“God exists, and he’s American” is the judgment of Dr. Milton Glass, fictional nuclear physicist from the acclaimed Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons comic Watchmen, when he learns that Jon Osterman, has come back from the dead. Osterman disputes Glass’s judgment, but the new deity’s protest rings as hollow as his promise of fealty to his first girlfriend.
In the story, Osterman dies in a freak lab accident that is the stuff of countless superhero origin stories. It utterly obliterates his body but leaves his mind intact and powerful. Osterman then re-creates himself from scratch. He is not just reborn but transfigured and renamed, as the world’s oddest crime fighter: Dr. Manhattan. By the end of the tale, Manhattan even talks of Osterman as a different person.
Obviously, Dr. Manhattan looks different. He has the skin of a Smurf, the body of a Greek god. He crackles with energy and can manipulate other matter with the same ease that he reconstructed himself. Less obviously: His changed perceptions bracket him off from the rest of mankind. He can see things at the molecular level but is puzzled by basic human emotions and conventions. His women complain that they can’t connect with him and he often walks around in his rebirthday suit. He perceives time differently as well — the future and the past run together.
Dr. Manhattan is clearly a sort of god. After the mystery at the heart of Watchmen is resolved, he professes a newfound fondness for human life and muses, “perhaps I’ll create some” — elsewhere in the universe. But what sort of a god is he?
Enter: irony. One group that is not likely to come out in great numbers to see the new film Watchmen is members in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Mormons — because they tend to avoid movies with excessive sex and violence. (Watchmen has a pervasive pro-splatter bias, care of director Zack Snyder, and a good helping of sex.) However, this critic could not help but notice that Dr. Manhattan is very close to the Mormon concept of God.
My best guess is that the character of Dr. Manhattan would not seem so incredible to Mormons. Traditional Christianity is rooted in the belief that God became man; Mormonism is more ambitious still. It holds out the promise that men can become gods, albeit gods whose will must conform to the will of Heavenly Father and the whole heavenly council that includes Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The LDS religion allows for this elevation of man in part because its view of the great high God and the other heavenly co-rulers differs meaningfully from the concept of God that was developed through Church councils and inherited by most Protestants. Mormons are not Trinitarians, for instance.
Mormon lawyer and theologian Richard Hopkins offered a useful summary of these differences in a dispute with then-evangelical theologian and philosopher Francis Beckwith. (“Then” because Beckwith has since converted to Catholicism.) We’ll look at those differences that apply to Dr. Manhattan:
Creation: According to Hopkins, the Mormon God is a creator in the same sense that I am the creator of this article or that Van Gogh is the creator of Starry Night. God may be an organizer, a planner, an architect, a genius, but he does not create things from nothing (“ex nihilo”). Likewise, Dr. Manhattan can manipulate matter on a grand scale, but he is only reorganizing what is already there.
Omniscience: Hopkins argues that there is “a vast difference between classical theism and Mormonism on the subject of how God knows the future” because “classical theism views God…as being outside of time and space. From this vantage, he can supposedly see any point in time he chooses.” Dr. Manhattan shares this in common with the God of Mormonism: Even though he can perceive time more fully than most humans, he is part of time. Manhattan calls himself a puppet who can see the strings, but he is much more than that.
Omnipresence: The Mormon God is not subject to the same limits that humans are but he is not everywhere at once. That’s also a pretty good description of Dr. Manhattan.
Change: Hopkins calls the idea held by “classical theists” that God is unchanging “demonstrably unbiblical” and definitely un-Mormon. Mormonism posits an ever-evolving God, not at all unlike Dr. Manhattan.
Corporeality: With the exception of the Incarnation, traditional Christianity insists that God is “spirit” only. Mormonism disagrees. Hopkins insists that if man is made in the image of God, then God must have a corporeal form. So far as I can tell, there’s nothing in the book of Mormon about God having blue skin and a symbol of hydrogen burned onto his forehead, but you never know.
This isn’t a claim about influence. I highly doubt that Moore had Mormonism in mind when he breathed life into Dr. Manhattan. Still, it’s remarkable how much America’s most ambitious comic book and its most ambitious religion share in common.