Being an American Mormon makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to be a tory. By toryism I mean a deep and genuine conservatism beyond the pastiche of semi-free market economics, heated battles over the public meaning of sexuality, and occasional bouts of half-articulated communitarianism that make up the GOP in the United States. I am talking about conservatism in a Burkean sense that sees meaning as primarily rooted in deep traditions, stable social institutions and hierarchies, and a preference for agrarian and local economic arrangements based on a deep suspicion of national and international markets. I am talking about a deep hankering for a kind of bucolic vision of deep history and tradition. Think of the Shire in Lord of the Rings. There is much about toryism that is appealing, but as an American Mormon I fear that any attachment that I might have to it suffers from three, extremely hard knocks.
First, toryism has had a hard time in American soil. To be sure we have had thinkers who have made a run at toryism on this side of the Atlantic — Calhoun in the 19th century and perhaps Wendell Barry in the 20th century; the fact that both are southerners is not accidental — but both the newness and the dynamism of American society have made toryism hard here. Turner’s thesis about the role of the frontier as the site for the formation of the American character is as good an explanation as any. A national myth that valorizes the man who pulls up stakes and braves empty territory to create a new life is not one that gives much solace to the tory soul. Hence, my Americanism — and perhaps in particular my western-Americaness — delivers a first and powerful blow to any tory stirrings in my soul.
Second, Mormonism itself delivers a powerful blow to tradition. By virtue of being a Mormon, I find myself in an ambivalent position vis-a-vis American history. My relationship to the historical geography of Northern Virginia perfectly illustrates this point. I live in the cockpit of the Civil War. My house is a short drive from Manassas and Bull Run. A drive down I-95 takes me past Spotsylvania Court House and Fredricksburg to Richmond and Petersburg. My genetic relationship to these stories, however, is complicated and compromised by my Mormonism. I am an American, so in a sense these battles are the stories of my people, yet because I am a Mormon, in a very real sense they are not. In the 1860s my ancestors were pulling handcarts to Zion rather than tramping the roads of the Old Dominion under Lee or Grant.
The third and most complicated hammer blow comes from the dynamic of Mormon history itself. Old Deseret seems like a prime candidate for a Mormon, tory acadia. I might ground toryism in Mormon history itself and sink the roots of my identity into the Great Basin geography of poplars, cottonwoods and irrigation ditches. The problem with this approach is that this historically and geographically rooted Mormon identity is becoming increasingly anachronistic in a church that defines itself in global and universalist terms. One may debate the extent to which Mormonism has disentangled itself from a Great Basin identity, but I don’t think that there can be any serious debate about the direction of evolution over the last century. Increasingly, if we ground our identity in historical myths they are not the local ones of pioneers, but the cosmic ones of the plan of salvation. Hence, quite apart from the economic and professional forces that have carried me far beyond the Mormon corridor, my commitment to Mormonism as a living religion rather than simply a form of nostalgia means that forming an identity rooted primarily in the Mormon past is increasingly difficult.
Hence, in place of the tory ideal of rootedness and belonging, I find that my political and social identity is largely defined in terms of being an outsider: first as a provincial of the American west far from the North Atlantic metropole, then as a Mormon partially cut off from the American story, and finally, as product of pioneer stock whose role in defining the Mormon mythos is becoming increasingly marginal. The result is that rather than toryism, I am pushed toward philosophical liberalism, the creed of the outsider estranged from history and seeking protection and formal belonging through ahistorical stories of liberty and equality. This is not, of course, an entirely satisfying solution to the dilemma, but the confused tangle of my more local histories and identities seems to prevent the formation of a political and social persona rooted entirely within a historical and traditional framework.