Recently I was approached by Worthy Publishing with the opportunity to be one of a select group of bloggers to review this new release by best-selling author Stephen Mansfield. Having always had a fairly positive opinion of the Church of Later Day Saints, I was a little leery at first. I didn't want to read a book that simply chose to pick apart a faith, or that paid all of its attention on some of the more peculiar practices of it's members. Truth be told, I think if you look objectively at any religion, some of the rites and rituals are a little strange - my own faith included.
The subtitle of this new book is what convinced me to read it: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture. As the author repeatedly states, we are certainly living through a "Mormon Moment" and to learn what it is about this faith that seems to produce successful adults in numbers that belie their relatively small membership could be interesting. After finishing it, I have mixed feelings.
Mansfield begins with the right approach in mind. "[A] book about a people that takes every pain to refer to that people and their beliefs with derision need not have been written....Best to simply state what Mormons believe, having first established that it is not the view of the author. And now we have done so." He then provides a chapter's worth of anecdotes about Mormons in America today. While asserting they are true, there is no form of attribution given, and while I am sure some variant of the numerous conversations recorded here happened, they come off as a bit forced, both in content and style. The point however is clearly made: Mormons are an impressive people with some odd beliefs. This premise colors all that is to follow.
The anecdotal, tone-setting evidence doesn't cease at the end of the first chapter though. Mansfield uses this technique throughout the text, opening each chapter with a story to illustrate what the rest of the chapter will explain. At times this is helpful and informative, but too often it creates a bias before even delving into the given subject. The reader gets the sense that Mansfield truly does admire these people for what they have been able to accomplish, but it is as if he just can't help himself. He is clearly critical of the Church of Later Day Saints' theology and this comes through both in these vignettes of Mormon life, as well as in the detailed description of the unfolding of Mormon history.
In fact, the history of the Saints, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the golden plates, the westward migration and everything in between, make up a large portion of the book. There is nothing really new or revelatory here as much of it has been covered already at length by other authors, and the author's disapproving voice is thinly veiled behind this narrative. I couldn't help but feel sympathy for the Mormons at this point. Judeo-Christian history is shrouded in the distant past, far from the kind of historical scrutiny that is being brought down around the Later Day Saints. I understand the scrutiny; when Mormons claim events have happened in the recent, documented, past there is no avoiding taking them to task when two versions of history do not agree. Still, it is, at the same time, unfortunate. The rest of the book turns to what, for me, was the more interesting story.
Regardless how strange, unprovable and odd their history may be, not many people can deny the fact that Mormons are among the most successful, charitable, family-oriented and civic minded people in America today. Why? Here Mansfield is at his best as he deftly makes the case that Mormonism is a truly American religion and that the facets that make one a good Mormon are the same facets that make one a successful and upstanding American. He calls this the "Mormon Machine" and it revolves around the religious priority of achievement, family, education, work, the free market, heritage, networking and an unabashed sense of American exceptionalism. It is easy to see how any group that seriously valued these concepts would find success in modern America.
After finally delivering on the promise of explaining why "the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture" Mansfield then once again falls into the trap of editorializing by including an appendix full of "Surprising Quotes from Mormon Leaders." While there is nothing I can see that is factually inaccurate, the continual critiquing of the history and practice of this faith undermine what he states time and time again as his main thesis.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but I do wish he remained truer to his promise to present an objective view of this "Mormon Moment" we are all witnessing.