Ainsley Earhardt, co-host of Fox & Friendson the Fox News Network, suggested back in July 2011 that Rick Perry, being a member of the Christian Coalition, was likely to be a successful fundraiser. On the other hand, Mitt Romney, “obviously not being a Christian,” was probably going to have to struggle a bit more for money.
Rev. Robert Jeffress, who introduced Governor Perry at the Values Voters Summit in October 2011, asked his audience “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” (An amusing dilemma, if you think about it, and probably not quite what he meant to say.) Taking the stage afterwards, Perry said that Jeffress had “hit it out of the park.” Asked later for clarification, Rev. Jeffress explained that Mormonism is a non-Christian cult.
Such statements continue. And I have no doubt that they’re being made very often below the radar screen of media scrutiny.
On 27 February, the day before the state’s 2012 Republican primary, Michigan pastor Kent Clark, who introduced Rick Santorum at a campaign event in Lansing, declared Mitt Romney a non-Christian and described Santorum as the only Republican candidate who can awaken “the sleeping giant” of Christianity.
Back in January, Georgia state representative Judy Manning said of Governor Romney that she was “afraid of his Mormon faith,” even though, she allowed, “it’s better than a Muslim.”
On 26 February—coincidentally, I’m sure, just a bit more than a week before Georgia’s Republican primary election—Rev. Dr. Nelson Price, pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church, offered “A Close Look at What Mormons Believe” in the Marietta Daily Journal. “Space limits the ability to reveal the numerous ways the teachings of the Church differ from the Bible,” wrote Rev. Price, who was merely seeking to be helpful. “Therefore, only a few will be considered.”
Accordingly, passing in complete silence over such peripheral matters as Mormon faith in the deity and redeeming atonement of Christ, the inspiration and historical reliability of the Bible, and the necessity for salvation of accepting Jesus as Lord and Redeemer, Rev. Price concentrated only on basicMormon beliefs (e.g., pre-mortal existence, Mother in Heaven, the brotherhood of Jesus and Lucifer, Elohim’s supposed literal fathering of Jesus by Mary, human deification, Jesus’ supposed polygamous marriages to Mary and Martha and others, and other, similar, essentials). “This column is not intended to suggest how a person should vote,” concluded the pastor, demurely, “but that persons may know something of the faith held by a candidate for president. . . . Make your determination regarding Mormonism on these their own teachings compared with the Bible. I report, you decide.”
I have no intention, at the moment at least, of re-fighting the endless battle of whether or not Mormons are Christians. I’ve already made my case for that proposition in my book Offenders for a Word. No matter how you come down on that question, it’s widely expected that Governor Romney will lose most of the looming Republican contests in the South—in large part because of his religious affiliation.
The enfranchisement of conservative Protestants doesn’t dishearten me. Not at all. My own disenfranchisement, however, does.
In 1894 and 1985, a young Austro-Hungarian journalist named Theodor Herzl was covering the French trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a now-infamous anti-Semitic incident in which Dreyfus was framed for and falsely convicted of spying for Germany. Herzl was Jewish, but, to that point, he had paid his Jewishness little attention. Instead, he had devoted himself to the quest for German unity. Now, though, following the trial, disturbing enough in itself, he witnessed mass rallies where demonstrators chanted “Death To The Jews!” In June 1895, he confided to his diary that he had finally “recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.”
When Mitt Romney’s father, George, ran against Richard Nixon for the 1968 Republican nomination, the elder Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (to give the church its official title) played little role in the discussion. But national politics have changed. Evangelicals had not yet found their public voice in the 1960s nor begun their ascendancy in the Republican Party. The Moral Majority was still ten years away. Already by 1983, though, the prominent historian Martin Marty, alluding to the most visible of the Evangelical denominations, was drawing attention to what he called “the Baptistification of America.”
The rise of the Religious Right has plainly made the Romney family’s faith (and mine) a political burden, even though, in most regards, Mormons and Evangelicals tend to share very similar personal and social values. One reason for this, however, has been little noticed by political commentators, for the good and sufficient reason that they probably aren’t aware of it: Operating on the fringes of the conservative Protestant community—and flourishing with it—is a vocal “countercult” movement that focuses much of its effort on Mormonism, which it routinely labels sinister, pagan, anti-Christian, and deliberately deceptive. Well funded anti-Mormons have poured forth websites, books, radio programs, pamphlets, seminars, tabloids, videos, lecture series, newsletters, message boards, visitor centers, cable television shows, and “ministries” critical of what one writer has called Mormonism’s “fountain of slime,” and sometimes going so far as to accuse Mormons of sorcery, Satanism, treason, and murder. (Some of these countercultists are also, either openly or rather discreetly, anti-Catholic, and many of their charges against Mormons have a lengthy pedigree in Protestant polemics against Rome.) A particularly notorious anti-Mormon who operates out of the Pacific Northwest claims that the Mormon Church’s enthusiastic sponsorship of Boy Scout troops is designed to train paramilitary forces to support a planned Mormon coup. After the revolution, it seems, the president of the church will issue his theocratic edicts to conquered America from a full-scale replica of the Oval Office located in the Mormon temple that stands just outside the Capital Beltway in suburban Maryland. (No such room exists, of course. But then, you’d expect me to deny it, wouldn’t you?)
Richard Mouw, a leading Calvinist theologian and the president of the Evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in California, surely had such extravagant allegations in mind when, using potent biblical terms like “sin” and “false witness,” he apologized to a 2004 audience gathered at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. “We Evangelicals,” he said, “have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community.” (Not surprisingly, Professor Mouw has been roundly criticized for his remarks by those to whose excesses he referred.)
In addition to the Protestant countercult, however, Governor Romney also faces secularopposition because of his faith. The high negatives reported in numerous surveys when respondents are asked about Mormons and Mormonism reflect not merely (and perhaps not even largely) Evangelical theological concerns, but also the worries of those leaning to the secular left about a confident, wealthy, corporate, patriarchal, and zealously missionizing church that they regard as socially and politically retrograde. (Utah is arguably the reddest state in the union—along with Idaho, which also has a large Mormon population. This is not purely coincidental.) Secular liberals are even more unlikely to support Mitt Romney than are Evangelical conservatives, most of whom will probably hold their noses and vote against Barack Obama in the general election even if Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee.
But there are also unmistakable signs on the left of, as it were, an explicitly doctrinal critique. Writing in Slate in December 2006, Jacob Weisberg argued that Romney should indeed be rejected precisely on religious grounds: Anybody who believes “the founding whoppers of Mormonism” is, he suggested, manifestly unqualified to lead the nation. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Weisberg wrote, “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.”
Protestant countercultists will surely take pleasure in sentiments such as Weisberg’s. For their own reasons, they share his perception of Mormons as bizarre, and of Mormon faith as ridiculous, irrational, and even threatening. Even many in the mainstream denominations will, no doubt, share his verdict on the claims of Mormonism. (Responding to Weisberg, Richard John Neuhaus, while graciously acknowledging that having been born a Mormon “is not evidence of a character flaw,” suggested that “remain[ing] a Mormon may be evidence of theological naiveté or indifference.”) But do most Americans really want to make the election a referendum on theology? This sword is dangerous; it cuts both ways. Mainstream religious believers inclined to applaud Weisberg’s dismissive take on Mormonism would probably do well to remember Winston Churchill’s definition of an “appeaser” as someone “who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.”
From a devout secularist’s perspective, notions like the Resurrection and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea are no less absurd than Joseph Smith’s golden plates. Weisberg, for example, views reliance upon religious faith in general, not merely Mormonism, “as an alternative to rational understanding of complex issues.” (He offers George Bush’s Methodism as another example of frightening religious fanaticism.) Weisberg regards all religious doctrines as “dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.” More commonly held creeds have simply been granted an unmerited patina of respectability by the sheer passage of time. “Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference.”
Weisberg unashamedly suggests that, regardless of their individual qualities of character, experience, and intellect, their religious affiliation makes Mormons too weird, too gullible, too irrational to be considered for the presidency, too odd to be mainstream Americans. Can anybody doubt that, were he pressed, he would say the same thing about seriously believing Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. (It was partly to counter such allegations as Weisberg’s that I laucnhed my project called Mormon Scholars Testify.)
Weisberg’s disdain notwithstanding, Mormons have already been very much part of America for most of its history. Besides Salt Lake City and other towns in the Great Basin West, they founded such settlements as San Bernardino and Las Vegas. Members of the “Mormon Battalion” built the first courthouse in San Diego, raised the American flag over Los Angeles in 1847, and discovered the gold at Sutter’s Mill that brought the 49ers to California. Mervyn Bennion, the commander of the U.S.S. West Virginia who died defending his ship at Pearl Harbor, is one of several Mormons to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Believing Mormons serve in the Senate and the House of Representatives—notable among them the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV). (Curiously, Senator Reid’s Mormon faith—he converted while in college—has drawn little public attention, and no discernible criticism. Could the media possibly be biased toward a Democrat? Perish the thought!) They have served, and continue to serve, in presidential cabinets. They have represented the United States as ambassadors, chaired the Federal Reserve Board, and served as generals, admirals (including overall command of the United States Coast Guard), and federal judges. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed at five presidential inaugurations, for presidents of both parties.
Faithful Mormons have led corporations such as JetBlue, Dell Computer, Black & Decker, Times Mirror, Eastman Kodak, General Mills, and, of course, Marriott. (Mitt Romney’s own father ran American Motors before serving three terms as governor of Michigan and then heading up the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the first Nixon administration.) Business guru Stephen Covey is a Mormon. So is the former chief financial officer of Sears Roebuck, Monsanto, American Express, and Citigroup. They have won Oscars, Pulitzers, and Grammys. Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, is a Mormon. So is Orson Scott Card, winner of the Nebula Award and of multiple Hugo Awards for science fiction. Mormons have quarterbacked and coached NFL football teams (former San Francisco 49er Steve Young, a lawyer and a descendent of Brigham Young, may yet enter politics himself), flourished on the PGA tour, worn the crown of Miss America, and been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
A Mormon invented television. His co-believers have orbited the earth as astronauts, directed the space shuttle program, and presided over the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, NASA, Harvard Business School, and the University of California system. They have given enormous sums of time and money to charity.
One has to wonder what members of a religious minority must do before they merit acceptance, by some, as fully equal American citizens.
In a Roper poll taken in June 1960, 35 percent of the respondents reacted negatively to the idea of a Catholic president. Realizing that he needed to confront this challenge directly, John F. Kennedy delivered a famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on 12 September. He was elected two months later. Toward the conclusion of that characteristically eloquent speech, Kennedy said,
“If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.”
Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, though not wholly extinct in the United States, have been largely embarrassed into public silence. What, now, of anti-Mormonism? Will Mitt Romney be judged on the basis of his personal character, ability, and opinions? Or will he be summarily dismissed as religiously unworthy and un-American? As I write, Yeah Samake, a Mormon, is a serious contender for the presidency of the West African nation of Mali, which is 90% Muslim. Will Mali prove to be more religiously tolerant than the American South, more open than the United States to the full political participation of its Mormon citizens?