During the just-concluded U.S. presidential elections, various Republican candidates drew opprobrium for referring to “the real America,” “the real Virginia,” and so forth. Presumably, the “real” versions of these various geographic and political entities were basically Republican, made up of people with center-right ideology and conservative Christian faith. Such rhetoric is not particularly new; as a former resident of the San Francisco area, I have over the last decade routinely encountered dismissive comments about the Americanness of people like me who live in major metropolitan areas, have worldwide social networks, and occasionally eat spring mix salads in the place of iceberg lettuce.
I am heartened, however, to see this trope receive the condemnation that it deserves. Informally stripping the citizenship of a large proportion of Americans by defining them as “unreal” is not honorable behavior. It turns out that the real America does include a large number of white people from small towns. But it also includes an even larger number of people from cities. Lots of us speak Spanish as a first or second language. Some of us even speak French. That’s the reality, and no hateful ideology can change it. In the just-past election, I feel that we as a country have made substantial progress toward a consensus on this point.
Now it’s time for us as Mormons to learn the same set of lessons. What is a real Mormon? I have routinely heard it suggested that those Mormons who read too many religious volumes not printed by Deseret Book may not be genuinely Mormon. Or perhaps those of us who write about Mormonism online represent a less-than-real “internet” Mormonism to be contrasted with the genuine “chapel” Mormonism. Possibly those who read — or even publish in! — Dialogue are not really real Mormons. Or perhaps those who opposed Proposition 8, taking a political stand against the official church position, are the fake Mormons. Finally, last but not least, “those people” who read Meridian Magazine might be the phony Mormons after all.
None of this is right or Christian. Jesus calls us to be one, but even if we disregard that difficult-to-achieve ideal, it should be clear that none of us has the right or authority to excommunicate (informally or otherwise) large segments of our community. Let us put an end to the belittling use of phrases like “cultural Mormon” or “iron-rod Mormon” as tools of exclusion; these categories may be useful descriptions, but let us be ever aware of the danger that we might be found dismembering the body of Christ.
A fascinating aspect of politics in democratic countries is the way that elections provide regular reality checks on interpretations, theories, and ideology. Obviously, the last two years have seen the complete collapse of the set of illusions that the Bush administration had advanced regarding the construction of a permanent Republican majority through a major political realignment on the basis of conservative domestic policy and aggressive nationalism in the foreign arena. While the dreamers and ideologues wrote their manifestos, the American people calmly and inexorably turned away.
More recently, enthusiasts on the Democratic and Republican sides offered their own visions and arguments regarding the popular will. John McCain’s team and informal allies told us vociferously that the election was tightening, that it would be much closer than we expected, and that McCain had a meaningful chance of victory. The so-called red states like Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado would inevitably come back to the Republican party in the end. Voters in such states might flirt with a charismatic new candidate like Obama, but they would never sign the marriage license, so to speak. Pennsylvania was in play, we were told. The public polls were systematically wrong; Republicans don’t speak to pollsters. The GOP would swamp the Democrats with amazing organization and a powerful get-out-the-vote effort.
Democratic fantasies were perhaps somewhat less overhyped, and were less often voiced by mainstream individuals within the party or the campaign. Nonetheless, various individuals cheerfully informed us that Georgia, Arizona, Montana, and North Dakota were going to be close — or even were going for Obama. Obama was going to win the popular vote by double-digit margins. The Democrats would get a 60-seat majority in the Senate. The polls might even understate Obama’s potential margin of victory, because every single person under the age of 30 was going to turn out and vote for him.
It was certainly possible to see these various arguments as unlikely before last night. For better or worse, polling mostly works pretty well to predict elections — especially when polls are averaged together using some sensible statistical technique. Yet it was impossible to be sure that the arguments of enthusiasts were incorrect. As a result, most of the level-headed analysts offered some sort of qualification on their very sensible prediction that Obama would easily win the presidential election. “Unless there is a major Bradley effect,” “unless the new voters fail to turn out for Obama,” and so on.
But the day of reckoning happened. Last night, the results fell almost exactly in line with the most sober quantitative predictions. The dubious theories of the McCain campaign and of some Democratic enthusiasts are now not merely dubious but clearly wrong. The more careful commentators who offered strong but qualified predictions were right. The answer is black and white, no longer subject to debate.
Do we face the prospect of such a reality check in our religious thought? Presumably we do, at the moment of death or perhaps a more broadly shared eschatological event. Should the fact that false aspects of our beliefs may eventually be exposed as such lead us, like mainstream political commentators, to offer caveats and qualifications to our proclamations of faith? Or are we confident that — unlike the Bush dreamers, electoral fantasists of the left and right, the devout in other faith traditions, and indeed the large number of Mormons past and present who do not believe exactly what we believe — we are the special few who have everything just exactly right?
In the list of last names of U.S. presidents to date, “Van Buren” stands out as perhaps the most exotic. As everyone agrees, it will be a historic moment in January when the Kenyan surname “Obama” joins a list basically monopolized by the North Atlantic. And it only took 220 years! I wonder how long it will be until a name like Gutierrez, De la Rua, Chavez, or Paniagua is added.
Of course, the list of LDS church presidents is equally North Atlantic in character. We’ve had Smith, Young, Taylor, Woodruff, Snow, Grant, McKay, Lee, Kimball, Benson, Hunter, Hinckley, and Monson. Nary an Obama, Perez, Garcia, or Martinez in the mix. In fact, the current Quorum of the 12 does not have a single non-white member. So we will certainly be waiting a while before we have a non-white church president.
Let us suppose that (for example) a Latin American or African man were called to the Quorum of the 12 early next year. Let us further suppose that he is one of the relatively few such men who survive long enough to become president of the church. How long would we expect to wait between his ordination to the Apostleship and his assumption of the presidency? One way to answer this question is to look at historical data: for those men who did become president of the church, what has been the distribution of time between Apostleship and presidency? Obviously, Joseph Smith does not help us in this regard, as his gap between Apostleship and presidency may even be negative. Likewise, Brigham Young is a clear outlier.
For the remaining 14 men who have been presidents of the church, the mean number of years between Apostleship and presidency has been 40.4. The median is 40.5, suggesting that there is little skewness. Finally, the standard deviation is 8.05. Let us model the number of years as having the normal distribution, an assumption that is probably more or less reasonable in light of the lack of skewness in the data and a few other, more complicated tests not reported here.
The first result, of course, is that if a non-white Apostle were appointed early next year and were eventually to become president of the church, he would on average assume that office no earlier than 2049. That would be 219 years after the founding of the church, a remarkable — if clearly coincidental — parallel to the amount of time before Obama’s election as president of the U.S. A 95% confidence interval for the year such a man would become president of the church runs from 2031 to 2066. And all of this is conditional on a non-white man being appointed to the Apostleship next year (which is probably quite unlikely) and then surviving to become the president of the church (which is also fairly unlikely, even given ordination as an Apostle).
So we as a church will probably be waiting a long time to see the same kind of breakthrough within our institution that the country is currently seeing. In fact, it is not implausible that many of us reading this will not live to see the day.