Note on History’s Margins

Front and center today in Bolivia’s electoral decision on whether to accept a new constitution stands a Latter-day Saint, José Luís Exeni.

President of the National Electoral Court, Exeni was raised in the Church. His mother was a long time member and one of the central figures in what was called Rama Cuatro, or Fourth Branch, in La Paz, Bolivia. I vividly remember Exeni when he was a little boy and I served as a missionary in his Branch. I am told he is a returned missionary, although it has been decades since I spoke with him.

Nevertheless, for me, the importance of Exeni’s position in this question of a new constitution, Indian rights in a multinational state, and a new vision of the left is both his legal rulings and the fact that he represents how much Latter-day Saints have been woven into the fabric of Latin American society. In the US we can look to Harry Reid and a host of Latter-day Saints in Washington, but there are also Latter-day Saints in high positions of government in Bolivia, and probably in other Latin American Countries. The LDS Church has gone native.


  1. MikeInWeHo says:

    BBC World News had a story on the Bolivian vote this morning, which mentioned that the proposed new constitution no longer recognizes Catholicism as the official religion. As I watched that report on TV I was wondering if the majority of LDS down there were voting yes or no. Any sense of that? Here’s the BBC report.

  2. david knowlton says:

    The Catholic hierarchy and the national government has been wrestling in often strident public terms over the relationship of Church and state. There are many issues. The Church, in this case the Catholic one, has accepted its disestablishment however they are most concerned about education and the Church’s relationship to the state there.

    Most Protestants, while of varied support of the present government, still support the disestablishment of Catholicism. I suspect most LDS agree, although I have no data. However, many Latter-day Saints will disagree with other provisions of the constitution. Unfortunately I know of no polling data that looks at the complexity of LDS support. I know many who stand on both sides.

    Exeni exemplifies some of the Latter-day Saints who mostly support the government.

  3. I find this EXCITING! How many other LDS political leaders do we have in other countries? Maybe the Church News ought to cover them, d’ya think?

  4. Mark Brown says:

    David, this is very interesting news.

    Can you give us any more detail about Br. Exeni’s views?

  5. david knowlton says:

    José Luís was a blogger and generally in favor of Evo Morales; positions, although he has entered into conflict with the government as the President of the Elections Court and has not allowed it to call elections with the freedom and abandon it wanted to. He has proven a fairly strong and independent figure.

    I have not done a complete read through of his blogs and newspaper commentaries, even though many if not all are available on line. Nevertheless, his independence as a thinker stands out. is an opinion piece where he challenges the Indianist opposition to Evo on what was called the Mormon plan. The opposition planned to go door to door like Mormon missionaries to perform their electoral campaign. Exeni shows some inside knowledge, without stating his Mormon history, to challenge the Mallku, the figure of the opposition. Exeni’s voice is thoughtful and insightful, like good columnists and bloggers should be.

    There are also other Latter-day Saints in the Bolivian government, I am told. I am not naming names, however, until I check out what my friends have told me.

    I agree Margaret that things like this are newsworthy and ought to be covered by the Church press. Unfortunately I think the silences point to the gaps in information gathering and problems in the ways stories are generated.

    I would love to sit down with José Luís, if he would ever have time for an strange anthropologist who once upon a time knew him, and converse about his positions and his analysis of Bolivia;s contemporary reality. I would like to do the same with other Latter-day Saints in the government.

  6. Fascinating, thanks David. The implications of “going native,” as you suggest, are huge.

  7. I presume the concept of “going native” means that the church in Bolivia is primarily seen as a Bolivian organization rather than an American one. How disconnected from the USA does the church have to be in order to have gone native? Would you say that Buddhism has gone native in America? After all, there are many Americans who consider themselves Buddhist without any formal connection to an Asia-based Buddhist organization. Or does Buddhism’s cultural association with Asia mean that it is still a foreign religion in America.

  8. david knowlton says:

    What I mean by “going native” is that Mormonism in Bolivia is deeply engaged in the social and political conversations and disputes of the society, in part, because a generation ha been raised that is both Mormon and Bolivian and because they are now deeply involved in their own society. The US origin of the Church is not the key part it once was.

    The association with the United States (since man South Americans are still troubled by a single country claiming the name for the whole continent and I do not wish to get into a conversation on this point right now) is meaningful, but following neo-liberalism’s role it is less a distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism. The US Empire thickened on the ground so to speak.

    However, I do not know how the removal of the US Ambassador from Bolivia and the certification of Bolivia by the US as in non-compliance with drug policy has impacted the Church. I suspect not very much. But once I get back there I will be able to say more.

    I agree with David G. (my tocayo) that the implication of “going native” are huge but they need some careful thought and study.

    One implication is that in critical ways–i.e. missionary force, and importation of leadership and many cultural issues–the Church has become more Bolivian and very much less US. We North American Mormons may need to refocus our thoughts about the Church to recognize as legitimate Latter-day Saints those abroad whose issues and concerns are not ours and whose own issues engage ever more of the Brethren’s time.

    Dane your question is an interesting one, but it depend on a kind of categorical essentialism that asks about boundaries for change of type that seems to me to not really get to the issues at hand. For me, the concern is how deeply engaged in local society and concerns the Church is, not whether it has US origins and ties. I am not rejecting the typological question, but will leave that to others.

  9. So St. Vincent is a little smaller than Bolivia, but the airport is named for Ebenezer Joshua, one of the LDS pioneers in the Caribbean and the first chief minister of that country.

  10. This is fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting the announcement, David. Do you see this “going native” as a development limited to Bolivia, or do you suspect the LDS church in other Latin American countries has likewise “gone native”?

  11. Whoops. Just re-read your post and noticed the second to last sentence about there being “Latter-day Saints in high positions of government in Bolivia, and probably in other Latin American Countries.”

  12. David, you may have heard of Moroni Bing Torgan, who served in the Brazilian Congress for several years. He’s a former stake president.

    For those of you who understand Portuguese, here is a heart-warming group of videos in which Brazilian politicians laud the work of the Church. Some of it is really quite extraordinary, showing a deep knowledge of the Church and its good works.

  13. Brian Adam, a member of the Scottish Parliament (and the chief government whip), is LDS.

    His brief bio on the SNP site includes the following:

    He is married with five children, lives in Aberdeen, is active in his church and a keen follower of football.

    It’s recommended that you not inquire of him how life is in England. And, I suspect the football which he keenly follows is round.

  14. Rameumptom says:

    I was a missionary in Bolivia in 1978-80. Not many years before I arrived, General J.J. Torres (1970-71) had overthrown the government. One of his dictates near the end of his term was the Mormon missionaries had a week to leave the country. The few members in the country fasted and prayed about it, and the elders packed their bags, ready to leave in a moment’s notice. With about a day before they had to leave, Torres was overthrown by General Hugo Banzer. Banzer happened to have a couple daughters who were LDS.

    When I was in Bolivia, there were 18,000 members. Perhaps the two most powerful members included Carlos Pedraja, a professor at the Univ in Cochabamba (CES head for Bolivia, stake president, mission president, Area Authority, etc.), and a brother who was vice president of LAB (Bolivian Airlines) whose name escapes me. The first stakes were created while I was there, first in Santa Cruz, then La Paz, then Cochabamba.

    Now, there are over 100,000 members in Bolivia, with 24 stakes and 10 districts. Yacuiba, onthe southern border with Argentina, is now a district, where a branch was started up in 1979! Amazing.

    I just hope that the new Indian movement there does not end up breaking the country in half. Having spent 1/2 my mission in Santa Cruz and Yacuiba, I’d imagine they are not happy with many of the new reforms (which would be popular in the Andean regions: La Paz, Oruro, Potosi).

  15. david knowlton says:

    Rameumpton, You are right about the concerns expressed by man lowlanders, especially middle and upper class city people. Even there, however, there are substantial numbers of people who support the government and the new constitution. The lowlanders tried an uprising last fall and failed miserably. It looks like, for the next few years there is little likelihood of a breakup. Other Latin American countries won’t support it.

    Torres was fascinating. Carlos Pedraja wrote a history of the Church in Bolivia, which is on line. I remember there were Mormons in the Banzer government (dictatorship) including a prominent figure of the secret police. Times have changed, however. Who would have thought Mormons would be part of a leftist government.

    Thank you everyone else for the names of other prominent LDS political figures. We can see some of the richness of Mormon engagement with local societies.

  16. RosaMaria Bejarano Hurst says:

    Gracias por la informacion David. Me da gusto que todavia sigues envuelto en las actividades de Bolivia. Ojala que los lideres del pais boliviano miembros o no miembros vean por el bienestar de Bolivia y de su pueblo. It is amazing to know how the church has grown in Bolivia. We have some bolivians attending BYUH. They are wonderful people. Thank you again.
    RosaMaria B. Hurst

  17. David, me imagino que ya has tenido la oportunidad de ver el artículo de Los Angeles Times sobre la justicia indígena que se practicó en el pueblo de Achacachi y que se practicará con más frecuencia gracias a los cambios a la constitución boliviana. Me interesaría tus comentarios al respecto. En lo personal estoy a favor del poder en manos de los indígenas que han sufrido muchas injusticias a través del último medio milenio. Sin embargo, no me gustaría ver la eliminación de los derechos civiles a favor de una dictadura de las multitudes.,0,1847850.story


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