The Mormon Masterstroke

By: J. Stapley - July 06, 2005

The Atlantic Monthly is sponsoring the American tour of French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. He is acting the modern day Tocquerville and writing essays as he travels the land and speaks with the Natives. In the July/August edition of the magazine Monsieur Lévy recounts his brief experience in Salt Lake City.

Lévy is an interesting character and I enjoyed his recent appearance on C-span. I am not however, all that impressed by his reformed Maoist French social liberalism. The Atlantic article is nonetheless important as it reflects the perceptions of many in the world.

Lévy is obviously more acquainted with Mormon-speak than was his translator, who annihilates the bulk of Lévy’s religious description. Nonetheless, Lévy’s antipathy is evident. Salt Lake City is a “surreal and artificial place, orthogonal and rigid…”

He was unimpressed by President Hinkley who he viewed as a poor heir in comportment to the prophetic Joseph. His real interest was in the genealogical library. Lévy was fascinated by the “procedure unique in history” to gather the worlds records in catalogue. He remarks that only ancestors of church members are to be baptized for the dead.

In conclusion Lévy is ambivalent. He, at once, has respect for the homage to one’s ancestors and is wary of the Mormon’s “cunning” in their battle for the souls of the world.


  1. You wrote of Levy:
    He remarks that only ancestors of church members are to be baptized for the dead.

    Levy must be ignorant of one of the most obvious aspects of genealogy. That is, the ancestors of Mormons are also the ancestors of many more non-Mormons than Mormons. When we research and baptize our own ancestors, we are researching primarily the records of people who never belonged to the Church and whose posterity is primarily outside the Church. As usual, Levy’s prejudices are the result of ignorance.

    Comment by John W. Redelfs — 7/7/2005 @ 8:23 am

  2. From the little you’ve quoted, it sounds as if Lévy might be cribbing a bit from his compatriot Jean Baudrillard’s description of SLC in his1986 Amérique (similarly touted, by the way, as nouveau-Toqueville). After Baudrillard calls the “Christ-topped dome” copied from Torvaldsen to look like Bjorn Borg something out of Close Encounters, he continues:

    Pompous Mormon symmetry. Everywhere marble: flawless, funereal. …The whole city has the transparency and supernatural, otherworldly cleanness of a thing from outer space. A symmetrical, luminous, overpowering abstraction. At every intersection in the Tabernacle area — all marble and roses, and evangelical marketing — an electronic cuckoo-clock sings out: such Puritan obsessiveness is astonishing in this heat, in the heart of the desert, alongside this leaden lake, its waters also hyperreal from sheer density of salt. And, beyond the lake, the Great Salt Lake Desert, where they had to invent the speed of prototype cars to cope with the absolute horizontality…

    I have nothing against the French (I lived in Luxembourg for a couple of years, knew some wonderful people in and out of church, and French is my second language), but you’d like at least a stab at accuracy, wouldn’t you? Of course, if your point (as Baudrillard’s) is that America as a whole is a pastiche of simulacra, I guess you can create whatever simulacrum you want of it…

    Comment by Justin H — 7/7/2005 @ 10:40 pm

  3. Justin, thanks for that excerpt. Similar indeed. I’ve had a post brewing about French ambivalence to America in general (they hate that they consume, but the consume regardless)- it just doesn’t have much to do with anything Mormon so it has been on the back burner.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 7/8/2005 @ 9:07 am

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