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.

A Place of Refuge

It’s important to recall that Mormon missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1850, just 20 years after Smith founded the church and some 30 years after New England missionaries first came to proselytize.

As was the pattern on the mainland, the 10 young men sent by the LDS were met with resistance, sometimes hostile, by the Protestants and Catholics already established (the Hawaiians, Aikau writes, “had already heard the message of Jehovah”). They failed in conversion efforts on Kauai and the Big Island, had some success on Maui and ultimately made Oahu their focus. Palawai Valley on Lanai was the first LDS settlement in the islands, but it crumbled due to corruption and fraud.

Hawaii might not have become a place to do the church’s work, however, were it not for a vision that one of the missionaries, George Q. Cannon, had in Lahaina. Cannon’s vision was that Polynesians were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel and so Mormon missionaries “had an obligation to return the gospel of Christ,” as Aikau explains.

The vision, which effectively fused Hawaiians to the sacred “The Book of Mormon,” was appealing to many Hawaiians. As Aikau explains, “The conversations we had in my family home, which were reinforced once we started attending a Polynesian branch of the church, focused on how Polynesians readily accepted the gospel because it resonated with something deep inside us and touched a part of us that had been dormant for so long.”

“The Book of Mormon,” which was translated into the Hawaiian language in 1854, chronicles the rise and fall of a civilization that existed on the American continent between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D. The idea that Polynesians could also be traced to Israel resonated with Hawaiians who strongly value lineage. As Aikau puts is, “the Mormon missionaries returned our heritage to us.”

The choice of Laie, meanwhile, came through a vision to missionary Francis A. Hammond, who reported that LDS presidents Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball appeared to him after an anxious night of prayer and told him that Laie was the “chosen spot.”

“Once again, chance combines with visions to solidify and justify the missionaries’ decisions and actions in Hawaii,” Aikau explains.

In 1865 the church purchased 6,000 acres of a stunningly beautiful ahupuaa — a pie-shaped land division that runs from the mountains to the shore. Church members were given a loi (water garden) to cultivate kalo (taro), the sustenance crop of Hawaiians. In its first half-century or so, then, the church nurtured the land and waters of Laie in a fashion that honored the central Hawaiian practice of deep reverence and attachment for the aina (land — literally, “that which feeds”) and wai (water).

To many, Laie represented a sacred refuge, or puuhonua, especially in the decades that followed the Mahele, or great divide, of the 1840s and 1850s that took land from Hawaiians and allowed for its private ownership by non-Hawaiians. To others, it was a city of Zion. Laie thus both served the institutional needs of the church and “the cultural needs and desires of Hawaiian Latter-day Saints.”

Through the Laie, Hawaii essentially made the LDS church browner, long before the elders in Salt Lake City decided in 1978 to allow black members.

“For people whose popular image of Mormonism conjures images of a clean-cut, blond-haired and blue-eyed young white man wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and narrow tie, Laie with its national and racial diversity may be unrecognizable as a Mormon community,” Aikau explains. “However, in contrast to Salt Lake, the world headquarters of the LDS church, Laie more accurately represents the global face of contemporary Mormonism.”

A Tourist Attraction

Despite its refuge status, the Laie community struggled financially until it turned a profit from a sugar crop in 1868. From 1900 to 1931, sugarcane production took over the area. That strained relations between haole church leaders, who were embracing capitalism, and Native Hawaiians who had a different understanding of the use and meaning of land.

There were other tensions, too. The missionaries cracked down on the cultivation of awa (or kava) as a secondary cash crop because of its narcotic effects. Angered, one group of Hawaiian Mormons chose to buy land in Kahana so they could continue growing and using awa.

Laie was changing in other ways. By 1919, a temple was erected and dedicated — “a physical manifestation of vision and prophecy,” as Aikau explains. By this time, the church’s headquarters had moved from Laie to Honolulu and Laie was a plantation town. It was a town largely absent of haole and mostly comprised of Hawaiians and later Samoans and Tongans.

Unlike many other parts of the islands, where the shift to English was already underway, the Hawaiian language remained in use in the churches and in society in Laie. The work of the church continued as well along with the development of two new but related avenues, education and tourism. The Labor Missionary Program provided labor and construction of the Church College of Hawaii (later BYUH) in 1956 and the Polynesian Cultural Center in 1963.

The growth of the Polynesian Cultural Center receives special focus by Aikau, who is torn by its purpose and consequence.

On the one hand, the center is an enormously successful tourist attraction that brings visitors to Laie to learn about Polynesia through created Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Tahitian and Fijian villages. It is staffed by students and community members, many of whom report pride at being able to showcase their culture, learn of others and connect with cultural traditions that are in danger of being lost. And, the center brings outsiders to Laie to learn of the church.

On the other hand, the center can reinforce “an image of Polynesians as childlike and in need of saving and protecting from the corruption of modernity and capitalism,” Aikau writes. The center may preserve culture, but it also perpetuates the myth of a “happy native” living in a simple paradise — “a fossilized image of the ‘ideal primitive’ to white, presumably American, families,” as one scholar puts it.

Aikau writes, the cultural center leverages faithfulness as “a mechanism for producing compliant workers” and “sells race.”

Aikau observes the sad irony that the loi cultivated by Laie families were bulldozed in order to build the cultural center.

The Iosepa and Hokulea

It’s not clear whether there exists stronger criticism of the LDS church in Hawaii, because Aikau cites very little. What other scholars, especially Native Hawaiian scholars, think of the idea of Laie and Hawaiian Mormons as a chosen people in a promised land is largely unexplored as well.

Nor does Aikau venture opinion on the church’s influence in more contemporary Laie, where it has played a public, controversial role in issues such as housing discrimination and expanded development.

But then, that is not Aikau’s purpose. As noted earlier, hers is a personal journey. It had to have been difficult to offer the critical analysis of a church that is so central to the lives of her family, friends and mentors.

Aikau closes her book with the story of the launching of the wa‘a kaulua — double-hulled canoes — Iosepa (Hawaiian for “Joseph”) and the Hokulea. The journey or huakai started by the Mormon missionaries is tied to the journey of the Hokulea, the symbol of Hawaiian cultural rebirth and its reconnection to the world.

With the Iosepa’s 2001 launch, Aikau (whose uncle was Eddie Aikau, the Hokulea sailor who was lost at sea after the vessel capsized in 1978) makes an argument for Native Hawaiian self-determination, albiet with a religious grouding:

The events surrounding the construction and launching of the wa‘a kaulua ‘o Iosepa offer a glimpse of how Mormonism and Hawaiian struggles for self-determination might coexist. The launch ceremony of the canoe appeared to successfully join two distinct ritual practices, with each remaining separate yet knotted together to produce a deeply spiritual experience.

Aikau began her journey with the assumption that the Mormon church was a racist institution that played a role in the exploitation and dispossession of Hawaiians. She ends it with the revelation that it is a far more complex matter.

Aikau concludes that, for the church to “move forward an alternative future that does not reproduce the same kinds of racial, gender, and sexual disparities it has promoted, members and nonmembers alike need to know how these racial ideologies came to be so that they can be disarticulated and rearticulated in new, liberating ways.”

“A Chosen People, A Promised Land” could be part of that liberation.

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