December 07, 2007
Mitt Romney and Mormonism
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney yesterday gave what was billed as a major speech on faith. While it seemed to be an attempt to allay unease about his Mormon religion in the face of the surging Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, the strategy he adopted was to not go into specifics about what Mormonism is. Romney's message was basically: Don't worry about what "my religion" actually says (he used the word "Mormon" only once); just accept that I have faith just like you and let's unite against those who feel that faith should not play a role in the public sphere.
He "decries the diminishment of religion in the public square" and says "in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life."
He then trots out the old ridiculous religious standby, that secularism is also a religion, saying, "It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism. They are wrong." People like Romney are so unnerved by the fact that secular people are quite happy with not having to believe in religious superstitions and myths, that they try desperately to say that we are somehow religious too. Irrationality loves company, it seems.
Romney's speech was quite different from John F. Kennedy's speech in 1960 when he had to address concerns about his Catholicism. Kennedy was quite emphatic that religion should be a strictly private matter:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. . . I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."
As I warned earlier, Romney is pursuing a risky strategy. By saying that faith must play an important role in the public sphere, he is opening himself up to questions about what exactly he means by faith, what faiths he feels belong in the public sphere, and whether his own faith meets that standard.
It would have been better to follow Kennedy's example and to flatly assert right at the beginning that it was only a person's public policy principles and positions that mattered, and their personal beliefs should not be a basis for elected office, as the US constitution explicitly says.
But of course he could not say such a thing because, apart from his need to pander to the religious right that forms a core constituency of his party, we live in a crazy time when it is seen as politically damaging if a candidate should say that he or she is a person of rationality and reason and science (all esteemed Enlightenment values) while saying that you have an unwavering belief in mystical unseen entities and powers, which should label you as a holdover from the Dark Ages, is seen as a positive quality in a leader.
But since Romney has said that faith is important not only to him but should play an important part in public life, let's take a look at his faith.
I have not read much about Mormonism but Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 161-168) paints a rather unflattering portrait of its founder Joseph Smith as a charismatic con man. Hitchens bases his information on the book No Man Knows My History (1945) by Fawn Brodie.
Smith was born in 1805 and at the age of 21 was convicted of being "a disorderly person and an imposter" after admitting in his trial to defrauding citizens and claiming to possess dark or necromantic powers. But he reappears four years later saying that he had been visited three times by an angle named Moroni who told him where to find the "Book of Mormon" (written on gold plates) which contained the story of creation and said, among other things, that the people of North America were founded by an Israelite named Nephi, son of Lephi, who had come there after fleeing Jerusalem in 600 BC. Moroni also told Smith of the existence of two magic stones that would enable him to translate the golden book.
Smith never showed his book or magic stones to anybody. He said (conveniently) that for anyone else but him to see them would mean instant death. But like Muhammad (whom he modeled himself after) Smith was illiterate and so had to have scribes to write down his translations of the golden book into the vernacular. Smith initially got his wealthy neighbor and disciple Martin Harris to do this task. Harris sat on one side of a blanket dividing the kitchen while Smith sat on the other speaking the translated words. Harris was warned that if he tried to take a peek at the prophet or the golden book, he would be struck dead. In other words, the Mormon god is the standard-issue "compassionate and loving" god who has no scruples about killing people for transgressing arbitrary rules.
Hitchens recounts an amusing story in which Harris's wife got fed up with her husband's involvement with what she thought was a racket and stole the first 116 'translated' pages and challenged Smith to reproduce them using again the book and stones. Of course he couldn't. After a few weeks of unease, he came up with a story that the Lord had told him that translating the same book again was not to be done and had provided him with new, smaller plates created by Nephi which told a similar story.
Hitchens says that Smith, like Muhammad, would regularly claim to have 'divine revelations' at short notice that conveniently enough seemed to meet whatever immediate need he had at that moment, especially when he wanted to take another girl as a new wife. Smith died a violent death in 1844 at the hands of a mob and is now seen by his followers as a martyr.
I came across this fascinating animation (thanks to onegoodmove) that gives the history of the origins of the Mormon religion and their mythology. The cartoon seems like it is part of a documentary of some sort but I have not had time to track down the source. The header says that the cartoon was banned by the Mormon church. I have no idea if this is true or why or if the details that it presents are accurate, but the basic features are consistent with what I have read about Mormonism. (If anyone knows more about the cartoon's origins or its accuracy, please let me know.)
There is nothing in Mormon doctrine or its creation stories that is any more bizarre than what people in other god-based religions believe. The story of Mormon origins seems so weird because it is unfamiliar. Just as Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus who are indoctrinated into their faith as children grow up thinking, despite all the evidence, that their religious myths make sense, so I am sure do Mormons. Since Mormonism originated just two hundred years ago, however, we know more about the actual events and people involved, since there exist contemporary newspaper records that enable us to contrast the differences between what the faithful believe and the actual events. Scientology, which was founded in 1953, presents a similar case.
The facts associated with the origins of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their founders are likely to be very similar to that of Mormonism and Scientology, but fortunately for those older religions, are buried deep in the sands of time, allowing the myths to seem more reasonable than they deserve to be. If anyone today came along with stories about seeing burning bushes that remain intact or having been born of a virgin or having angels dropping in for regular chats, we would consider them to be either con men or psychotic.
One positive consequence of having a Mormon candidate for president would be if it opens up a serious discussion of why some religious people think that the Mormon origin myths are bizarre and not true, while perfectly confident that their own myths are not only rational but also true. This requires some fairly tricky and self-serving intellectual contortions, like the ones Jacob Weisberg attempted. For the same reason, I think it would be a great idea to have a Scientology candidate in the race too.
Has anyone suggested to Tom Cruise that he should run for president?
POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher discusses Mormonism, religion, and politics