A recent New York Times article suggested that Mitt Romney’s spirited defense of American exceptionalism stems from his upbringing in Latter-day Saint theology. To Latter-day Saints, America played host to many religiously significant events. For example, America is where Joseph Smith found the golden plates and where the events of the Book of Mormon occurred.
Romney captured this feeling of exceptionalism in a 2011 speech when he declared: “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag.” This comment hits a deep chord with Latter-day Saints both culturally and doctrinally.
I will explain America’s place in Latter-day Saint theology, and how that theological grounding informs Mormons’ sense of patriotism today. Three strong doctrinal themes motivate Latter-day Saint patriotism: (1) the belief that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God, (2) the belief that America is a promised land, and (3) a belief that God has commanded them to be “anxiously engaged” in a good cause.
I. U.S. Constitution was Inspired by God
Latter-day Saint scripture records God’s own commentary on the U.S. Constitution. In December 1833, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation that briefly refers to the Constitution. At this time, Latter-day Saints faced intense mob violence and persecution in Missouri. About a month later, while many were ordered to leave their homes and property by a state militia, Joseph Smith inquired of God to know the best course of action to help the saints recover their property.
The revelation records that God directed Joseph to “continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you.” Doctrine and C 101:76. God explains that redress should be sought “according to the laws and constitution of the people, which I [God] suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles.” God further explains, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.” Doctrine and Covenants 101:80. In sum, Joseph Smith reveals that God established the U.S. Constitution, and that the Constitution should be maintained and used to protect the rights of people.
Latter-day Saints believe that the U.S. Constitution played a vital role in establishing a political climate of liberty and religious tolerance where their religion could be revealed by God and flourish. Joseph Smith stated that, “under the Constitution the Lord could restore the gospel and reestablish his church. . . . Both were part of a greater whole. Both fit into his pattern for the latter days.” Despite facing persecution in the United States, church members were still able to survive and eventually flourish under the U.S. Constitution. Whether the same result could have occurred in any other country during the same time period is questionable. Thus, Latter-day Saints hold a special affinity for the U.S. Constitution because of their belief in its divine role providing a climate for the establishment of their faith.
II. America is a Promised Land
The belief in an inspired Constitution is part of a broader theme of America as a promised land. This theme is found throughout the Book of Mormon and is a basic premise of the story found therein. (The phrase “promise land” or “land of promise” occurs roughly 50 times in the Book of Mormon.)
It should be noted at the outset, however, that the Book of Mormon itself never explicitly identifies the exact location or boundaries of the promised land it describes; nor does the book use the modern name “America.” But it’s clear from context and modern revelation that the land includes the American continent. For example, the book gives several prophecies that appear to coincide with historic events in the United States, but a broader reading certainly includes the American continents in general. Additionally, the metal plates from which the book were translated were discovered by Joseph Smith in upstate New York.
The story begins with a family in Jerusalem around 600 B.C. (Historically, we know that Jerusalem was destroyed in 594 B.C. by the Babylonians.) The father of this family, Lehi, prophesies to the Jews of their impending destruction because they rejected God. The Jews reject Lehi’s message, and Lehi is led by God to take his family out of Jerusalem. God promises to lead them from destruction into a promised land, so long as they continue to keep his commandments. 1 Nephi 2:20. The land of promise is described as a land that is “choice above all other lands.” Id. The land comes with a promise that those who live therein and keep the commandments of God shall prosper. 1 Nephi 4:14.
Another ancient prophet, Mormon, who lived about a thousand years after Lehi, also describes the promise. Mormon compiled and abridged about a thousand years of records into what is now known as the Book of Mormon. He also provides commentary throughout the book. He describes the promise around 400 A.D. as follows:
Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written. Ether 2:12.Thus, the promise is not taken lightly by the people in the Book of Mormon because the benefits of liberty in the promised land are conditioned upon a people’s willingness to serve God. Indeed, this theme is one of the main themes of the Book of Mormon. The people of the Book of Mormon often view their successes and failures with reference to this theme. The theme finds application in a wide range of areas from economic prosperity to protection from natural disasters and against the conquests of their enemies. Accordingly, as Latter-day Saints regularly read the Book of Mormon, they are likely, at least to some extent, to consider their own lives in the context of the liberty and prosperity that can be found serving God in a promised land.
The Book of Mormon, along with other Latter-day Saint scriptures such as the Bible, does not exclude the possibility of other promised lands. Indeed, Latter-day Saints believe that at a minimum, both America and Jerusalem will continue to play import roles as promised lands as the history of the world continues to unfold. Benson, Ezra Taft. Ensign, Dec. 1976. A Message to Judah from Jerusalem. Church doctrine more broadly suggests that any place where people live and serve God is a land that God will bless and prosper. The Latter-day Saint idea of Zion includes anywhere the pure in heart can be found.
Indeed, more Latter-day Saints live outside of the United States than within the United States. Church members abroad are encouraged to celebrate their cultural heritage and to build up their homeland in their own way. Today, church members are encouraged to stay in their homeland rather than move to other countries where the church might be stronger. A fundamental doctrine is that church members in every country “believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” . Thus, church members in other countries are sometimes faced with difficult decisions. For example, when two countries are at war, church members in each country are justified in supporting and sustaining their own country, including service in military forces.
Thus, while the United States plays an important religious role as a promised land for Latter-day Saints, they are encouraged to build up a promised land wherever they live.
III. Anxiously Engaged in a Good Cause
Finally, Latter-day Saints believe that God requires us to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause.” Doctrine and Covenants 58:27. This exhortation can mean anything from helping out around the house to trying to solve global hunger.
This principle is also a likely motivator for political service. Political and military service seem to be natural expressions of this principle, considering that the Book of Mormon contains many examples of great political leaders who championed liberty and selfless political service. Two examples of political leaders in the Book of Mormon include King Benjamin and Captain Moroni. These are only two of many examples of political service provided by the Book of Mormon, but they illustrate two main themes: selfless service to the people and dedication to individual freedom and liberty.
- First, King Benjamin was a king recorded in the Book of Mormon who ruled around 100 B.C. He gave on the of the more stirring speeches recorded in the Book of Mormon. He labored to support himself with his own hands rather than by taxing his people and living upon their labors. In his speech, he discussed selfless political service, stating, “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God.” Mosiah 2:17.
- Second, a military leader named Captain Moroni is recorded in the Book of Mormon as a chief military commander living around 70 B.C. He is known for raising a "Title of Liberty" and rallying the citizens of his country to prevent a rebel faction from overthrowing the government to take away the people's liberty. Alma 46:10-12.
In summary, Latter-day Saints believe in a divinely inspired Constitution, and they trust that God will protect and prosper the people of this land as long as they remember to keep God’s commandments. Latter-day Saints culturally celebrate America’s heritage and many choose to serve their country out of a desire to be engaged in a good cause. Though Latter-day Saints believe that America is a promised land that holds a special role in God’s plan, their patriotism extends to wherever they call home.