Should Mormonism matter?
Ordinarily, I would say that if a candidate’s religion does not conflict with his oath of office, his faith should be of no concern to anybody but himself. But with Mormons, I’m not so sure.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Mormons as individuals. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a more wholesome slice of the American populace. They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they have a strong work ethic, they believe in close-knit families and they are patriotic, law-abiding and deeply religious. And if they have a fetish for funny underwear, that’s their business.
My problem is with the Mormon church as an institution. The Mormon church is founded on the Book of Mormon, which the prophet Joseph Smith allegedly found near his home in Palmyra, New York in 1827. The book was written on a set of gold plates in an unknown language that Smith called “reformed Egyptian.” With the aid of divine goggles, Smith was able to translate the plates, although for some reason he translated them not into contemporary American English, but into the language of the King James Bible.
According to the Book of Mormon, the so-called lost tribes of Israel emigrated to America in Old Testament times and founded a great civilization here – although no one knows exactly where. Jesus Christ later made a post-resurrection appearance in America to convert these displaced Israelites. Notwithstanding that visit from the Prince of Peace, the tribes warred with each other until only a remnant was left. Today’s Native Americans are purportedly descended from that remnant.
It’s a thumping good yarn, but it isn’t true. There is no reputable DNA evidence to support it, nor linguistic evidence nor archeological evidence – not so much as a pottery shard or a battered sword hilt. On the other hand, there is an impressive case for the proposition that Joseph Smith was a con man who plagiarized the Book of Mormon from an unpublished historical romance called Manuscript Found. For the details, see Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? by Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A. Davis and Arthur Vanick (Concordia Publishing House 2005).
But does it matter if the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a myth? Why begrudge these nice, wholesome people their harmless fairy tale? Because the Mormon church as an institution is anything but harmless. It’s the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, and one of the wealthiest. It is one of the largest landowners in the nation; it markets its own line of food and consumer products and it owns a $16 billion insurance company and a chain of radio stations. It also holds significant corporate investments. Because the church is governed by a self-perpetuating oligarchy, it does not have to make full disclosure of its assets, but its wealth has been estimated at between $25 billion and $30 billion. The Mormon church is, in short, rich, powerful and secretive to a fault.
The church has not scrupled to turn its economic leverage into political leverage. Mormon support provided the crucial margin of victory in California’s hotly-contested Proposition 8, a 2008 state referendum to ban gay marriage. Church leaders called on members to devote their “means and time” to pass Prop 8, and Mormons responded by pouring millions into the campaign. The Mormon church was later fined for failing to report all the nonmonetary contributions it made in support of Prop 8.
Currently, the church is spending $4.6 million dollars on a campaign to persuade Americans that there is nothing odd about Mormonism. The ads are not political in themselves, but the timing of the campaign suggests that they are intended to make Americans more comfortable with the idea of voting for a Mormon president.
Mormonism has some dark chapters in its history. These include racism (blacks were denied the Mormon priesthood until 1978), polygamy, the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 and efforts to “cure” homosexuals through electroshock treatments and other now-discredited aversion therapy techniques.
Nor is the dark side of Mormonism entirely past. For example, there are theologians who would argue that some Mormon beliefs are so far outside the Christian mainstream that the Mormon church is not a Christian denomination at all. That doesn’t bother the Mormons, because they insist that theirs is the only “true” church. And yet in their proselytizing, they consistently stress those aspects of their religion that accord with mainstream Christianity, while concealing or minimizing those aspects that might shock or offend orthodox believers.
The secrecy and evasiveness that persist in the Mormon church even today do not inspire confidence. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not believe for one moment that if a Mormon like Mitt Romney were elected president he would be a puppet controlled by the Mormon hierarchy. But even if he kept his faith completely private, the election of a Mormon president would, ipso facto, swathe Mormonism in a respectability that it has long coveted. Such respectability would aid the church in making converts, particularly among the less-educated people of the developing world, where Mormonism is winning most of its new adherents these days. Thus, to vote for a Mormon for president would be, however unwittingly or indirectly, to assist in the propagation of a religion which, whatever good works it may be doing along the way, is still disturbingly like a cult.
Should Mormonism matter? It shouldn’t, but that doesn’t keep me from wishing that I could vote for a Mormon for president without feeling that I was at the same time giving a subtle boost to the Mormon church.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.