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UW Religion Today Column for Week of May 16-22: Here Be Nephites
May 12, 2010 — "Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.
By Guest Columnist, Seth Perry
The Book of Mormon is widely viewed as the quintessentially American scripture of a quintessentially American faith, but in strictly geographical terms this designation is more complicated than it might first appear.
The book's modern manifestation is definitely American -- Joseph Smith, New York farmer, said that he dug it out of a hill near his home. Believers also regard the text as having an ancient history though and here the geography is less clear. According to the text, its authors were pre-Columbian inhabitants of the New World, but its geographical terms are oblique.
The characters war and proselytize over a "land northward" and a "land southward," connected by "a narrow neck of land." Many readers have assumed that what's described is the Western Hemisphere -- North and South America connected by the isthmus of Central America.
Among other things, though, this scale is too vast for the characters' descriptions of their travel. With the farthest cities mere days apart, the whole story seems to take place within a few hundred square miles. For some time, conventional wisdom has identified that area as Mesoamerica, stretching from modern-day central Mexico to Honduras.
Mesoamerica hosted advanced pre-Columbian civilizations, the thinking goes, and the land forms fit, to a certain eye. The LDS Church has no official stance on the matter, but it has tacitly endorsed this view. Significant church resources are committed to archaeological and ethnographic projects in Mesoamerica and church-sanctioned visualizations of the Book of Mormon story, replete with palm trees, do not appear to be set in, say, southern Illinois.
There is a swelling movement within the church, though, that prefers to believe that the story took place in Illinois, among other North American locales. Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum's "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America" is the latest salvo in this argument. The authors' "Heartland Model" theory hinges on the numerous Book of Mormon prophecies concerning a future "mighty nation" in the New World, "a land of liberty" (2 Nephi 1:7), "choice above all other lands" (Ether 2:7), established by "Gentiles" who will come "out of captivity" and revolt against their "mother Gentiles" (1 Nephi 13:17).
This nation, the prophets recorded, would exist on "this land -- in other words, the land on which the prophets themselves were then living. Porter and Meldrum believe that the prophets then must have lived within the current borders of the United States, since they don't find Mesoamerica particularly "choice." In what way could any Central American nation be considered a mighty nation above all other nations?
The other side's response has been, among other things, to demonstrate from the same texts that "this land" could just as easily mean "this continent," which would not eliminate Mesoamerica; the debate goes on. But the fact that some people are looking for sacralization of the "heartland" in the Book of Mormon just now is interesting.
Fifty-seven percent of the "quintessentially American" faith's members now live outside the United States and most growth is happening in those less "mighty" places, such as Central America. Scholars have long wondered how Mormonism's American character affects its overseas growth, asking whether Mormonism can take authentic root in places where the United States Constitution and apple pie are unknown. The "heartland model," though, signals the need to wonder about the other side of the equation -- how is international growth affecting Mormonism at home?
Whatever else it is, the heartland movement looks like a ripple of nativism, a twitch of insecurity among Americans in a globalizing faith. Mormons are increasingly identified with conservative politics and in its very name the "heartland model" conjures the right's renewed rhetoric of American exceptionalism.
Glenn Beck -- piercingly conservative but rather quietly Mormon -- shilled for an April conference put on by Porter's company, founded to promote (and monetize) the heartland model. And "Prophecies and Promises" voices a familiar sounding political message: Rededicating the United States as the promised land, the authors tell us, should give believers "a more comprehensive view of the individual responsibilities ... to protect the freedoms established by the Founding Fathers who came out of captivity to create this nation in the land of promise."
There is a lot more change to come if Mormonism is to be the "world religion" it aspires to be. For all of the growth overseas, for example, the vast church hierarchy is still overwhelmingly composed of white American men. When and if such features begin to shift, the impulse discernible in the heartland model is only likely to grow stronger.
Reference: Bruce Porter and Rod Meldrum, "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America" (Digital Legend Press, 2009).
Seth Perry is a history of Christianity doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School.