Young read the scriptures with one hand and Marx with the other.

I’m tempted to let it slide.  After all, this notion that the free market is tantamount to an article of faith is a relatively new development in the faith.  Joseph Smith tried twice (in Kirtland and Missouri) to establish economic equality. Brigham Young saw eastern industrialists as a threat equal to an army invasion.

But as much as I want to pat Mason on the head for reminding the Saints of our collectivist roots, I’m afraid he’s being just a little too cute with the Mormon people’s history.  Brigham always blasted the “pettifogging” lawyers for splicing hairs in their efforts to prosecute Mormons.  So in honor of Brother Brigham, I’m going to do some petifogging of my own.

Ever since the heady days of the Saints’ expulsion from Nauvoo in spring 1846, there has been a hard-wired suspicion of elected officials.  Unprincipled, weak, and vacillating, Mormons felt that the leaders entrusted with their safety had failed them spectacularly.  Missouri Governors Daniel Dunklin and Lilburn W. Boggs had either bowed to or assisted the mobs.  President Martin Van Buren refused to provide the Saints’ redress when Joseph made his case (“Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you”–a phrase that became enshrined in the Mormon “Horrible-Things-That-Elected-Officials-Say” hall of fame). Joseph Smith even went so far as to say that the Constitution fell short in the powers it granted to the federal government to protect minorities. And most of all, the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, was assassinated at Carthage Jail with the assistance of a state-sponsored militia.

When Brigham Young arrived in the desert to establish the Mormon kingdom, we forget that he wanted to get out of the United States.  While he had some reverence for the American Constitution, he valued it primarily for its promise assurance of religious liberty. American democracy had brought on the death of the “best blood the nineteenth century had seen.”  The Mormons had long expected that the United States would implode under the weight of civil war. “Uncle Sam is an unruly boy,” the Mormon leadert/loose cannon-laureate, Jedediah M. Grant said wryly to his transfixed audience.  “They have killed the prophets, and they must atone for it…my opinion is [they] will feel the hemlock sprout.” Of course, the Mormons had civil society as well: city councils, legislatures, and, of course, territorial governors. After the Mexican-American war, the Mormons never tired of begging Congress to admit them as a union. The Saints also recognized that total separation served no one and press Congress to build railroads and telegraph lines to the territory.  Federal officials were tolerated, but the Mormon sense of clannish loyalty proved unsettling for these Eastern elites. And Mormon polygamy filled them with a kind of “holy horror.” The Mormons correctly vented that the federal officials knew nothing of Mormon ways and had no business running affairs in an environment so foreign to them. That they were inebriated half the time did nothing to endear them to the generally sober Mormon crowd.

At any rate, as far as the Mormons were concerned, the institutions of America, the states, and civil society would all be temporary, they told themselves.   The destruction of Babylon/America and the Old World would happen at any time.  At the time of the greatest crisis, the Constitution would “hang by a thread,” and the Saints would save American from themselves.  In the meantime, they needed watch and wait.

So when David Mason speaks of a Mormon hope that the government will follow the Church’s example, he is trying to square the circle.   Even at the height of the communitarian heyday in the mid-1870s, the Mormons felt they could only succeed if left to their own devices. The Mormons did not want the government to “follow” themanywhere.   They would take federal money, petition for federal infrastructure, and even swallow a federal official or two who was willing to stay out of their way.  When tax commissioners attempted to levy a (possibly illegal) tax on the Saints in 1871, Brigham Young stonewalled, dodged, and argued.  The thought of the government imposing a healthcare system on them would have been horrifying.

So bless David Mason.  He wants Mormons to appreciate their communal roots. Don’t we all? Salt Lake City has more plastic surgeons and bankruptcies per capita than any other city in the country. But if he thinks that Brigham Young’s Mormonism is amenable to the idea of Congress telling the Mormon people to do anything, he would tell you to take a walk by Carthage jail.  That, Young would say, is the government’s idea of keeping its promises.

And the business about “no strings attached” welfare funds?   Mormons on welfare often 1) must pay tithing, 2) give the local bishop a financial disclosure statement, 3) be actively seeking work.  And has he ever *tasted* Church-produced “orange drink?