The brightness and the glory

A 154-foot tower, a chandelier weighing 300 kilos. Stephen Smithgains entry to the Mormon temple in

It must have been all the excitement, but as I entered the soaring new Mormon temple in Lancashire, I was distracted by an urge to perform an irredeemably earth-bound function. Under my breath, I asked a colleague whether he thought the builder's spec had included anything so worldly as a Gents. Hardly had we taken another pace across the marble flags than my elbow was seized in a firm but kindly grip. A man in a dark suit, whom I'd last noticed in a distant corner, had materialised noiselessly at my side. "I understand that you'd like to go to the bathroom," he murmured.

Paying a call at the temple, if that's the expression I want, provided a rare insight into one of Britain's fastest-growing but least understood religious movements. First, and at the risk of sounding like an Irish swimmer, I should say that I had not been taking any stimulants, because those popular diuretics, alcohol, tea and coffee, are off the Mormon menu. The cubicle itself boasted state-of-the-art Armitage Shanks vitreousware, and was carpeted in beige shagpile to ankle height, as indeed was the temple throughout. There have been rumours that these floor coverings will be ripped up and thrown out after a series of open days which finished last summer, but church authorities have dismissed this. However, they say that the temple had undergone "cleansing" - understood to be both spiritual and domestic - before its formal dedication last June.

Most impressive of all was the display of trouble-shooting by my friend in the dark suit. Having led me to the WC, he waited for me outside it, not unlike a prison escort. I'm sure that if I'd succumbed to a temptation to scribble something on the walls, he would have been through the door and snatching the Biro out of my hand before you could say Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the style the Mormons favour. Very reasonably, they didn't want people defacing their temple after they'd just spent a reported £100 million on it. Spokesmen were coy about the exact price tag, which was odd considering they went out of their way to explain that only the best raw materials had been good enough, North American cherry and Austrian crystal finding their way to the site, at junction eight of the M61. A formula I heard from more than one pair of lips was, "The key question is not what it cost, but what it's worth". Funds came from the 10 per cent of income every follower gives the Mormons.

At every doorway, on every passage, the church's investment was protected by an "elder". This was something of a misnomer; with a buzzsaw haircut and corn-fed complexion, the typical elder was actually more like a younger. Brought over from the church's American heartland for the big launch, the elders looked and sounded like Navy Seals attending a dressy reception ashore.

Thousands of visitors have been anticipated from far and wide for what you might call the Mormon experience, most of them, admittedly, converts from the United States. The nearest town is Chorley, not necessarily the sort of place you'd bracket with Beaver, or so I guessed. But the youthful elder reassured me: "Chorley's a small town, it kind of reminds me of home."

As far as the Mormons are concerned, the temple is really an outpost of nearby Preston, the base of their oldest branch. In 1837 seven missionaries arrived from New York to look up relatives in the town. Before long, they were preaching and baptising new believers in the waters of the Ribble. The Mormons now claim 180,000 members in the British Isles. They believe that theirs is the true church, restored by God in the last century. Cecil O Samuelson Jr, the president of the Mormons in Britain, made a speech about an American called Joseph Smith bearing witness to "two personages whose brightness and glory defied all description". Samuelson had the steely hair of a Republican senator. He explained that further revelations led to the discovery of gold plates inscribed with what turned out to be the text of the Book of Mormon, a kind of addendum to the Bible. Whenever I looked up from my notepad, Samuelson's eyes were on me.

He led the way through the temple's rinsed air and artificial light to a baptismal font in the basement. Twelve life-size fibreglass oxen, one for each of the tribes of Israel, were supporting a sunken whirlpool bath. The domed ceiling was a Milky Way of shimmering bulbs. Mormons maintain that baptismal privileges can be conferred beyond the grave, entire family trees united in God's sight by the act of a believer standing in for his late relations at the hygienic foot-spa. This raised the interesting textural crux: what if a dead ancestor was perfectly happy not being a Mormon? While I was pondering this, the president said that the greatest number of people for whom he had acted as a baptismal proxy at one go was a dozen. Whites were worn during the ceremony. "We have a significant laundry challenge," said Samuelson. The pool gurgled.

The president of the church is a useful man to know if you're a Mormon. Most church events happen in relatively humble chapels, and not every follower may enter the temple of Preston. Select men and women will receive a "temple recommend", a sign that they are in good standing with a member of the rank of bishop.

On a different Chorley morning, the temple not yet finished, a roly-poly man had breathlessly propelled his recommend across a table to me. He said, "That's literally priceless, that. No money on earth can buy that."

Oh, I knew how difficult it was to get into the temple, alright. I discovered it that day, when the Mormons declined to admit me and even disappointed their own PR people, who had made the journey from London. We would all have to wait for the one-off press tour.

The temple was finished in Sardinian granite, which recalled the cliff-face of the palace erected by the Ceausescus in Bucharest; it was as much of a bunker as the abandoned American embassy in Saigon. On the face of it, though, the stakes were much higher in Chorley. Inside the temple, it was possible to learn the meaning of life, or so I gathered. There was even a taster of the ambrosial hereafter.

Despite their strict admissions policy, the Mormons were far from inhospitable. They were unfailingly courteous - almost creepily so, if that doesn't sound ungrateful - putting up with any number of irreverent questions. The spire of the temple was a tapering digit thrust 154 feet into the sky, capped by a golden trumpeter representing an angel called Moroni, but the rest of the structure had the undisguisable look of a municipal crematorium. I asked the roly-poly man: "Be honest, do you really think it's beautiful?"

He said, "I do, yes. But you could show the Taj Mahal to half a dozen people and they'd all have a different view."

The temple, and the coming of the Mormons to Lancashire in large numbers, have certainly provoked different views. One shopper told me, "I think it's great, actually. It's got people talking." Another said, "It's just opulence for opulence's sake."

"You know the film Independence Day, where the spaceship suddenly appears over the White House? It's like that with the temple," said Reverend Ian Dewar, vicar of All Saints Church in the village of Appleby Bridge. The Anglican church has joined forces with the Catholics, the Baptists and others to produce a leaflet challenging the Mormons' claims to be Christian. Reverend Don Gilkes made his parish church available while the temple was holding its open days, in case disoriented members of the public needed a stiffening shot of caffeine and a chat. He told me that the Mormons' views on doctrines such as baptism and heaven were at odds with established teaching. The churches in turn have been accused of running scared, outflanked by the Mormons' remorseless doorstep proselytising (they reckon to tread 1,000 front paths for every convert they make). The Mormons deny they will be staking out the porches of Chorley. They will be training missionaries, they say, not sending them out willy-nilly into the roads around the temple - which brings me back to the guided tour.

We were in the wedding guests' waiting room, among wipe-clean lacquered panels and scenes from the life of Christ. Devoted Mormon couples don't have to settle for pledging themselves to each other "till death us do part". They can cement their marriages for eternity in a "sealing room". Here, the conversation pieces included a bench with a doily over it and mirrors facing each other, allowing the bride and groom to observe themselves for as far as they could see in each direction, a representation of their timeless union.

Now we were penetrating the inner sanctum of the temple, the very heart of the Mormon creed. In the ordinance room, nothing less than the chronology of creation was brought to life. Samuelson said, "In this room we have the opportunity of learning the things to answer life's great questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?"

Never mind that it was an antiseptic sort of chamber; not after a build-up like that. Unfortunately, there was a let-down on the way: it emerged that our party would not be vouchsafed the mysteries of the ordinance room. We had to be content with titbits.

Still, the best was yet to come, or so we had been given to understand: the celestial room, a place of beauty, peace, reverence; an appetiser for the afterlife. "We will ask that we don't have lots of dialogue in there," said Samuelson.

What to say of the vision of paradise presented by the celestial room? Picture a reception suite for the use of minor royalty, as envisaged by the set designers of a South American soap opera. It was done out in the vivid lemons of daytime television. There was a chandelier, which weighed 300 kilos.

The Mormons have now shut their doors to the outside world, and the ineffable comforts of the celestial room are reserved for the elite of the church. I wouldn't have missed the temple for anything, even though, by the end of my visit, the soul-searching riddle "What am I doing here?" had become a rhetorical question.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars