Several writers have noted that Glenn Beck’s recent rally was a clear example of American civil religion. A little noted incident at the rally, however, was Beck’s remark that when revelation was being given in ancient Israel, it also was being given on this side of the globe. The remark was followed by a rabbi and Native Americans stepping forward.
Beck, of course, is a Mormon, and according to the Book of Mormon, at least three groups of people came to this continent from the ancient Near East prior to European settlers. One was the family of Lehi, who around 600 BCE had a vision of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the people of the Southern Kingdom. Lehi, his family and a distant cousin – Ishmael – then left Jerusalem and eventually sailed to this continent.
Lehi had three sons – Laman, Lemuel and Nephi – the descendants of whom were the dark-skinned Lamanites and the white-skinned Nephites. For most of their history, the Lamanites and the Nephites warred with each other. The only exception was during the time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (when the Book of Mormon says Jesus came to this continent, taught the Nephites and appointed 12 disciples) and for two centuries thereafter.
Then, warfare resumed, and by the mid-400s CE the Lamanites had killed all the Nephites – except possibly three disciples whom Jesus had promised to allow to remain on Earth as long as they desired.
A second group, the Jaredites, was named for the prophet Jared, who lived at the time of the Tower of Babel. Because Jared and his brother repented of their sin and prayed for mercy, the Lord spared Jared, his family and his friends from the confusion of tongues and eventually led them to this continent, much of which they eventually populated. The Jaredites became disobedient, however, and the result was warfare between the two factions into which they had divided. Eventually, only one person from each faction – Coriantumr and Shiz – survived. Coriantumr then beheaded Shiz in battle and himself fell to the ground as though dead.
God led a third group – the Mulekites – to this continent at approximately the same time he led Lehi, but over time the Mulekites’ language became corrupted and the group lost all knowledge of God and of their history. Eventually, they were discovered by a group of separatist Nephites whose leader, Mosiah, enabled them to relearn their language and their history. The two groups then merged and made Mosiah their king.
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The Nephites’ encounter with the Mulekites provides a slight connection among the three groups, for the restored history of the Mulekites revealed that at one time they had discovered a man named Coriantumr (apparently, after killing Shiz, he had only appeared to be dead), who lived with them for just under a year and then, depending upon which Mormon you ask, either died or left them.
God is said to have raised up prophets in all three of these groups.
Thus, Beck’s assertion about revelation to people on this continent. (Actually, contemporary Mormon belief is that God has raised up prophets among all peoples at all times.)
Although in the 19th century some Mormons claimed that all Native Americans were descendants of the Lamanites, today most Mormons assume a more complex history. The Book of Mormon never says that all Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanites or that the Nephites, Lamanites and Jaredites were the only early inhabitants of the continent.
A new factor in identifying the ancestry of Native Americans is DNA research. Though no connection has been found between the DNA of Native Americans and any descendants of recognized ancient Near Eastern groups, a connection has been found between Native Americans and Asians.
Mormon scholars suggest various solutions to the absence of DNA connections – that some Native Americans are in fact descended from Asian populations; that there may have been sufficient intermarriage between Lamanites and other groups to cause the DNA connections to recede to the point of being undetectable; and that although DNA markers would show a connection, their absence does not prove a lack of connection. Some say simply that the picture still is muddy and that the connections eventually will be found.
The purpose of this essay is neither to cast aspersions on Mormon claims nor to attack Beck. Beck’s political views do not ultimately rest on Mormon theology or history. I simply point out that the tent of civil religion, by celebrating a generic god and holding a particular view of U.S. history, automatically includes a wide range of theological and historical perspectives.
The question is how wide the tent can be spread and still be talking about the same god and the same history.
Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University and theologian-in-residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tenn.