Never accept the proposition that just because a solution satisfies a problem, that it must be the only solution.
~Raymond E. Feist
Mormons and the 4th of July
I am writing this in advance of the 4th of July, as a portrait of where I am today in my belief system. Where I am today in what I believe and know is clearly not where I was one or two years ago and, hopefully, will not be where I am in a year or three. I truly hope that I will continue to grow, learn and avoid being one of those who profess “All is well,” or someone who merely suggests that we should just have more faith and stop analyzing so much. I hope you are on a similar journey of learning, growing and experiencing the Universe, in whatever way it presents itself to you.
The 4th of July, as it is known today, is our general celebration of “independence,” however loosely that term may be defined. Like many holidays, it’s used as an excuse to get an extra day off from work, to celebrate our “freedom” with barbecues, fireworks, picnics, parades and other frilly activities. My goal in writing this is not really to analyze the history of the holiday, nor to treat the discussion as a research into its historical background. Rather, my goal in writing this is to discuss how I feel with the modern celebration we’ve come to know and, for most of us, love. More specifically, this is mostly going to be about the celebration of the 4th of July amongst Mormons. Such is the angle from which I am approaching this subject.
Past 4th of July’s
Last year at this time I was living in Layton, Utah, in the shadow of Hill Air Force Base, a humungous swath of land, largesse and military force. According to Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, Hill Air Force Base is the 6th largest employer in all of Utah, employing upwards of 15,000 people at any given time and only behind the State of Utah, Wal-Mart, Intermountain Health Care and both the University of Utah and BYU.
Nearly one year ago (almost to the day) I attended the annual 4th of July celebration at the Ed Kenly Ampitheater, where the local orchestra played music to the firework festivities. Each year, so far as I can tell, a prominent local citizen is brought forward to be the guest conductor for at least one of the arrangements. Last year at this time it was Major General Andrew E. Busch who was introduced as the guest conductor. Major General Busch had just been promoted to the commander (or whatever the chief leadership position is at each base) of Hill Air Force Base and was being celebrated at this function. And so he stood, bowed and graciously accepted the overwhelming applause that those in attendance gave to/for him, it was evident that this man, and what he represented as a Commander in the military, was being celebrated for providing us all with the freedom we profess to have. A few years earlier I would have been among those gleefully thankful for the wars promoted and directed all around us, wars which I had felt were responsible for providing me with freedom to do as I pleased.
At this time last year I did not and could not join in the celebration. Instead, there I stood merely observing the crowd and the individuals making up that crowd. That’s the stance I usually take these days, no matter the situation – merely observing what is going on around me. You see, I don’t really fit in with today’s society, neither amongst the church nor amongst the general populace, or so I think. Perhaps I do, but then perhaps I don’t want to. I don’t think I really know. It’s just a feeling I get – one of being a fish out of water.
Taken for Granted
My view of the 4th of July changed a few years ago as I began to put a few question marks on those things to which I had previously taken for granted. The thing about taking something for granted is that it’s rarely known that it’s being taken for granted…typically it’s only realized in hindsight. Bertrand Russell once summed this up nicely:
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
And so it was with me. I began to put a few question marks on a few things I had always believed and slowly my worldview began to change. One of these things was the use of war as a policy decision and the use of war to justify freedom for myself, but not necessarily for those where wars were being fought. And perhaps it’s only fitting that, as I write this, news reports are coming in on how Iran is currently surrounded by US troops in no fewer than 10 countries and pointing out the near inevitability of escalation in that part of the world later this year. Perhaps, as some suggest, that conflict will escalate into a global thermonuclear war. Perhaps it won’t. Odds are, though, that if (perhaps when) that happens, the false priests of the media will be those spinning the biggest yarns while their loyal listeners will be parroting those lines to their friends across the world. War will once again be used as a policy decision, and Americans far and wide will support the war, don bumperstickers and continue the rhetoric that urges more fighting, more war, more violence. For a country that professes to follow a constitution that Mormons profess to be “inspired,” I find it increasingly ironic how much and how frequently we, as Mormons, profess gratitude to some God for protecting our freedoms throughout the world.
LDS members, by and large, will support and honor such decisions. As Spencer Kimball noted many years ago, war seems to be one of our favored idols. Though I don’t necessarily agree with everything Kimball noted in his discourse, The False Gods We Worship, this following bit I do agree with:
I am reminded of an article I read some years ago about a group of men who had gone to the jungles to capture monkeys. They tried a number of different things to catch the monkeys, including nets. But finding that the nets could injure such small creatures, they finally came upon an ingenious solution. They built a large number of small boxes, and in the top of each, they bored a hole just large enough for a monkey to get his hand into. They then set these boxes out under the trees and in each one they put a nut that the monkeys were particularly fond of.
When the men left, the monkeys began to come down from the trees and examine the boxes. Finding that there were nuts to be had, they reached into the boxes to get them. But when a monkey would try to withdraw his hand with the nut, he could not get his hand out of the box because his little fist, with the nut inside, was now too large.
At about this time, the men would come out of the underbrush and converge on the monkeys. And here is the curious thing: When the monkeys saw the men coming, they would shriek and scramble about with the thought of escaping; but as easy as it would have been, they would not let go of the nut so that they could withdraw their hands from the boxes and thus escape. The men captured them easily.
And so it often seems to be with people, having such a firm grasp on things of the world—that which is telestial—that no amount of urging and no degree of emergency can persuade them to let go in favor of that which is celestial. Satan gets them in his grip easily. If we insist on spending all our time and resources building up for ourselves a worldly kingdom, that is exactly what we will inherit.
In spite of our delight in regarding ourselves as modern, and our tendency to think we possess a sophistication that no people in the past ever had—in spite of these things, we are, on the whole, an idolatrous people—a condition most repugnant to the Lord.
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we align ourselves against the enemy instead of aligning ourselves with the kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44–45.)
We forget that if we are righteous, the Lord will either not suffer our enemies to come upon us—and this is the special promise to the inhabitants of the land of the Americas (see 2 Ne. 1:7)—or he will fight our battles for us (Ex. 14:14; D&C 98:37, to name only two references of many). This he is able to do, for as he said at the time of his betrayal, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53.) We can imagine what fearsome soldiers they would be. King Jehoshaphat and his people were delivered by such a troop (see 2 Chr. 20), and when Elisha’s life was threatened, he comforted his servant by saying, “Fear not; for they that be with us are more than they that be with them” (2 Kgs. 6:16). The Lord then opened the eyes of the servant, “And he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” (2 Kgs. 6:17.)
Enoch, too, was a man of great faith who would not be distracted from his duties by the enemy: “And so great was the faith of Enoch, that he led the people of God, and their enemies came to battle against them; and he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions were heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch.” (Moses 7:13.)
What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him? Our assignment is positive: to forsake the things of the world as goals in themselves; to desist from idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies.
We must leave off the worship of modern-day idols and a reliance on the “arm of flesh,” for the Lord has said to all the world in our day, “I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.” (D&C 64:24.)
Hugh Nibley, in briefly responding to this discourse in his Leaders & Managers article, replied with the following:
Most of you are here today only because you believe that this charade will help you get ahead in the world. But in the last few years things have got out of hand. The economy, once the most important thing in our materialistic lives, has become the only thing. We have been swept up in a total dedication to the economy which, like the massive mudslides of our Wasatch Front, is rapidly engulfing and suffocating everything. If President Kimball is “frightened and appalled” by what he sees, I can do no better than to conclude with his words: “We must leave off the worship of modern-day idols and a reliance on the ‘arm of flesh,’ for the Lord has said to all the world in our day, ‘I will not spare any that remain in Babylon’ (D&C 64:24).”10 And Babylon is where we are. In a forgotten time, before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management, these robes were designed to represent withdrawal from the things of this world—as the temple robes still do. That we may become more fully aware of the real significance of both is my prayer.
On one side, war is continued because of the financial ramifications it has for certain circles of influence, and on the other side many of us, especially Mormons, support war because we hold on to war as our only pillar of support in a society that, we feel, requires it. When 9/11 happened, instead of decrying the obliteration of individual freedoms, we clamored for increased unity and support for a President thrust into an unimaginable role. That increased support, it seems, served little purpose other than to embolden certain circles of influence to further destroy individual freedoms. Freedom, it seems, is a thing greatly misunderstood.
In an effort at full disclosure I should probably admit a couple of things:
(1) I almost joined the military. More than once. It was never so close as to ever enter some recruiter’s office, but as recently as this past year it was a path I was semi-seriously considering. I even spoke with a recruiter or two over the phone to ask some preliminary questions. The first time was shortly after my Great Deception (i.e. 9/11). The second time was this past year, following a year of unemployment and nary a job offer on the horizon. The Great Deception was avoided because I felt like I couldn’t really join the “cause” as I then called it because I had a young child and didn’t want to leave my wife and child alone. The second time (this past year) I couldn’t go through with it because I’m leery of the future and didn’t want to get caught somewhere I didn’t want to be, to say nothing of other untenable positions I’d be forced to support in one way or another if I joined.
(2) While I’m adamantly opposed to war – and may very well find myself walking out of church this coming Sunday if the warmongering continues – I empathize with the individuals involved in that part of our world and have no beef with them on an individual level.
(3) My favorite hymn used to be the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Used to be. I even went so far as to play it at my mission farewell in the middle of January. Then, while in the MTC serving my 10-week penance for being called on a foreign mission, I made some attempt to translate it into French. It was probably an awful attempt, though I know of no tangible proof of what I translated other than some vague imagination. I still love the music, but can’t stomach the message behind the words or the events which inspired its creation (I’m referring to the Civil War, not slavery. The Civil War was the single greatest reason for the creation of our current federal government, in my opinion, and the single greatest reason for abolishing states’ rights). It was sung this past Sunday during Priesthood opening exercises and I couldn’t manage more than a half-hearted, pathetic attempt at singing. In fact, that’s how I treat most songs about America are treated.
So, What’s My Beef?
Valid question, that. Looking at the 4th of July, I see the same nationalism that presented the Great Deception in my own life. Following the events of 9/11 I remember writing my brother, then on his mission in Brasil, lamenting how these “gadiantons” had somehow bypassed our security measures and attacked our motherland. I remember exactly where I was that day, the emotions I felt and the images on the screen. It was one of those days that left something of an imprint both on and in my system. Those beliefs remained in my system for several years. Several years too many.
I had been like those who both wrote and adamantly supported the Battle Hymn of the Republic, convinced that a certain path was right, even when it wasn’t. What on earth am I talking about? Well, Lincoln and the Civil War were both about far more than the abolition of slavery. Among other things, Lincoln suspended the Constitution and habeas corpus, used the military to invade the southern states without the consent or approval of Congress, imprisoned thousands of Northern citizens without trial, shut down opposition newspapers, censored all telegraph communications, nationalized the railroad industry, confiscated firearms, interfered with elections using federal troops and deported outspoken critics…among other things. It sounds eerily similar to the deteriorating process we’ve been witnesses to for the past 20 years, or more, and yet somehow we continue to support the same system decade after decade. Yes, it was during this time that our country went from “these united States” to “these United States.” And it was done under the guise and belief that what they were doing was God’s will. The author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic wrote the song as a warning of God’s judgment – the Civil War being God’s judgment. Apparently written in response to a dream/vision, the Hymn would become both Lincoln’s “best loved marching song” and the marching song of the Union troops.
Just as it was a deception to destroy states’ rights at the feet of a soon-to-be giant federalism, it was an even greater deception in my life (if only because it was so much more personal this time) to believe that a war was a justified reaction to what happened that fateful day in 2001. I managed to justify civilians, soldiers and others being killed, maimed, bombed, plagued, castrated, pummeled, humiliated, and relegated to a life in shambles, all in the name of conquest. Conquest by any other means is still conquest.
Then, as time slowly passed from 2001 to 2007-ish, a question mark began to be placed on a long held belief. Not by me, mind you, but by someone, or something. I didn’t set out to challenge the status quo on 9/11 or my belief that wars such as the “war on terrorism” were divinely justified, but rather was led to some information that challenged the status quo as I began to study alternative topics. One thing led to another and I began to realize that I had been played. I had seen the Great Deception and that Deception had played me like a fiddle for a number of years. Played so long that I’m still surprised the strings didn’t break earlier. I had supported and voted for a president after president as they all, regardless of party affiliation, dismantled both my rights and my privacy; I had supported ideologies which told me that there were people I could legitimately hate and I had embraced a perspective that created a self-righteousness in my own heart (i.e. since I’m better than some poor Afghani or Iraqi who’s been buffaloed by some crazy fanatic, I deserve to live and they deserve to die). I was better than them and that meant that I could both hate them and persecute them by my words and by my beliefs. And, just as described in D&C 121, I did so without fully knowing just how wrong and misguided I was. Only in hindsight could I see what I had become.
Now, in hindsight, I can’t really understand how I could be someone who supposedly valued his own right to pursue his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and yet could not afford the same privileges to other individuals around the world, regardless of nationality. God is no respecter of persons, so why should I be? Any loss of or damage to life should be avoided and opposed, and not simply excused when it supposedly becomes necessary to “save American lives”.
And yet, here I sit, knowing that come this Sunday (the 4th of July, ironically enough), I’ll be all too privileged to sit inside church, listening to testimonies given on how grateful we should be for our freedom, for our troops defending said freedoms the world over. And, on the back end, I’ll sit here fully knowing that these same people would likely run me out of town if they knew just what I believed on this, and other issues.
As I right that, I’m faced with another dilemma. My daughter’s favorite story in the Book of Mormon is of one Teancum. A rather inconsequential fellow, only mentioned in a smattering of chapters in the book of Alma, easily lost amongst the 500+ other pages of that divine tragedy. He, like many today, was a soldier of some sort. Friends with Lehi and Moroni, and described as no less than a “true friend of liberty.” The record we have on him seems to suggest that he didn’t like fighting anymore than myself, and yet there he was right in the middle of the fight. His way of ending the fighting was to steal away into the opposition’s camp long after it was dark and kill the leader. One time, it worked marvelously. So marvelously, in fact, that he tried it a second time. Same plan, same method. Sneak away by himself, find a way into the opposition’s camp, find the king’s tent, throw the sharpest object he could find or bring with him at his heart and hope for the best. Somehow he thought this single death would end the fighting, that the remaining fighters would be forced to surrender. His goal was liberty, his method to get liberty and end the fighting was by killing the enemy, or at least the leader of the enemy party. Somehow, amid all this, he was still regarded as a true friend of liberty.
So, was Teancum wrong to do what he did? Was his support for the war, and his actions justified, because the war he was fighting wasn’t the result of the corporate interests which largely rule our world today? Am I wrong to distance myself from it all and settle into the role of a mere observer?
Whatever the answers to those questions, I may just walk out of Fast & Testimony meeting the minute the testimonies start spilling out in gratefulness for the wars, anger and fighting that litter our world. If not, well, idol worship is the next best thing.
People still retain the errors of their childhood, their nation, and their age, long after they have accepted the truths needed to refute them.
~Condorcet, Progress of the Human Mind, 1794
 See Alma 62:37.