Exceptional? The American theology of Mormonism profoundly celebrates America. In fact, the United States is in many respects the centerpiece of Mormon thought.
Mitt Romney’s doctrine of American exceptionalism is well known. Indeed, Romney often affirms his conviction that God chose the United States above all the nations of the earth to bring light, hope and freedom to all humankind.
What most Americans don’t understand is the extent to which his Mormon faith informs that conviction.
Plainly stated, Mormonism is a profoundly American religion whose theology celebrates the American nation. In fact, the United States is in many respects the centerpiece of Mormon thought.
According to the Mormon faith, shortly after the Palestinian ministry that culminated in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection, Jesus himself preached in America, giving his law to an ancient tribe of Native Americans.
The Garden of Eden, Mormons teach, was located near Independence, Mo. And when Christ returns to the earth to judge the living and the dead, he will set up his throne at that same Missouri location.
In addition, the Mormon faith teaches that God, himself, inspired the Constitution of the United States, much as he inspired the Bible. Thus, Joseph Smith, the 19th-century Mormon prophet and founder, claimed that God spoke to him specifically about the Constitution. “I have established the Constitution of this land,” God said, “by the hands of wise men I raised up unto this very purpose.”
In more recent years, other Mormon leaders have reaffirmed the long-standing Mormon belief in the divine nature of the U.S. Constitution.
In a 1987 speech entitled, “Our Divine Constitution,” then president of the church Ezra Taft Benson affirmed, “I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me its words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval upon it.”
Accordingly, Gov. Romney, speaking in Mesa, Arizona in February of 2012, claimed that both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are “either inspired by God or written by brilliant people or perhaps a combination of both.”
What difference does it make that Romney affirms the long-standing Mormon convictions that God inspired the American Constitution and chose the United States as the apple of his eye?
Simply put, Governor Romney takes those convictions as a mandate for American dominance throughout the world, a point he elaborated in a speech he delivered at The Citadel on Oct. 7, 2011.
“This century must be an American Century,” Romney affirmed. “In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”
“God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.”
In this sense, Romney explained, America is “an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world.”
But Romney’s rhetoric is disturbingly reminiscent of the jingoist language that defined the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century.
That doctrine legitimated the seizure of Mexican territory and the Mexican War of 1846, justified the near-complete extermination of Native American people over the course of the nineteenth century, and sanctified the killing of a quarter-million Filipino civilians in the course of the Philippine-American War that began in 1899.
But as Senator Albert Beveridge explained in a speech to the U.S. Senate in 1900, the United States implemented all those actions under the direction and with the approval of Almighty God.
God, Beveridge affirmed, has “made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned. … Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and might. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.”
It is difficult to discern much difference between the rhetoric of Romney and the rhetoric of Beveridge on the theme of American exceptionalism.
And that should give us pause.
Richard T. Hughes, author of Myths America Lives By, has written widely on early Mormon history.
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