“As I walked along the paths of Auschwitz, I wondered if there was any hope. Was mankind destined to reenact the same tragedy over and over, each generation writing its own verse and adding to the song of grief and sorrow of the ages?” – President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (2015)
As those who’ve studied the Book of Mormon know, stories that happened before will happen again. This is apparent when historians study periods of tragedy, those times humans have gone against the “better angels of their nature” in spectacular manner.
Mormons are not immune from these tragedies, and at times we haven’t always been the victims. We have our own history of members committing atrocities or being complicit in allowing injustice to happen. In recent years, memorials in the form of monuments and museums have been erected in Utah to remember the victims of such atrocities, at Mountain Meadows (1990, 1999, 2011), Circleville (2016), and Topaz (2015).
Remembering victims is important, but it doesn’t seem to prevent tragedy. Mormon settlers throughout southern Utah recoiled in horror upon hearing of the 1857 massacre of non-Mormons at Mountain Meadows, yet (only 9 years later) other Mormon settlers committed a very similar act against the Koosharem Paiute Indians at Circleville. People in the United States were well aware that problems were happening in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s with groups getting targeted for persecution, yet it didn’t stop Americans from interning fellow citizens of Japanese descent (and, to a lesser extent, those of German and Italian descent).
In 2009, Glen M. Leonard gave a lecture in southern Utah summarizing research he’d done with fellow historians Ronald Walker and Richard E. Turley, Jr., for their book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows. He quoted from that book’s prologue noting conditions scholars have identified leading to ethnic or religious violence (ellipses from Leonard):
“Since the time Brooks wrote these words, scholars of religious or ethnic violence have described the step-by-step process that leads to mass killing.” These researchers found that “episodes of violence often begin when one people classify another as ‘the other,’ stripping them of any humanity and mentally transforming them into enemies. Once this process of devaluing and demonizing occurs, stereotypes take over, rumors circulate, and pressure builds to conform to group action against the perceived threat. Those classified as the enemy are often seen as the transgressors… When these tinderbox conditions exist, a single incident, small or ordinary in usual circumstances, may spark great violence ending in atrocity.”97
Other conditions prepare the way for violence against perceived enemies. “Usually there is an atmosphere of authority and obedience…. Atrocities also occur…when their culture or messages from headquarters leave local leaders wondering what they should do. Poverty increases the likelihood of problems by raising concerns about survival. The conditions for mass killing — demonizing, authority, obedience, peer pressure, ambiguity, fear, and deprivation — all were present in southern Utah in 1857.”98
Conditions in southern Utah were not any better in 1866, the time of the Circleville Massacre.
Thirty years ago, historian Leonard Arrington analyzed Utah’s reaction to relocated Japanese Americans in World War II. In 2008, Joel summarized Arrington’s findings at the Juvenile Instructor blog. While Mormon culture tempered the bigotry somewhat, Joel explained that Utahns were still subject to “historical forces… stok[ing] the flames of anti-Japanese prejudice in the Beehive State.” He continued,
First, Arrington points out how Mormons exhibited signs of hyper-patriotism in the wake of their rejection of polygamy. Second, he gestures to the idea that Mormons rarely welcomed any non-Mormon immigrants into Utah. Finally, he demonstrates how the weak pre-war economy in Utah made Asians immigrants an easy target for bitter nativists.
There are important similarities in these descriptions of Glen Leonard’s “step-by-step process” and Joel’s “historical forces”:
- Authority, obedience, peer pressure = hyper-patriotism
- Demonizing and fear = suspicion of non-Mormon immigrants
- Poverty/deprivation = weak pre-war economy
The sobering truth? We are experiencing these same conditions today in the United States (not to mention many other areas of the world).
Authority and Obedience
Mormons are known for their deference to both church authority and civic authority. Our 12th Article of Faith states,
We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
Michael Austin recently wrote a satirical 1838 letter from the First Presidency at By Common Consent. In it, he offered an alternate history with 19th century church leaders advocating extreme deference to political leaders, counseling members to submit to massacre by Missouri militia members. Austin’s amusing hypothetical was sure to make any opponent roll their eyes at the utter absurdity. Mormons know we attempted to defend ourselves in the Missouri conflict. Although Joseph Smith tended to be more words than action, 19th-century members often felt his words justified violent behavior. After all, D&C 134:11 (written several years before the extermination order) counseled,
We believe that men should appeal to the civil law for redress of all wrongs and grievances, where personal abuse is inflicted or the right of property or character infringed, where such laws exist as will protect the same; but we believe that all men are justified in defending themselves, their friends, and property, and the government, from the unlawful assaults and encroachments of all persons in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to the laws, and relief afforded.
The problem is, we don’t believe D&C 134:11 anymore. Or, at least, the church has significantly moved away from those sentiments over the last century. In a BYU Law Review article, “The ‘Embarassing’ Section 134,” Frederick Mark Gedicks examined the church’s shift away from justifying civil disobedience. He wrote,
At least since World War II, these scriptures [12th Article of Faith and D&C 58:21-22] have been understood to encourage, if not to command, an unqualified obedience to the law by Latter-day Saints, even when the law is deeply unjust. Helmuth Hübener, for example, was a Latter-day Saint teenager who was both executed by the Gestapo and excommunicated by German LDS authorities for anti-Nazi resistance activities.7
More than a half century later, Hübener is celebrated in Germany as a hero of the resistance,8 while LDS church leaders remain ambivalent about his actions.9 Similarly, during the 1960s, the civil disobedience of antiwar and civil rights activists was criticized by LDS leaders and members because it entailed conscious lawbreaking, although leaders did not disapprove of reform efforts undertaken through legal channels.10 Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Latter-day Saints trapped behind the Iron Curtain were counseled to obey the laws of the totalitarian regimes under which they lived, and similar counsel is given today to those who live under dictatorships and other authoritarian regimes that do not respect basic human rights.11 …
More recently, the church has distanced itself from any civic disobedience, even when justifications given are religious or moral in nature (see here and here). The church has also publicly reaffirmed commitments to obey the laws of the land, even in cases where church priorities are contravened.
But this can get out of hand.
At a symposium in southern California a couple years ago, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke of Rudolf Höss, whose daughter described him as “the nicest man in the world.” During the Nazi regime, Höss “supervised the murders of perhaps millions of people.” He later defended his actions by insisting “he was only following orders—that he was doing his duty.”
President Uchtdorf cautioned, “Too often evil rises in the world because good men and women do not find the courage to speak against it. And sometimes terrible, preventable events happen because we fail to open our mouths.” He gave the example of an airplane (because… Uchtdorf) that ran out of fuel while circling in a holding pattern, waiting for it’s turn to land at an airport. “One person after another did not speak up clearly—perhaps out of respect for others or because of timidity or because of neglect. And so the engines of the Boeing 707 flamed out, and the airplane crashed into a Long Island hillside.” Seventy-three people died.
President Uchtdorf admonished, “We have a responsibility to speak up for goodness, for virtue, for kindness and understanding. We have an obligation to defend the weak and stand up for the downtrodden… I wonder how history might have been changed had the people of Germany spoken with one voice against the evil that rose around them? Perhaps future generations will ask the same of us today.”
Demonizing and Fear
Around 1942, a Utah citizen wrote to his governor expressing concerns about Japanese Americans coming into Utah from the west coast (per FDR’s executive order):
Once a Jap, always a Jap. I suppose if my cat had kittens in a fish hatchery they would be fish?
We will not tolerate Japanese here to sabotage and blast our industries, water systems, defense plants, and beautiful cities…
How can we afford to enlist our own good American boys, whom we have raised for purposes other than war, to fight Japanese aggression and at the same time allow these people to roam at will within our country?…
Governor, I hope you will keep these ruthless barbarians, these plague-dispensing savages far removed from our homes and farms and industries.
Any of these arguments sound familiar?
Jenny Anderson at Quartz recently wrote about the Survey of American Fears by Chapman University. Terrorism currently takes up two of the top five fears. At #2 is terrorist attacks on nation and #4 is becoming a victim of terrorism. This, in spite of greater threats elsewhere,
According to data compiled from the Centers for Disease Control, over 2005-2014, an average of 11,737 Americans a year were shot dead by another American (21 of them by toddlers), 737 were killed by falling out of bed, and nine were killed by Islamic jihadists—who in most cases were US citizens, not immigrants (Nearly twice as many Americans kill themselves with guns as kill each other).
Anderson’s post identifies both politicians and media saturation as contributing to the problem. We tend “to give weight to what comes to mind most easily,” and shocking events like September 11th and the Boston Marathon bombing become “seared” on our minds. Since many Americans are unfamiliar with Islam and the many different groups therein, it becomes easy to paint all Muslims with the same brush. President Uchtdorf warned, “it is human nature to be suspicious, envious, distrustful, and even hateful of those we do not really know.”
A different type of demonization, not quite as extreme, is concerning to me in our current society. It has become clear that our nation is becoming more and more polarized. Echo chambers are compounding the problem. Recent studies have concluded that “discussion within like-minded people seems to negatively influence users’ emotions and to enforce group polarization8,9. What’s more, experimental evidence shows that confirmatory information gets accepted even if containing deliberately false claims10,11,12,13,14, while dissenting information is mainly ignored or might even increase group polarization15.” Cartoonish, two-dimensional depictions of opponents are increasingly accepted.
In the United States, both liberals and conservatives are falling into this trap. Over at the Washington Post, Andrés Miguel Rondón used his own experiences in Venezuela to warn American liberals:
By looking down on Trump’s supporters, you’ve lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.
The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez.
Rondón warned that “hissy fits” are not the solution:
The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come….
Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them — that you are American in exactly the same way they are.
For conservatives, it’s often difficult to remember the First Presidency’s statement, “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.” I’ve chided conservatives recently about this, so I’ll just conclude this section with President Uchtdorf’s thoughts:
We must love all of God’s children because they are our brothers and sisters, even—and perhaps especially—those who are different from us or just appear strange.
This conviction and resolve to overcome our lower instincts and truly love all mankind regardless of race, religion, political ideology, and socioeconomic circumstances is one of the grand objectives of our human existence.
It is the essence of pure religion.
It may not be an easy thing to do.
But it is worth doing, and we can do it.
In 1930, an American Mormon student, Wendell Cannon Irvine, had the opportunity to meet Adolf Hitler and hear him speak in Germany. Irvine later reported on his experience in the November 1931 Improvement Era magazine. While the student admitted Hitler was “the greatest orator [he] had ever heard,” Irvine wasn’t exactly enamoured of him. He viewed Hitler as a fanatic and suggested a major factor in Hitler’s success was “depression and hard times.” Of Hitler’s followers, Irvine said, “Hunger and depression stimulate them, and the silver tongue of a political fanatic acts as a drug upon their confused minds and bodies.” Irvine was confident that the “first wind of prosperity” would topple the movement.
In explaining the economic factor contributing to WWII anti-Japanese sentiment, Leonard Arrington said, “Utah had gone through two decades of depression and still suffered substantial underemployment in rural areas in 1942.” Many such communities in the United States are in bad spots again today.
In a Freakonomics podcast last week, labor economist David Autor pointed out that one factor, globalization, has created a concerning trend in the redistribution of wealth in the United States. Wealth seems to be moving from poor to rich, rather than the ideal, rich to poor. In a previous Freakonomics podcast, economist Raj Chetty explained that “there’s a link between inequality in any one generation and rates of intergenerational mobility.” While it is unclear why the two concepts are correlated (or if there is any causal relationship), the growing inequality suggests that it might be increasingly difficult for many people to achieve the “American Dream.”
Last October, David Wong wrote an insightful, albeit profanity-laden, essay at Cracked.com explaining the dire situation. “The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It’s not their imagination.”
Wong explained that many smaller towns are drowning in hopelessness. Rural youth suicide rates are nearly double those in the city. “The recession pounded rural communities, but all the recovery went to the cities. The rate of new businesses opening in rural areas has utterly collapsed.”
Beyond economic loss, David Autor explained that losing a job can often mean a loss of identity. “[Jobs] structure people’s lives. They give them a purpose and a social community and a sense of relevance in the world. And I think that is a lot of the frustration that we see in manufacturing-intensive areas… People feel like their place in the universe, or at least in the economy, has really been kind of reduced, made less valuable.”
There is a reason why many identified with descriptions in Trump’s inaugural speech of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape” and “American carnage.” And desperate people do desperate things.
Unfortunately, this is a historical force I feel utterly powerless against. We can’t seem to all agree on the causes of the job losses (automation, globalization, labor unions), let alone the most effective solutions. It’s entirely possible efforts made to alleviate problems might end up exacerbating them.
And President Uchtdorf? I got nothing from him on this.
Is tragedy inevitable given these conditions? It certainly feels so, but logically there is hope. Of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Leonard said,
While these historical models or patterns help us understand, we cannot neglect the role of individual choices. “We believe errors were made by U.S. president James Buchanan, Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders, some of the Arkansas emigrants, some Paiutes, and most of all by settlers in southern Utah…. At each point along the chain of acts and decision…a single personal choice or policy might have brought a different result.
I fear we’ll get so caught up in these societal forces that we will do something atrocious, something we will need to “express profound regret” for in the future.
Finally, President Uchtdorf:
We must try to really understand and really know one another. We must raise our voices in defense of what is just and good. We must increase our genuine love for God and our fellowman.
This is our greatest hope of preventing the ever-repeating catastrophes that have plagued this planet since its earliest days.
 Bushman, Richard Lyman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 2005, pages 371-372.
 Arrington, Leonard J., “Utah’s Ambiguous Reception: The Relocated Japanese Americans” in Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, 1991, p. 95.