One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers points out something very interesting that I hadn’t considered, comparing Mitt Romney’s shape shifting persona to that of the Mormon church itself. That church has repeatedly changed its core beliefs if they are in opposition to the larger society:
The Mormon church is all one giant Etch-a-Sketch. All of it. Polygamy, African Americans in the church. “Oops, that policy isn’t working with the power that be, well, oh thank Moroni there is a new revelation! Oh that policy is incredibly backwards and bigoted. Oh by the power of Nephi, there is a new revelation!” It is just crazy.
But it must be pointed out that this happens in all religions, not just Mormonism. The Mormons, though, do so more transparently than most because they have “prophets” who publicly declare that God has ordered them to change church doctrine. The broader Christian church has done the same thing throughout its history, not by such transparent claims of new revelation but by merely reinterpreting the Bible — and often by pretending that the old interpretations never existed.
For centuries and centuries, the Bible was used to defend the institution of slavery (and rightly so; the Bible not only does not condemn slavery as immoral, it repeatedly commands and endorses it). A small subset of Christians joined with Enlightenment humanists (including Charles Darwin) in fighting to end slavery and the institutional church fought tooth and nail to preserve their barbaric beliefs. These days, you will only find support for slavery among a tiny subset of the most right wing Christians, of course, because after slavery was all but universally condemned, they simply reinterpreted their holy book, suddenly discovering that Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor canceled out the many endorsements of slavery found therein.
The same is true of any number of other barbaric practices. The use of torture and violence to force conversions was standard Christian practice for centuries. It was defended by reference to many Bible verses and to ideas expressed by the most important Christian thinkers, like St. Augustine, who famously endorsed the use of coercion to compel people to become Christians. These days you cannot find a Christian church or theologian who would endorse such a thing.
Christianity has been humanized by contact with Enlightenment humanism, but this fact is rarely admitted. More often, it is simply pretended that the barbaric beliefs and actions of the past, which were deeply ingrained in belief and doctrint, did not exist, or that they were simply a matter of bad interpretation. So I’ll give the Mormons a tiny bit of credit for at least admitting that they are making a clean break with the past, even if the means by which they do so is clearly absurd and convenient.