August 2002

Michael Schaub


One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church by Richard Abanes

First, let's talk about bias. As any halfway responsible writer knows, it's impossible to escape it -- everyone has an angle, and the best any journalist can do is to own up to it. Richard Abanes, author of this critical history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is no different. A former Broadway singer/dancer, Abanes now makes a living as an evangelical Christian author and inspirational musician. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but his biography immediately telegraphs the fact that he's not going to be a huge fan of the LDS church. There's nothing wrong with that, either, but it probably would have been better for the publisher to make Abanes' religious affiliation a little clearer -- the only hint readers of this book get about the author's right-wing Christianity is in the dedication ("To my God, my Rock, my Fortress, my Deliverer...").

So what? You're either a Mormon or you're not, and if you're waiting for the LDS faithful to pen a candid history of their faith, you'll be waiting an awfully long time. And One Nation Under Gods is nothing if not candid, the author's lack of disclosure about his own faith notwithstanding. Drawing from a wealth of primary sources, Abanes presents what might be the most well-researched criticism of LDS this country has ever seen. But it is criticism, and not, I think, history. This book was apparently conceived as a counterpoint to books by Mormon apologists, it does the reader well to remember that Abanes might be more interested in "witnessing to" (read: converting) Mormons than writing a purely objective history of an admittedly odd church.

That being said, it's nearly impossible to fault Abanes' scholarship -- although this book is clearly more journalistic in tone than historical. Abanes backs up his assertions with an exhaustive bibliography, and there are almost 150 pages of endnotes. He's made it difficult for peeved Mormons to dispute some of his more controversial claims -- such as the ones he makes in Chapter 16, with the self-explanatory, if heavy-handed, title "Mormon Racism: Black Is Not Beautiful." It's also hard to find fault with Abanes' prose style, which is understated, level-headed, and enviably clear. It doesn't exactly read like a novel, as some breathless readers claim, but it's as absorbing as a nonfiction book on religious history can be.

But Abanes' bias inevitably gets in the way. The penultimate chapter, "Is Mormonism Christian?", presents a pretty good argument that LDS is quite far removed from "mainstream" Christianity (if, indeed, there is such a thing). But why was it included? The only people who this might interest, it seems, are fundamentalist Christians looking for yet another religious group to exclude. Interesting, sure, but it's difficult to see how this fits into a supposedly objective history. It's also hard to ignore Abanes' repeated warnings that Mormons are trying to take over the American government. He quotes both LDS leaders and Mormon politicians (like his fellow songwriter Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah), all of whom offer some variation on the well-known Mormon prophecy that LDS members will save the U.S. when "the Constitution is torn and hangs by a thread." A suitably horrified Abanes concludes:

"But what would such a scenario mean for America? Continued freedom? Greater liberty and prosperity? Widespread pluralism? That is doubtful. The history of Mormonism is rife with nefarious deeds, corruption, vice, and intolerance. So far the fruits of Mormonism have included lust, greed, theft, fraud, violence, murder, religious fanaticism, bribery, and racism."

All this as opposed to fundamentalist Protestantism? Whether Abanes is right in his conclusion is debatable -- based on the few Mormons I've met, I think he seriously overstates his case here -- he should know he's setting himself up big time. Abanes' own religion has given us plenty of lust (Jimmy Swaggart), greed (Jim Bakker), intolerance (Pat Robertson), and religious fanaticism (take your pick). And it's hard to maintain an air of objectivity when your own oeuvre includes Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick. That's not to say One Nation Under Gods is without merit -- indeed, it's beautifully written, well-researched, and cogently argued. But Abanes' own history suggests that he has (pardon the cliche) one hell of an axe to grind, and he and his faithful readers shouldn't be too surprised when the rest of us take this book with a grain from the Great Salt Lake.

One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church by Richard Abanes
Published by Four Walls Eight Windows
651 Pages