Salt Lake City and the Mormons

[This blog was first drafted on Sunday.]
 
Yesterday was quite a day – magnificent and very long. We went from the cavernous 21,000 seat – this is not a typo for the auditorium does hold 21,000 and there is not a pillar in the whole building – The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints Conference Center (the Mormon Conference Center) in Temple Square in Salt Lake City built in 2000, to the natural amphitheater in Bryce Canyon and in the evening gazed at the dense covering of stars from the rim of Bryce Canyon.

The Conference Center is part of the much larger complex known as Temple Square that is the physical centre of Salt Lake City and the central site of the worldwide congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. The day before we walked the perhaps six block size of the area. We did not visit the magnificent six-spired Salt Lake Temple which was restricted to Mormons and, evidently, select ones at that.

The Mormons arrived first on what was then Mexican territory in what became Salt Lake City on 23 July 1847. Brigham Young, the ruling prophet at the time, reportedly declared, “This is the place.” The first settlers were followed by many others, including the 30,000 who walked over a thousand miles on the parallel route to the Oregon Trail.

Though they wanted to have their own state – they called it Deseret meaning industry or honeybee in the Book of Mormon – it lasted only two years, from 1849 to 1851. The U.S. government refused to recognize Deseret as a separate state. However, the name is preserved by the Deseret Publishing Company in the high rise just opposite Temple Square. Deseret Press publishes the Deseret News and many other publications for the Mormon Church, including the Book of Mormon.

We visited a number of the facilities the day before. We had wanted to see art galleries, but were very discouraged after we went to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. The building was large but the collection was relatively small and, frankly, uninteresting as far as we were concerned.  There were three visiting installation pieces – a video documentary of a man jumping from roof to roof on a row of houses, presumably to counteract the premise of private and separate properties on which these houses were built. Another illustrated the collapse of mall culture, but the intersecting geometric forms and the message had a very fragile connection. Given our disappointment, we concentrated on the Mormon facilities.

The Tabernacle built between 1863 and 1875 held only 2,100, not 21,000 like the Conference Center. The Tabernacle used to be the home of the Tabernacle Choir until that latter structure was erected. The Tabernacle’s organ evidently has 11,000 pipes. The Tabernacle is itself a work of marvel. From the back row you can hear a paper being torn. When we sat in on an organist performance the day before, he also demonstrated the amazing acoustic properties of the building by dropping three straight pins and a common nail. The sounds were clear and distinct and we heard them from the back of the auditorium. The Tabernacle is still used for concerts, meetings and even weddings.

Remember that this structure was erected in the twelve years between 1863 and 1875 when the Mormons were still a poor and struggling sect. At first the acoustics evidently did not work so they added “bridges” – I believe we were told 12 – across the ceiling and roof and installed balconies with rounded ceilings underneath as the balconies met the walls of the hall. They served to channel the sound so that it did not bounce but flowed throughout the auditorium. When the organist used a microphone, however, we could hardly make out what he was saying.

We also visited Assembly Hall with its large Stars of David decorating the outside. When I asked about them, I was told that this was in recognition of Jesus’ heritage as a descendent in the House of David. Inside there was a large plaster flower in the centre of the ceiling that reminded Mormons of the flower that the natives had taught them how to use as a food source. Further, its organ had only 3,200 pipes. It was also interesting to learn that the pews were made of pine and not oak but painted to look like oak. And the columns were painted to look like marble. Somehow, in their very early history, the Mormons had already demonstrated a mastery of the art of communication while also being quite content, even proud, to display false fronts.

The complex had a large visitor’s centre, which we did visit, and a Family History Library with the largest repository of genealogical records in the world – after all, if you get to heaven, you do not want to leave your forefathers behind – which we did not visit.  Though we went and heard the Tabernacle Choir, we did not take the time to visit the evidently wondrous roof gardens nor most of the beautiful gardens throughout the property. It was simply a matter of time and we were disappointed to have missed these.

The tourist lessons: take the guided tour offered in over forty languages. Leave yourself with at least 5 hours to see as much as possible. When we were in the auditorium of the Conference Centre, there were about 4,000 people, over 80% tourists as indicated when they were asked to raise their hands. They came from all over the world.

This was also evident as well in the most wonderful sushi restaurant in which we have ever eaten, Takashi, which was not even listed in the Salt Lake City Visitor’s Guide. My wife, a brilliant sleuth, found it. It advertises itself as a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant. Almost half the diners were Asian and, from listening in, we were sure most were not Americans. Do not miss this restaurant if you visit Salt Lake City. They do not take reservations. Expect to line up.

The next morning, we skipped breakfast to get to the auditorium of the Conference Center by 9:00 a.m. to listen to the Tabernacle Choir. They perform every Sunday morning beginning at 9:30 a.m. The performance is broadcast all over the world on over 2,000 stations. As well, anyone can listen on their computer. The Mormons have been broadcasting the choir for 90 years, evidently the longest continuing broadcasting program in the history of radio and television. The first broadcast was on 15 July 1919. The Mormons clearly excel in numbers of all kinds – size of auditoriums, size of organs, size of their religious centre and lengths of time for sustaining their efforts.

They also probably have the largest number of missionaries of any Christian denomination. For men and women as they enter adulthood are required to serve as missionaries. They are posted all over the world, the young men serve 2 years and the young ladies serve 18 months. All the guides at the complex – and there a plethora of them – were young female volunteer missionaries who clearly spoke a number of languages. One of my two guides was from Alaska and the other from Monterrey, Mexico.

The concert – “Music & the Spoken World” – itself was a delight. The announcer, Lloyd Newell, in perfect mellifluous tones, repeated word for word the paragraphs in the program notes on the history of the choir, including the fact that in the original broadcast an audio technician stood on a ladder and held out a single microphone on an extended arm over the choir and the orchestra. What’s not to like when over 200 voices sing in precise harmony to a full orchestra of 110 musicians!  

There are caveats. The music is specifically selected to lift spirits, comfort souls and supposedly bring millions closer to the divine. These are not my words. I enjoyed the concert but I would not say the music lifted my spirits for it was decidedly undramatic as it favoured perfect harmony over rhythm and beat and nuance. The music was indeed comfortable rather than disturbing or arousing, but I leave it to others to decide whether it affected my soul let alone brought me closer to the divine. The latter is unlikely, since the divine for me is a challenge of paradoxes and puzzles rather than staying on message in an apparent effort at perfection.

The first tune the chorus sang was “Morning has broken.” It was sweet. However, I had once heard the Welsh Miners sing in a concert and, if I recall, this tune had been included. Their deep voices moved me in a way that the perfect melodious quality of the Tabernacle Choir did not. The “Festive Trumpet Tune” was what I imagined festivity would be like in the society of The Handmaid’s Tale, clearly delightful and never disturbing. They also sang Lionel Bart’s “Who Will Buy?” from the musical, Oliver

If you do not recall the lyrics, I reprint them below, appropriately copied from the Grand Canyon rendition by Aaron Neville where I happen to be while writing this blog.

                                                 “Who Will Buy?”


Who will buy this wonderful morning?
Such a sky you never did see
Who will tie it up with a ribbon?
And put it in a box for me

So I could see it at my leisure
Whenever things go wrong
And keep it as a treasure
To last my whole life long

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I’m so high I swear I could fly
Me oh my, I don’t want to lose it
So what am I to do to keep this sky so blue?
There must be someone who will buy

Who will buy this wonderful morning…?
There’ll never be a day so sunny
It could not happen twice
Where is the man with all the money?
It’s cheap at half the price

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I’m so high I swear I could fly
Me oh my, I don’t want to lose it
So what am I to do to keep the sky so blue?
There must be someone who will buy
 
The sweetness was there. The joy was there. But the wistful longing? The irony of the words? But who am I to complain? I am not the target audience. And I enjoyed the music even in the absence of bounce and subtlety. And what is wrong with sweetness and light in a time of repeated mass murders by domestic terrorists with ideologically warped views, perhaps even from opposite ends of the political spectrum? As much as I enjoyed the concert, it left me hungry for the physical emotionalism of a black Baptist choir. In brief, the music, while delightful, was bland.

As I listened, it struck me hard – I was in whitebread company. I looked at the choir again. There was one black female face in the second row two seats in the woman’s section of the choir and one black male face in the second to last row of the men’s section. They were the only two singers of colour among the over 200 choir members. And almost all the other men and women looked remarkably similar.

Perhaps that is because the members have to live within 100 miles of the headquarters so it may be a practical matter. This region of Utah is not exactly overflowing with blacks. Second, the black members of the Mormon Church live primarily in Africa and the Caribbean. Only 3% of its American members are black, perhaps because the church once placed restrictions on proselytizing to blacks. No one at the top of the power chain is black. I do not know why those restrictions – which have been removed for decades – were first there since there have always been black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.  Perhaps those restrictions may have been similar ones to those in Israel where Mormons have agreed with the government of Israel not to proselytize among Jews. Or perhaps I am just giving the Mormons the benefit of doubt.

I recall interviewing Mormons in Israel – young men assigned there as missionaries. They were sincere, dedicated and remarkably upbeat, as were my guides in Salt Lake City. Is that why I was wary? The smiles seemed pasted on, as if, like waiters and waitresses these days, they must beam at you and seek reassurance that you lack nothing. But many of those servers pull it off and easily make you believe that serving you is their delight. This seemed true of the Mormons that I met, especially the guides. Wholesomeness is their marker, their brand. As they write in their proclamation, “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for eternal destiny.” And eternal destiny for Mormons is the kissing cousin to the family. We are evidently only on earth to gain experience in a progress towards perfection and, thereby, earn the right to a divine life.

Since I personally believe perfectionism is great for technology and science as goals, but very deformative when it comes to psychology, sociology and politics, and has a propensity to produce conformity rather than creativity, homogeneity rather than heterogeneity, the brand has little appeal for me in spite of how much I agree with and admire the Church’s support and emphasis on the family. I am especially put off by the idea – for that is why they are leaders in genealogy – that the “divine plan of happiness enables family relations to be perpetuated beyond the grave,” and, therefore, “for families to be united eternally.” For some, that would be a curse. But they would not likely be candidates for eternal life anyway.

The human population explosion is not a problem for Mormons. Multiply and replenish the earth. Chastity. Fidelity. A couple must love and care for one another and for their children even as men and women are assigned complementary roles by God, men as providers and women as homemakers primarily responsible for the care and nurture of the children. It is certainly a culturally conservative belief system. This was certainly true of my research assistant in Australia who is a Mormon. It did not prevent him, however, from being intellectually curious and creative. But he did try to compete with me in having many children, many of them born while I was in Australia. And he beamed both wholesomeness and tolerance.

However, I am sure that he did not vote for Trump. Yet a majority of Mormons in America did, in spite of the fact that in polls prior to the 2016 election, only 36% planned to vote for Trump as opposed to 27% for Hilary Clinton. Clinton won 25% of their votes but Trump got 61% and not the 36% originally expected. And this was in spite of the following facts:

  • Mitt Romney, perhaps the most prominent Mormon in the U.S., strongly denounced Trump
  • The Deseret News condemned Trump
  • LDS members had an alternate independent candidate who was a Mormon – Evan McMullen

Yet 3 out of 5 Mormons supported Trump in spite of his sexism, racism, temperament, dishonesty and political inexperience. Perhaps they were just Republicans coming home because they did not want a Democrat elected. Does that say something about the ability of Mormons to tolerate hypocrisy?

Look who they got? Teleprompter Trump who could, as expected, in a verbal gesture, uphold, “the inherent worth and dignity of every human life” and denounce the scourge of destructive partisanship. Piously, Trump could announce, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside — so destructive — and find the courage to answer hatred with unity, devotion and love.”

This from tweeter Trump who is a racist, demonizes and insults others, is stridently partisan and divisive. Trump’s current words give piety and well-meaning a bad name. Hence my wariness of surface smiles and the artifice of smooth and perfect communication. At least hating and lying Trump is true to himself. Mormons may paint their pews to look like oak and paint their pillars to look like marble. It is part of the American dream – sell a vision no matter how contradictory it is to the facts and the actual behaviour of their esteemed founder. Sell a happy face and hope. That will build grand buildings to compete with the Grand Canyon. This will build an empire of followers. Grandiosity, after all, is at the core of the American religion.

The religion of America emerges in many expressions. But what about practical matters to protect families? What about banning assault weapons owned by civilians? What about background checks? What about branding white supremacists as terrorists? What about asking for forgiveness for calling the flight of refugees an “invasion”? What about apologizing for calling Mexicans rapists? What about recognizing a link between harsh rhetoric of this kind and the manifesto and actions of the gunman in El Paso Texas? What about denouncing the hypocrisy and false face of a leader who suddenly talks harmony and unity and will not leave his golf game but then waits days to offer condolences in person in El Paso and Dayton to grieving families? Perhaps he is rightly afraid to go? What about voting against Trump for a second term? After all, Barack Obama has finally given up his vow to keep his silence and come out with rhetorical guns blazing labeling Trump’s language as “the root of most human tragedy.” The Mormons know it. The Mormons practice it. So will they continue to support Trump?

With the help of Alex Zisman

One comment on “Salt Lake City and the Mormons

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