By Quincy D. Newell
As I write this, I am returning to Laramie from Salt Lake City, where I spent a jam-packed two days with seventeen scholars from all over the world who were there to learn about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The scholars, selected by the U.S. Department of State to participate in a summer institute called “Religion in the United States: Pluralism and Public Presence,” began with a month at UC-Santa Barbara. They then embarked on a study tour, beginning in Los Angeles and then traveling to Salt Lake. Today, they move to Atlanta, and they will finish their tour in Washington, D. C. In Salt Lake, the office of Church Hosting took good care of us, arranging tours of Temple Square, the Humanitarian Center, and Welfare Square. They also hosted a formal dinner for the group, after which we got to attend a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Thursday night choir rehearsals are open to the public, and we were one among many groups that attended the rehearsal. As it turned out, the American Legislative Exchange Council (more commonly known as ALEC) was also holding a conference in Salt Lake City, and many of their attendees were also at the choir rehearsal. As a special treat, the choir gave a mini-concert of American songs, including works by several popular American composers. These included the most upbeat version of “This Land is Your Land” that I have ever heard, and a toe-tapping rendition of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” They concluded with two well-known patriotic songs: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and one of the choir’s signature songs, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
It has always seemed a bit odd to me that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir should be singing such songs. They are, after all, a church choir. It is incongruous, in a city with a temple at its center, to hear the church choir singing tunes from The Music Man. But Ronald Reagan also famously called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir “America’s Choir,” and the group has toured throughout the world, performing in all sorts of venues for all kinds of occasions. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when members of the audience rose, standing through the last chorus of “God Bless America.” Nor should I have been surprised when the same thing occurred during “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Nevertheless I was dismayed: the scholars in our group, hailing from countries ranging from Australia to Venezuela, Cameroon to Sri Lanka, had no reason to stand during these songs. They are not American. But a row of seventeen, in a crowd of perhaps a thousand or more, had no recourse. They had to stand in order to see, and in order to respect the culture of the country in which they found themselves. This spontaneous display of patriotism probably bothered me more than it did them; in conversations afterward, they told me they didn’t mind. One remarked teasingly that she felt more American at that moment than ever before.
As we were leaving the concert, several of the scholars were still singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah!” they sang, as we crossed North Temple Street. “Glory, glory hallelujah!” They were a little unclear on the words after that. One of them leaned over to ask me: “Is this a nationalistic song, or a religious song?”
Well. Perhaps this tune is a fitting signature song for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir after all: a nationalistic and religious song, for a religious and national choir.
Salt Lake both is and is not really the place where one expects to encounter the utter fusion of religion and nationalism: the Latter-day Saints fled the United States in 1847. They maintain a strong collective memory of their persecution at the hands of the United States – by individuals, groups, and American governments (local and federal). On the other hand, they actively sought statehood. They believe the U.S. Constitution is a divinely inspired document. Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States. And, since 1976, Utah has moved ever more rightward, becoming (for a time) the reddest state in the nation. (For much of this information, I am indebted to W. Paul Reeve of the University of Utah, who presented an overview of Utah religion and politics to the group.)
The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” originated around the time of the Civil War and was sung by Northern troops. We might, then, call it a Republican song – a song of the party of Lincoln, the party that most actively persecuted the LDS Church in the nineteenth century. As the LDS Church struggled to Americanize in the late nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints joined the Democrats in droves. LDS leaders had to actively encourage Saints to become Republicans. It is ironic, then, that today some 70% of Mormons are Republicans and one of the signature songs of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Americanization process that began in the late nineteenth century, it seems, is complete.
I’m not sure I can say that this episode is peculiarly Western. Instead, it seems to demonstrate to me a rather generic fusion of religion and patriotism (albeit one that may help explain how Mitt Romney can mobilize the support of non-Mormons using a religiously-infused nationalism). But the scholars I was working with, I suspect, won’t encounter a similar demonstration anywhere else on their study tour.