Hawaii's Mormons: 'Chosen People, Promised Land'

Michael Levine/Civil Beat

Mitt Romney's campaign for the U.S. presidency has greatly increased attention on the Mormon church in America. If elected, he would be the first Mormon president.

A new book, "A Chosen People, A Promised Land" (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), helps remind us of the church's deep roots in Hawaii and its connections with the group that comprised nearly all of its first converts: Native Hawaiians.

"Chosen People, Promised Land" is not a political book per se and has nothing to do with Romney. But it does chronicle the remarkable establishment and rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS, as the Mormon church is more formally called, in a Pacific outpost far from the Mormon home in Utah.

As explained by author Hokulani K. Aikau, an associate professor of indigenous and Native Hawaiian politics at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the Laie community on Oahu's North Shore represents a second "promised land" for a "chosen people" to help spread the religion into the Pacific.

That mission is girded by two central beliefs: that the choice of Laie came through a vision along the same lines of the visions of Mormon prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and that Polynesians are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Hence the subtitle of Aikau's book: "Mormonism and Race in Hawaii."

"Chosen People, Promised Land" is not a religious tract. Rather, it's a scholarly work written by an author with a Ph.D. and published by a university press.

As such, the general reader may not easily digest multiple references to, say, Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas and the use of terms like "teleologically" and "modernity." The writings of local scholars such as Haunani-Kay Trask, Lilikala Kameeleihiwa, Noenoe Silva and Jonathan Osorio also strongly inform the thesis.

But "Chosen People, Promised Land" is also a personal journey — a huakai — for Aikau, a Hawaiian raised in Utah in an LDS family who has struggled to reconcile her academic training with a faith that she has grown ambivalent about. Today she describes herself as an "inactive member."

She is critical, for example, of the church's failure to bring women and non-haole into the hierarchy and for its shift from agricultural sustainability to a tourism-led business model. While the Polynesian Cultural Center is operated and staffed by the church, providing jobs to students at the neighboring Brigham Young University-Hawaii (formerly Church College of Hawaii), it also perpetuates the unfortunate "happy native" stereotype.

Aikau's personal experiences, her interviews with LDS members in the islands, the inclusion of oral history and journal entires and her storytelling skills provide fresh and valuable insight into a fascinating segment of Hawaii's people and history.

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