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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How will Theresa May meet her commitment to low-earners?

The Prime Minister will soon need to translate generalities into specifics. 

The curtailed Conservative leadership contest (which would not have finished yet) meant that Theresa May had little chance to define her agenda. But of the statements she has made since becoming prime minister, the most notable remains her commitment to lead a government "driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours." 

When parliament returns on 5 September, and the autumn political season begins, May will need to translate this generality into specifics. The defining opportunity to do so will be the Autumn Statement. Originally intended by George Osborne to be a banal update of economic forecasts, this set-piece more often resembled a second Budget. Following the momentous Brexit vote, it certainly will under Philip Hammond. 

The first priority will be to demonstrate how the government will counter the threat of recession. Osborne's target of a budget surplus by 2020 has wisely been abandoned, granting the new Chancellor the freedom to invest more in infrastructure (though insiders make it clear not to expect a Keynesian splurge).

As well as stimulating growth, Hammond will need to reflect May's commitment to those "just managing" rather than the "privileged few". In her speech upon becoming prime minister, she vowed that "when it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you". A natural means of doing so would be to reduce VAT, which was increased to a record high of 20 per cent in 2010 and hits low-earners hardest. Others will look for the freeze on benefit increases to be lifted (with inflation forecast to rise to 3 per cent next year). May's team are keenly aware of the regressive effect of loose monetary policy (low interest rates and quantitative easing), which benefits wealthy asset-owners, and vow that those who lose out will be "compensated" elsewhere. 

A notable intervention has come from Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chair of the Treasury select committee. He has called for the government to revive the publication of distributional analyses following Budgets and Autumn Statements, which was ended by George Osborne last year (having been introduced by the coalition in 2010). 

In a letter to Hammond, Tyrie wrote: "I would be grateful for an assurance that you will reinstate the distributional analysis of the effects of the budget and autumn statement measures on household incomes, recently and mistakenly discontinued by your predecessor." He added: "The new prime minister is committing her government to making Britain a country that works 'not for a privileged few, but for every one of us'. A high level of transparency about the effects of tax and welfare policy on households across the income distribution would seem to be a logical, perhaps essential starting point." 

Whether the government meets this demand will be an early test of how explicit it intends to be in reducing disparities. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.