In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library

This neo-creationism no longer presses to exclude Darwinism from textbooks and schools altogether. It no longer tries to dismiss it in the name of a divine knowledge that is imposed on the knowledge of scholars with the authority of fanaticism or revealed truth.

On the contrary, it accepts Darwinism, or in any case pretends to accept it—but only while asserting the right, the mere right, to oppose its "hypotheses" with the contrary hypotheses, placed on the same level and equal in worth, of "scientific creationism." The invention of scientific creationism—this elevation to the rank of "science" of what is patently superstition and imposture—can only be called inspired.

There are two theories, and you have a choice: that's the formula of an enlightened obscurantism; that's the principle of revisionism with a liberal and tolerant face; that's the act of faith of a dogmatism reconciled with freedom of speech and thought; that's the subtlest, most underhanded, most cunning, and at bottom most dangerous ideological maneuver of the American right in years.

The Mormon Masterstroke

About the significance of religion in American demo- cratic life; about the peculiarity of systematically placing these election campaigns, these debates, these conventions, under the blessing of God Almighty; about the mystery of a people who are at once the most materialistic and the most spiritual, the "greediest" in Jim Harrison's view and the most intensely religious; about the paradox of a taste for freedom that, far from having been wrested from the murky shadows of faith, as in Europe, is, on the contrary, right in step with it, freedom feeding on faith, faith supporting itself on freedom, and so on ad infinitum—about all this, I don't think the traveler today can have anything to add to the miraculously prophetic pages of the second volume of Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Salt Lake City, though, is an exception.

Case in point: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church, which has its spiritual center here, and which, I must confess, looks like nothing I've ever seen before.

I'm not talking about Salt Lake City itself, this surreal and artificial place, orthogonal and rigid, built in the nineteenth century in the middle of the desert by a Mormon colony fleeing persecution.

I'm not talking, this Sunday morning, as I visit the Tabernacle and then the Mormon temple in Temple Square, about this uneasy mixture of the prophetic and the mundane, the intensity of fervor and the triviality of rites, which after all is not so different from what I witnessed at Willow Creek.

I'm not talking about the sectarian obsession—the Golden Section, or the five-branched cross, engraved on the temple walls, the rationalized occultism, the spiritualist puritanism (and, at its most extreme, the apocalyptic fantasies compelling believers to stock freezers with loads of provisions in expectation of the Last Day); this is not so exceptional, and in any case the Mormon Church maintains she has put much of this behind.

I'm not even thinking of the living prophet—yes, "living prophet"—which is what in Salt Lake City they call the spiritual head of the community, the man who rules over the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as well as the millions of Mormons in Utah and throughout the world. I'm not even thinking, then, of my astonishment when, at the noontime service, in what looks like a luxurious hotel lobby (velvets, gilding, chandeliers, brocades) transformed into a place of worship—another sign of the same confusion of the profane with the sacred—I was finally shown the prophet; and instead of the holy man I was expecting, instead of a dignified heir to Joseph Smith, the church's founder, whom I had imagined as an apostolic figure come to re-establish the plenitude of the Gospel on earth, I discovered a little ninety-four-year-old man, cautious and dapper, dressed in a double-breasted navy-blue suit with gold buttons, closer to a Cinzano drinker than to a WASP Dalai Lama.

No. The real story here is at 35 North West Temple Street—the Family History Library.

The genuine interest, in my eyes, of this Mormon Church is a procedure unique in history, not just among American churches but among all churches, which consists in traveling all over the world in order to assemble and store up the names of human beings from throughout the centuries.

"We take everything," the librarian tells me. Everything. Birth certificates. Marriage and death certificates. Newspapers. Old letters. Photos. Civil and parish registers. Military papers. Ancestral diagrams. Family trees. Censuses. Land registries. Immigration and emigration lists. Court reports. We have emissaries who travel the planet. We have "microfilm teams" who go sign deals and collect material. The result is a unique data bank. It's a supply of billions of names entered in our International Genealogical Index and preserved here in the library as well as, for security purposes, in a place twenty-five miles southeast of the city, in the heart of Granite Mountain, in fortified rooms hollowed out of the mountainside, guaranteed earthquake-proof. Someday the dead from every era will be entered into the computer. Someday a history of humanity will be indexed and available for any living person who wants it. Come look. You'll understand.

He takes me to the second floor, to a room where a few dozen men and women, of every age and condition, are typing away on individual computers.

"There you are. This belongs to everyone." These resources have no other purpose than to be put back into the hands of their legitimate owners, the people. They can do one of two things with them: If they're Mormon and if they believe in the definitive sanctity of family relations, for this life and the next, they can tighten the link with their ancestors and even, in some cases, if they think ancestors might have died without having had the occasion or the time to accept the tenets of Mormonism, they can offer them a remedial session and baptize them by proxy. Or if they're not Mormon, if they don't believe in baptizing the dead, if this blessing of the dead isn't part of their theology, they still have the possibility, so relevant in a world where more and more people are losing track of their roots, of knowing where they come from, who made them, and who they are. "Would you like to try?" he asked.

The experiment for me isn't that conclusive. In vain do I type, and retype, the names of the few ancestors I can recall; it must be that my family background lies in one of those terrae incognitae yet to yield to Mormon inspection, since the computer remains exasperatingly silent.

But I glance at the faces around me. I look at these people, dreamy or puzzled, as if drugged, sometimes the hint of a smile on their lips, journeying through the mysteries of their own past. And I hesitate between two sentiments. One is a certain respect owed to this relentless interest in one's ancestors, this homage made to the dead, this wish to be, as Baudelaire writes, the living tomb of one's forefathers. But then there's also the idea that these Mormons are peculiarly cunning. In the struggle of all against all that the history of religions has been, and in this other battle for power that I see American churches waging today, the Mormons have found the absolute weapon. How can you possibly fight a church that reigns not just over the living but also over the dead? Who can compete with people who, not content with taking possession of bodies and souls, place the memory of the world under seal?

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