Western and central New York State, in any religious history of America, have acquired the nickname, “The Burned-Over District.” This graphic metaphor arises from the constant evangelizing and, more importantly, the fertile soil for new religious movements left in its wake. This region could claim to be the home of Seventh-Day Adventism, Spiritualism, the Oneida Society, and the Latter-Day Saints. It was also an early home of the Shakers and the land chosen by the Publick Universal Friend for her new Jerusalem. The sense of place is important to religions. The Latter-Day Saints, however, grew restless in this region where Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and began a torturous trek that would land the Mormons in Utah. Joseph Smith never made it that far. Religious leaders being persecuted are nothing new; Smith had been tarred and feathered, was wanted on charges of fraud, and was eventually murdered for his beliefs. He was also one of the most intensely creative individuals America has produced. His extraordinary creative venture is often overshadowed by the religion that grew out of it.
With Mitt Romeny’s campaign stoking up steam, many people find themselves wondering about Mormonism. I first learned about the Latter-Day Saints from a rather biased World Religions course at Grove City College. One aspect which was true in that course, however, was the great secrecy surrounding Mormon teachings. Of course, the Book of Mormon is in the public domain and is easily available to those who wish to read it. Official Latter-Day Saint beliefs, on the other hand, are frequently inscrutable. For all its problems (and they are sometimes significant), mainstream Christianity is very open (and often vocal) about its belief system. The same holds true for Judaism (mostly) and Islam. If you want to know what they believe, just ask. Americans tend to be a little perplexed by the Latter-Day Saints because there is always a feeling that there is something they’re not telling you. It goes all the way down to the underwear. All religions are concerned with sex. Some may not disclose the details in public, but they all deal with it somehow. Latter-Day Saints have rules about underwear–I’m sure other religions do too.
If Americans are really, seriously curious about the religious heritage of a potential president, a great way to find out is to read a bit of our own history. I learned about the Burned-Over District back in college and have periodically read about it several times since then. It is no secret. Our society is not likely to expend the energy needed to learn about its own heritage. As several of my recent posts have intimated, even higher education has no time for the study of religion (or history, or anything that doesn’t make money–Romney surely does!). Instead we will charge fearlessly ahead into the dark. And when we are in the dark we may start to wonder why we’re wearing this unusual underwear. Wondering about religion is far easier than supporting those who study it.