Skip to comments.Making Fun of Mormonism [or not]
Posted on 12/31/2011 9:31:32 PM PST by delacoert
Sacred underwear, baptizing holocaust victims, gods of their own planets.
When some of Americas most celebrated pundits and public intellectuals talk about Mormons, these are the images that are summoned. Ironically in this Mormon Momentsignaled by a hit Broadway musical, polygamous housewives on TLC, and of course two Mormon presidential candidatesMormons, long considered quintessential outsiders to mainstream American culture, today find themselves at the center of the American zeitgeist. Yet it is the Mormons supposed theological weirdness that is the centripetal attraction.
As Joanna Brooks has noted in these pages, the New York Times recently featured Harold Blooms musings on how a President Romney would govern a country, and a planet, from which he would in the afterlife depart, becoming the god of his celestial body. More planet talk happened just last week on the Chronicle of Higher Educations Brainstorm Blog. Michael Ruse, philosopher of biology, asserted that it is legitimate not to vote for a presidential candidate whose theology is totally barmy. We can become gods with our own planets! No coffee and tea is bad enough. But the underwear! In October, in a column called Anne Frank, a Mormon? Maureen Dowd offered (via Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens) the full rundown of Mormon weirdness, from Joseph Smiths uneasy reputation to the Jewish dust-up: the posthumous baptism of Jews.
Casual assertions of knowledge about Mormon theology have dismayed longtime scholars of Mormonism. UNCs Laurie Maffly-Kipp recently told me that while seeming to archly critique the evangelical and atheist attacks on Mormonism, Dowds column in particular represented one pithy stroke of ignorance masquerading as informed opinion.
A Desert of Belief
Critics like Dowd, Bloom, and Ruse would not reduce Catholicism to Popery, Hinduism to the worship of cows, or Islam to the promise of seventy virgins for jihadi martyrs. Why is Mormonism different?
There are two answers to this question.
The first is religious. It is the Mormons belief system, a system at odds with a secular age when actual, as opposed to metaphorical, belief is no longer accepted as reasonable. At a talk last winter at the Harvard Law School, the don of Mormon letters, Richard Bushman, asserted that most Americans live in a desert of belief. The demands of secular rationalism have deforested the transcendent and supernatural even in the spiritual worlds of most religious Americans. Mormons on the other hand occupy a jungle of belief.
The audacity of the truth claims that Mormonism makes (angels delivering golden plates to a boy in early 19th-century upstate New York, modern-day prophets and everyday saints receiving revelations from Heavenly Father) requires that Mormon believers occupy a rich and imaginatively demanding spiritual world.
But even in this jungle of belief, Mormons dont think on a daily basis about the theology behind their sacred underwear. They dont pine for their own planets. Such obsession with what Mormons believe, even among Americas literati, belies the fact that Mormonism is foremost a belief system in action. Perhaps a concise summary of Mormon practical divinity comes from the late Church President, Spencer W. Kimball: As Gods offspring, we have His attributes in us. We are gods in embryo, and thus have an unlimited potential for progress and attainment. Still, at least according to the dictates of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) current leadership, tapping into this unlimited potential takes a fairly workaday form: participating in time-consuming church service, forming heterosexual couples with the purpose of raising faithful Mormon children, and succeeding in the corporate world.
The second reason for the ongoing discussion of Mormons weird beliefs is political. Mormons are the last (or at least the latest) religious other to confront the heart of American politics, to deem themselves American enough to ascend to the presidency. Mormon scholar Newell Bringhurst told me recently that that the current public debates over Mormonism reminds him very much of the debate over Kennedys Catholicism in 1960. Would Kennedy take orders from the Vatican? many leaders from the American mainline churches anxiously asked. No!, assured Kennedy in his famous speech to a gathering of leading Protestant ministers in Dallas two months before the election. I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Partys candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
Sticks and Stones
Romney has tried to answer skeptics of his church, but without Kennedys success. Mormons are still on the outs with key segments of the electorate he will need to win both the nomination and the general election. But as Bringhursts new book, The Mormon Quest for the Presidency points out, Romney and Huntsman are not the first Mormons to run for president, and thus not the first Mormons forced to defend the LDS Church as acceptably American. In fact the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, launched a presidential bid in 1844: a campaign that ended when the Prophet was killed by an anti-Mormon mob.
Romney and Huntsman have not had to face down mobs. The violence against their Church has been rhetorical. But whether anti-Mormonism takes the form of villagers armed with muskets or the repeated chanting of underwear, planets, tablets, a glance at recent poll numbers about Mormon electability suggests that rhetoric does in fact hurt.
Following on Robert Jeffress diatribe at the Values Voters Summit, the recent Pew Forum survey found that the number one word Americans associate with Mormonism is cult.
The caricaturing of Mormon weirdness, even by public thinkers who should know better, does have consequences. Yet Mormon scholars like Bringhurst believe that this is a natural, and even welcome, vetting process of both Mormons as American and a Mormon as the chief American. (In this vetting process, one belief that America will soon discoverand a belief that the Mormon candidates could make more ofis that the LDS Church counts the Constitution as divinely inspired. Thus the Mormon canon of sacred scriptures includes the central document of Americas political and moral self-construction.) Many Mormon scholars believe that, as is the case today with Kennedys (and now Newt Gingrichs) Catholicism, in fifty years the idea of a Mormon in the White House wont raise many eyebrows at all.
Yet what about the short term?
One solution is to stop talking about religion as part of a presidential candidates resumé altogether. In an op-ed on the Rachel Maddow Show, political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry insinuated this solution. She argued that there are many reasons for Republican primary voters not to vote for Mitt Romneymany secular reasons. But his Mormonism is not one of them. Harris-Perry wants to draw a clear line between evaluating a candidate and analyzing a candidates faith.
In a lecture at the Danforth Center this fall, E.J. Dionne proposed a different solution: limit discussions of candidates faith to how this faith might influence his or her political perspective and policies. This would not include sacred underwear, seventy virgins, or transubstantiation. It does however include (as Michael Ruse allowed in his CHE post) discussions of how a candidates theological views of the Holy Lands, for example, might affect American policies regarding the Middle East.
As a scholar of Mormonism, and not (as I hope is obvious) as a spokesperson for the LDS Church, I must stay continuously alert to the unique context my work inhabits.
I recently wrote for The New Republic about the LDS Churchs complicated, and often troubling, history with questions of race. Ive studied this issue for years, and for the story reached out to many different LDS constituencies for commentincluding the Church itself. Yet by discussing the Churchs historical sins, I ran the risk of contributing to the othering of Mormons. Though my intention was to tell a different story about the LDS Churchs racialized history than Laurence ODonnells rant on the subject in 2007, in this politically-charged environment it is hard to separate nuance from vilification.
As one Church spokesman told me on background, with two Mormons running for president, no matter how fair Mormon scholars try to be, any discussion of Mormon peculiarities can and will be used to make the Mormons seem weird, un-American, and unelectable.
I take this fair bit of caution to heart. Even criticizing caricatures of Mormon theology in the media reactivates these caricatures.
So yes, religion does intersect with politics in this country, and we do need to find ways to talk about it. Id like to suggest, though, that unless a set of Mormon underwear declares its candidacy for the presidency we would do well to leave it out of the conversation.
Characterizing rhetoric as VIOLENCE?
Don't forget: "pushing for amnesty for illegal aliens in violation of Mormon precepts and Christ's own teachings".
Well, Mormonism is so weird & un-American (more Kolobian), who needs to caricature it? (It caricatures itself!)
Mormon supermen, eh? Gods? Divine peers of the one true God, eh? Utter blasphemy!
Look here from BYU: Teachings Concerning The Divine Potential of Man
See post #9 for most of Spencer W. Kimball's teachings on how Mormon men -- including Mitt and Jon Huntsman -- are supposedly "god in embryos":
Romney Insists He Is as Consistent as Humanly Possible
Happy New to all FREEPERS!
And the beat down goes on.
Also the author self-consciously refers to himself within the article:
Yeah, I'd say the article is written by a Smith disciple.
[even among Americas literati, belies the fact that Mormonism is foremost a belief system in action. Perhaps a concise summary of Mormon practical divinity comes from the late Church President, Spencer W. Kimball: As Gods offspring, we have His attributes in us. We are gods in embryo, and thus have an unlimited potential for progress and attainment.]
I’ve been screaming for years that Romneycare is a logical consequence of the Mormon need to do something, anything, in order to earn your planet. So you can’t separate religion from politics, But I was called a bigot.
[One solution is to stop talking about religion as part of a presidential candidates resumé altogether. In an op-ed on the Rachel Maddow Show, political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry insinuated this solution. She argued that there are many reasons for Republican primary voters not to vote for Mitt Romneymany secular reasons. But his Mormonism is not one of them. Harris-Perry wants to draw a clear line between evaluating a candidate and analyzing a candidates faith.
In a lecture at the Danforth Center this fall, E.J. Dionne proposed a different solution: limit discussions of candidates faith to how this faith might influence his or her political perspective and policies. This would not include sacred underwear, seventy virgins, or transubstantiation. It does however include (as Michael Ruse allowed in his CHE post) discussions of how a candidates theological views of the Holy Lands, for example, might affect American policies regarding the Middle East. ]
So if we just shut up, everything will be fine? I don’t think so, that is incredibly un-American.
Two days ago, Mona Charen wrote an articleNational Review in which she stated that the Mormons were "harried, persecuted, expelled, reviled, and chased across a continent" for its first seven decades. Starting from the Book of Mormon's publication in 1830 (with Joseph Smith initially listed as "author"), that would be until 1900 (there is no record of any public knowledge of Smith's claims to have had a vision around 1820, much less persecution).
For the last 50 years of Charen's period of persecution, expulsion, and chasing, the Mormons were living in Utah, where Brigham Young had established a theocracy (Charen may want to read on the Utah Wars - Utah vs. the United States - and decided whether that was persecution of Utah's insistence that it remain a theocracy).
If Mormons were persecuted in the last forty years of that seventy, it is that the U.S. required them to stop practicing polygamy, which was illegal in the U.S. territories (although the Mormon Church continued to practice polygamy after the 1890 manifesto).
It was during this period that the Mountain Meadows Massacre (September 11, 1857 - the largest religious killing of American citizens until the next September 11th attack), which she mentioned, occurred. Innocent gentile men, woman, and older children were slaughtered. Yes, the Mormons executed John Leee, but only years later, but only after pressure by the U.S. Government and in an agreement to keep the U.S. Government from pursuing justice against other Mormon leaders involved; very possibly Brigham Young.
As for Missouri, and New York, and Illinois, Charen has read no history books, including histories written in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, or other peer-reviewed religion or history journals. And nothing by the Mormon History Association. She's clearly not read about the Missouri Wars, as both sides fought. There's no mention of the Danites.
I noticed the reference to Missouri Governor Bogg's October 27, 1838, Extermination Order, a period of history that can be condemned. However, she fails to mention that Mormon Leader Sidney Rigdon first ralled the Mormon faithful and troops (and there were troops; Smith's Nauvoo legion had 1,500 armed men) on July 4, 1838 when he said:
"it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them till the last drop of blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us; for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses and their own families, and one part or the other shall be utterly destroyed."
She fails to mention the failed assassination attempt on Governor Bogg's life by Porter Rockwell, the Mormon's Avenging Angel.
As for Smith's arrest and death, Charen fails to mention that the original kerfuffle arose because Smith ordered that a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, be destroyed because it printed truths about him. Among these was the fact that the was committing polygamy, something that had been practiced by Smith and other Mormon leaders since the early 1830s but was publicly denied until 1852.
Smith also declared martial law and called out the Nauvoo legion, over which he served as general (he also was prophet of the church and has had himself crowned king of the of world in 1843 and 1844). Smith was in jail voluntarily on a charge of treason as a result of declaring martial law over the laws of the state. While there, LDS members smuggled two pistols into the Carthage Jail for Joseph. He gave one to his brother Hyrum.
Joseph was killed by a mob, but only after he first shot and murdered at least two men outside the door of the room with the cells (if shooting Smith was murder after he shot; the Smith shooting the other men was murder on his behalf, too).
I could continue, but history rarely is a piece of cloth with cleanly cut edges.
As for tarring and feathering? Ms. Charen will find out that Smith was lucky, A physician was with the group to castrate him as well; although history has been clouded, it appears from contemporaneous history that the group tarred and feathered Smith because Smith had made sexual overtures to a young sister of one of the men who formed the 'mob.' She did, after all, wind up as one of his polygamous wives. One of the wives that many Mormons insist never existed.
The cloth of history is never as cleanly cut as Charen portrays - particularly then she leaves out large parts of undisputed history to make a political point. It's a shameful piece, Ms. Charen.