Several years ago I heard an LDS general authority speak at Utah State University. In an aside, he mentioned the TV show "Kung Fu," how he and his family - popcorn in hand - huddled around the set each week to watch it.
I was a lofty lit student at the time and tended to tune out any mention of popular culture. But now I see a lot of insight in that one little comment.Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author, felt that the Mormons and America were so intertwined, he referred to the church simply as "The American Church."
Well, in many ways "Kung Fu" was the American Television Show.
You remember the premise. A young Chinese monk tramps through the American West looking for his brother. The monk is soft-spoken, kind, intelligent, non-violent. When the local louts abuse him, he puts up with it. When they abuse him really badly, he puts up with it. But when people threaten to wipe out something he cherishes and loves - another person, a system of belief, a way of life, well, then he kicks into action. Literally. With his judo and karate moves he can take out about half-a-dozen drunken cowboys with one flick of his ankle.
That basic approach to life, I feel, is at the heart of America. It's also at the heart of Mormondom.
You absorb punishment, remain stoic, try to be patient, be tolerant, return kindness for abuse. But when something you cherish with all your heart looks like it's going to be wiped out, you move. Quickly and cleanly.
It's John Wayne as peace officer, the easy-going soul who says, "I'm a peaceable man, Ned, don't make me hit ya, now; don't make me hit ya. . . . Why'd you make me hit ya, Ned?"
It's Popeye: "I've had all I can stands, I can't stands no more."
I don't know how many believers are comfortable with that notion. I'm sure it feels a little shot from the hip and over-generalized. But it does help explain a few things. The wars in the Book of Mormon - as well as the business between Nephi and Laban - come into focus. The culture's patriotic fervor seems to fit. And it seems perfect sense to begin a meeting with a gentle hymn in three-quarter time, and end with a rousing march like "Behold a Royal Army" or "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Knowing when to absorb abuse and when not to, of course, requires a fine-tuned sense of oneself and what's important. It requires balance, control and - yes - inspiration. Perhaps for such reasons, most Mormons I know tend to feel a bit uncomfortable with Christian fundamentalists - the fundamentalists seem somehow strident and militaristic. Yet complete pacifists seem passionless - seem to put their hearts and emotions under the control of some abstract intellectual and philosophical agenda.
In the LDS Church, it's every member a missionary. But it's also every member a member of the "Christian Soldier Reserve."
"I would hate to be the group that tried to start a guerrilla war with the Mormon people," Wallace Stegner once told a University of Utah interviewer. "You'd never win a war like that. They'd never give up."
The idea isn't original with Stegner.
Years ago sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein wrote a piece about the United States being broken down into small city states, then conquered.
There was one exception.
Utah could not be taken.