In Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero considers the decline of religious knowledge in America, much of which relates to the failure of institutions (family, school, church, university) to maintain a "chain of memory" that transmits religious knowledge from one generation to the next. President Hinckley helped Mormonism avoid this failure. Mormon memory is alive and well.
Remembering Who We Are
In his book, Prothero references the work of a French scholar commenting on the state of belief in Europe:
The French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger has written eloquently about the loss of faith in Europe as a sort of amnesia. The rise of secularism in Europe, she contends, is rooted not so much in doubt as in forgetting. Religion is a "chain of memory," she argues, and Europeans have broken the chain.
Prothero notes that the same process is at work in the United States: "Catholics have forgotten the words of the Baltimore Catechism their parents and grandparents once knew by heart. ... Methodists have forgotten what distinguishes them from Baptists."
Mormons have escaped this progressive loss of identity. LDS kids still memorize the Articles of Faith in Primary. In seminary classes, LDS high school students get a daily dose of Mormon scripture and doctrine. LDS missions provide a shared set of formative church experiences for many young men and some young women. All of this, plus the adult regimen of two classes a week on top of the regular Sunday worship service, explains why Mormons -- unlike most American Christians, according to Prothero -- know what they believe and how the LDS Church differs from other denominations.
Remembering Where We Came From
In the Mormon case, there is also a sense of history, heritage, and place that reinforces the doctrinal knowledge that is the primary ingredient in Protestant identity. This is where President Hinckley made a significant but generally unnoticed contribution, as summarized by Jan Shipps in her recent commentary on the passing of President Hinckley:
President Hinckley was also primarily responsible for the move away from the monographic narrative history of Mormonism to what is often called the public history dimension of the LDS past. He was church president when many historic sites were built or cleaned up, refurbished, and reopened to the public. These sites are important as a means of permitting non-Mormons to comprehend Mormonismâ€™s fundamental story. But they have also become crucially important pilgrimage places where converts and young Mormons may go to enter experientially into the Mormon past.
President Hinckley also supported the expansion of the Museum of Church History and Art and the building up of the Family History Library and its enormous genealogical collection which is open to the public not simply in Salt Lake City, but in electronic format all across the world.
President Hinckley was responsible not just for the spread of temples around the globe but also the acquisition and restoration of LDS historical sites -- for beefing up our "public history," as Shipps called it. [See my earlier post on LDS historical sites.] These sites are, in a sense, a physical manifestation of Mormon identity that roots the doctrines and practices of the Church in 2008 with two centuries of the LDS story. And almost all Latter-day Saints, whether they read history books or not, visit a few of these sites from time to time. I stressed the word story above because it emphasizes another component of the identity problem that other denominations face. Prothero again: "But religious literacy is not just the accumulation of facts. ... Religious literacy, in short, is both doctrinal and narrative; it is conveyed through creeds and catechisms, yes, but also through creation accounts and stories of the last days." And, for Mormons, stories and sites about the early LDS Church, the migration to the Salt Lake Valley, the colonization of the Mountain West, and the new globalization of the Church. Nice sites. Great stories.
A Walk Around Temple Square
A mental walk around the perimeter of Temple Square is another way to illustrate President Hinckley's contribution to making the historical component of Mormon identity so visible to all Latter-day Saints. Across the street on the west is the Museum of Church History and Art. On the north is the Conference Center, the halls of which are filled with LDS art depicting scenes from the scriptures and from LDS history. On the east is the LDS campus which includes the Joseph Smith theater, featuring Church-produced films showing dramatic retellings of events from the scriptures and LDS history. All of this development happened under the leadership of President Hinckley. Perhaps he will be remembered as the President who brought the Mormon story to the people in a way that every Latter-day Saint and many visitors can remember and appreciate the story of who we are.
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.