Largely unchallenged, the Mormon narrative prevailed.
What followed was the decade of the new millennium we have already surveyed. Mormons seemed to be everywhere, seemed to be exceptional in nearly every arena, seemed to have moved beyond acceptance by American culture to domination of American culture. At least this was what some feared at the time.
But Mormons did not dominate the country. Far from it. Remember that they were not even 2 percent of the nation’s population as of 2012. True, they were visible and successful, well educated and well spoken, patriotic and ever willing to serve. Yet what they had achieved was not domination. It was not a conspiracy either, as some alleged. It was not anything approaching a takeover or even the hope for a takeover.
Few observers seemed to be able to explain how this new level of LDS prominence in American society came about. They reached for the usual answers trotted out to account for such occurrences: birth rates, Ronald Reagan’s deification of traditional values, the economic boom of the late twen- tieth century, a more liberal and broadminded society, even the dumbing down of America through television and failing schools. Each of these explanations was found wanting.
The truth lay within Mormonism itself. What the Saints had achieved in the United States was what Mormonism, unfettered and well led, will nearly always produce. This was the real story behind the much-touted “Mormon Moment.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had risen to unexpected heights in American society because the Mormon religion creates what can benevolently be called a Mormon Machine— a system of individual empowerment, family investment, local church (ward and stake level) leadership, priesthood govern- ment, prophetic enduement, Temple sacraments, and sacrificial financial endowment of the holy Mormon cause.
Plant Mormonism in any country on earth and pretty much the same results will occur. If successful, it will produce deeply moral individuals who serve a religious vision centered upon achievement in this life. They will aggressively pursue the most advanced education possible, understand their lives in terms of overcoming obstacles, and eagerly serve the surrounding society. The family will be of supernatural importance to them, as will planning and investing for future generations. They will be devoted to community, store and save as a hedge against future hardship, and they will esteem work as a religious calling. They will submit to civil government and hope to take positions within it. They will have advantages in this. Their beliefs and their lives in all-encompassing community will condition them to thrive in administrative systems and hierarchies—a critical key to success in the modern world. Ever oriented to a corporate life and destiny, they will prize belonging and unity over indi- viduality and conflict every time.
These hallmark values and behaviors—the habits that distinguish Mormons in the minds of millions of Americans— grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. They are also the values and behaviors of successful people. Observers who think of the religion as a cult—in the Jim Jones sense that a single, dynamic leader controls a larger body of devotees through fear, lies, and manipulation—usually fail to see this. Mormon doctrine is inviting, the community it produces enveloping and elevating, the lifestyle it encourages empowering in nearly every sense. Success, visibility, prosperity, and influence follow. This is the engine of the Mormon ascent. It is what has attracted so many millions, and it is the mechanism of the Latter-day Saints’ impact upon American society and the world.
engine #1—progress: to pass the tests of life
Ask a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what he is devoted to in this life and he will likely answer that he is intent upon pleasing his Heavenly Father and becoming like Jesus Christ. Hearing this answer, athe- ists and agnostics roll their eyes and say, “Of course, that’s the kind of thing all religious nutcases believe!” Traditional Christians, who use nearly the same language to answer the question, think this LDS Church member is keeping some- thing from us, that there is more behind his statement of faith than he is willing to reveal. It usually is not so. He’s telling us the truth, but for our purpose of understanding the Mormon impact upon America, it is the way that a Mormon seeks to please his Heavenly Father that tells the tale.
A Mormon believes he is in this world to pass tests. We’ll talk more about why he thinks this a bit later, but for now it is important for us to know that Mormons believe that this life is like an obstacle course they must master in order to qualify for what comes in eternity. It is this word qualify that should be flashing bright red on the page. Mormon rituals and doctrines are filled with the language of accomplishment and achieve- ment, possessed of the virtue of reaching goals and passing tests. Much of the terminology of Mormonism sounds like it comes from the handbook of the US Military Academy at West Point or from the textbooks of an elite MBA program.In Mormonism, the Heavenly Father does not create matter; he organizes it. Mormons are meant to do likewise: be like Heavenly Father in bringing order to the chaotic and lonely world, thus proving themselves worthy. The word orga- nize is used again and again in Mormon sacred literature†, as are terms like progress, pass the test, be found worthy, qualify, learn, make choices, prove, improve, and—unceasingly—make eternal progress. Even the Church’s magazine was once called The Improvement Era and for more than seventy years!