Friday, 3 June 2011

Mitt Romney and the all-American religion

Cranmer wonders if a man who believes in a sacred planet called Kolob - or who is, at any rate, a devout member of a religion that has said sacred planet as part of its theology - could be elected President of the United States. He means Mitt Romney, of course. Kolob sounds like a planet in which Scientologists might believe (they after all acknowledge the ancient space-lord Xenu, who might conceivably hail from a planet named Kolob); but in fact the name was coined by Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who may have been aware at some subconscious level that, pronounced backwards, it sounds a lot like "bollock".

No matter. Kolob is not an especially important part of Mormon theology. Nor is it the only Mormon belief that strikes outsiders as being a trifle odd. There's the sacred underwear that believers are supposed to wear at all times, the practice of baptising the dead, the derivation of Mormon temple rituals from Freemasonry - and above all, perhaps, the Book of Mormon itself, a scripture that claims, inter alia, that Jesus Christ visited America after the crucifixion for the purpose of taking his message to the descendants of ancient Israelite tribes who lived there.

Greta Christina, for one, found much to be unimpressed by in her visit to Mormon HQ in Salt Lake City:


Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet; there must be something about it that people like. But its effect on me... Well, it was inspiring, all right. It inspired me right into a rollercoaster ride of hilarity and horror. It inspired me, at one point, to out-loud laughter that I was literally, physically unable to control....

It inspired me to work on my atheist activism ten times harder than I ever had. Its effect on me was not to entice me into the faith. Its effect was to make me think, even more strongly than I had before, "This religion is batshit crazy."


None of this is Mitt Romney's fault, any more than the unlikelihood of transubstantiation, the bodily assumption of Mary or (for that matter) the Virgin Birth are the fault of practising Catholics who might run for office. If some Mormon beliefs seem ridiculous (more ridiculous than those of older religions) it is because they were laid down in the 19th century rather than the 1st, in the full daylight of the modern world. It is vulnerable, as older religions are not, to historical questioning. Joseph Smith was probably no more a fraud than Mohammed was; it's just that there is more evidence to undermine him. But that is an historical fact; it has no religious significance.

And it must be said that having improbable supernatural beliefs does not seem, in most cases, to inhibit politicians from being in other respects rational decision-makers, honest legislators or good representatives.

It may in fact be of some benefit - especially in the United States, which is a more religious nation than most in Europe. Americans respect faith. Even evangelical Christians who regard Mormonism as heretical are likely to regard a faithful member of the Church of Latter Day Saints more favourably than they would regard an atheist. Atheism would be an almost insurmountable handicap for any potential candidate.

If Mitt Romney is disadvantaged by his religion in seeking the Republican nomination, then, it won't be because of the content of his religious beliefs. It will be because the religion started by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young remains, for all its wealth and numerical growth, not quite fully accepted into the pantheon of great world religions, even in its native land. Its status is still ambiguous - an offshoot of Christianity (a dialect, perhaps) and as such vulnerable to being seen as dissident or "weird".

Tim Stanley believes that Romney should put his religion at the fore of his campaign, rather than trying to downplay it, thus challenging "the fragile tolerance of the 21st century electorate". (A risky strategy, that: though arguably it worked, with regard to race, for Obama.) He "should seize this opportunity to promote a much-maligned and misunderstood faith – a faith that, coincidentally, could have electoral benefits."

Electoral benefits? Why yes. Mormons tend to be well-educated and prosperous, as well as socially conservative - which always plays well in the Midwest. The Mormon prohibition on alcohol and caffeine fits snuggly into the American Puritan tradition. As does a somewhat patriarchal family structure that has survived the abandonment of polygamy among all but fringe adherents of the religion.

Stanley points to the custom of sending Mormon missionaries abroad as providing them with a more internationalist outlook than is general in the US. Also, "the Mormons have a narrative of suffering and survival against the odds that makes their story far more universal than their peculiar theology suggests." Their history of persecution and internal exile, ultimately leading to success, is "a great narrative of trial and redemption that could play well in an America that seems apocalyptically broke".

It's more than that, in fact: it's a quintessentially American story. Just as the United States is a country of immigrants, many of whom came fleeing persecution in their own country, so the early Mormons were chased from town to ever remoter town. Their first prophet, Joseph Smith, was killed. In Salt Lake City, the Latter Day Saints under Brigham Young recreated the ideals of the Pilgrim Fathers, starting over from scratch, establishing a new and godly community far from the corruption of the world. They were among the first and most influential of the pioneer communities who opened up the West; and in doing so they needed all the great American virtues of self-reliance, ruggedness, family values, courage and fortitude. In Salt Lake City they created a blooming metropolis on the banks of a dead sea.

The history of the Mormons is the history of America in microcosm, and their religion is the theological expression of the American dream. Joseph Smith himself was a quitessentially American figure - part idealist, part entrepreneur, part hustler. So was the patriarchal, God-fearing, autocratic, unbiddable Young. Mormonism teaches that America is God's chosen land and Amercians His chosen people - something that many non-Mormon Americans implicitly believe. Today the LDS has grown wealthy, corporate, litigious - a US-based multinational, selling God rather than soft drinks, but otherwise a recognisable capitalist success story. Quintessentially American.

Could a Mormon become President? Only in America.