Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany
Mormons: Mission Accomplished
By Oliver Guez
Translated By Sean Thacker
23 August 2011
Edited by Emily Sicard
Germany - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung - Original Article (German)
America is experiencing the rise of the Mormons. They affect policy, they head companies, and they write bestsellers. What makes the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so successful?
Two strange birds in white shirts and dark ties are bustling along in an operetta jungle: Brother Arnold Cunningham and Brother Kevin Price were sent to a village in northern Uganda plagued by civil war, AIDS and famine. They have come to preach the Word of God from the Book of Mormon to the residents, who are still a little resistant. The Book of Mormon is also the title of the musical in which they play the main roles. I, unfortunately, have not seen it yet. The performances are sold out until the beginning of January, and they cost up to 350 dollars at that. That is how successful the multiple-award-winning, highly praised piece is.
The Mormons have taken Broadway by storm, and after years of persecution and life on the fringes of American society, they are now aiming to capture the whole country: Republicans Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are flirting with the idea of being presidential candidates in the coming elections and Harry Reid is the Democratic Senate Majority Leader. Glenn Beck, the gossiper of the tea party, calls up Fox News and before long, on a separate Internet channel he calls for an extreme right-wing campaign against Barack Obama. Stephanie Meyer is selling vampire stories in astronomical numbers – more than 100 million worldwide. They are all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Flagships of American industry like American Express, Dell, Fisher-Price and the Marriott hotel chain and airline company either are or were at one time headed by Mormons. Banks, the CIA and the FBI like to snap up graduates of the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University.
At the Headquarters
Quite recently, Newsweek devoted its cover story to America’s “Mormon Moment,” while the religious group, more confident of its popularity than ever, is carrying out a successful advertising campaign in New York. They are advertising on a giant screen in Times Square, on subway cars and on the yellow roofs of the metropolitan taxis. On the posters you see: Victor, a lawyer from Brooklyn; Joy, a surfer from Hawaii; Lisa, a charming blogger; a young basketball player who loves ice cream and yoga; a wild motorcycle rider riding off into the sunset with his hair blowing in the breeze. They make themselves out to be good, loyal Americans and happy, modern Mormons, whose real lives are far from the stereotypes such as the one “polygamous sect” that put them into the shadows of society for a long time.
On the public relations floor of the Headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, you do not encounter either a biker or a surfer. The women wear long skirts or simple clothes; the men, large dark suits and strict ties. They are all unusually polite and look amazingly good. Even the older staff members, who sit in their cubicles and whisper into their telephones, have an unusually-fresh complexion. The atmosphere is subdued, almost clinical. This is where the work is done. This is where people keep quiet.
The Way of Joseph Smith
Until Robert Millet, a theology professor at BYU with whom I have arranged to meet, shows up, I look around, wander through the hallways and take a closer look at the framed newspaper articles on the walls. Most of them report the tragic odyssey of the prophet Joseph Smith and his companions: It began in New York, where, in 1820, Joseph Smith experienced his first revelation and traveled through Missouri and Illinois, into Utah, where he was murdered at the age of 38. Many articles are about humanitarian efforts and service of the church, and others are didactic tables: There are 14 million Mormons worldwide, 6.5 million of which live in the United States. They are represented in 176 countries and are connected in regional centers throughout the world, the most important of these in London, Frankfurt, Moscow and Accra, Ghana. Organizational charts present the hierarchies of the church: Thomas Monson is both president of the church and a living prophet, the current messenger of God, and is assisted by two advisers. Next in the hierarchy comes the Quorum of 12 Apostles. Then comes a group a 70 men, most of whom are white and advanced in age. They seem good-natured, yet strict. Basically, it is as if they were presenting the executive board of a major multinational corporation on a billboard and introducing the directors of their individual worldwide branches.
Work as a Religious Principle
Unfortunately, Robert Millet is not showing up today. To make up for it, he will sit down with me tomorrow in his office at BYU, where 79 percent of the students and 99 percent of the professors are Mormons. He is an extremely friendly sixty-year-old; his voice gentle, his views moderate. He has just ended his daily reading lesson, during which he deals with either the Old or the New Testament or the Book of Mormon and its doctrine. He tells me about Joseph Smith’s cheerful personality, “Brother Smith just loved to play ball with the children,” and the Mormon concept of life, which “begins before birth and continues after death, especially for families that always stay together.” Millet does not mention that Smith had between 27 and 48 women.
I ask him for his explanation on the success of his church. “We always stay true to our moral principles,” he says. “They are quite simple, but also strict: the faith, stability in all kinds of relationships, independence, self control and the Sacrament.” Mormons do not drink tea, coffee or alcohol, and they do not smoke; but they do eat a lot of ice cream and yogurt. The professor closes his eyes and adds, “If salvation cannot come from Christ alone, God expects us to prove our faith through hard work. Work is a religious principle for us, as well as education. In the United States, Mormons and Jews have the most academic degrees. We are dutiful people.” The state emblem of Utah is a beehive.
Very early in their childhood Mormons are taken under the wing of the church. “At the age of three, they begin to talk in groups about their faith so that they get used to expressing themselves in public,” says Robert Millet. “For the teens, there are youth groups where, every morning before they go to school, they take part in an hour-long seminar. Very early, at about the age of 12, they are called to serve their clergy, and, because they do not do it full-time, their service can take a long time. But it is the primary mission to which the young people commit themselves a few years later that will turn them into dutiful people,” Robert Miller explains.
They are sent abroad, far away from their families to advertise their Church and while they are gone, they learn to handle a new culture and to communicate in difficult situations. They learn to take defeats and to deal with them. “When they come back two years later, young Mormons have far more life experience and skills than their peers. They are more mature and stronger. It is wonderful leadership training.”
Before his career in finance, Mitt Romney went to France in the 1960s for his mission, and Jon Huntsman, a former messenger in China, learned Mandarin in Taiwan during his mission.
The Books in the Backpack
On my first evening in Salt Lake City, I met a missionary. I took a walk around the temple: an amazing, massive House of God that glitters virgin-white like an artificial spring, on the top of which sits a golden statue of the Angel Moroni who once appeared to Joseph Smith. A group of men and women, all dressed completely in white, were just entering the holiest of all holy places, which is only accessible to the most devout Mormons and is explicitly forbidden for nonbelievers. When I asked a woman after the procession, she referred me to a young man who had just returned from his mission the previous evening. He was very courteous and willing to tell me about his travels.
A few days later, I meet him in the temple garden. Many missionaries are running around in pairs, all of them with a book of prayers under their arm while young, married couples have their pictures taken at the temple and under the statue of Joseph Smith. Despite the oppressive heat, Jonathan is wearing a cotton suit and tie.
He says that he would have gladly gone to Chile or Scotland, but he was sent to Arizona. “That is what God decided. After my application was accepted and my face appeared on the computer screen, one of the 12 apostles prayed to God and God advised him about the right place for me.” First, Jonathan spent 20 days at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. If he had gone abroad, he would have stayed for 9 or 12 weeks to get to know the language and culture of the land he would have been sent to evangelize. Jonathan “loved” that “very intense” time. [His time away] made it possible for him to “get closer to God” and to understand himself better, thanks to the “very inspiring meetings with the apostles and leaders of the Church” and deep scriptural study. ”I was taught how to speak with people, how to convince strangers of the correctness of our way and to never give up,” he says.
When he arrived in Scottsdale, one of the most isolated cities in America, the director of the local mission introduced his companion: the young man with whom, for the next two years, he would share his room and his daily routine for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “Every day was the same as the one before it,” Jonathan explains. ”We woke up at 6:30 a.m., had a half hour for physical exercise, showered, and ate breakfast at 7:00 a.m. At 8:00 a.m., we studied texts for 3 hours, first alone and then together. At 11:00 a.m., we put our suits and ties on and got underway with books and films, which we were supposed to hand out, in our backpacks. We recruited people until 9:00 p.m., pausing for an hour for lunch. We ate in our apartment, always together. At 9:00 p.m., we discussed the plan for the next day, and at 10:30 p.m., we were in bed.”
Distractions Are Forbidden
On Saturdays, they had six hours available to do their laundry and go shopping. They were allowed to write e-mails to their family – but no more than an hour a week. Twice a year, for Christmas and Mother’s Day, they were allowed to call their parents. There were neither movies, nor newspapers, nor TV, nor profane books. During their mission, every form of distraction is forbidden. They are to shut themselves out from the world and dedicate themselves to the study of the Scriptures.
Is it hard to the stick to the rhythm?
“Of course you have to get used to it at the beginning, but I felt fulfilled very quickly. The mission makes you a better person. It brings you closer to God so that you forget about fatigue. It is very satisfying because you bring joy to the people you meet.”
Were you controlled by the Church?
“That was not necessary. We were very focused.”
And the girls?
“Same answer. It is all a question of self-discipline.”
When Jonathan’s grandmother died during his mission, he did not want to go to the funeral. He had prayed for it for her and his family. He claims he is a different person. He says he is a calmer, better person with a better sense of responsibility and a better understanding of the thoughts of the people whom he wants to convert. He is sometimes not well-received, but despite that, every month in the Phoenix area there are about 90 converts to his religion. “It was sensational.”
Now Jonathan wants to start studying to be either a businessman or an engineer. He is still not exactly sure which one. If the University of Utah accepts him, he might take Bob Goldberg’s seminar. The seminar was originally taught in New York, but has been in the area for 30 years.
How does he perceive his students?
“The same as every class: 10 percent are exceptional, 40 percent are normal, and 50 percent should do something different.”
On the Shore of the Great Salt Lake
The Mormons have a special characteristic: They are hyperactive. When they reach 22 or 23 years old, not only must they master their studies, but also be married, have small children, do volunteer work in the church and often make room for a side job to finance their education and feed their families. Goldberg thinks that those who can withstand the pressure – Utah has the highest antidepressant use in the United States – become machines perfectly made for the demands of global capitalism. “They have the employee profile that every company dreams of. Beyond that, they are not as likely to challenge hierarchies or authority because they were raised to adjust to it.”
The Americans have distrusted the Mormons for a long time because of their strange lifestyle and their theocracy. They were chased away from everywhere they went until 1840, when they arrived at the shores of the Great Salt Lake and fertile valleys of Utah, a virtually-deserted territory that was protected by mountains and had belonged to Mexico just a short time before. At the end of the 19th century, when the conquest of the west was complete and there was no more open space for them to move out to, they gave up polygamy, which at the time was viewed as a relic of barbarianism in an America shaped by Victorian values.
With the goal of saving their church, the Mormons put all their efforts into social integration and became more American than the Americans: pro-capitalist and patriotic, nationalistic, and anticommunist – the Church saw the work of Satan in Communism. When they could no longer avoid giving bad citizens access to their community, which was not until 1978, they opened up reluctantly. Their memories of the years of persecution and their fundamental tendency to conform are very important to their significance today.
Tenacious, persistent, purposeful, organized, disciplined, even-keeled and genuine: In an America that is more divided than ever and is suffering from a dramatic loss of values, the Mormons have a calming effect. They are putting out the best troops and the best generals in “Corporate America.”
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