(while I’m on vacation, I’m republishing some old book reviews from 18+ months ago at my now-defunct blog. This one is even timely, what with the recent raid on an FLDS compound in Texas. Enjoy.)

After reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven a few years ago, I got somewhat freaked out about the Mormon Church. I realized that Krakauer’s book was about fundamentalist splinter groups that had broken off from the main church, but I hadn’t really known anything about the LDS Church before that, and had only ever casually known one Mormon in my life. Pretty interesting and violent history – and stuff that I’d never learned in any of my American History classes in middle school or whatever.

Since that time, I’ve been sort of on the lookout for books about Mormons. I got one at a used bookstore, called Godmakers: A Shocking Expose of What the Mormon Church Really Believes. It mostly sucked. The premise of the book was to convince the reader that Mormonism isn’t Christianity, using chapter after chapter of arguments like “Mormons believe X, but the Bible says Y!!! OMG!!! They are going to burn in hell!!!” Interesting for some, perhaps, but I wanted something more… scholarly. It’s only marginally interesting to me whether it’s Christianity or not – works vs. grace, etc – because they seem like totally deluded, woman-hating nutjobs either way.

Maybe a year or so ago, my yoga teacher was reading One Nation Under Gods because her boyfriend was a former Mormon and was trying to extricate himself from their ways of thinking & living. She recommended it highly so I asked for it as a gift, and have finally gotten around to reading it.

This book isn’t for the casual reader – I think it’s around 450 pages of rigorously footnoted text, and another 100 pages just of footnotes. It is THOROUGH. So, I got my wish there. And it’s really interesting! While reading it, I kept interrupting theCultFigure in whatever he was doing to announce, “You won’t believe what those assholes did next!” It’s a fascinating look at the rise of a cult-ish new religious movement that occurred in recent history. There are lots of actual newspaper articles, county records and other original materials to support historians in documenting every aspect of Mormonism’s past. When you think about it, that’s really incredible. The fight between the Church leadership and scholars of the Church’s history are pretty fascinating. One of the more astonishing passages on this was related by a former historian at Brigham Young University [bold emphasis is mine]:

“When Elder Packer interviewed me as a prospective member of Brigham Young University’s faculty in 1976, he explained: ‘I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifiting; it destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifiting.’ [p. 416]

There’s no point it trying to summarize the book, just my reactions to it. One of my chief reactions was to seriously question the value of religious freedom in this country. We are talking about people who believe raping -excuse me, “marrying”– their 13-year-old stepdaughters is one of the keys to salvation. On the other hand, it seems to me that part of the problem was shameful treatment of and religious intolerance against the Mormons, which led to many violent conflicts in several states and eventually resulted in their colonization of the Utah territory.

Another interesting thread for me was how effectively the LDS Church has dealt with social change in the U.S. and ruthlessly manipulated its image and practices to paper over the bad parts – polygamy (had to be rejected for statehood), racism (very bad PR during the Civil Rights era), etc – to sustain itself. The makeover has included convincing the public that Mormonism really is just a flavor of Christianity, when it really isn’t. As I said before, it doesn’t much matter to me, except for that patina of respectability that they inherit by claiming to be a branch of a dominant and widely accepted world religion.

Bottom line: highly recommended if you’re into this sort of thing. I’m not sure many people are, though.