To a casual reader, it might seem that this blog has morphed into The New Yorker Lite. The past three days have seen posts written by essayists who would have brought a twinkle to Harold Ross's (1925-1951) editorial eye: Menand, Gladwell, and now Gopnik. However, to this curator of the best damn Reading Room on the Internet, good writin' is good writin'. If this is (fair & balanced) virtual conservatorship, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Adam Gopnik
Tag Cloud of the following article
Stereotypes and pigeonholes can, in a stable multiethnic society, act as sanctuaries as much as cells. In the heyday of urban ethnic immigration, even anti-Semites allowed that Jews were good at selling drygoods and producing movies, just as Irish Catholics were known to keep a good saloon and walk a decent beat. The ugliest of these pigeonholes suggests a comparative advantage, anyway: to be thought to tap-dance well implies that you can, at least, do that.
American Mormons, in this sense, seem to have been rather flatteringly typed. The Mormon executives and advisers around Howard Hughes were famous for their probity, their clean living, and their loyalty. As with the blond Scandinavian bodyguards who attended the Byzantine emperors, their uprightness was all the more starkly evidenced by the shiftiness of the guy they were protecting. The details of their religious views had nothing to do with the social role they played. The Osmond family was the Mormon family: too many kids and too many teeth, maybe, but always solid, always smiling, always temperate—no alcohol, no tobacco, not even caffeine. In an entertaining new autobiography, The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (2012), Joanna Brooks recalls ecumenical birthday parties as a young Mormon in California, and the anxiety she felt about simply seeing a bottle of Coke; Mormon parties featured (non-caffeinated) root beer. Nor were the Osmonds an outsider’s image: to this growing girl’s self-conception, the Book of Marie—Marie Osmond’s Guide to Beauty, Health & Style (1980)—seemed far more important than the Book of Mormon. Be perfect even as Marie on television is perfect, and you will be happy.
A lot of this is standard minority-faith stuff, including the perceived power of popular entertainment to validate a whole group. (Recall how Nathan Zuckerman’s father swells with pride when the Andrews Sisters sing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.”) It’s only later in the cycle of integration that the group comes banging on the door—as Jews and Catholics did, in the nineteen-fifties—for more general admission, not as cardboard stage-ethnic types good at one or two things but as people available to do everything, just like the ruling WASPs. That’s when everyone starts asking what it is these people really believe. So, right on cue, we find ourselves in the midst of an efflorescence of Mormon jokes, Mormon books, a Mormon-themed Broadway show—and four new scholarly books. Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People (2012) offers a comprehensive, neatly written synopsis of the whole history of the Latter-day Saints movement; Paul C. Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography (2012) traces the origins and afterlife of Latter-day Saints scripture; J. Spencer Fluhman’s A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America (2012) shows how much Mormon-hating helped shape standard American Protestantism; and John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (2012) is a definitive biography of Mormonism’s greatest activist and apostle.
All four authors retell Mormonism’s origin stories. In the eighteen-twenties, in Palmyra, New York, a man named Joseph Smith—who had already been arrested for “glass looking,” the phony detection of underground treasures—said that an angel named Moroni had directed him to a set of buried golden plates, inscribed with an ancient script, which, after various stops and starts, Smith and a friend had translated into a Biblical-sounding English. The plates contained the Book of Mormon, the secret history of a native people of America, who turned out to be lost tribes of Israel. They had long ago emigrated to America, and were the ancestors of the contemporary Indians. These American Hebrews had divided, after long internecine warfare, into two groups, the Lamanites (mostly bad) and the Nephites (mostly good), and—during a trip somehow overlooked by the Gospels—had been visited by Jesus, after the Resurrection and before the Ascension.
Scholarly opinion on Smith now tends to divide between those who think that he knew he was making it up and those who think that he sincerely believed in his own visions—though the truth is that, as Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857) reminds us, the line between the seer and the scamster wasn’t clearly marked in early-nineteenth-century America. Mark Twain read the Book of Mormon and, knowing what Smith would have read, not to mention knowing about frontier fakery, came to conclusions about both the sources of its prose and the sequence of its composition:
The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel—half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.
The reader who sits down to read the Book of Mormon today may find it even harder going than Twain suggests. One expects the tale of Nephi’s emigration to America, for instance, or of Jesus’ visit to Missouri to be at least soberly vivid, like Early American folk art; but the writing is so compulsively Biblical that all the action seems to take place underwater, and you have to thumb back through the pages when you realize that something cool—Israelites travelling in a boat to these shores—has already happened. Smith mimicked the endless, generation-counting longueurs of the Old Testament so skillfully that he rendered the book dead as literature while giving it credibility as a sacred text: a book as boring as this could have been inspired only by the breath of God.
The Book of Mormon is, in any case, only one of many pronouncements that Smith offered his new troops, apparently improvising as he went along, according to the shifting spiritual needs of the moment. (After other followers began to have revelations from angels of their own, the Holy Ghost inspired Smith to the conclusive revelation that only his revelations ought to be church policy.) As all our authors remind us, Mormonism was just one of countless sects dating from the Second Great Awakening, that period of the early nineteenth century which saw the first expression of the kind of hyper-emotional, revivalist Methodism that has remained the signature style of American Christianity into our own time. Smith’s part of upstate New York was called, Gutjahr tells us, “the ‘Burned-Over District,’ because the region was so often swept by the flames of the Holy Spirit.” All the sects had their own creeds, visionaries, and beliefs; they ranged from the Millerites, an upstate cult whose founder taught that the world would come to an end and Jesus return on March 21, 1843, all the way to the Oneida Community, whose members believed that Jesus had already returned and given everybody license for free love.
What made Smith’s followers stick by him, even after the local Protestants became openly hostile and the Latter-day Saints had to flee from state to state and town to town? One thing—and it seems peculiar to the Mormons—was the thrill of believing in a wholly American revelation. It happened here, to people like us: angels came and told us that the land was not story-less and virgin but ancient and possessed of a secret history. (This meant assigning the native people a made-up past and ignoring their actual past; what to do about the Indians, who were both the “ancients” and the “Others,” became a source of theological and practical grief.) Curiously, the Americanness of the revelation was also one of the things that made it irresistible to the thousands of working-class Englishmen and women who converted to the new faith in the eighteen-thirties and forties; visiting Mormon apostles, led by a promising Smith lieutenant named Brigham Young, told prospective immigrants that “millions upon millions of acres of land lie before them unoccupied, with a soil as rich as Eden.”
The powers that possession of the Book of Mormon conferred mattered more than the doctrines that it contained. “Rarely did missionaries draw on the verses and stories of the Book of Mormon in sermons,” Bowman explains. “Rather, they brandished the book as tangible proof of Joseph Smith’s divine calling.” Some holy texts, the Gospels, for instance, are evangelical instruments meant to convert people who read them; others are sacred objects meant to be venerated. The Book of Mormon is a book of the second sort. As the French religious historian Jean-Christophe Attias points out, in traditional Judaism the physical presence of the Scripture is at least as important as its content: when the Torah is unrolled during the service, it’s meant to be admired, not apprehended. That the Mormons had a book of their own counted for almost as much as what the Book of Mormon said.
Mormonism had other assets. Smith held (especially in the sermons he preached toward the end of his life) that God and angels and men were all members of the same species. “God that sits enthroned is a man like one of you” and “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man” were two of his most emphatic aphorisms on the subject. (People who were “exalted,” in Smith’s language, were men moving toward godhood, as God himself had once been a man who achieved it.) Although in many other respects, as Fluhman and Bowman point out, Mormonism was orthodox in its outlook—Jesus is the sole Messiah, and his history as told in the Gospels is taken to be true, if incomplete—the doctrine of God-as-Man divided Smith’s cult from the others, and scared the pants off even charismatic Protestantism: the Protestants were willing to accept that we are made in his image, but not that we are made of the same flesh.
This doctrine led in turn to various theological niceties, which seem to have risen and receded in the faith’s theology over the years: one is that the birth of Jesus had to have been the consequence of a “natural action”—i.e., that God the Father knew Mary in a carnal way, in order to produce the Messiah. (This doctrine is currently in disfavor, but it had a long life.) Another is that God, being an exalted man, must have a wife, or several wives, as men do; she is known as the Heavenly Mother, and is a being distinct from Mary. (Smith’s belief in exaltation evolved into the belief that other planets were inhabited by men even more exalted than we are; Smith taught that the truly exalted will get not just entry into Heaven but a planet of their own to run. This is now taken, or taught, metaphorically, the way conventional Christians often think of Hell, but it was part of the story.)
And then the Book of Mormon, unlike anything in the five books of the Torah, is told in a kind of flat first person: the book’s opening chapters all begin with the formula “I, Nephi.” This was not just an American Bible; it was a Bible with an evangelical, camp-meeting tone laid over the Old Testament vocabulary. The testimonial is the essential genre of the Great Awakening, and the Book of Mormon, for all its pastiche, is at heart a testimonial—starting with Nephi’s own account of how he got his people here. Even if you didn’t stay to find out what I, Nephi, did, the fact that I, Nephi, did it counted for a lot. Among other Christian texts, perhaps only the Gnostic Gospels of the early Christian centuries use the first person in quite this way. (Luke and Revelation begin with a personal introduction, but aren’t really personal stories.) And, though the charge of Gnosticism was often directed at them maliciously by other Christians, Mormonism does have a definite Gnostic aroma. Like the Gnostics, the Mormons thought that the conventional texts had too much atonement and too little attainment. Mormonism objects to making a big deal of the morbid agony of Jesus on the Cross at the expense of the more cheerful apparition of Man-made-into-God. This is why there are no crosses on Mormon temples; our guy triumphed far more than he suffered.
America, one might fairly say, had two foundings: the first under the Enlightenment guidance of its rich intellectual founders, and a second with the popular, evangelical Second Great Awakening, which flamed a quarter century afterward. Ever since, the two have, like the Lamanites and the Nephites, been at war for the soul of the country, with the politics not always easily predictable; it was really the Awakening side that led to abolitionism. (Smith ran for President on an advanced abolitionist platform, in 1844.) Over time, the spiritual descendants of the Awakening have sought to annex Enlightenment doctrines, chiefly through the claim that the Founders were not skeptical Enlightenment deists but passionate Evangelical fundamentalists, while the Enlightenment-minded have tried to annex the Awakening’s passionate energy to their causes, as in the civil-rights movement, where black churches became the emotional engine of what was, on its face, a legal argument about public facilities. Mormonism is a child of this fracture. In one way, it is a product of the Enlightenment love of secret histories and societies and rococo cosmologies—a “Magic Flute” for America, sung with a massed choir. (Many of its rituals and symbols seem to have a source in Freemasonry; Smith was an inducted Mason.) But it is also an instance of popular religious turbulence, not at all esoteric in its appeal but fully open to the world and evangelical in spirit.
As Fluhman shows in marvellous detail, Mormonism was the great scandal of American nineteenth-century religion, somewhat as Scientology is today, though Mormons understandably dislike the comparison. Mainstream Protestants couldn’t dismiss Mormonism, couldn’t embrace it, and couldn’t quite understand it, and yet it thrived. For American Protestantism, Mormonism was the other: you defined yourself against those nuts. Indeed, to this day, Joanna Brooks tells us, Mormons perceive their persecutors to be not atheists or secularists, let alone Jews or Catholics, but Protestant Evangelicals. (“And then it happened. My mother put her hand on my knee as we made the turn. There they were, those words—MORMONS: CHRISTIANITY OR CULT?—on the Trinity marquee. Anger burned between my temples again, and tears stung my eyes. ‘I heard they held up garments’ ”—Mormon sacramental underwear—“ ‘in church last Sunday, too,’ my mother told me, pityingly.”)
Forced out of New York by an earlier version of that fierce Protestant hostility, Smith and his followers began their years of wandering. Wherever they went, they infuriated the non-Mormon locals, and also managed to infuriate one another: the early history of the movement involves a bewildering series of excommunications, internal banishments, and the increasing threat of violence to enforce new rules as Smith received them. Smith was eventually martyred by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, while in the local jail awaiting trial for treason. Which of his doctrines enraged the mob is hard to grasp, but it may have been sex more than heresy. You could have as many doctrines as you liked, but not as many wives.
There the story might have ended. Yet as a rule the success of a new religious movement depends not so much on the mystical visions of its founder as on the executive energy of its first evangelist. Christianity may be Jesus’ intuition, but it is Paul’s institution, and the Nation of Islam owed less to the mysterious preachments of Wallace Fard than to the organizational tenacity of Elijah Muhammad. Brigham Young inhabited this role for the Mormons, and about as fully as any apostle ever has. Young was one of Smith’s earliest followers, a hard-bitten character from Vermont who, inheriting Smith’s mantle, got his posse of believers out West and, instead of pushing forward along the Oregon Trail and joining the gold rush, chose an arid but suitable piece of land, planted his people there, and, in 1847, began building a wooden tabernacle in the town he called Salt Lake City.
Young’s accomplishment in getting his unruly congregation out of their contentious place in settled country to a new territory of their own is genuinely remarkable. As the first governor of Utah—he preferred the Mormon name Deseret—he ruled more or less alone over a huge chunk of Western territory, including a lot of what is today Wyoming, Colorado, and Nevada. Understandably, Turner is inclined to see Young as a kind of Western hero, the John Wayne character in a Howard Hawks Western, rough around the edges; he is one of the few nineteenth-century public figures to be routinely on the record saying “frigged” and “shit.” Yet the figure who emerges in the biography starts off more like Jim Jones or David Koresh. He preached a brutal doctrine of “blood atonement” that Turner describes as a “chilling perversion of the golden rule.” Young’s formulation: “Will you love that man or woman enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant.” For a time, he tolerated a group of frontier thugs who acted as personal emissaries, and, despite Smith’s gestures toward universalism, imposed a hard anti-African and pro-slavery line. (Blacks were excluded from the priesthood and from temple ceremonies.) Young was in power at the time of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in 1857, in which more than a hundred peaceful non-Mormon emigrants were disarmed under an elaborate promise of safe conduct and then murdered en masse. “The attackers mercilessly shot, stabbed, and slashed the throats of emigrants who pled for their lives,” Turner recounts, in an event he describes as “a heinous crime executed after careful deliberation and subterfuge.” For all that, the killers “appeared to remain not just in good standing but in Young’s own personal favor,” Turner notes. It’s a long way to the Osmonds.
Young’s brutality, and his insistence that Utah belonged exclusively to the Mormons, led President James Buchanan to send in the troops; Young armed his men and swore that they would burn down Salt Lake City before they bowed to Washington. All the elements for full-scale religious warfare seemed set, and the thing might easily have ended in a counter-massacre and the collapse of the Mormons as a force in North America.
In the end, Young backed down and accepted federal supremacy in the territory. He knew that his people had little hope against the Army—but this is not a thought that has stopped religious zealots in the past, from Masada on. (Had Young somehow found a way to repel that pre-Civil War Army, a large tract of the continent might now be a religious state called Zion.) Something more was at work. One element latent in Smith’s theology that Young brought forward was a kind of sanctified materialism. His brand of Mormonism might at times have been extra-planetary, but it was scarcely otherworldly. Right here on earth, he insisted, men became saints and even approached godliness. Smith taught that Gods and men were one species; Young made this idea a practical guiding principle. “We are not going to wait for Angels” was his very American aphorism on the subject. “We intend to build up Zion on the earth.” Since we are angelic already, we should not let the forces of Lucifer drive us from the Heaven we’ve found. There was no virtue in letting your enemies send you to that other, better place, if Salt Lake City was essentially just as good.
The implicit social treaty to which the Mormons in Utah agreed meant giving up their claims to autonomy and the practices that their countrymen found most distasteful (notably, polygamy), in exchange for recognition of their primacy in Utah and a readiness in the rest of the country to tolerate their faith. Mormons effectively turned away from spiritual adventuring toward the gospel of prosperity. After the Civil War, Brigham Young sponsored the first Mormon department stores and commercial franchises, the Zion Co-operative Mercantile Institutions, through which, Turner says, “Mormon merchants would earn reduced profits, but undercut the non-Mormon counterparts and keep Zion’s wealth within its borders. . . . Merchants who invested in the enterprise displayed a ZCMI sign on their storefronts, consisting of an ‘All-Seeing Eye’ and the phrase ‘Holiness to the Lord.’ ” The Salt Lake Zion was now a commercial capital. Turner shows that the Z.C.M.I. in part reflected the socialist and communalist doctrines that Smith had taught, and were opposed by more laissez-faire Mormons. Still, the stores were there to sell Eastern goods to Utah shoppers.
Turner’s book approaches its end with a photograph of the grandest of the Z.C.M.I. department stores, the capital’s Eagle Emporium, attended by a stern-faced honor guard of local Indians. An emporium civilization had taken over from the territorial one. It was a victory of Gilded Age capitalism (enforced perhaps by the railroads, which made indefinite isolation an unrealistic goal) over Great Awakening spiritualism. Fluhman writes of this alteration a little regretfully, as a kind of spiritual sellout. The Sacred Tabernacle had allied itself with the Big Store. But, as usual in America, the squalid turn toward vulgar prosperity was also a sane turn toward social peace.
Mormonism remained more or less theologically whole, with its holy book and its distinctive doctrines. But this sublimation of the energy of the faith into the energy of commerce seems always to have marked it afterward. Many faiths know a moment when a territorial practice gets pointed toward a symbolic and indoor activity: thus, most famously, the move from the Temple Judaism of ancient Israel to the Talmudic, rabbinical Judaism that arose after the destruction of the Temple. Less noted, perhaps, is the retrenchment of Roman Catholicism in France from the aggressive political role it played as recently as the Dreyfus affair toward the inward-turning N.G.O. it is today: the energy that produced Sacré Coeur in Montmartre now expresses itself in the number of water wells dug in Africa. For Mormonism, the intensity of the faith got sublimated into missionary zeal and commerce. Joanna Brooks explains this nicely: “Being Mormons we were taught never to go in for the bamboozle of mysterious sacraments of grace embraced by the rest of apostate Christendom. . . . No, no, we Mormons were taught that our works must carry us there.” The emphasis on works is a Protestant standby, but in this case it is without the grim Calvinist suspicion that maybe the works won’t get you to Heaven. Mormons know they will. Work and grace are not in tension but in neat accord. A mercantile church and a missionary church move in the same holy direction, and the vector that points both forward is the energy of enterprise.
Yet how much do specifically Mormon beliefs matter to contemporary Mormons? Brooks’s story, give or take a Nephite or two, could unfold in any fundamentalist community that provides comfort and meaning if you’re prepared to park your critical intelligence in the lot outside the church door. She writes, often quite movingly, of the persistent ambivalence of her feelings about her natal faith, but any strayed member of a tight community of believers feels this way about it. Nephi, the Lamanites, the approaching apocalypse in Missouri—these things hardly come up. What resonates for her is the Mormon elder who said that heavy-metal music had secret satanic codes—the same preacher you find in any fundamentalist camp. These stories of attachment and repulsion are being played out in or around Hasidic communities in Brooklyn every day, and surely, for that matter, among Sikhs and Jains in Queens, too. This is the story of faith, not of Joseph Smith’s faith. The allegiance is to the community that nurtured you, and it is bolstered by the community’s history of persecution, which makes you understandably inclined to defend its good name against all comers. It isn’t the truth of the Book, or the legends of Nephi, that undergird Mormon solidarity even among lapsed or wavering believers; it’s the memories of what other people were prepared to do in order to prevent your parents from believing. A critique of the creed, even a rational one, feels like an assault on the community.
One has a strong sense, reading the literature, of a contemporary Mormonism that has deliberately placed its most distinctive doctrines and icons in eclipse. Mormon art produced one camp genius, the mid-twentieth-century painter Arnold Friberg—he won non-Mormon fame as Cecil B. De Mille’s designer for “The Ten Commandments”—who illustrated Smith’s scripture in a style that’s a cross between Norman Rockwell and a “Conan the Barbarian” comic; his image of Nephi is canonic among believers, and, it must be said, looks exactly like Mitt Romney. But these eccentric triumphs have been largely hushed, and Mormonism now emphasizes its congruence with conventional Christianity rather than its differences. Walk by the Latter-day Saints church on the Upper East Side of New York, and you will see only images of Jesus and scenes from the Gospels, even if the Mormon Jesus looks more corn-fed and burly than the gaunt, ascetic one in the Protestant church around the corner. The continuing Mormon suspicion of Evangelicals, and the Evangelical hostility toward Mormons, could be politically significant only if the guy on the other side is a credible Evangelical, at least in emotional style. When the other guy is at best an intellectual and at worst an Arab, political solidarity is bound to trump inter-sectarian mistrust.
The image seems to have turned yet again, and now the Mormons of the popular imagination are not so much honest as innocent. In Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (whose title refers to the Mormon myth), the Mormons, though repressed, are failures only at living up to their own potent mythology of an American Eden. The Mormons in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “The Book of Mormon” are not the heretics of the early years, or the separatists of the mid-nineteenth century, or even the trustworthy men of the Hughes period. They are well-meaning naïfs, essentially sweet and admirable—though, to be a little heretical myself, this may be evidence, along with much of “South Park,” of Parker and Stone’s wanting to take credit for being bold without ever taking the risks or responsibility that come with being brave. (By mocking the Mormon kids while not mocking them—because everyone else is ridiculous, too—and getting laughs from racist clichés while making it clear that they know they’re racist clichés, they want the thrill of being thought satirists while seeking the safety of mere silliness.)
All of which leads to the inevitable question: To what degree is Mormonism responsible for Mitt Romney? Is there a thread, dark or golden, that runs from Moroni to Mitt? Garry Wills has argued, after all, that Irish Catholic ideas about sin—that sin is negotiable currency, to be practiced, done penance for, forgiven—allowed John Kennedy some serenity as he screwed his way through the White House typing pool, just as the habits of Protestant Evangelical belief, in forgiveness and temptation and forgiveness, in a never-ending cycle, helped Bill Clinton find a common language with working-class people. The most striking feature of Mitt Romney as a politician is an absence of any responsibility to his own past—the consuming sense that his life and opinions can be remade at a moment’s need. Romney, according to Romney, never favored the individual mandate, or supported abortion rights, or opposed the auto-industry bailout, or did any of the other things he obviously, and on the record, did.
One could presumably make a case that beleaguered faiths always shy from admitting errancy in public. Dominant faiths can afford tales of failure and redemption, with sinners becoming saints and saints dropping in and out of the calendar like blue-plate specials; beleaguered ones have to put on a good face in public and never lose it. Donny Osmond talks about the anxieties that arose from a need to appear perfect, and the impossibility of admitting in public to flaws or errors. Better to have a new revelation about, say, health-care mandates that renders the previous one instantly inoperable than spend time apologizing for the old ways. When, in 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the rule prohibiting blacks from serving as priests, one church leader, Bruce McConkie, explained, “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978.” You could find, or think you’ve found, a similar logic behind Romney’s blithe amnesia when it comes to the things he used to think and say.
Yet class surely tells more than creed when it comes to American manners, and Romney is better understood as a late-twentieth-century American tycoon than as any kind of believer. Most of what is distinct about him seems specific to the rich managerial class of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and is best explained so—just as you would grasp more about Jack Kennedy from F. Scott Fitzgerald (an Irish and a Catholic ascending to WASP manners) than from St. Augustine. In another way, though, this is precisely where faith really does walk in, since commerce and belief seem complementary in Romney’s tradition. It’s just that this tradition is not merely Mormon. Joseph Smith’s strange faith has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce. It’s unfair to say, as some might, that Mitt Romney believes in nothing except his own ambition. He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.
Then again, almost every American religion sooner or later becomes a Gospel of Wealth. Forced into a corner by the Feds, Young’s followers put down their guns and got busy making money—just as the Oneida devotees who made silverware for a living ended up merely making silverware. (The moneymaking activities of the major churches hardly need outlining.) Christmas morning is the American Sabbath, and it runs, ideally, all year round. The astonishing thing, and it would have brought a smile to Nephi’s face as he and his tribe sailed to the New World, is that this gospel of prosperity is the one American faith that will never fail, even when its promises seem ruined. Elsewhere among the Western democracies, the bursting of the last bubble has led to doubts about the system that blows them. Here the people who seem likely to inherit power are those who want to blow still bigger ones, who believe in the bubble even after it has burst, and who hold its perfection as a faith so gleaming and secure and unbreakable that it might once have been written down somewhere by angels, on solid-gold plates. Ω
[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA from McGill University.Later, he studied at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011).]
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Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves