Famous saints

John Sutherland on the religion Mitt Romney may bring to the White House

Here's a challenge. Think of a famous Mormon - apart from the one who may well be the most powerful man in the world, come next November. No shame in being stumped. There's a good reason that Mormons are the invisible Americans. Mormons are scarred by persecution, and it has made them very shy. In the television drama series Big Love (whose runaway popularity has done Mitt Romney no harm), even Mormons themselves don't know what the Mormons next door are doing (polygamy, in the case of the TV show).

Persecution is the scar that all Mormons carry. The enemy is always there, and wise believers keep out of his way. As their sacred text puts it: "I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life." Moroni is Everymormon. And Everymormon's primary identity is as a member of the family, the Church, the faith. The most famous Mormon artistic entity is a tabernacle choir without named soloists. "Mormon celebrity" is a contradiction in terms. So. Try these three:

Q: Who is the most famous

Mormon Hollywood actor?

A: Matthew Modine

Q: Ditto film director?

A: Neil LaBute

Q: Ditto novelist?

A: Orson Scott Card

Chances are, even if you answered those three correctly, you'd be hard-put to come up with a B-list.

But Card is the most interesting. In a survey I took of favourite science-fiction writers, his work came top among students at America's most prestigious science school, Caltech. The text universally mentioned in support of this verdict was Ender's Game (Tor Books). Card's Ender trilogy chronicles the career of an infant prodigy so intelligent, he has been retooled as a superweapon in the everlasting, unwinnable wars that ravage the galaxy. Young Ender, like all good Mormons, must submerge himself into the larger self: the army of righteousness.

We shall learn a lot about Mormonism over the next ten months. It's crazy stuff, involving wooden submarines, golden plates and much babbling in strange tongues. Mormons have usually kept it to themselves (as they have the prohibition on black men being accepted into the priesthood of the Church until well after the birth of Barack Obama, or the still-widespread practice of polygamy in the Utah outback).

The easiest way in is the comic-book series by another Church member, Mike Allred. (Never heard of him? He's up there on Famousmormons.com.)

More challenging is Orson Scott Card's novelisation of the life of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), in Saints (1984), and the same author's sci-fi allegorisation of the trials of the Mormon people in his five-volume Homecoming saga.

Who knows? That next home for the LDS tribe may be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hallelujah. (But not too loud, please - we don't want the people at 1400 to know that we're Mormons.)

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism