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
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories