Beck, Native Americans, and the Book of Mormon

Glenn Beck and Mormon attitudes towards Native Americans are in the spotlight these days, after Beck launched into a meandering, half-baked discourse on the Bat Creek stones on his show last week.

Since then, lots of folks who know a little about Mormonism—from liberals at Gawker to conservative evangelical Christians—have seized on the foray as another evidence of the way his Mormonism shapes Beck’s messaging, pointing to traditional Mormon beliefs that Native peoples of the Americas are related to ancient peoples of the Middle East. (My RD colleague Julie Ingersoll covers the fundamentalist anti-Mormon pushback here.)

Today, RightWingWatch is pushing the envelope a little further, suggesting that in his ongoing discussion of Native origins and archeology as related to the “Divine Destiny” of the United States, Beck is smuggling a “foundational premise upon which the Book of Mormon is based” into his programming, in the service of a Mormon agenda.

Not so fast. Is a belief in ancestral connection between indigenous Americans and ancient Middle Eastern tribes a “foundational premise” of Mormonism?

Orthodox mainstream LDS Church members believe in the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon as a record of ancient peoples who migrated from the Middle East to the Americas. Since 1981, published prefaces to the Book of Mormon have stated that descendants of those Middle Eastern peoples were the “principal” ancestors of the Native Americans. Beginning in 2002, LDS anthropologist Thomas Murphy published research citing DNA studies showing that Native Americans have almost exclusive ancestral ties to Asian populations as a challenge to Book of Mormon historicity. Murphy faced a church disciplinary court, but several other LDS scholars have taken up the genetics issue, generating a new consensus moving away from a totalizing view of ancient Israelite Book of Mormon peoples as the primary ancestors of Native Americans. In 2006, Doubleday published a Church-authorized version of the Book of Mormon that rephrased the introduction to state that Book of Mormon peoples were “among” the ancestors of Native Americans. A small shift, it might seem to outsiders, but a very significant one to LDS people and a move hailed by LDS anthropologists and scholars as a welcome corrective.

If anything, Mormon leaders have been slowly but steadily deemphasizing Native Americans over the last three decades, abandoning the grand discourse once used in the 1970s by Church leaders like Spencer Kimball to describe even contemporary Native peoples as Book of Mormon “Lamanites” with a special history and destiny. That deemphasis has led to mixed feelings and even lasting hurt among some Native peoples, as the recent death of once-prominent Navajo Mormon George P. Lee, who had served as a high-ranking Church leader but was later excommunicated, reminds us.

Ask a 21st-century Mormon what the foundational premise of the Book of Mormon is, and he or she will tell you that they believe the book is scripture because they read it and prayed about it and find reason for hope and deeper faith in its pages. As it is for most contemporary people of faith, personal spiritual experience is the foundational premise of contemporary Mormonism.

Beck’s new take on American Indians is like his old infatuation with Cleon Skousen: when Beck is desperate for material, he reaches into rich archives of Mormon thought and writing unfamiliar to most outsiders and (forgive the pun) strikes gold. In so doing, he enthralls his base of hardcore LDS conservatives and confuses or even embarrasses the rest of us.