Last Thursday, after months of speculation, Mitt Romney finally gave the “Mormon Speech”.
Relative to other Presidential campaigns, Romney’s group had already spent more time defending their candidate’s religious beliefs - with some advisors debating whether a speech addressing the political negatives associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would even be necessary.
Former Baptist preacher, Arkansas governor, and current Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee then clarified things for Romney by gaining ground in Iowa with Evangelical Christians. Polling indicated that religion was an issue.
Voters needed to hear something, anything, that explained Romney’s belief system, and Romney needed to stop the bleeding.
In the meantime, pundits and commentators analyzed, dissected, and deconstructed JFK’s well-received “Catholic Speech”, a 1960 address to The Houston Ministerial Association, in which Kennedy assured a group of Baptists that The Vatican would have no control over a Catholic President. This Kennedy speech has gotten more attention in the last three weeks than in the last three decades combined.
This is because, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, 43% of likely voters will not consider voting for a Mormon presidential candidate. 19% of us aren’t sure what we would do. Only 38% would consider voting for a Mormon politician.
Therefore, 61% of us view the LDS church with enough negativity to possibly rule out all other positives associated with a Mormon Presidential candidate.
Kennedy had it easy.
So last Thursday, after months of buildup and with his political future at stake, Romney went to the Bush Library in College Station, Texas and said....
He talked for almost thirty minutes, and didn't say a thing.
The political statements Romney made were bland enough for the side of a Starbucks coffee cup: “We cherish these sacred rights, and secure them in our Constitutional order. Foremost do we protect religious liberty, not as a matter of policy, but as a matter of right. There will be no established church, and we are guaranteed the free exercise of our religion.”
That’s a beautiful, well-written phrase and Romney delivered it well, but it had nothing to do with his problem. Very few people believe that Mormons want to take away our free exercise of our religion. Romney's bigger problem was Huckabee taking away Iowa, perhaps because Huckabee can speak fluent Evangelical.
“The diversity of our cultural expression, and the vibrancy of our religious dialogue," Romney said, "has kept America in the forefront of civilized nations even as others regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed.”
That can be read as an attack on Islamic fascism.
Most Iowans already dislike Islamic fascism.
The religious statements weren’t much more precise. Other than one sentence proclaiming Jesus as “the Son of God and Savior of mankind”, there was very little in the speech that would give offense at an Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.
But what’s not to like about Mormons? What has offended the Evangelical Iowans? Donny and Marie Osmond? Senator Orrin Hatch? Senator Harry Reid? Trampolines? (Google the words “Mormon” and “trampoline” when you get a chance….) They generally work hard, have close-knit families, and a low incarceration rate.
One could mention the early Mormon church’s practice of polygamy. But no Mormon has ever rivaled the 700 wives and 300 concubines of King Solomon, now revered by Christians for his wisdom.
The Mormon church didn’t reverse some of it’s anti-black policies and doctrines until 1978. Yet many white evangelicals still worship in churches that remain segregated by custom if not theology.
Polygamy and segregation are two examples of the LDS church accommodating America’s legal system by altering doctrine to fit the larger culture. If these were all that separated Mormons from, say, Presbyterians, I don't believe that Romney would be threatened by Huckabee.
What are some of the remaining doctrines that make the LDS church distinctive?
There’s the life and significance of Joseph Smith. According to Mormon doctrine, Joseph Smith found some golden plates buried in upstate New York, carried them to his house, put a blanket across the room so no one else could see the plates, and put on a pair of magic glasses. With the help from these supernatural spectacles, Smith was able to translate “The Book of Mormon” to a neighbor. The neighbor, unlike Joseph Smith, had the ability to read and write.
The LDS church believes in a 3-tiered heaven. There’s a Celestial Kingdom, a Terrestrial Kingdom, and a Telestial Kingdom. They also generally believe in something called “Celestial Marriage”, in which marriages can be sealed for eternity.
Then there are the Temple Garments. (I could be giving offense by even discussing these here.) The Temple Garments are a set of sacred underclothing worn by LDS church members who have participated in a Washing and Anointing Ordinance.
"Baptism for The Dead" is one of the reasons that Salt Lake City is one of the world’s great places to visit for Genealogical Research. This is a practice where living individuals are baptized on behalf of the deceased. The church recently caused some controversy by posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims and perpetrators, including Adolph Hitler.
Then there are the LDS beliefs that Lost Tribes of Israel inhabited North America.
To many of us, these beliefs are, well, strange.
But do they compare well to the religious beliefs of others?
Let’s look at the beliefs of Christian Iowans, a category I could be lumped into if I lived in Des Moines:
Iowa Christians generally believe that God, an invisible being in the sky, made man out of mud. The man was lonely, so God made a woman from the man’s rib. This man and woman lived in paradise until a serpent tempted the woman to eat forbidden fruit, which allowed evil to enter us all, a condition known as "Original Sin". The man and woman were thrown out of paradise and an angel with a sword guarded the gates to prevent them from reentering.
The descendants of the man and woman populated the earth but they, because of Original Sin, were also evil. God decided to wipe out everyone except the family of a man named Noah, who was instructed to build a boat that could accommodate his family, plus every species of animal. Polar bears from the Arctic circle, penguins from the south, duck-billed platypi from Australia, and Chinese pandas were preserved from death by drowning by walking to Noah’s neighborhood and getting on the boat….
At the risk of growing tiresome, these are fundamental narratives believed by many Christians and Mormons. But outside of Creationist Museums in Kentucky, very few scientists spend much time using these narratives to explain the nature of Creation.
Some Christians and Mormons now see these stories as metaphor.
But others have an unquestioning belief in the veracity of anything Biblical.
And to avoid a false dichotomy, I should include the great middle section of humanity that isn't troubled by the historicity of Biblical narratives.
Science and Logic have made it increasingly difficult for other Christian denominations to turn up their collective noses at the stories of Joseph Smith finding golden plates in upstate New York. Does believing that Golden Plates were delivered to Smith by an angel named Moroni really require more faith than believing Jehovah delivered 10 Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai?
Does the Mormon account of Lost Tribes of Israel emmigrating to North America require a gullible suspension of disbelief, whereas a belief that our diverse languages originated at the Tower of Babel, well, that story is factual because "God said it, I believe it, That settles it"?
The theme of Romney's speech was the Diversity of Faith in America. I believe that he missed an opportunity for a different, more effective theme. He flew past it while making an unrelated point.
I'll try to make the point for him.
"There are some for whom these commitments (to keep church and state separate) are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers - I will be true to them and to my beliefs."
Now we're getting somewhere. The Faith of our Fathers....
I can understand that Mitt Romney believes in "Baptism For The Dead" much like I prefer baptism by "Total Immersion", while Hillary Clinton, as a Methodist, probably can make an argument for "Sprinkling", and Rudy Giuliani, as a Catholic, might say the same.
Our parents raised us this way. I have Methodist and Catholic friends who almost without exception were raised by Methodist and Catholic parents. My only Serbian Orthodox friend has Serbian Orthodox parents.
And we display a brand loyalty on these issues beyond anything the advocates of Ford or Chevy, PC or Mac, or McDonald's vs. Wendy's can imagine. To change camps isn't merely to change theological belief systems or to threaten our status in the next life - it's changing something more important.
To convert to another faith is to disavow what your parents have given you as a guide to life and the universe. To betray the The Faith of Our Fathers is to betray The Tribe.
I'm not suggesting that Romney should've thrown his Mormon convictions under the bus - distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than a personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts - but perhaps Romney would have been better served by a speech tracing Mormonism in his family, generation by generation, and how it has been a guide and aid for their obvious humanitarian, business and political accomplishments.
Non-Mormons would continue to think The Lost Tribes of Israel got no further than The Mediterranean. But more of them would have understood Mitt Romney and his loyalty to his church. We would be reminded that our own faiths have elements that are incomprehensible to outsiders, but we rely on these doctrines anyway.
They fit us so well because we were shaped by them.
Mark Twain had a lot to say about this in his forgotten classic "Christian Science", written at a time when Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Scientists were expanding as quickly as the LDS church is expanding today...."When I, a thoughtful and unblessed Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. When a thoughtful and unblessed Mohammedan examines the Westminster Catechism, he knows that beyond any question I am spiritually insane. I cannot prove to him that he is insane, because you never can prove anything to a lunatic--for that is a part of his insanity and the evidence of it. He cannot prove to me that I am insane, for my mind has the same defect that afflicts his. All Democrats are insane, but not of of them knows it. None but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it....(Mugwumps were Republicans who protested corruption by voting for Democrats. They changed tribes, so to speak, and were therefore insane.)
Twain goes on to list all the religious denominations that differ from his Presbyterianism, and then asks:
Why is he insane? I told you before: it is because his opinions are not ours. I know of no other reason, and I do not need any other; it is the only way we have of discovering insanity when it is not violent. It is merely the picturesqueness of his insanity that makes it more interesting than my kind or yours."
Mitt Romney, in my opinion, is insane. His LDS faith makes him so.
If Mitt Romney values his LDS faith like I think he does, then I'm insane for rejecting it.
Now that Mr. Romney and I have that out of the way, I'm free to look at his record as Governor of Massachusetts, his role in saving the Utah Olympics, and his ideas to fix our health care system.
Despite his obvious mental illness, Mitt Romney might make a great President.
Click Here for a previous rant about religious texts, written in a bad mood after a bad week of news from Iraq.
P.S. - Someone at the LDS church also believes that Mark Twain had good things to say about the nature of belief. On December 6th, when I went to a website called classicreader.com to locate the Twain quotes from Christian Science, the scrolling banner at the top of the page said "Click Here For A Free Book of Mormon".