The Agenda

Walter Kirn on America’s Most Misunderstood Religion

I’ve been an admirer of Walter Kirn since I read his 1993 novel She Needed Me some years ago, and I was delighted to read his thoughtful reflections on his experiences with Mormonism in The New Republic. There are sections of the essay that bring to mind memorable passages from Thumbsucker, in which Mormonism plays a prominent role. At least one adolescent love interest evoked in the essay figured prominently in the novel. Mission to America, which recounts the journey of two adherents of an eccentric Christian sect rooted in a small mountain town to a super-wealthy (and super-worldy) Colorado enclave, addresses a number of related themes. So it was fascinating to see these fictional threads drawn together.

Though Kirn has never struck me as terribly political — his main instincts seem to stem from broad-mindedness and a mostly warm regard for Middle America, the latter of which separates him from many other American writers of literary fiction — I’ve always gleaned a non-hostility towards conservatives, particularly religious conservatives. His new essay helps explain why.

Rather than excerpt a long passage, I’ll share the last few sentences, which resonated very strong with me, in part because I had a similar experience during a recent visit to Salt Lake City: 

At one a.m., with no one on the street, I left the hotel and walked up to the temple, a blazingly well-lit granite edifice built by stalwart pioneers and completed about 120 years ago, after 40 years of work. I sat on a bench regarding its Eastern face and the trumpeting gold angel on its main spire: Moroni, the being who directed Joseph Smith to the spot where the golden Book of Mormon lay buried. I was after something, I realized. A lift, a boost, a spiritual burning in the stomach. I’d never given up chasing that sensation. I tried to force things by praying with closed eyes—or not praying exactly, focusing my willingness. Nothing. The roar of big trucks on I-15, the pounding of my caffeinated pulse. Then I opened my eyes and saw something I’d missed: a simple carved symbol above the Temple’s entrance that other religions might not have thought to put there. It told a story, it summed it up in stone. My father’s story. A lot of mine. And, from what I knew, much of theirs—the Mormons.

Nothing mysterious. Nothing cultish. Just a handshake.

Kirn’s essay has my highest recommendation. 


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