The Sunday New York Times featured an article on the significance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Operation Telstar” performance at Mount Rushmore, nearly fifty years ago. Telstar was the communications satellite through which U.S. programmers, in a “now nearly forgotten salvo of the cold war,” sent “a blast of American culture and technological prowess aimed at Europe,” on July 23, 1962. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was the “featured musical anchor” of the program, and its performance of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was then transmitted—alongside grainy images showcasing American democratic freedoms—to audiences in eighteen European countries.
Reporter Kirk Johnson reflects upon the event, upon the position of the LDS Church amidst a changing 1950s-70s American mainstream, and upon the ways in which “the brief, shimmering moment of the Tabernacle Choir in cold-warrior mode also captured something about the nation itself”:
Through the conservative years of the 1950s, the church had become closer to mainstream American life than probably any period in history, before or since. Now they were riding that wave to a new high, with the choir singing not just for the faith but for the nation itself.[…]
A satellite, wondrously symbolic for better and worse of the world and all its new fears and hopes, had reached down and plucked up those hundreds of fervent voices and carried them out to a broader world, as though through an open window. And then, like the moving on of tiny Telstar itself, the window slammed closed.
Much of American music and society in 1962 was in sync — in a way perhaps never before or since — with the buttoned-down world of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Suburbs and large, baby-boom families were in vogue, and that made the Mormons, who’d fled to Utah to escape persecution in the 1840s, look more like everybody else than they ever had. “Mormonism seemed to fit with what America perceived itself to be at that moment,” said Walter P. Reeve, an associate professor of history at the University of Utah who teaches a course on Utah in the cold war.[…]
But if the early ’60s were a high point of assimilation for the choir and the church, they also marked a turning point. Much of American culture in 1962 was about to depart from the ordered, paternalistic terrain that Mormons defended and embodied.
As the sexual revolution, the drug culture and the social upheaval of civil rights and the Vietnam War advanced, the LDS Church retreated, re-emphasizing modesty in dress and behavior, sharpening the cultural conservatism that remains a church hallmark today.[…] [Still,] through those hours of July 23, 1962, at least, and then resonating in the memories of participants long afterward, something had happened — intense and strange and drenched with meaning — that left a lasting mark.
Read the full article here.