Mormon America

February 16th, 2009 at 10:17 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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If the polls are to be believed, Mormons rank among America’s most disliked religious denominations. Despite this animus, Mormons have achieved considerable success. Fourteen Mormons serve in the current Congress, including the Senate Majority leader.

On the national level, however, things may be different.  One-quarter of voters say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president. Among religious groups, only Muslims and atheists do worse.

This dislike presents a special problem for Republicans. Two of our most plausible candidates for president in 2012 are leading Mormons: Mitt Romney and Utah governor Jon Huntsman. Both of them bring special and important advantages to the race: Romney his success in expanding health insurance coverage in Massachusetts; Huntsman his innovative stands on the environment and social issues. Both men are highly intelligent, with strong business backgrounds, and easy verbal fluency.

If candidates like these cannot be elected to national office because of their religious affiliation, then our Republican talent pool looks dangerously shallow. It’s important to know: how thick are the barriers against a Mormon president – and what might help to surmount them?

White evangelical Protestants are the religious group least likely to express positive views of Mormons. Mitt Romney’s loss in the Iowa caucuses to Mike Huckabee offers some grounds for supposing that this evangelical distrust will have electoral effect in 2012. Yet it seems apparent that anti-Mormon feeling also runs strong on the left-hand side of the spectrum.

Here, for example, is my friend Jacob Weisberg writing about the Romney candidacy in Slate.com:

I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphicsÑa nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography, No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrationalÑwhat’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years.

I could be wrong about this, but I find it hard to imagine a columnist at Slate writing a similar passage about a candidate who professed belief in the divine authorship of the Quran. Yet the historical and textual problems of the Quran are in their way very nearly as daunting as those presented by the Book of Mormon. And to give the Mormons their due: they do not threaten violence against those who publish negative verdicts on their holy book.

At the same time, I am also left wondering: If belief in the Book of Mormon makes one too gullible to be president, does it also disqualify one as Senate majority leader?

It’s a rule of American comity that we all refrain from expressing doubts about the purely doctrinal aspects of each other’s religions. It’s hard to see why Mormons should be exempt from this ancient rule of interdenominational respect. Maybe Mitt Romney’s adherence to the teachings of Joseph Smith proves him a sucker. But there’s no sign of the sucker about him when he reads a balance sheet! Why should we assume he’d be any more gullible when it came time to negotiate a treaty or face down a foreign threat or review an EPA regulation?

Anyway, it is never safe to draw conclusions about people’s inner convictions from their religious membership. The husband and wife team of Richard and Joan Ostling have just revised and reissued their study of the Mormon church, Mormon America. Their work stands as about the most authoritative account we have of the Mormon church as an institution – and of the often troubled interactions between Mormon and non-Mormon America. Non-Mormon themselves, the Ostlings have worked hard to understand how Mormons think and feel.

One conclusion that truly jumps out from the book’s pages is that many if not most Mormons respond much more to the spirit of belonging offered by the church than they do to its theology. Here for example is an interview the broadcaster Glenn Beck has given about his Mormon conversion.

Note that he has nothing at all to say about the teachings of the church. Instead he talks about the warmth of community, the power of belonging. He says: “I don’t care if there’s Kool-Aid down in the basement. I’m drinking it. I want to be like that.”

Mormonism’s teachings may have a lot to say about life on other planets, but Mormonism as a way of life is intensely focused on the here and now. Mormons do not have a professional clergy. Their educational institutions emphasize practical learning over theology, ancient languages, archaeology and history. Mormons have achieved spectacular success in fields like business, politics and national security. They are less over-represented in the sciences, and still less in the arts. The Ostlings depict a church that discourages open inquiry and polices independent thought, that seeks to edit its own history and suppress unwelcome facts. Yet this same story can be told of many forms of organized religion, including that preached in the church in which the current president held membership for 20 years.  

The relationship between Mormons and other Americans has been shaped by conflict almost from the beginning. The first of the great Mormon westward settlements – in Missouri – was destroyed by frontier violence that ended in the expulsion of Mormons from the state. The Mormon prophet John Smith was murdered in Illinois in 1844. The US Army sent troops to Utah in 1857 to compel submission to federal authority.

Mormons were not unique targets of religiously grounded violence. Anti-Catholic riots claimed many more lives than were ever lost to Mormon-non-Mormon strife. But anti-Catholic violence in 19th century was always mob violence, never organized or countenanced by state authority. Again and again, Mormons found themselves on the sharp end of the bayonet of uniformed soldiers, state and federal.

While religious differences shaped these confrontations, they were usually provoked by politics. While many 19th century sects sought to establish autonomous godly communities, only the Mormons succeeded on any significant scale. Their success roused the suspicion and fear of their neighbors, especially when those neighbors had originated in southern states. Mormons were ultimate Yankees. The community took form along the line of New England’s westward expansion, first in western New York, then in northern Ohio. (Joseph Smith himself was born in Vermont in 1805.) Mormon missionaries won their first large conversions in Britain and Canada, reinforcing the “northern” flavor of the new denomination.

While pioneers who migrated into Missouri from the Southern states arrived as family groups, Mormons arrived as a pre-formed community. Instead of carving out individual homesteads, they laid out New England style townships. In those early days, Mormons were guided by strongly collectivist and separatist economic ideas, which their scattered neighbors perceived as a form of boycott of non-Mormons. And since Mormons were united while their neighbors were less well-known to each other, this boycott was experienced both as a hardship and a threat.

Mormon separatism was not a politically quietist separatism. Unlike the other charismatic movements that originated in the religious enthusiasm of antebellum New York – Shakers, the Oneida community, etc. – Mormons wanted more than isolation: They sought political sovereignty over the entire community in which they were located. This desire provoked hostility wherever Mormons settled, but Missourians reacted with special hostility because so many Mormons had family origins in New England and because Mormons did not own slaves.

Mormons did not meekly turn the other check when threatened. They organized their own militia groups, bought weapons, and used them too. The rhetoric of the early Mormon preachers could be blood-curdling. They threatened extermination of their antagonistic neighbors; Smith admiringly quoted the ancient Muslim slogan: “The al-Coran [sic] or the sword!”

The Mormons lost the struggle for Missouri. The governor and the state militia intervened on the anti-Mormon side, and the Mormons fled for refuge first to Illinois and then onward to Utah. The migration profoundly reinforced the collectivist and separatist patterns of Mormon culture. After Smith’s murder, his adherents splintered. The leadership of the largest grouping soon devolved on his deputy Brigham Young. Young was a supremely capable organizer, a commander who brooked no dissent. Young’s planning saved the Mormons from much of the suffering leading to tragedy that afflicted pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

Even in the account of fiercely critical biographers like Fawn Brodie, Joseph Smith had been a good-natured and easy-going man. Young was a grimmer and harder character. Smith had taken many sexual partners as a prerogative of his charismatic religious leadership, much like Joseph Noyes in Oneida and many other less famous preacher-prophets. Young was no sensualist, but he believed the theological justifications Smith had offered for plural marriage, and he institutionalized polygamy as a requirement of church leadership.

This one decision guaranteed further conflict with the United States as the Union expanded westward. The notorious Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, in which Mormon vigilantes ambushed and murdered a party of Arkansas settlers en route to California was a product of this conflict – and set in motion a more vigorous assertion of federal authority over Utah after the Civil War. Congress passed a series of laws banning polygamy in the Utah territory, culminating in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 which threatened the Mormon Church with disincorporation and confiscation of church assets if it persisted in upholding polygamy. Soon afterward, the church disavowed the doctrine. Utah wrote a ban on polygamy into its state constitution and joined the Union at last in 1890.

Yet for years afterward, dissident Mormons continued the practice and were hunted for it by federal agents. Mitt Romney’s father George – the future governor of Michigan – was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, where the Romneys had fled to escape federal enforcement of the anti-polygamy laws. The emergence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as the pre-eminent supporter of constitutional amendments defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman is surely one of the more surprising ironies of American history.

The study of Mormonism has to be discomfiting to any believer. What would we see if the foundations of Islam, orthodox Christianity and Judaism were as well attested as the foundation of Mormonism? Mustn’t all communications between the human and divine be adulterated by human imperfection? From the point of view of God, must not all our human attempts to comprehend him look puny, infantile, and hopelessly distorted by our inescapable limitations, flaws, and vanities? And even if we conscientiously believe that some forms of religion are more an imposture than others – how confident can any of us really be that our own faith falls entirely on the fair side of the line?

Most rankings rate Washington, Lincoln, and FDR as the three greatest American presidents. Only one of these men, FDR, was a Christian in any but the most nominal sense of the term.  If today’s Republican primary process would exclude them from the nomination – maybe that suggests something wrong in the process?

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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