Mormonism

Rant: Make Mine Mormon

If only Mitt Romney were as colorful as his faith

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The problem with Mitt Romney is that he isn't Mormon enough. His unusual, unpopular religion is the one part of his public image that doesn't feel like it came out of a focus group. Naturally, he does everything he can to minimize, marginalize, and neuter it. Most voters, he said at one point, "want a person of faith as their leader. But they don't care what brand of faith that is." He thus reduced his purportedly heartfelt beliefs to a brand name, just another toothpaste in the great big CVS in the sky. It might not be Colgate, but the important thing is that he brushes daily.

That's a far cry from the other Mormons who have run for president. I'm not referring to Mitt's dad, George, whose effort to be elected in 1968 was an unremarkable affair until he announced that Lyndon Johnson had "brainwashed" him into backing the Vietnam War. (With Romney, Eugene McCarthy cracked, "a light rinse would have been sufficient.") I'm referring to the church's founder, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and to its most famous excommunicant, Sonia Johnson. They had real personalities, with all the eccentric texture that implies. Maybe too much eccentric texture, but too much is better than Mitt's bowl of nothing.

Smith ran in 1844 on a platform that called for a larger country (he wanted to annex Texas and Oregon) and a smaller House of Representatives (he wanted to "reduce Congress at least one half"). He also believed the president should be able to suppress mobs—especially anti-Mormon mobs—without a governor's approval. "The state rights doctrines are what feeds mobs," he wrote. "They are a dead carcass—a stink, and they shall ascend up as a stink offering in the nose of the Almighty." Perhaps offended by this choice of words, a mob killed Smith in an Illinois jail five months before Election Day.

Smith didn't think much of imprisonment either. In a plank unlikely to appeal to Mitt "Double Guantanamo" Romney, Smith argued that only murderers should be incarcerated: "Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries, blessing them as they go, and saying to them in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more!" This wasn't as radical as it sounds: Prisons were a recent invention in 1844, and they were closely associated with the same Yankee reformers who hated Mormons.

And Johnson? She came to prominence in the late 1970s, when her work for the Equal Rights Amendment prompted the church patriarchs to excommunicate her. In 1984 she was the nominee of the leftist Citizens Party. Pedants might insist that Johnson's campaign came after she exited the church, thus disqualifying her from the list of Mormon presidential candidates. They should consider Johnson's subsequent career, in which she abandoned liberal reform for a mix of anarchism, radical feminism, and militant polyamory.

Johnson eventually declared that any romantic relationship between two people—even two women—is a patriarchal "slave ship." So like Joseph Smith before her she embraced a bigger love, only without the men and (in theory) without the hierarchy. She started a separatist commune out West, her own lesbian Deseret in the New Mexico mountains. You can't remove your formative influences: Reading Johnson is like reading Brigham Young filtered through Valerie Solanas.

Will Mitt's Mormon roots shine through someday? Will he suddenly spew something wonderfully strange? (I don't count his revelation that L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth is his favorite novel, though his choice does suggest he's ecumenical about those "brands of faith.") Maybe he'll start to talk about exaltation, my favorite element of Mormon theology. With enough work, the doctrine says, the faithful shall "be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them."

Huey Long gave us the greatest campaign slogan in American history: Every Man a King. Romney could one-up him by crying Every Man a God. Instead he promises "true strength for America's future," which isn't incompatible with godhood but sure sounds a lot duller.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason.

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  1. You beat me to the Battlefield: Earth mention. Before I heard that, I thought Romney was a bland stuffed suit; not good for the country as President, but not terrible, either. Just a guy.

    But anyone who thinks B:E is anything but garbage packaged in a tasty paranoid cult coating is a nutjob. I’d vote for Huckabee over Romney, after that little revelation.

    All cult antics aside, it’s not even good sci-fi.

  2. Mitt Romney, he was a candidate
    Dum dum dum dum dum

  3. If you are going to go with Mormon Sci-Fi as your favorite novel, shouldnt you pick Ender’s Game?

  4. Mormons aren’t portrayed in a very good light in Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage.”

  5. The ecumenical-libertarian. I wonder what he says about the national council of churches?

  6. Joseph Smith was a pathological liar.

  7. Wonderful article, written with style and grace. Why not do an update on those Mormon-hating prison-founding “reformers”? You could tie it into the anti-Mormon sentiment now directed at Romney.

  8. Rattlesnake Jake,

    Or in A Study in Scarlet.

  9. Surely B:E isn’t Romney’s favorite novel? I’m a Mormon, just for a little over a year now, and the church is a great church, spiritually. And, a science fiction reader, too. Hubbard was a fair to mediocre science fiction writer who discovered that creating a tax free source of income, the Church of Scientology, made more sense than getting paid pennies a word for psuedo scientific glop.

  10. You have to love a religion started by a guy so he could have sex with as many teenaged girls as he wanted.

    Joseph Smith was not a pathological liar. He was a very well-adjusted, completely sane liar, who lied so he could make money and have sex with teenaged girls.

  11. Great article, with lots of “new” (to me) historical information.

    But I beg to differ. “Every man a king” is NOT the greatest campaign slogan in American history. There are quite a few that are better. My favorites come from BOTH sides of the race in 1884:

    Grover Cleveland: Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine

    James Blaine: Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.

    Like Henry Clay’s misguided “Who is James K. Polk?” Blaine’s taunting of Cleveland cut the wrong way for him. But the right way for America.

    Cleveland’s slogan is one of the best put-downs in American history.

    And for those who like double entendres, surely Harding’s “Cocks and Cocktails” has to get some nod, no? (Though the actual pro-Prohibition intent was pretty disgusting, especially coming from hard-drinker Harding.)

  12. Certainly you can draw some paralells between Joe Smith and Ron Hubbard. Now, given that every Mormon I’ve ever met has been a model human being (bat shiat crazy religious beliefs aside), it makes me wonder what Scientologists will be like in 100 years.

    As I said, every mainstream Mormon I’ve known (and there have been many) has been in all other respects the very model of a pleasant, polite, friendly and hardworking neighbor. I can’t figure out, for the life of me, why anyone would object to Romney being a Mormon. Religion aside, I find it to be a ringing endorsement.

  13. I’m of no particular faith, but it seems many of them have been helpful to many, yet I’m sure we can find dysfunction in any of them.

    Still, I liked this article, yet there seems to be an undertoe of judgmentalism about it.

    “Exaltation,” for instance, could be read like some Eastern spiritualities allude to: That “God” is each of us. Is Walker’s point to cast aspersions, or inform?

  14. SO Reason goes from no coverage about Romney to coverage about his underwear to “This guy isn’t salty enough”

    Fuck an A.

    How about something in the way of how this guy has governed, how he says he will govern and how does that line up with Reason’s multiple flavors of libertarianism….

    This really is not to much to ask considering how much coverage Clinton, Oboma, and McCain have received.

    Walker failed. Can David or Matt please stand up and cover this guy? I would like to know more about him then his underwear and how he tastes with red wine.

  15. Al Federber | February 1, 2008, 3:43pm | #
    Joseph Smith was a pathological liar.

    So were the “apostles”. 😛

  16. How about something in the way of how this guy has governed, how he says he will govern and how does that line up with Reason’s multiple flavors of libertarianism….

    Sounds like a story worth writing. But it wasn’t what I set out to do, and it isn’t really possible to do it within the constraints of our one-page “rant” column.

    That said, you can find a brief version of what you’re looking for here.

  17. Walker prays that his Mormon roots start to shine through and waits for him to spew something wonderfully strange.

    How about, “Every family should stock a year’s supply of food, so we can do away with FEMA.” That would get my vote.

  18. My wife and I occasionally watch BYU TV, and are always struck by how robotic and repressed the presenters and participants seem — like they’re under great psychological strain.

    When I was in High School, about 1968, my humanities class visited a local Mormon Temple, and were shown around by an Elder. We were all standing around the baptismal vat when one of my classmates asked the Elder about the Church’s longstanding prejudice against Blacks. This guy told us, with a straight face, that there were documented occasions when Blacks went under the baptismal waters with dark skin and came up with white skin! He was not joking, my friends. We all just looked at each other.

  19. So what is the chlorine content of that baptismal font?

  20. I’ve only known one professional Christian preacher personally, but I knew him from third grade until after college, so I have a pretty good idea what makes him (and I think a lot of the rest of them) tick. My take is that they are green with envy about what Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard managed to pull off, and they’d gleefully go down the same road if they could only catch a break.

  21. Based on his track-record and his credentials, I’d like to like Romney. Except that I don’t, and it has nothing to do with his religion. Mostly, it’s because every time I’m ready to support him, he reveals himself to be a royal prick.

    YouTube will be his undoing…

  22. I must say from personal experience, that mormon families out west tended to be the most respectful, organized, charitable and just all around pleasant folks I’ve been around. Their children were generally well behaved, intelligent, well educated and as they grew up, successful in life. As religions go, I like their interaction with outsiders best.

  23. Dear Al:

    Maybe they put bleach in the baptismal waters. That would explain the black guys coming up white.

  24. I love Jeopardy!. The religion of Ken Jennings can’t be all bad.

  25. When I was in High School, about 1968, my humanities class visited a local Mormon Temple, and were shown around by an Elder.

    Al, did you mean a meetinghouse rather than a Temple? Only LDS members with Temple Recommends are allowed inside Temples, except for a brief open house when a Temple is first dedicated or refurbished.

  26. As a life-long, believing LDS, I found this article a hoot!
    .
    One quibble: the Church took no action against Sonia Johnson until she started telling people not to talk to the missionaries and to refuse baptism until the Church adopted her views of feminism. Maybe you can understand how the Church of Jesus Christ would have a problem with a member telling people to forego what the Church teaches is a saving ordinance.

  27. I must say from personal experience, that mormon families out west tended to be the most respectful, organized, charitable and just all around pleasant folks I’ve been around. Their children were generally well behaved, intelligent, well educated and as they grew up, successful in life.

    I would tend to agree. They tend to be a little insular and standoffish, maybe, but it beats the smarmy nosiness so many Baptists fall prey to.

  28. If Mormonism isn’t evil, why was Joseph Smith played by Vincent Price?

  29. I have Mormon neighbors (in Virginia) and as has been said by many other posters here, you couldn’t ask for a much better set. They tend to be helpful, polite, and quiet (except the kids, but kids pretty much always are into screaming as their number one pastime). Also, since they have the added distinction of being part of a religious minority that’s viewed with disdain by the larger Christian population, they don’t tend to hassle anyone much about religion.

  30. I’m uneasy around all religious people. If they’ll believe that crap, what else might they be persuaded to believe? Can they really be trusted?

    I suppose Mormonism and Scientology stand out because they are the most modern (and obvious) scams going.

  31. “Also, since they have the added distinction of being part of a religious minority that’s viewed with disdain by the larger Christian population, they don’t tend to hassle anyone much about religion”.

    Although I’m not really a true believer, I still get pissed when some teetotaling, obnoxious Baptist or fundie rips on Catholics for having “bizarre doctrines”. I know that transubstantiation, venerating saints, and purgatory are somewhat “out there” but is it more bizarre than believing that if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior you can be as big a douche as you want and still go straight to the big (in Baptist theology, non-drinking) party in the sky? This is probably why I don’t identify myself as a religious person.

  32. It takes a startling ability to not think things through to believe that Jospeph Smith was a charlatan who made up a bunch of lies in the Book of Mormon and sold it to the credulous, and yet still believe that the Old and New Testaments are absolutely the inerrant word of God and that none of the many, many people who wrote this stuff down were making any of it up.

  33. prolefeed
    They are pretty similar cases, true. People get way too much mileage out of the “recent = wrong, ancient = right” business. If it’s unbelievable, it’s unbelievable, regardless of when it was written.

  34. Helen Mar Kimball
    I see absolutely nothing wrong with telling women that I talked to God if it makes them want to have sex with me. Of course, I would also tell them God wants her to use contraceptives. I don’t want to be responsible for any kids with her DNA.

  35. Jason Raimondo: I was beginning to think I wouldn’t see you post around here since you mistakenly thought Matt Welch wrote for Suck.com. How embarrassing. Welcome back!

  36. It takes a startling ability to not think things through to believe that Jospeph Smith was a charlatan who made up a bunch of lies in the Book of Mormon and sold it to the credulous, and yet still believe that the Old and New Testaments are absolutely the inerrant word of God and that none of the many, many people who wrote this stuff down were making any of it up.

    Agreed. It’s all nonsense. But what can you do?

  37. Dagnabit. I was certain I put the [i] tags in that post.
    Preview, dummy. Preview.

  38. regardless of the “interesting” aspects of mormon doctrine, i have to agree with the posters here in that the mormons i have met (in the dozens) have been on the whole some pretty cool people. they do tend to be a bit “squarer” than the average joe. that’s not necessarily a bad thing. also, there’s a running joke in law enforcement circles that the FBI tends to hire a lot of “mormon accountants from Utah” because they so easily fit into their ultra square organizational zeitgeist. contrast with DEA/ATF.

    i think the point of the article is pretty silly in that romney is so much like so many other mormons i know. iow, they don’t act wacky.

    they also seem to do really well in all sorts of competitions – dance contests, singing contests, etc. for some reason.

    in a “good neighbor” analysis, it’s pretty clear that they are among the most law abiding group in the US (right up there with japanese americans) in terms of very low involvement in what the more PC refer to as “social pathologies”. their crime rate, crime victimization rate, and all that stuff is very low.

  39. Interesting article, but every Mormon I’ve met was decidedly less strange than the religion itself. Every one of them was kind of ubernormal. (Then again, I guess if you break down each religion and all the crazy stuff in them, you could make similar claims about all or most of them – that the adherents are usually less strange than the religions themselves. Maybe zen is the exception as I’ve met some really truly whacky zen Buddhists but zen strikes me as fairly reasonable – just pay attention, don’t make judgements, be here now blah blah blah).

    “Militant polyamory.” Now that’s my kind of militantism.

  40. I watched a Romney vid that almost convinced me to vote for him. He defended that same criticism that Walker levels at him for not being ‘mormon enough.’ Interestingly, I found his response (in this particular moment) to be incredibly even handed and libertarian. But then again, the LDS faith does contain a few libertarian tenets.

    One of mormonism’s primary articles of belief is the concept that free will is absolutely vital, and a necessary right for all people in all situations. So while mormons personally believe in very strict rules of personal conduct, Romney stated that he believed it would be wrong to impose those rules by law.

    But then he made a fool of himself in other situations, as with the two youtube clips posted by Pig Mannix.

    Most well-informed mormons would admit up-front that their religion is either completely true or completely fraudulent. As a mormon who tries to stay well-informed, I’m well aware of this situation. Our beliefs are extremely weird and peculiar, and if it wasn’t for some very personal experiences, I wouldn’t believe a word of it. And so naturally, I believe that there should always be a total separation of church and state. I think Romney agrees with that position in some ways, too bad he’s a idiot in so many others.

  41. Most well-informed mormons would admit up-front that their religion is either completely true or completely fraudulent. As a mormon who tries to stay well-informed, I’m well aware of this situation. Our beliefs are extremely weird and peculiar, and if it wasn’t for some very personal experiences, I wouldn’t believe a word of it.

    As a very recently minted ex-Mormon, I found that, as much as I liked the people in my ward, I couldn’t keep attending, and in particular teaching classes about stuff I thought was interesting but false.

    I think the kindest possible interpretation of the First Vision and the subsequent events of Joseph Smith’s life, short of thinking it actually happened, is that Joseph Smith ate some magic mushrooms in those woods and hallucinated and believed he really was ordained to start this new religion.

    Anyone know whether magic mushrooms grow in New York state?

  42. By requiring licenses for brokers and cutting down on the number of mortgages

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