Mormonism Sure Is Weird
Jeffrey Goldberg asks, “What if Mitt Romney were Jewish?” Rather than the expected argument that it’s improper to question bizarre religious beliefs held by those aspiring to the presidency, Goldberg takes an interesting turn.
The Washington Post (WPO)’s Jason Horowitz reported this month that officials on Mitt Romney’s campaign don’t care much for journalistic explorations of their candidate’s religious beliefs.
One spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, has been throwing brushback pitches at reporters who write about Romney’s faith, asking if they would write similar stories about Jews.
According to Horowitz, Saul objected to sentences in an earlier Washington Post piece describing how Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, is said to have discovered the golden plates that provided the theological underpinnings of his new faith.
“Would you write this sentence in describing the Jewish faith?” she asked, providing an example: “‘Jews believe their prophet Moses was delivered tablets on a mountain top directly from G-d after he appeared to him in a burning bush.’ Of course not, yet you reference a similar story in Mormonism.”
Goldberg correctly points out that we’ve never elected a Jewish president and that recent vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman actually got some of that sort of reporting. I’d forgotten that but it’s true:
A New York Times reporter, Laurie Goodstein, detailed Lieberman’s exotic rites at length, in the manner of an anthropologist explaining a previously unknown Amazon tribe: “Many of Mr. Lieberman’s most basic religious rituals are intimate acts,” the article said. At morning prayer, “the senator lays on tefillin, the small leather boxes that contain four biblical passages written on parchment, binding the boxes to one arm and his forehead with leather straps.”
Here’s where it gets interesting:
So what does the Romney camp find so frightening? In talking to my Mormon friends (some of my best friends are Mormons), the answer is clear. The practices and origin stories of most religions, when viewed by outsiders, all seem fairly strange. But Mormonism seems just a bit stranger than the rest. The great fear is not that Americans will see a Mormon politician as too sinister to lead the country (the way that some Baptist leaders once saw the Catholic John F. Kennedy) but that Americans will see a Mormon as too bizarre to be president.
They point to the issue of “sacred underwear,” the derisive term for undergarments worn by some Mormons to remind themselves of their religious responsibilities. Many find the concept odd, but should they? Is Mormonism really that much stranger than other religions?
I vividly remember learning from a Catholic friend that, each Sunday, his family would attend church to drink the blood of Jesus and eat his body. Freaky. But is it any freakier than the sight of a bunch of Jews gathering around an 8-day-old boy to watch a man with a beard snip off the tip of the baby’s penis, and then to eat blintzes afterward? Religious Jews, of course, also wear a variation of “sacred underwear” — zizit and tallitot, traditional garments that date back thousands of years, to the ancient Middle East.
The Mormon tradition dates back less than 200 years, to Palmyra, New York. What Mormons suffer from more than any other major religion is proximity. The foundation stories of Mormonism took place in the age of skeptical journalism, and they took place in the U.S. Most Christians believe in a Second Coming. Mormons believe the Second Coming will be in Missouri. Many Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from Jerusalem on a winged animal, which has the ring of something mystical and transcendent. If Muhammad had departed for heaven from Tenafly, New Jersey, well, that would open up Islam to some level of derision.
I recall way back in 1997 when 39 members of a California religious cult calling itself Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in order that they might be swept aboard an alien spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet. I recall this tragedy being discussed with great credulity on that weekend’s “This Week” roundtable, which happened to be on Easter Sunday. I recall thinking that, with the notable exception of the suicidal component, the belief system of the Heaven’s Gaters seemed far less silly than those who believed that our invisible overlord sent his only begotten Son–who was actually just an aspect of himself–to earth whereby he would be born to a virgin who was herself born to a virgin in order that he might undergo 33 years of testing and ultimately die for our sins only to be resurrected three days later in order to give mankind hope for eternal redemption, which would come at some time at least two thousand years into the future when he would return. At least we had good reason to believe that the Hale-Bopp comet existed.
Mormonism is strange in comparison to more mainstream Christian beliefs mostly because it takes all of the strange beliefs of Christianity and heaps some new ones on top. At the end of the day, though, I take the same view of Mormonism as South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker: the mythology is absurd hokum but most Mormons simply take away broad lessons about the value of family, community, and common decency.