Editor’s Note: In December, The Atlantic published a 9,000 word article that was “perhaps the most consequential magazine-length feature on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in more than a decade.” When articles are written about the church, we often see them authored by former or lapsed members or by journalists, who come from a secular context, and, even if well-intentioned, write articles that distort what the Church looks and feels like to the members. This Atlantic article, however, was written by McKay Coppins, an excellent journalist and member of the Church. His treatment of the Church reveals some interesting challenges and lost opportunities that may be universal to any member of the restored church who tries to explain spiritual things and foundations to a world with a largely different set of assumptions.
Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the “The Most American Religion” as Atlantic contributor and Latter-day Saint McKay Coppins recently argued? And just what would it mean for this to be true? We Church members have just initiated a new year of scripture study with a review of Doctrine & Covenants Section 1, which includes a reference to the bringing forth “out of obscurity and out of darkness … the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth…” Mr. Coppins presents himself as loyal to the faith in which he was raised in this “only true and living church.” Can his characterization of the Restored Gospel as “the most American religion” be squared with this faith?
Deseret News contributor Hal Boyd proposed that Coppins’ recent article paves a different and better path forward for writing about the faith than past approaches, which have been marred either by antagonism towards Restoration Christianity, by ignorance of it, or, in cases of contributions by faithful members, by a ham-handed and sterile posture of objectivity. In Coppins’ case, Boyd explains, “The Atlantic recruited a church member and a serious journalist to write the piece, but the publication didn’t tie the author’s hands.” Certainly Boyd is correct that Coppins’ intelligent, measured and affecting interview represents a significant and promising moment in the presentation of the Church by prestigious, mainstream American journalism.
Coppins told Boyd that The Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg “conveyed to the prophet that the publication wouldn’t shy away from tensions or facts, but he said The Atlantic would be fair in its approach.” In this same spirit of fairness, without shying away from tensions or facts, let us examine McKay Coppins’ article. As Boyd wrote, “readers will now get to decide for themselves whether [Coppins and the Atlantic] delivered.”
Coppins has prepared well for this moment in which he publicly negotiates his faith and his professional responsibilities. In this and other articles and his interviews, he shows himself as a sincere, friendly, and likable man. His self-deprecating humor and penchant for story-telling, along with his obvious talent and ambition, have served him well in his career in journalism. (I particularly enjoyed a piece that he wrote more than a decade ago for the Deseret News entitled “Don’t Listen to Marriage Cynics”.) The present article, which, I note, has received a very warm reception among my social media friends, includes valuable elements of Church and American history brought to life by the author’s poignant accounts of his personal experience of growing up “Mormon.” But the most important parts of Coppins’ article come from his interview with the Lord’s Prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, at the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.
I agree with Coppins that there are what he calls “painful tensions within the faith”, and that “religion without difficulty” is pointless. I also agree with Coppins that testimony doesn’t always come to us “in a blaze of revelation,” but in “living the faith day to day”. Perhaps most importantly, I agree with Coppins that there is a vital relationship between the United States of America and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, we shall see that the lens through which Coppins’ perceives all of these issues is quite distorted by some rather conventional moral and political assumptions.
To be clear, I haven’t the least intention to scrutinize the character or the faithfulness of the author of “The Most American Religion.” My purpose in responding to Coppins is to suggest that he may have overlooked what was most valuable in the interview the Prophet offered him, namely a better perspective from which to consider the marvelous foundations, history, and continuing development of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whereas Coppins seems to perceive every issue of history, religion, and politics through a conventional and dogmatically progressive ideological lens, President Nelson shows him a more excellent way.
Toward the conclusion of his article, Coppins challenges the prophet with a variety of questions – no doubt the “reporterly questions” that he mentions at the beginning of his article. But President Nelson makes it clear that he grapples with a different set of questions. If we take our bearings from the Prophets’ concerns as these can be gathered from the fragments reported by Coppins, rather than from the conventional social concerns that are dominant for the Atlantic author, then there is indeed much to be learned from the article. By attending to the Prophet’s gracious and powerful voice as it emerges upon close attention to Coppins’ report, we can see through the ideological commitments that constrain Coppins’ good faith effort to reconcile his American and Latter-day Saint identities to the higher vision represented in the voice of the living Prophet and in that of his predecessor, Joseph Smith, Jr.
In the Prophet’s Presence
The Prophet’s first words to Coppins in the interview are noteworthy: “We always start our meetings with a word of prayer. So, if we may?” To his credit, as he bowed his head with the Prophet, Coppin seems to have realized that, in spite of a quiver full of “reporterly questions to ask about the Church’s future,” there was something deeper at work in this meeting with the Lord’s anointed representative on the earth. Somewhere, as he says, in his “spiritual subconscious” Coppins called to mind the children’s hymn “Follow the Prophet”. This introduction to the Prophet might have reminded Coppins that, not long before their interview, President Nelson had already issued a stirring message on the power of gratitude that also included a remarkable prayer.
Next, with characteristic love and concern, the Prophet smiled at McKay and asked him about his children. Coppins records that in their hour together, President Nelson preached “a gospel of silver linings” that accentuated blessings in the midst of adversity: homes as “sanctuaries of faith” during lockdowns, the human body’s “defense mechanisms” in the midst of a pandemic, and a hopeful passage from the Book of Mormon – “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” “There can be joy in the saddest of times,” President Nelson told him. We may all consider this reminder as a call to repentance.
Coppins considers that President Nelson’s preaching of a gospel of silver linings is merely a reflection of a “classically Mormon” “aversion to wallowing” and an “earnest optimism.” But is faith nothing more than a culturally conditioned “optimism”? We should keep in mind that the Prophet’s direction to prepare “sanctuaries of faith” came long before the news of a coronavirus or lockdowns. It is significant, moreover, that in contrast to Coppins’ concern over “the physical ravages of the virus” (a despairing message that we hear all too frequently in the media), President Nelson chose to marvel at the human body’s miraculous “defense mechanisms.”
At this point in the interview, it might have made sense for Coppins to ask his distinguished interlocutor, a former physician and highly intelligent man of science, to elaborate. Even President Nelson’s commendation of Church members’ desire to be “good citizens and good neighbors” deserves more thoughtful consideration. Of course there are limits to what a reporter can accomplish in one article, but instead of reflecting on the Lord’s Prophet’s perspective on our current situation, Coppins caps his main account of the interview with a wry quotation from a troubled novelist annoyed by the “Mormon” habit of “trying your patience with unsolicited kindness.”[i]
The What and the Why
Coppins shares what may be the most important statement from the Prophet in this article: “I don’t think you can separate the good things we do from the doctrine. It’s not what we do; it’s why we do it.” Somehow this crucial remark seems to sail right over the head, or around the heart, of the interviewer. It is no wonder, therefore, that later in the article, Coppins struggles to identify what he calls “the core of the Gospel.”
Why does the Prophet insist that “it’s not what we do,” but “why we do it”? Instead of sustained reflection on a profound utterance from a man of God, Coppins turns to the main theme of his article, the quest for reconciliation between “Mormonism” and the broader culture, and Coppins’ own experience as an instance of such a quest. He thus proposes that the historical trajectory of the Church Restored is best explained by “a centuries-long audition for full acceptance into American life.” Much can be learned, to be sure, from examining the dynamic between the Church and its host country. But unconsidered assumptions are involved in focusing on this dynamic while neglecting the power of the core doctrine of Christ and of His Gospel – the core that President Nelson surely wishes to impress upon his interviewer.
At this juncture in the article, however, the interview with the Prophet, and his perspective, fade into the background, as Coppins undertakes a personal retelling of Joseph Smith’s history in connection with the author’s of his own experiences in high school in Massachusetts, as a missionary in Texas, and with his young family in New York. Except for a brief but important reference to a conversation with the Apostle M. Russell Ballard, and a brief but important quotation from President Nelson, in the main body of the article we hear more from Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar, Patrick Mason, Spencer Cox, Fitz-Hugh Ludlow, Matthew Bowman, Janah Graham-Russell, Mitt Romney, Terryl Givens, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Amos Brown, Tamu Smith, Kristine Haglund, Nathan Kitchen, Robert P. Jones, and Kathleen Flake, than we do from President Russell M. Nelson or other authoritative voices. This is not to suggest that such scholarly and political voices are unworthy of an audience, but that perhaps there is more to be learned from the man and the Prophet with whom McKay Coppins had the opportunity to speak face to face.
“Reporterly Questions” and Judgment Day
The reader does not hear from the Prophet again until the conclusion of the article. There, Coppins informs us that President Nelson keeps a notebook on a nightstand next to his bed in which he keeps a record of directions from the Lord. “Very frequently,” Nelson told Coppins, “I’m awakened with directions to follow.”
In response to Coppins’ reporterly questions regarding people who experience same sex attraction, Nelson speaks, and Coppins reports, clearly: “God loves all his children, just like you and I do,” and “There’s a place for all who choose to belong to his Church… As apostles of the Lord, we cannot change God’s law… We teach his laws. He gave them many thousands of years ago, and I don’t expect He’ll change them now.” President Nelson speaks about the human body’s “servoregulatory mechanisms” and then, Coppins tells us that, at the end of the interview, the Prophet closed his binder and became quiet: “Judgment Day is coming for me pretty soon… I doubt if I’ll be judged by the number of operations I did, or the number of scientific publications I had… I doubt if I’ll even be judged by the growth of the Church during my presidency. I don’t think it’ll be a quantitative experience. I think He’ll want to know: What about your faith? What about virtue? What about your knowledge? Were you temperate? Were you kind to people? Did you have charity, humility?” And finally, “We exist to make life better for people.”
We are indebted to Coppins for these glimpses into the character and the teaching of President Russell M. Nelson, as well as for his publishing to a wide audience a brief history of the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But we must question his framing of the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as an ongoing quest for approval from the outside world. That notion should have been laid to rest by President Russell M. Nelson’s recent exhortation to call the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by its correct name, an exhortation that, with rare exception, Coppins too blithely dismisses.
From Coppins’ perspective, the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begins with “a confused teenage boy.” This is caricature of the young Joseph Smith and the foundations of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is true that Joseph Smith experienced confusion in the midst of a “war of words and tumult of opinions,” but he adopted the most faithful and reasonable course of action in order to rise above the confusion. It is a course of actions that we would all do well to emulate, particularly in the midst of today’s war of words and tumult of opinions: Joseph Smith turned to God in prayer.
Fortunately, Coppins includes a link in his article to Joseph Smith’s own record of his experiences. To his credit, Coppins also recounts the immediate results of Joseph Smith’s inquiry in the words of the Prophet himself:
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me… When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other – This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!
Lest this remarkable account, like President Nelson’s meaningful statement regarding the powerful impact of the doctrine of Christ, be overshadowed by speculations on the Church’s relation to America, we might pause for a moment to appreciate the significance of a report that certainly transcends all social maneuvering: In this first published account of his first vision, Joseph Smith recorded that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him.
It is commendable that, in his youth, Coppins attended an early morning seminary class, and that he committed a portion of Joseph Smith’s account to memory. It is also commendable that Coppins braved rejection, the wrath of Baptist ministers, Big Gulp projectiles, and other indignities on his mission in Texas in order to share this message with others. It is curious, though, that, according to Coppins, his teacher chose to attribute the vitality of Joseph Smith’s account to its dubiety:
The power of his story was in its implausibility. No reasonable person would accept such an outlandish claim on its face – to believe it required faith, a willingness to follow young Joseph’s example. This was how our teacher framed the story, as much object lesson as historical event. Don’t believe in this because your parents do, we were told. Go ask God for yourself.
But the power of Joseph Smith’s story is not in its implausibility, unreasonableness, or outlandishness, but in its clarity, simplicity, and sincerity. In juxtaposition to Coppins’ experience, consider the attitude of the British author and teacher Arthur Henry King, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
I am glad that the first thing they [the missionaries] did was to give me the pamphlet on Joseph Smith’s vision. The style of the Joseph Smith story immediately struck me. He spoke to me, as soon as I read his testimony, as a great writer, transparently sincere and matter-of-fact… When Joseph Smith describes his visions, he describes them not as a man who feels that he has to make the effort to persuade. He simply states what happened to him, and does it in a way that gives it credence. I am in this church because of the Joseph Smith story; my fundamental act of faith was to accept this as a remarkable document. (Arthur Henry King, The Abundance of the Heart)
Rather than impose our contemporary assumptions and concerns upon Joseph Smith, as Coppins seems to do throughout his article, Professor King let the Prophet speak for himself. But Coppins interprets Joseph Smith’s account in light of his own experience as a “21st century teenager who was already insecure enough about his oversized head and undersized muscles without bringing weird religion into the mix,” as a “cool” Mormon, who “aimed to cultivate a reputation,” and as someone who is troubled by a “pulsing, sweaty desperation to be liked.” Coppins’ self-deprecating humor and his natural, human inclination to be liked are affecting. But why should we be ashamed of Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision? Why should we subordinate the truth claims of this account to some desire to be liked by the dominant figures in our high school or in our country?
Although Coppins and many of his admirers who live in areas outside of what is pejoratively referred to as “The Mormon Corridor” or “The Book of Mormon Belt” sometimes revel in their supposed anti-provincialism, there is another kind of provincialism that afflicts most of us moderns, namely, that of historicism, or the tendency to judge all past events by the standard of contemporary prejudices. C.S. Lewis identified the phenomenon as follows, likening the present age to a small village:
A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
Coppins recounts his experiences in Massachusetts, Texas, New York, and beyond, but even these migrations do not seem to have delivered him from some of the local errors of his native village, that is, of what is considered “cool” in his America. Similarly, even a degree in journalism from one of the best undergraduate institutions in the United States has not delivered him, or us, from pervasive influence of fashionable opinion as it pours forth every day from all the media to which we are exposed. Instead of approaching Joseph Smith and the formidable fruits of his life’s labor from the progressive perspective of a popular contemporary journalist, we would do well to allow for the possibility that Joseph Smith, like President Russell M. Nelson, has something to teach us that we don’t already know. At the very least, like Arthur Henry King, we can let Joseph Smith speak for himself.
Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints best understood as “achingly American”? While the Prophet Joseph Smith loved the United States of America and cherished the spirit of liberty that was handed down to him from his forefathers, I think that we do him a disservice if we forget the breadth and depth of the work that he set out to accomplish:
The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done. (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 4:540)[ii]
Apart from recounting his personal experience as a “Mormon” eager to fit in with broader society, Coppins’ dominant perspective on the Prophet Joseph Smith and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reflects an attempt to adopt some “objective” standpoint; he sees the story more through the lens of a certain progressivist sociology than through the eyes of faith. Thus, like the elite academic and journalistic culture in which he moves, Coppins assumes that race, gender, sexuality, feminism, immigration, and “cultural cachet” are the most salient issues for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He seems less interested in what leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have spoken clearly on such topics, particularly in recent conferences, and what they have even commissioned a series of excellent essays on some of the most controversial topics, which help us to make sense of contemporary issues in the light of the core doctrine of Christ that President Nelson and the Prophet Joseph Smith have labored so earnestly to preach.
It is commendable that one of the things that Coppins learned during his time in New York was to “mourn with those who mourn,” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort,” but as he well knows, this Christian commitment is only one part of the equation. Equally important is the injunction that is recorded in the same passage of scripture to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places…” (Mosiah 18:9) As President Nelson and many other leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have reiterated on many occasions, these Christian commitments are not always conducive to popularity, prestige, or the honors of men:
True disciples of Jesus Christ are willing to stand out, speak up, and be different from the people of the world. They are undaunted, devoted, and courageous. (President Russell M. Nelson, “Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives”)
“The desire for respectability,” historian Matthew Bowman wrote, “is very much at the heart of modern Mormonism.” Coppins quotes Bowman in support of his thesis that “Mormons still longed for full initiation into American life.” It is natural for any people to want to be accepted and appreciated by their neighbors and fellow citizens. But to erect this desire into a defining principle or motive of a religion is clearly a reductionist argument, that is, one that explains higher concerns (religious truth and righteousness) in terms of lower or more common motives (social inclusion). In any case, contrary to the impression that Coppins conveys, Latter-day Saints, like other Americans, differ among themselves concerning the meaning of America and thus on the terms of inclusion we are seeking. Coppins needs to reflect on the implications of his own observation that “we [Latter-day Saints finally succeeded [in being accepted as Americans] just as the country was on the brink of an identity crisis.” Coppins takes for granted a certain liberal or progressive understanding of the American identity, one that is certainly not favored by all American Saints.
Not every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been as warmly disposed as is Coppins to Mitt Romney (the presidential candidate or, particularly, the anti-Trump Senator) Evan McMullin, Spencer Cox, or, for that matter, Joe Biden. Not all Latter-day Saints long to be included on terms of the “respectability” granted by America’s present elites. There are plenty of Latter-day Saints who, after the most recent contentious election season, can only take solace from the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”[iii]
The real “painful tensions within the faith,” therefore, have less to do with how President Nelson and other Church leaders deal with the unceasing demands of progressivism and identity politics and more to do with how members of the Church of Jesus Christ will choose to respond to forces in the world. To quote President Nelson once more:
Are you willing to let God prevail in your life? Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life? Will you allow His words, His commandments, and His covenants to influence what you do each day? Will you allow His voice to take priority over any other? Are you willing to let whatever He needs you to do take precedence over every other ambition? Are you willing to have your will swallowed up in His?
The difficulty of faith that Coppins rightly appreciates has less to do with a bashful quest for respectability in the world and more to do with the simple but demanding teachings of our Savior Jesus Christ. As Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things.”
The Salt of the Earth
This is the faith that propelled Joseph Smith to seek God in prayer and to become the instrument for the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the faith that continues to move the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including President Russell M. Nelson. This is the faith that sent McKay Coppins to the early morning seminary classes and into full time service as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is the faith that continues to produce the miraculous fruits of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that are evidenced in the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Seen through the lens of faith in Jesus Christ, as exemplified by President Russell M. Nelson and the Prophet Joseph Smith, the proper relationship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the United States of America and the rest of the world is clear:
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Ye are the alight of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
We would do well to question any assumption that whatever the Lord chooses to reveal in the ongoing restoration of His Gospel and His Church will necessarily and exactly coincide with our own ideological or political preferences, or with the dominant cultural fashions in our society. In fact, the opposite is more likely. The Restored Gospel invites us to partake of the fruit of the tree of life without becoming ashamed. It moves us toward a greater understanding of the core doctrine of Christ, so that we will not say, as Coppins does in his article, that “identifying that core can be hard.” Certainly it is easier to identify the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than it is to live it, but that is exactly what President Nelson and his predecessor Joseph Smith have been helping us to do all along. Remember President Nelson’s observation: “I don’t think you can separate the good things we do from the doctrine. It’s not what we do; it’s why we do it.” Remember that “we exist to make life better for people.”
We are indebted to McKay Coppins for sharing parts of his interview with President Russell M. Nelson, for giving voice to experiences that are shared by many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and especially for publishing to a wide audience elements of the life and testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The vital question for all Coppins’ readers is not whether and how the Church will accommodate to some understanding of America’s progress, but whether Joseph’s testimony was true, and whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, under Pres. Nelson’s leadership, in some critical sense “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”
[i] David Foster Wallace, brilliant author of the acclaimed novel Infinite Jest and other works, committed suicide in 2008.
[ii] For an alternative to Coppins’ framing of the relationship between the Church and America, consider Jeffrey R. Holland’s thesis that the Lord prepared a promised land as a setting for the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1976, Elder Holland, then Commissioner of the Church Educational System , gave a rich and full account of the relationship between Joseph Smith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the United States of America. Here he argues that “the purpose of America was to provide a setting wherein [the restoration of the gospel] was possible. All else takes its power from that one great, central purpose.”
[iii] This was written before the dreadful events of January 6th. Obviously Lincoln’s attitude of resignation to the vagaries of democracy is very far removed from the untampered indignation of rioters.