Somewhere, J.F.K. chuckles

SaltLakeTempleOur founder tmatt is too busy today to do an end-zone backflip, so I will comment on the news of Mitt Romney’s impending speech about his faith.

Most media coverage touches all the important bases: evangelical skepticism about Romney’s beliefs (which for some reason reporters think is limited to the South), months of debate within the Romney campaign and inevitable comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s speech to Protestant ministers in 1960. The Politico‘s story drills deeper than most, including these two paragraphs:

For all the Mormons’ wholesomeness, and even though the church’s formal name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, many Christians in the South focus more on the theological differences than the similarities. That makes it easy for opponents to make wild, false charges about the church in mailings and other hard-to-trace outlets.

Among the key points of contention is the church’s canonization of “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as a scripture alongside the Bible, when born-again Christians believe the Old and New Testament are infallible and complete.

Reporters Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin offer no clear examples of such wild or false charges, unless they consider it irresponsible to disagree about The Book of Mormon‘s canonical authority. An earlier report by Martin mentioned the church’s practice of baptisms for the dead, which is common knowledge among religiously literate Americans.

Martin’s earlier report also quoted an Iowan as saying a push poll of undetermined origin was “equating [Mormonism] to a cult.” That’s certainly a point of tension between the LDS and some evangelical Protestant critics. It was common practice among evangelical Protestants for many years to use cult as shorthand for what they concluded was aberrant theology (see Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults). Such labeling is a less common practice today, but it certainly lingers as a reflexive response. Christianity Today has condemned loose usage of cult (and former editor Terry Muck condemned it in 1990). Evangelical Hugh Hewitt (author of A Mormon in the White House?) is among Romney’s most outspoken admirers.

From my perspective, the least predictable reporting on this topic was in a Romney profile by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on Oct. 29:

Many commentators have suggested that Romney will need to make a speech akin to the one that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he promised to resign if there was ever a collision between his beliefs as a Catholic and the national interest. Jan Shipps is skeptical of the idea that Romney could do something similar. “Mormonism was a cult, just as Christianity was a cult in the beginning,” she told me. “But a cult, when it grows up, becomes a culture, and the people who are a part of it take on an ethnic identity, a peoplehood. Romney is not Mormon the way, say, Ted Kennedy is Catholic. Romney is Mormon the way Ted Kennedy is Irish. That’s the difference. And, when it’s that much a part of who you are, it’s very hard to explain it to other people, because you can’t figure out why they can’t see it. He can’t do a J.F.K., because when J.F.K. did his thing on the Catholics there were people who knew that they were afraid of Catholicism, but at least they knew what it was.”

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  • Undergroundpewster

    The former governor does not plan to get into the nitty-gritty of LDS theology. “It won’t be Mormon 101,” an aide said.

    Wise choice. This sounds like a bunch of hype to get people to listen to one of his speeches. I might read it. Surely, it will see these pages once published.

  • Joel

    The Ryan Lizza snippet is exactly spot-on. Mormons are becoming closer to an ethnicity than a religion, sociologically speaking. True, they have a strong influx of converts who bring their gentile ways with them, but they’re enough of a subculture that the religion becomes just one facet. There are certain surnames that you expect to see on a Mormon, certain kinds of first names (using last names as given names seems to be popular), and even a look about the face or a style of dress. It’s not cut-and-dried, but it’s often easy to identify a Mormon by any number of things that we associate more with ethnic identity than religious.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Reporters Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin offer no clear examples of such wild or false charges

    There are plenty out there, though perhaps they didn’t want to dignify them by repeating them. I could name a dozen or so just off the top of my head. Some of the tamer ones I’ve seen with my own eyes in “anti-Mormon” literature are: Mormons believe Joseph Smith died for their sins and Smith’s death supersedes Christ’s sacrifice, Mormons have a replica of the Oval office in the Salt Lake Temple so that they can rule the country from Utah once they take over, Mormons take oaths to kill all non-believers once the “day of reckoning” comes, Etc. Etc. Those are the tame ones. There are some so crazy I don’t dare repeat them. There is a rather thriving anti-Mormon publishing movement that most in the media are unaware of, but anyone who’s served a Mormon mission in the USA is likely very aware of.

    They’re not as common as they were 20-30 years ago, but one can look at Krakauer’s claim (In “Under the Banner of Heaven”) that Mormonism is an inherently violent religious tradition, and see that similar claims are made by even non-Christians.

  • Mick Stockinger

    I’ve been living in Utah for nine years at this point. Joel actually makes a good, although not entirely original point.

    The question that occurs to me is whether Evangelicals will be so chauvinistic as to insist on religious purity while the true enemies of Christianity clean up and accelerate the imposition of socialist-secular values? When I travel to Alabama I don’t notice a whole lot of differences between the Evangelicals I meet and the Mormons I just left. They pretty much have the same interests and concerns.

    Ironically, the Mormons voted overwhelming for Bush, in spite of his Evangelical faith–under the premise I guess that those who do the “Lord’s work” are counted as being with him. I guess we’ll see who the real Christians are…

  • Jerry

    Mormonism is an inherently violent religious tradition,

    Hmmm. Where have I heard that another religion is inherently violent? Oh yes, Islam.

    I do have to wonder how his speech will be received in this deeply cynical age. When JFK gave his speech, we were much more likely to believe what a politician said. I suspect the reaction will be different this time no matter what he says.

  • Mattk

    I read that last sentence several times and still don’t know what the reporter means. Who doesn’t know what Mormonism is? And I hate to beat a dead horse, but Ted Kennedy is not Roman Catholic. How con someone not in communion with the Roman Catholic church be counted as Roman Catholic?

  • JLF

    Excellent article. I was both informed and intrigued by the willingness of the writer and responders to consider other viewpoints of Mormonism that do not demonize us. That is exceedingly rare in too many quarters. I am especially grateful not to see any “Mormons think baldness is caused by sin” type comments.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Hmmm. Where have I heard that another religion is inherently violent? Oh yes, Islam.

    I’m not sure what your point is. Seems like a non sequitur in this context.

  • Joel

    Matt, as far as I know, Kennedy hasn’t been formally excommunicated. Autoexcommunication may be in effect, but I don’t think we can take it as a given.

    As far as “who doesn’t know what Mormonism is,” I think the reporter doesn’t, really, and assumes nobody else does, either. As I’ve said before, I think it’s an east-west thing. Mormons are much more a fact of life in the west, I gather. I know I’ve lived my whole life in the northwest, and I’ve always kind of taken them for granted. But reporters from the east coast treat them as though they’re something exotic.

  • Jerry

    Ivan, I might have done better to fill in a gap. I was surprised to read in your post that inherent violence charge about Mormons. I was reminded of the Islam is a violent religion idea that is also alive for some people as well. So I was trying to allude to how people can use some acts to draw that kind of conclusion about different religions. To go a wee bit further, there are some atheists who use the acts of some Christians to conclude that Christianity is also inherently violent. This ties in with how the media reports and what conclusions people draw from various news stories.

  • Mattk

    Ahhh. I hadn’t thought that it might be a regional thing. That makes some sense to me.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Jerry -

    ah. Got it.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic I find it humorous how some evangelicals–who are split into hundreds of differing denominations and sects–frown so heartily on Mormons (members of a denomination originating on American soil). To many Catholics (and many Orthodox) Mormons appear as just another one of those hundreds of Reformation Protestant denominations even the Guiness Book of Records can’t keep track of. Maybe that is why Gov. Romney’s Mormonism was hardly mentioned here in Catholic Mass. (in fact it was Catholic votes that put him over the top on the issue of abortion as his opponent was a typical Catholic Democrat left-wing radical on the issue which sent traditional Catholics Romney’s way). For most Catholics it was just a choice between a left-wing Catholic and just another Protestant and besides-it is stands on public issues that count–not the arcane theology or traditions of the candidate’s church.
    By the way, how come not a peep in the MSM about Democrat Reid of Nevada’s Mormonism? Shouldn’t he –as the 3rd or 4th most powerful leader in America– be the butt of a little probing

  • Mollie

    Deacon John,

    The Catholic Church views Mormons differently than Reformation Protestant denominations. Catholics will, for instance, recognize the baptisms of Protestants but will not recognize the baptisms of Mormons.

  • Joel

    Catholics will, for instance, recognize the baptisms of Protestants but will not recognize the baptisms of Mormons.

    True, but the us-and-them dynamic is similar on a cultural level, if not a theological one.

  • gfe

    I’m sure there’s a big regional difference in how familiar people are with Mormons. Both Seattle and Boston have approximately the same population, for example, yet Seattle (not exactly a hotbed of Mormonism) has 15 English-speaking wards (congregations), while Boston has just two. And in the West there are some pockets of Mormonism (such as Bakersfield, Calif., and Tri-Cities, Wash.) that are far less common in the East. It would make some sense that the religion might seem somewhat exotic to the largely Eastern-based media.

  • Elbeau

    The regional thing is a good point. I grew up a Mormon in Utah and lived there and Las Vegas. I served a 2-year Mormon mission in Mississippi and Louisiana. Later, I had a Business partner from New York.

    The people from each of these areas had wildly different views of my religion. Utah is Utah…not much mystery about what they think of Mormons there. Las Vegas is 12% Mormon and non-Mormon people take it in stride as part of the culture…never any kind of backlash or people going on about how wierd we were there.

    Mississippi and Louisiana were a completely different story. People there were generally kind and nice to us when we knocked on their doors…but you were essentially running a numbers game where during any given day you would run into one or two people who had been studying anti-Mormon literature relentlessly just waiting for the moment that we would show up on their doorstep. Also down south, if a person wanted to join our religion there was intense pressure brought to bear by virtually everyone they knew and trusted growing up to try to get them to change their mind. Not just nice debates about the logic of joining our church, but threats of violence in some cases and threats to be cut off from their families in others.

    My business partner from back east had the “exotic” view of Mormons that you describe above. He had never met one of us and seemed quite concerned about us at first.

    I guess we need to remember that America is a big and diverse place. People out west will really roll their eyes at the ridiculous religious hoops that Mitt is having to jump through. They know Mormons better than the rest of the country and they’re not scared.

    People back east might just find Mitt’s speech enlightening and I think it could have a good effect on them.

    As a group, people down south are more suspicious of us than in other parts of the country and I don’t think they’ll generally take Mitt at his word when it comes to his speech.

    How about the mid-west? any thoughts?

  • Joel

    And here in Moses Lake, Wash., there are 11 wards (the last time I looked), for a population of about 16,000. Rural vs. urban has something to do with that, too. And rural cultures are something that urban east-coast media tend not to understand. There’s a tendency in the media to mold anything rural into either a “redneck” or an “Amish” template. That there’s as much difference between, say, southern Missouri and North Idaho as there is between New York and San Francisco appears to escape a lot of journalists.

  • JohnR

    I just can’t see Romney saying anything that would emphasize any difference between himself and the conservative Christians he is trying to woo. I suspect he’ll talk about his religion in a personal but inoffensive way as well as in high-minded but generic terms. Mormons value their family history, so he may throw in an ancestral anecdote or two.

    At any rate, JFK’s speech dwelt almost exclusively on how his faith *would not* impact his presidency; Romney will almost certainly connect his faith and his politics.

    Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not a betting man…

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Here are some interesting thoughts on this:

    I suspect that on Thursday Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will perform the function that Mormonism has been fulfilling in American politics for a century and a half: It will be an anvil on which this mainly Protestant nation hammers out the place of religion in public life.

  • FrGregACCA

    One small, slightly off-topic quibble: every picture that I’ve ever seen of the Salt Lake Temple, including the one above, makes it look far larger and more imposing than it actually appears from on the ground in Temple Square.

  • The young fogey

    It is a non-Christian religion – henotheism or many gods but only one is worshipped in a given place like Earth – but one that grew out of (19th-century) American Protestantism so culturally it blends in (it uses a lot of Christian lingo) and deliberately so. You’re right that many outsiders think that’s what Mormonism is.

    But that’s not the issue – Romney’s political views are. Another mainstream Republican.

    Given an article I read recently that had a catena of quotations (proof-texts?) from Mormon leaders in the recent past (such as Ezra Taft Benson) telling them they must obey the US Constitution I’d have no problem voting for a member of this faith.

    But not this member.

    Then there’s the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints based in Missouri, which had Joseph Smith’s descendants in it and accepts the Book of Mormon as one of its scriptures but is Christian. (Smith started his group as Christian but changed his mind.)

  • The young fogey

    P.S. JFK was not idealistic and had no use for religion other than using it and his ethnicity as vote-getters in Massachusetts. (Of course he made the speech because it was a perceived liability in the rest of the country.) Romney’s wrong but I imagine he’s sincere.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Joel–You are right–sorry Mollie. My point has been that things like whether Catholics –or anyone else–recognizes Mormon baptism is irrelevant and possibly bigoted to raise in the context of debate in the public square on public issues. I have no idea whether Evangelicals or my own Church recognize Mormon baptism or if, indeed, they have any baptism ceremony. None of this came up when he ran here in Mass. for governor. All that was clear was that he was some sort of Protestant and where he stood on public issues. To the credit of the voters in Mass. –when push came to shove–it was Romney’s stand on public issues that swayed enough Catholics to his side that won the election for him (before the last debate he had been behind in the polls). After the last governor’s debate, I can still remember the buzz at daily Mass among all the nominal Democrats there about how the Irish Democrat Catholic trashed Catholic moral teachings and this other guy– some sort of non-Catholic– had been more “Catholic.” It was clear there was a sea-change going on and that devout Catholics were now going over to Romney on the basis of his stand on public issues.

  • Joel

    It sounds terribly heretical to say, but I find myself having a lot more in common with my orthodox Mormon neighbors than with the more liberal Catholics I know. Orson Scott Card, in my book, writes with a more Christian perspective than, say, Andrew Greeley.