Will Paradise Be Reclaimed?

Get ready for Obama to face off with Romney. Two outsiders contesting the position of president of the most powerful nation on earth. When Jack Kennedy was going to run for president, there were many who said, he couldn’t be president because he was Catholic, that if he won, the Pope would run America. It was all nonsense and ignorance, of course. And, since in America, if you have one speck of black blood, you’re black, but if you are half white, you’re not white, then it looks like America will be voting for a black man or a white man who is a Mormon.

Romney won Florida today.  As he continues to roll up votes, he’s breaking down barriers, making it possible for a wider spectrum of people to become president, just as Obama has done, just as Jack Kennedy did.

Romney’s candidacy will be interesting to people of Icelandic descent in America, not because they would necessarily vote for him, but because of the historic connection of the Latter Day Saints to Iceland.

Mormon converts left for Utah in 1854. They arrived in September of 1855. Between 1855 and 1914, 381 Icelanders emigrated to Utah. This was a small number of the total emigrants who left for North America but the fact that they have retained some of their original culture and identity and stayed within a relatively small geographic space, they have a recognizable presence.

Although the Mormons have recorded their story in detail, what made their story come alive for Icelanders was Halldor Laxness’s novel Paradise Reclaimed. In Professor Fred E. Woods’ lecture “Icelandic Migration To and Through Utah” there is a “photo that inspired Laxness’s descriptions in Paradise Reclaimed.” Outside a house sits Margarét Gísladóttir, Halldóra Aranadóttir, and Guðrun Halldoórsdóttir with Gísli Einarsson Bjarnason standing behind them.   

On seeing the photo, I immediately recognized the moment in Paradise Reclaimed that it depicted. Steinar of Hliðar has abandoned  his family, gone to Denmark to meet the king, then continued on his way until he reaches Salt Lake City. He finds a welcome there. His preciseness that has kept his small farm in Iceland prosperous plus his skills with his hands help him sustain himself and, eventually, to bring his family to him. But, in the moment of Salt Lake City, he sees houses and people like those in the pictures or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, that Laxness saw in the picture, the people he would place in his novel.

The novel never preaches, for what purpose would a transitory Catholic, then Communist, preach. Instead, it portrays the Mormon missionaries through Bishop Þjóðrekur. Steinar first meets him at Þingvellur. The Bishop is being assaulted by angry farmers but Steinar refuses to let them have his riding crop with which to beat him. Later, he comes across the Bishop again. This time the Bishop is tied to a rock outside a church. Steinar frees him.

In Prof. Wood´s lecture, he makes the point, more than once, that the Mormon converts who returned to Iceland to proselytize were, like Bishop Þjóðrekur, subjected to persecution. And so they were. It was hardly to be expected to be otherwise. Iceland converted to Lutheranism in 1550. It was the state church with religion and politics tightly entwined.

The story of Bishop Þjóðrekur´s persecution is archetypal. It becomes the story of every Mormon missionary, even Romney. It is said that while Romney was on a foreign mission for the church as a young man that he had to defend some female missionaries. It´s not exactly being tied to a post and shot through with arrows or even being tied to a rock while everyone else is at a Lutheran church service but it will do. Missionaries, because they are outsiders, are inclined to be rejected, sworn at, even spat upon. Sometimes, they get tossed in jail. Try being a Christian missionary in Saudi Arabia today. See where that gets you.

With Romney leading the GOP pack, reading Paradise Reclaimed is a worthwhile venture. There is something about Mormonism that attracted some of our people. Laxness, I think, captures the sense, not of devoutness, but of uncertainty and circumstance. North America and, in this case, the Latter Day Saints, offered hope to a poverty stricken and oppressed people with no hope for the future.

Today, America is caught in a financial and social crises. Unemployment is high. The future looks bleak. The lives people assumed they could have are being taken away as they lose their homes, their jobs. The world around America, it´s normal allies, are themselves in crises. When the Russians threw off Communism´s yoke and got to see America as it really was, they named it The Big Store. If that´s all that has distinguished it and, if now, the shopping is coming to a halt, people have got to redefine what it means to be America. The Church of the Latter Day Saints did that at one time for some Icelanders. The question is will Romney be the Bishop Þjóðrekur of today? Not that he would lead them to religion but to a belief in the future.