Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

How Mormonism can save America

The U.S. Constitution with an american flag.

According to a controversial Mormon prophecy, there will come a time when the United States Constitution will be hanging by a thread as fine as single strand of silk, and the Mormon people will step in to save the nation from destruction.

This is the infamous “white horse” prophecy, which gets trotted out every time a right-wing Mormon says or does something stupid (we’re looking at you, Ammon Bundy) or a Mormon is running for president.

It doesn’t seem to matter how often or how soundly the LDS Church has refuted the white horse prophecy as having nothing to do with Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Then-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith denounced it a century ago at the October 1918 General Conference, saying it proceeded “out of darkness, concocted in some corner,” and had not come “through the proper channels of the Church.”

Not to be outdone, his father, the prophet Joseph F. Smith, at that same meeting said the so-called prophecy was “ridiculous” and “simply false; that is all there is to it.” (For a full account of the prophecy’s spurious origins decades after the death of Joseph Smith, see this 2010 BYU Studies article.)

Yet the prophecy persists in the Mormon American imagination; we seem to love the image of ourselves as saviors who swoop in at the eleventh hour to save the nation from itself.

Clearly, I think the white horse prophecy is bogus. That doesn’t mean that every part of it is BS, however. There is a way in which Mormons can save America from itself—and with every passing year, America needs that particular kind of salvation more and more.

Let me paint a picture. Right now we live in a country in which it is entirely possible for liberals and conservatives to inhabit uprickable bubbles of their own design. Liberals get their news from CNN and MSNBC, while conservatives tune in to Fox News.

Liberals log on to their self-selecting Facebook feeds and see outrage about how the Trump administration is axing immigration, cozying up to Russia, and rolling back environmental protections. Conservatives log on to their self-selecting Facebook feeds and see outrage about terrorism, improper care of military veterans, and the fact that Trump isn’t getting more credit for job growth.

And in most of the country, these people attend religious congregations that reinforce their views. Political scientists used to think that religion drove people’s political choices. Now they’re realizing that the arrow also points in the other direction: people make their religious choices about where (and even whether) to attend based on politics, not just faith. The echo chamber doesn’t stop.

Except in Mormonism. In my life, all the aforementioned echo chambers apply: where I get my news, for example, and what my social media looks like. Even the neighborhood I live in is largely reflective of my political views, judging from the political yard signs I see come election time.

But all that goes away when I go to church, because in Mormonism I don’t have a choice about the community I belong to.

Mormons attend church based on geography, plain and simple. You don’t get to congregation-shop based on which ward has the hippest bishop or the largest youth group (though some Mormons will actually hunt around in different wards before buying a house, knowing that once they move they’ll be locked in to those ward boundaries). And you certainly don’t get to choose where to go to church based on your political tendencies.

I used to rail against this policy, especially when I moved to a rural area where I knew no one and had little in common with the long-term residents of that ward. They were Kentuckians born and bred, and I was a carpetbagger, just passing through; many hadn’t finished college, and I’d just gotten my PhD.

I was the only one with a John Kerry sticker on my car in the parking lot.

And yet in the seven years I lived there, something magical happened to me. I came to genuinely love them, and even laugh about our differences. I once pointed out to a woman in my book club that she had stenciled the Mormon lyrics “peace and plenty here abide” right on top of the gun cabinet in her family room. She laughed too. She had never considered the irony. She baked me cookies for my birthday.

Back in those days, my Mormon ward was not the only place in my life where I regularly encountered—and loved—people whose views were diametrically opposed to mine. But I would say it is now. The worlds I swim in at work are primarily academia and journalism, both of which have a particular political persuasion, and as a rule our nation has moved deeper into our own silos. As I’ve said, our online interactions nowadays tend to merely reinforce our thinking. If they don’t, we all-too-quickly unfriend one another, often in ugly ways.

As a Mormon I don’t get that option. I don’t get to excommunicate folks from my world just because they disagree with me. And I am so, so glad of it. Being forced out of my comfort zone is – well, uncomfortable. But it’s uncomfortable in an important way, as we become better in community with one another than we are when we can pretend the other side is something a little less than human.

America needs that now more than ever before. So if there is a white horse prophecy in which my religion really does swoop in to save the nation, it will surely be because of this: Mormons have not yet given up on each other, and on the possibility of life together.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

91 Comments

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  • The title of this article is “How Mormonism can save America”.

    OT1H, it’s nice that ideological differences are (or appear to be?) submerged or minimized among Mormons, or at least, handled politely.

    OTOH, since Mormonism very actively discourages public expressions of doubt, dissent, difference, etc., it’s a little difficult to see how that attitude will “save” America, since “vigorous” public discussion is an essential element of any democracy that hopes to flourish.

  • In the LDS Church, that is the congregation with your family’s membership records; birth, baptism, ordination, etc., where the bishop and other ward leaders have a responsibility for your family and where you are to donate your tithe.

  • Jana’s condemnation of the White Horse Prophecy is a bit harsh, the worst (and best) that can be said about it is that it can’t be authenticated. But for the rest, she’s spot on. Actually, this reminds me a comment by G.K. Chesterton. (Yes,this long predates the internet):

    “It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.”

  • Liberals get their news from CNN and MSNBC, while conservatives tune in to Fox News.

    WRONG! Most liberals I know get their news from a variety of sources: in addition to CNN and MSNBC we also get our news from ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, BBC, and a variety of print sources. Conservatives ONLY get their TV news from Fox. If they’re young enough to be online (which many of Fox’s elderly white viewers aren’t) then they log onto dark conspiratorial sites like Breitbart or World Net Daily. So let’s just clear that bit of misinformation right away, shall we?

  • I upvoted this, but I agree only with the first part. While I know for a fact that there are people who get their news from Breitbart, I also know conservatives who read the Wall Street Journal and who get news from more maiinstream sources that Fox or Breitbart. All conservatives are not crazy, and the man in the White House is not really a conservative. He’s an entity unto himself.

  • I think that any opportunity for people with disparate worldviews to get together is good. I think that we can effectively function together only when we get to know each other.

  • I don’t doubt there is some goodness in effectively forcing people to mingle with those with whom they ordinarily wouldn’t. But to suggest as you do, Jana, that the “echo chamber” effect exists everywhere “Except in Mormonism” ignores other similarly homogenizing institutions.

    The military comes to mind, where people of all backgrounds come together and are forced to confront viewpoints other than their own.

    And public schools have also played a useful role in doing the same thing. (And people shop for neighborhoods based on desirable schools just as you describe people shopping for neighborhoods based on associated ward assignments.)

    But in the case of the Mormon policy of “You go to church where we tell you to go,” it is like SO many other aspects of Mormonism: A product of a controlling dictatorial institution that (ironically) suggests its followers are free to exercise “free agency.”

  • Save America? Get real, Mormonism is simply a business cult following the dictates of one of the great con men of all time.

  • You state this as if it were fact. It’s your opinion, to which you most certainly are entitled, but opinion, nevertheless.

  • The fact is that you are a victim of the infamous angelic-satanic con. Details are available upon request.

  • Back at my PC so I thought I would forward the details:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE
    TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the
    first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being
    created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tinkerbell” got around) and of course the
    jinn.

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern
    day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)(And Trump, who knows what he thinks as it changes daily)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to
    do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporarybiblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty
    wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same
    to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals.
    Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders
    and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE
    TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the
    first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being
    created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tinkerbell” got around) and of course the
    jinn.

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern
    day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)(And Trump, who knows what he thinks as it changes daily)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to
    do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporarybiblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty
    wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same
    to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals.
    Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders

  • Re news sources, seems to me that there is far too much reliance on electronic “news”, which is necessarily shallow and abbreviated, and insufficient use of print media, e.g. WSJ, Washington Post, NYT.

    My experience has been that those who are loudest in talking about “fake news” almost never rely on print, and as you point out have little experience with any source other than Faux.

    As well,there is lots of ignorance about media. One good example: I’ve encountered quite a few conservatives who do not understand the difference between an opinion column and a news story.

    Anyway, as we all know by now, when the Orange Mussolini rants about “Fake news”, he means newsd that contains unflattering info about him.

  • Congratulations, Bob, you have once again missed entirely the point that Jim Johnson was making.

    I would love to see you post a few examples of “Christian prophecy” that was accurate.

    I won’t hold my breath.

  • That also makes it easier for members to tattle-tale on each other and for everyone to know the business of everyone else.

  • Even though members attend by geography, the fact is most are in the west and the overwhelming majority get their so called news from faux channel and think God is a white republican male who approves of them voting for Trump.

  • People’s beliefs are just that — beliefs. There is no way to disprove that Joseph Smith had a revelation. I’m not sure why it would matter to those who do not subscribe to the belief that he did.

    Whether or not Mormonism is a cult is, to a great extent, a matter of opinion, as well. One of the definitions of cult is;”a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” I’m not sure that everyone would agree that Mormons constitute a “rather small group”, nor that their beliefs are “strange or sinister”. As I said, it’s a matter of opinion.

    A nother definion of cult is: “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Again, it’s a matter of opinion whether or not Mormonism meets this definition.

    Although the history of the founding of Mormonism is rather recent and is relatively documented, whether or not the group is “simply a business cult following the dictates of one of the great con men of all time” is a matter of opinion.

    Many atheists state that their philosophy is founded in rational thinking — if something cannot be proven, then they do not believe it exists. It would seem to me that such people ought to take care in distinguishing between fact and opinion. Otherwise, we can all go down the “QAnon” rabbit-hole.

  • An entity the conservative congress and most Republicans have thrown their weight behind.

  • You’re right. And I still can’t figure out why the Republicans have let him take over their party.

  • I would consider the sources you consider liberal to be less obnoxious corporate promoters. The sorces I would call liberal are Politico, propublica, sometimes the Guardian, DemocracyNow, the intercept, truthdig, truthout vox, TelSUR and many others. I do check your list also. I even turn on the national propoganda (Fox News) when I want to see how bad it gets.

  • The suggestion that it’s only Mormon congregations that provide safe space for church members to disagree is wrong and, frankly, insulting to those of us who belong to others faiths. The reality is that leaders in most local congregations try their best to steer clear of partisan politics. They discuss principles and precepts but try hard not to get in the weeds on how people should vote.

    Sure, there are the Al Sharptons and Jerry Falwells of the world, but they really don’t represent mainstream American Christianity. And those Catholic bishops who withhold Communion from pro-choice politicians don’t have as much clout at the parish level as some might think. Boring as it may be to believe, most American Christians are not fire-breathing political extremists. They just aren’t.

  • Look, I know what Jim is saying, but that’s just an (admittedly rare) Lack Of Homework on his part. You already KNOW Bible Prophecy is real. Things are gonna go down exactly as God said they will. What’s da problem?

    One word: Israel. Isa. 43:5-6; Zech. 8:7-8; Ezekiel 37:10-14. Literally accurate prophecy. They’re back in their own homeland, from the north, south, east & west, just like the Bible said. Jerusalem was destroyed, but NOW it’s the big capital of a prosperous, democratic, tech-savvy, and nuclear-armed Israel. Their big comeback is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Christ, and now they really ARE back. Go figure!!

  • There’s no point explaining the problem to you; there is no chance you would get it.

    You’re gonna be waiting for a long, long, LONG time for the “return” of Jesus. As in, “never”.

  • Jana,……..You do Realize that this Cult will not under any circumstances have a Black man in the Quorum of 12, Dont you. What poor Journalism & Judgement.

  • This CULT Will not have a Black Man in the Quorum of 12 Period. I Repeat, Get a Black Man in the Quorum of 12 you Racist SOB !!!

  • Bottom Line,……..This RACIST CULT will not under any circumstance have a Black Man in their precious Quorum of 12 Period. Jana, get Real with your Cracker Jack Journalism. Be honest for once in your life and look in the Mirror with the Facts of This Awful fake Religion.

  • Freedom of Speech is not welcome on this Site. It is a FACT that this RACIST CULT will not welcome a BLACK Man in their Precious Quorum of 12. F A C T !!!!!!!!!

  • And yet 2/3rds of all members are inactive. And 70-8-% of all new converts aren’t active a year later.

  • In the Utah Republican primary, Trump came in third; in the general election, he only got 45% of the vote while a third-party candidate got 21% — and all that in one of the reddest of red states.

  • This is very similar to Eugene England’s essay “Why the Church is as true as the Gospel”.

  • In the book American Grace, about US religious demography, the researchers describe in depth an LDS ward in Sandy, Utah with a strong Democrat component. It illustrates your thesis.

  • One of my favorite games with those that insist the LDS Church is a cult is to challenge them to come up with an objective definition of a cult that applies to the LDS Church and doesn’t apply to the early Christians. The results can be entertaining.

  • So does your children for believing that Blacks are Unequal. Its not their Fault. You taught them.

  • 🙂

    I think that for some, the word “cult” is a shorthand for “a religious group that I don’t like.”

  • Again, you need to reread my comments after you complete your reading comprehension course.

  • Jana, I appreciate your article, but I think you forgot to mention the dilemma that many Jews in America confront on a daily basis. Once we get a job in a particular city/town, we have to search for ANY synagogue/temple to attend. My late husband set up a pediatric practice in a medically underserved town of 5,500 people in Alabama in the late 1970s. Our closest temple was a 50-minute drive away. The next closest temple was a one-hour drive away. I made that round-trip drive several times a week for Friday-night services, Sunday-morning religious school for the kids, occasional social and learning opportunities, and special bar mitzvah training once the boys became 12 (for 18 years!). We were lucky. Other members of the congregation had to drive as long as 90 minutes each way. This is not an unusual situation. Today, 45 years later, that temple is still the closest Jewish house of worship for that county of 150,000 people! I always envied (still do) Christians, who can “sample” congregations to find one where the singing level is what they prefer, the pastor is good with children and delivers a great sermon each week, the congregants are welcoming, etc. This is the reality for American Jews who wish to practice their religion with other Jews. I am sorry that this discussion disintegrated into ad hominem attacks and veered so far away from your topic.

  • Da White Sapremisists Racist MoMos like you are Clowns & puppets. Its a Hoot Cranking you Robots up !!! Go White Power !!!

  • And don’t forget Satan showing Jesus all the kingdoms (Matthew 4:8) of the earth from atop a high mountain, possible because the earth is flat. You delusional christians and your fairy tales. Two verses from Matthew which christians ignore are 10:5-6 and 15:24 in which Jesus states he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Gentiles, Jesus didn’t come for you.

  • Please inform the conservatives I have just decoded Q’s latest message in which he instructs them to sell their possessions, immediately travel to Area 51, and await the spaceship loading on 8/12/18 at 0200 local time.

  • I believe you have it backward. Trump hasn’t taken over the republican party. Evangelicals have taken over the republican party and Trump is their instrument of destruction as they attempt to transform America into a theocracy.

  • Mormon history has multipole failed prophesies – according to Deuteronomy 18.22, when a prophet states something that doesn’t come to pass, they are a false prophet and should be put to death. Simply look at Joseph’s failed prophecies (and those of other early leaders) and you will see they are false prophets. Look at the evidence – don’t bury your head in the sand!

  • I do agree that church is, for some people, one of the last places they are likely to interact with people of different politics. However, I disagree that the LDS church’s or Catholic Church’s geographic boundaries have a huge effect on diversity, because of the extent to which Americans self-segregate our communities based on income, class, and race.

    I would also say that I am disappointed to see that that, at least in my observation in my conservative rural community, Mormons are not immune to having the ‘arrow’ of their politics point to their faith. I know Mormons who are more likely to look to Fox News for guidance on moral issues than they are to look to the Book of Mormon or the Bible.

  • To me, most prophecies aren’t that prophetic. They say something will occur in the future. Well, given enough time, many things will occur, not to anybody’s surprise. I could say the earth will come to an end. Or the United States as we know it will one day cease to exist. I’m sure both of those things will happen, the latter much sooner than the former. It doesn’t make me a prophet. The Second Coming. According to some general authorities back in the 70s, we were in the final 5 minutes before midnight. It’s turned out to be a mighty long 5 minutes. And I keep seeing those pesky rainbows…

  • Mormonism is going to save America the same way a fox would save the hens in a henhouse !!

  • Are you referring to Jana as an SOB? Wow, tone it down, clown. Black Elders of the Quorum of the 12 are in our lifetime, if we are lucky enough to live that long. What is your excuse for talking like that?

  • No, there is not an absolute refusal. The LDS hierarchy is totally up for it. You will see. I think you might be the racist, or at least extremist. You talk like it. The LDS Quorum of 12 does not. And there will be blacks among them some day.

  • Conservatives have many other sources. Wall Street Journal, the Economist (which is more centrist, but still), Foreign Affairs,
    National Review Online. National Review and NRO are widely read and influential publications for Republican/conservative news, commentary, and opinion. …
    The Weekly Standard. …
    The American Spectator. …
    The American Conservative. …
    The New American. …
    FrontPage Magazine. …
    The Christian Science Monitor. …
    Cybercast News Service.

  • Susan, thanks for injecting a note of sanity into these bizarre and off-topic comments! And thanks for sharing your story.

  • Question Little Tabby Nackle, Do you have the Balls to Questions these Racist about the White, Whiter & Whitest Policy ????

  • Talk is cheap Little Tabby Nackle, How bout the present ???? Whats a matter ?? You afraid to Question these Racist ??

  • One last Time Little Tabby Nackle, Why dont you have the Balls to Question this Racist Cult ??????

  • I think his point was simply that if we get out of our echo chambers/self-protective enclaves and get to know those on the opposite side, we might find that we are all human…some of us at least. I don’t think the message was that bad.

  • huh. my Lutheran congregation is primarily conservative (because of our location) but it is by no means uniformly so. And my denomination is also both conservative and liberal. Maybe we can save America, too.

  • And you know(?) this because…? You obviously choose to disbelieve the concept of revelations from God (or even the concept of God.) In the last General Conference, two vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve were filled. One of the new Apostles is of Chinese ancestry, pointing out a family history documented back to the 9th century. The other is a native of Brazil. You have chosen to ignore theses events. Perhaps the next vacancy will be filled by a person of African ancestry. You don’t know. I don’t know. God does, and He will give the necessary inspiration to His prophet when it is necessary. Your prejudices are obvious. So are mine. How about we get together sometime in the next ten thousand years and see who’s right?

  • Prejudices against Blacks is 1000 % true and in your heart you know it. Get a Black man in the 12 you Racist Mother F–ker !!!

  • Thank you Jana for your insight. You are a treasure of the Fourth Estate at the center of the maelstrom — sincere questions and clarifications regarding religious practice… invaluable cites on the separation of the white horse prophecy and actual Church doctrine.

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