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


Trackback URL for this entry is:


South Park did a great job covering the origins of Mormonism a couple of seasons ago. Not quite as brilliant as their Scientology episode, but still pretty good.

Posted by Mike Pirnat on December 7, 2007 11:34 AM

The South Park episode, oddly enough, is a more accurate portrayal of Mormon origins than the version most Mormons are reared on.

Mormonism has a long record of suppressing and spinning information on its history, to the point that many rank-and-file members are shocked when they happen to encounter aspects of Mormon doctrine or history that were emphasized only a century ago, or less.

Posted by Jim V. on December 7, 2007 02:06 PM

Religion in public life means something different to Romney and friends than it does to me. To them it means maintaining their domination of our culture, politics and public discourse, free of critique.

Many secularists *do* want religion in public life, but to be open to debate, and honest discourse, much like democrats and republicans can freely criticize each other without being called, "bigots". If anything, the "new atheists" are bringing more discussion of religion into the public sphere.

Finally, we want the establishment clause upheld, not suppression of people's personal religious expression and rights, as Romney implies. We do not want govt. endorsement of atheism. I support as do many other secularists student's right to pray at school, or a private citizen's right to preach on the public square.

I agree his strategy is risky. If he doesn't want his faith questioned, it has to remain private and out of politics. You can't have it both ways.

Look into the Mormon book of Abraham, claimed to have been magically translated from scrolls Egyptian hieroglyphics, preserved to this day, with a map of Kirtland stuck to the back. The day we discovered the Rosetta Stone was not a good day for the Mormons! (like the day we discovered DNA testing.)

Posted by Hypatia on December 7, 2007 03:40 PM

During his speech Romney attacked secularism to avoid talking about the role his religion would play if elected president. Sign this petition to tell Mitt Romney to stop creating smoke screens and start addressing the issues people care about.

Posted by Ladoña on December 7, 2007 03:49 PM

The calculation from Romney is mostly a political ploy, much like Kennedy's was. His less than mainstream faith is a political liability, so it is imperative that Romney assure the Republican base that his beliefs are not in and of themselves incompatible with the more mainstream right-wing Christians that hold the balance of power in the Republican Party.

Posted by Rian on December 7, 2007 06:05 PM

Hmm the The South Park episode was not allowed to be broadcasted here in The Netherlands but. The balnce of power that is changing at the Republican side is also what we have here, so pretty interesting reading about it here.

Wondering what the situation will be when I come to the USA for my exchange program...


Posted by Geld Lenen on December 7, 2007 08:37 PM

There was a PBS special awhile back that was pretty good.

It's much more accurate than the cartoon you posted, which emphasizes elements in mormon mythology that are more than obscure and don't really work into the main stream theology as held by most memebers.

The South Park episode is pretty good at getting the early church history right, but that was years before Joseph Smith was murdered. A lot of very interesting stuff happened in the between time that shows that Smith wasn't just a con man (which is basically how he started). He came to really believe the things he made up, and was probably insane.

I think in practice mormonism is very similar to most other evangelical religions (it is usually classified as 'evangelical' by historians) but it is much more well organizes, and consequently extremely hierarchal, authoritarian, and sexist. In general very Republican, too.

Unfortunately for Romney, he is a very good mormon. This means he is very authoritarian and probably homophobic. And sexist.

Posted by Jared on December 8, 2007 11:40 AM

I am supporting Ron Paul for President, and am a Mormon. Most of my friends are not members of my church, and I often have attended meetings or vacation bible schools with them and their families. I have the utmost respect for all of these people - how they lead their lives, and their devotion to Jesus Christ. However, one experience I had a few years ago serves to illustrate why Mormons believe we are Christian, and why we have trouble understanding why some people do not believe we are Christian. While attending vacation bible school with some friends in Raleigh, North Carolina, the pastor divided the adults into two classes - the “advanced” bible class, and the “beginner” bible class. My wife and I both served Mormon missions as young adults, and though a little leery decided to attend the “advanced” Bible class. It turned out that of the 40-50 adults, 6 people, including us, went to the advanced class. The class over the course of the week turned out not to be about the bible, but about the creeds of the Christian churches.

The first creed discussed was the Apostle’s Creed, which states:


I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.



The teacher, who was not the pastor, then asked each student around the table what they thought of this creed. One expressed some reservation about Jesus “rising from the dead” and the part about “the resurrection of the body”, in that it implied that Christ arose with a body and that there will be a physical resurrection. Another did not believe the portion of the creed that indicated that Christ descended into hell. Another questioned how he could sit at the right hand of God if he was God.

My wife and I were the last ones to speak. Both of us answered that we felt the creed reflected the biblical teachings of Christ and the Apostles correctly, and we believed in the creed 100%.

My point is that many people “cling” to the different beliefs of Mormons from other Christian churches, while ignoring the fact that the core Mormons beliefs match the creeds of the early Christian church closer than the beliefs of their particular sect.

Even the controversy about Mormon belief/disbelief in the Trinity is enlightening. Mormons believe in the Trinity, although not in same way as most other Christian sects teach the Trinity. Mormons believe that the three members of the Trinity can be referred to as one God, as they are one in purpose, and never vary from one another in thought. Indeed, Mormons believe that if you have seen Christ you have seen the Father, because they look, act, think, and do exactly alike. The only difference between the beliefs, which is entire exagerrated, is that most other Christian sects believe the three members of the Trinity are three manifestations of the same being. But if the three are separate beings but think, act, and do as One, isn’t the net result the same thing?

There are many beliefs in different sects that outsiders could call “bizarre”, but at the core, Christians, including Mormons, believe the same basic things. Some examples of “bizaare things” that are either shared beliefs that Mormons have with other Christians, or are believed and taught by other sects, are:

Transubstantiation - (not a Mormon belief)
Virgin Birth - (a Mormon belief)
Worship of Saints - (not a Mormon belief)
Earth created in 6000 years - (most Mormons don’t believe, but no official Church stance)
Infallibility of the Bible - (not a Mormon belief)
Faith Healings - (a Mormon belief)
Prophecy - (a Mormon belief)
Speaking in Tongues - (a Mormon belief)
Jesus casting evil spirits into Pigs (Mark 5) - (a Mormon belief)

Posted by Ty on December 21, 2007 11:44 AM

Hi Geld Lenen, I see you are also Dutch and going into exchange program. I send you an e-mail with some questions :)

Plese reply!


Posted by Mr. ADSL on March 16, 2008 03:25 PM