Mitt Romney's religion

Is Mormonism a "cult" or just the great American religion?

Four years after his last presidential bid, Mitt Romney remains perhaps the most credible -- certainly the most centrist -- of the declared Republican candidates. His main problem is that he comes across as rather boring. Try as he might to avoid the subject, however, some continue to hold his Mormon faith against him. In the latest incident last Friday, the evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, friend of the Texas governor (and Romney's rival), Rick Perry, claimed that Romney was "not a Christian" and that his election would "give credibility to a cult".

Bigotry or not, there are still many Americans -- especially among the Republican Party's conservative evangelical base -- who would agree with Jeffress. Mormonism derives from Christianity and Mormons call themselves Christians. Nowadays, it's too large and mainstream to be sensibly regarded as a "cult". But it has doctrines that are radically different from those of mainstream Christianity; and that, for some critics, is enough.

It's easy -- too easy, perhaps, and certainly tempting -- to make fun of some of the tenets of the Latter Day Saints. Mormons are expected to believe that their first prophet, Joseph Smith, discovered golden plates, inscribed in an unknown ancient script, in a hillside in upstate New York in the 1820s; that he translated them with the help of magic stones, discovering them to contain an alternative Bible; and that Jesus visited America after the crucifixion for the purpose of taking his message to the descendants of ancient Israelite tribes who had lived there for centuries, forgotten by history and unknown to modern archaeology.

Or one could mention the direct influence of Freemasonry on the rituals that Smith created for his temple; or the planet Kolob, which plays a minor part in Mormon theology; or practices that seem strange to outsiders -- baptism of the dead, sacred underwear and, in former times (and still in some dissident groups today), polygamy. The atheist blogger Greta Christina described her visit to the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City earlier this year as "a rollercoaster ride of hilarity and horror". The effect, she writes, "was to make me think, even more strongly than I had before: This religion is batshit crazy."

None of this is Romney's fault, any more than the scientific unlikelihood of transubstantiation, the bodily assumption of Mary or (for that matter) the virgin birth are the fault of practising Catholics who might run for office. He was born a Mormon; he did not choose it. But Mormonism is vulnerable, as older religions are not, to historical questioning. Its doctrines, laid down in the 19th century rather than the 1st, have as yet not acquired the unquestioning respect given to those of more venerable age.

It is Mormonism's misfortune but also its fascination that almost everything is known that can be known about its creation and subsequent growth. Not for the Latter Day Saints the "mysterious veil" that, according to Gibbon, was cast over the infancy of the Church. Nor even the widespread illiteracy of pre-Islamic Arabia, or the centuries of myth-making that has enveloped and obscured the historical Buddha. Instead, we can read contemporary newspaper reports that dismissed Joseph Smith's golden tablets as a fraud; court records accusing the prophet of financial irregularities; or Mark Twain's sneer -- unconstrained by fear of speaking blasphemy or giving offence -- that the Book of Mormon was "chloroform in print".

Given such public and controversial beginnings, Mormonism's sustained success over the better part of two centuries seems all the more remarkable. It is not fully accepted into the pantheon of great world religions and remains somewhat marginal even in the land of its birth, but then it took Christianity 300 years to go from being an obscure cult to dominating the entire Roman empire. Mormonism must have had something going for it. It can't just be "batshit crazy".

The religion's strength, I think, comes from its quintessentially American nature. It is almost the theological expression of America itself -- as baseball is its sporting expression, or Coca-Cola its liquid one.

Its history, first of all, is the story of the frontier and of settlement. Just as the United States is a country of immigrants, many of whom came fleeing persecution in their own country, so the early Mormons were chased from town to ever remoter town until, under the leadership of Brigham Young, they established their own mini-America in Utah. In Salt Lake City, they recreated the ideals of the pilgrim fathers, establishing a new and godly community far from the corruption of the world. It was an achievement that called for all the great American virtues of self-reliance, ruggedness, family values, courage and fortitude.

It's also the story of a second America: the entrepreneurial, corporate, rich, self-confident country that exported its values across the world. Smith and Young bequeathed their church a structure that has endured to this day, one that despite its apostolic and ecclesiastical titles resembles that of a large multinational corporation. Which, indeed, is what it has become; although its product is salvation, rather than soft drinks or iPods.

Mormonism continues to go with the grain of US culture. There's a thick streak of old American puritanism through the Mormon religion, with its prohibition of alcohol and even caffeine. Yet it is just as American in its suburban conformism, encouragement of hard work and respectability. Its tradition of international missionary activity, moreover, gives the faith an outward-looking focus that contrasts with the insularity of the less attractive strands of American conservatism. These facts ought to be an electoral advantage, rather than a drawback for a politician.

It remains to be seen if Jeffress's attack or the lingering suspicion of Mormonism that it reflects will derail Romney's presidential campaign in 2012, as it may have done in 2008. If asked if a Mormon could become president, however, I'm tempted to reply: only in America.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear