Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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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.