We live in an age and a country where intellectual authority is validated through an appeal to the “founders.” Even if one doesn’t believe in the extreme, and wrong-headed, philosophy of “originalism”–where we pretended all the men who crafted America’s foundational documents believed the same ideas, that those ideas could be objectively reconstructed today, and that those reconstructed ideas could serve as arbiters for modern society’s issues–it is still typical to couch our arguments in a way that adds historical heft. (On this modern dilemma, see these two recent and excellent volumes.) It just makes you feel good to know, in the words of #Hamiltunes, that “Washington is on your side.”
This idea is amplified in the religious sphere, as a certain circles of modern-day evangelicals have made a cottage industry of proving the founding fathers were actually devout Christians. (This is the most egregious example, but it is far from alone.) In confronting the common, and often commonly overstated, argument that the founding was a profoundly “secular” moment, Christians often go far in the other direction to prove Franklin as a pious providentialist, Washington a devout congregant, and Jefferson a closet believer. (If you want an excellent introduction to this issue, see here.) Mormons have a long history of doing this as well: we have repeatedly and metaphorically baptized Roger Williams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and CS Lewis. (They’ve probably been literally baptized posthumously as well, of course.) We’ve all cringed when we see family members carrying around Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap. And we’ve all seen the painting that depicts the famous story of America’s “eminent spirits” appearing to Wilford Woodruff in the St George Temple and asking to be baptized. (On which, read this.) Both of these instances have broad cultural currency. So in a way, this is just another example of Mormonism reflecting its broader American context.
But is there something uniquely “Mormon” about this? Perhaps the apex of this tradition is found in two recent books published by Deseret Book and written by Timothy Ballard. (BTW: Ballard seems like a tremendous person, and his Operation Underground Railroad project looks terrific. So he has achieved far more than enough good elsewhere to overshadow the flaws in these books that I’m discussing.) Ballard had already written a couple of books on the “covenant” he believes was present at America’s founding. But he’s lately taken the game to another level. Two years ago he published The Lincoln Hypothesis, which argues that Lincoln was influenced by the Book of Mormon(!) in his quest to abolish slavery. And after conquering that challenge, he just released a sequel, The Washington Hypothesis, which posits Washington as a proto-Mormon who made a covenant with God–and surprise! a God who reflects Mormonism’s scriptures and rituals–that that the covenant framed the way he brought America into being.
To say these “hypotheses” lack credibility would be an understatement. They frankly misinterpret sources and evidences, ignore literally centuries of scholarship, and make a mush of the historian’s craft. What’s especially egregious is that Washington and Lincoln have probably received more attention than anyone else in American history, and to think that a hobbyist found evidence that not only everyone else overlooked, but evidence that completely contradicts everything else that has been written and is available, is more than a tad jejune. As a historian, this kind of thing makes me cringe. These types of books severely hurt Deseret Book’s credibility and stagnate the development of the Mormon community’s historical consciousness.
But more important than being offended as a historian, I’m offended as a Mormon. More than just a mistaken jaunt into historical malfeasance, these books embody a certain strain of cultural parochialism that still plagues certain spheres of my faith tradition: we are unable to recognize good done outside of the Mormon faith. We’ve been so entrenched on the belief that we have a monopoly on truth and goodness, that progress is only achieved through our form of divine assistance and revelation, that the accomplishments of other individuals, whether contemporary or antecedent to the restoration, pose a profound theological problem. Sure, we talk about the “light of Christ” tinging all of humanity, but then follow that up by reaffirming that such is not enough. When we posit our faith as the pinnacle of civilization, we must find ways to maintain that civilizational chain of being. So we make these figures Mormon, both through our proxy rituals and our mental gymnastics. And more than just retaining a form of spiritual adolescence, this mindset has practical implications: it precludes our ability to look externally for assistance and inspiration.
Our community needs to learn how to appreciate historical actors without first having to baptize them.