The Ancient State: The Rulers and the Ruled

Books need not be written for professionals in order to be valuable. For example, when written by a gifted writer, a travel diary can be a source of pleasure and instruction, for a visitor may see things that go unnoticed by those who inhabit a land. Thus I confess a fondness for the genre for which Alexis de Tocqueville set the standard. In the 1850s, the Latter-day Saints first became a focus for travel writers, and two of these writers, Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley, borrowed somewhat from Tocqueville. The most recent entry into this field is an English journalist, Malise Ruthven, author of The Divine Supermarket. Like Richard F. Burton a hundred and thirty years earlier, Ruthven has written at different times about both Islam and Mormonism.

Having been raised in England in “mainstream, liberal Protestantism” (7), which he now disdains, and having come from a privileged background (6), Ruthven deals with religion in America in a charming, fashionably condescending manner. He writes as one mildly amused by the strange behavior he finds rampant among Americans. “I have,” he explains, “deliberately selected subjects like Mormonism and fundamentalism, that seemed exotic and alien to my own way of thinking, to seek out differences rather than explore common ground” between American and European (or British) religiosity. Thus in The Divine Supermarket, he exploits the seemingly bizarre manifestations of religion in the United States, which he insists are unlike religion in Britain (3).

Purchase this Issue