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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why a Labour split may be in the interests of both sides

Divorce may be the best option, argues Nick Tyrone. 

Despite everything that is currently happening within the Labour Party - the open infighting amongst party officials, the threat of MPs being deselected, an increasingly bitter leadership contest between two people essentially standing on the same policy platform – the idea of a split is being talked down by everyone involved. The Labour Party will “come together” after the leadership election, somehow. The shared notion is that a split would be bad for everyone other than the Tories.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate. What the Corbynistas want is a Labour Party that is doctrinarily pure. However small that parliamentary party might be for the time being is irrelevant. The basic idea is to build up the membership into a mass movement that will then translate into seats in the House of Commons and eventually, government. You go from 500,000 members to a million, to two million, to five million until you have enough to win a general election.

The majority of the parliamentary Labour party meanwhile believe that properly opposing the Tories in government through conventional means, i.e. actually attacking things the Conservatives put forth in parliament, using mass media to gain public trust and then support, is the way forward. Also, that a revitalisation of social democracy is the ideology to go with as opposed to a nebulous form of socialism.

These two ways of looking at and approaching politics not only do not go together, they are diametric opposites. No wonder the infighting is so vicious; there is no middle way between Corbynism and the bulk of the PLP.

I understand that the Labour MPs do not want to give up on their party, but I don’t see how the membership is shifting in their favour any time soon. Most talk around a split understandably comes back to 1981 and the SDP very quickly yet consider this: the most defections the SDP ever achieved were 28. If there was a split now, it would probably involve the vast majority of the PLP, perhaps even 80 per cent of it – a very, very different proposition. There is also clearly a large number of people out there who want a centre-left, socially democratic, socially liberal party – and polls suggest that for whatever reason the Liberal Democrats cannot capitalise on this gap in the market. Some sort of new centre-left party with 150+ MPs and ex-Labour donors to kick it off just might.

Of course, a split could be a total disaster, at least in the short term, and allow the Tories further general election victories over the next decade. But let’s be honest here – given where we are, isn’t that going to happen anyhow? And if a split simply results in what happened in the 1980s recurring, thus eventually leading to a Labour Party capable of winning a general election again, would members of the PLP currently wondering what to do next not consider it worth it just for that?

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.