Mormonism Sure Is Weird
Jeffrey Goldberg asks, "What if Mitt Romney were Jewish?"
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.
The “weirdness” of Mormonism is, to some extent, a function of the fact that it is a relatively young religion. When Christianity was roughly 150 years old its members were still worshiping in secret in many parts of the Mediterranean world because their contemporaries viewed them as members of a cult.
James–not sure I’m following your point here. It seems to be – We shouldn’t regard Mormonism as weird because it’s a religion and religions are weird. Or is it just – Leave my guy Mitt aloooooone.
Well said, James, well said. As a nonreligious person, I view all religions roughly equally (aside from the more violent aspects of some sects of some.)* If you think about it, Mormonism is no more weird than most garden varieties of mainstream Christianity. I also don’t think it’s really that important for a journalism article. I just don’t. Call me when he presses for a law mandating we all have magical underwear.
* Necessary disclaimer in case someone comes in here and says “Well what about the Islamists, huh huh huh?” Uh, well, yes, obviously they’re a different case…
@gVOR08: My point is that Mitt Romney’s religion is not really any stranger than Barack Obama’s religion. Absent proposals to make aspects of their belief systems public policy or other angles that would impact performance in office, it should just be a non-issue.
Goldberg’s really oversimplifying. Mormonism has a speific historical and insitutional relations with the Federal government of the United State that Judaism doesn’t have; including a (relatively) recent legacy of Anti-Americanism and violent conflict. I mean, how do you write a column about the political context of Mormonism in the United States without mentioning Brigham Young or the Utah War ?
I think the a lot of the “weirdness” bridges Doug and Goldberg’s comments. What Mormonism has against it is that from a timing perspective, it’s not just that it was a new Religion in terms of it’s founding, but that it was founded at a time when there was a greater effort to record and archive contemporaneous events. So we know a lot of historical information about Joseph Smith and later Bringham Young. While some contemporaneous records exist that point to the historical existence of Christ, we don’t have (for example) documentation of his criminal record.
The proximity piece also goes far beyond simply that Mormonism emerged in America — it’s that America and Americans are fundamentally baked into the very foundational myths of Mormonism (I’m using “myth” as a social scientific term, not a value judgment). It wasn’t simply the America was founded by Christians, it’s that Christ was American before there was an America.
That combination of lots of “neutral historical” documentation about Mormonism’s founders and the early action of Mormons, combined with the way it explicitly combines American Exceptionalism and Christianity (versus using Christian ideas as a basis for American Exceptionalism), with a healthy does of odd practices (“magic underwear”, history of Polygamy, the pre-1978 restrictions on the salvation of Blacks, and the post death baptizing of a wide range of individuals) thrown in, create a lot of problems.
As James says, I think Stone and Parker have it right. And every religion has a lot to answer for in terms of strange beliefs and dubious practices. I still think that the Romney camp feels that the less said about Mormonism, the better — at least until after the election.
I just realized that I forgot the other key issue with Mormonism — secrecy. Like it or not, the key Religions of The Book and other world religions are largely transparent. There may not be specific areas of a Church/Temple/Mosque that non-believers cannot enter, however, that’s different then completely shutting them out of the temple.
As with Scientology, the restriction on information to non-members (and even to certain members of the Religion) creates a lot of speculation about Mormonism.
On the plus side, without Mormonism we never would have had either Battlestar Galactica…
I was going to add this if no one else did. I think that the secrecy element exacerbates the weirdness factor.
Essentially, as mentioned above, the problem is that Mormonism didn’t arise in “ancient times” it arose from “modern man.” It doesn’t qualify as mythology because it originated in an era when we had science. So it seems extra stupid.
The reason Christians despise Mormons is precisely because their absurd modern revelations cast a critical light on the equally absurd ancient Christian revelations, and as well on the even more ancient Jewish revelations.
Not to mention that the reason the only reason we need to redeemed is to appease the anger of the same being supposedly doing the redeeming, who is pissed at mankind for eating fruit which he gave us immediate access to and made no attempt to protect, but which we were supposed to know was wrong to eat despite having been deliberately made with no innate understanding of the concept of right and wrong. Although in our defense, we only did it because we got tricked by the talking snake.
There is a relationship between the Mormon (LDS) Church and the U.S. government that does not exist with other faiths. I believe some of the lingering suspicions that evangelicals have about Mormonism will need to be addressed by Romney, or he will have troubles this fall. I expect, for example, a whisper campaign about the White Horse prophecy or Romney’s Mexican roots to bubble up from time to time. Romney would be smart to find a way to address these concerns by being forthright about his faith heritage, otherwise a small section of potential supporters will leak away without a sign.
I have a sneaking suspicion that if the internal polling come October shows Obama in the rear then we’ll be hearing from the media/Democrat complex in every gory detail just how weird Mormonism truly is.
Well, Christians don’t see Christianity as having perverted Judaism, a lot of them do see Mormonism as having perverted Christianity.
The other “other issue” is baptism of the dead; a practice that I’m surprised Goldberg doesn’t identify. Goldberg has mentioned he is Jewish once or twice?
Latter Day Saints allow outsiders to visit their temples before they are consecrated/blessed. I toured the new temple in Nauvoo before it opened, and the various rooms and murals reflected the underpinnings of masonry from this outsider’s perspective. I thought they were pretty open about what they do there.
@PD Shaw: It’s one thing to be able to visit a temple BEFORE it’s in operation, its entirely a different thing to be able to visit a temple IN operation.
I think Mormons have done a lot in recent years to make things more transparent. But this will still be an issue…
Part of the problem for Mormons is that while Moses (to take one example) is unknown outside the Bible, the Torah and the Koran, and therefore is not a historical entity to believers, Joseph Smith left a trail behind him that historians could follow and have since the time he left the eastern US for Utah. If there were references to Moses and his activities in Babylonian or Egyptian archives, then Moses would look less holy and more human, and therefore more fallible.
Please note I am not saying that Moses wasn’t “real” or “didn’t exist”; I am only saying that no one else, no “third party” mentioned him in their own writings.
Also, for a real hoot, get hold of the late Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, his look at the history of the great European witchscare of the 15th-17th centuries. The first chapter is a description of a Roman government spy who infiltrated an early Christian service in 1st century Rome and who was completely unclear on the concept: he describes the entire ritual as if it were cannibalism! Quite funny.
About the only really weird thing about Mormonism for me is their attitude toward coffee. That is weird.
I see a news story about Russians angry with Mormons who they suspect are baptizing their dead … tying the two stories together.
(I’m totally an outsider to this, but I googled out of a suspicion that there might be a religious angle to Romney and the Russians.)
Tsar Nicholas, what an asinine statement implying that the dems will have a whisper campaign regarding mitt’s religion if they are behind come October.
You are full of shite….unfortunately the dems don’t play ugly smear games the way repubs do.
A case in point, there is a certain high ranking republican congressman from a conservative So Cal district who everyone knows is gay, but who has not come out. In fact, in 2010 when the repubs took back control of the house, skirting seniority rules, he was passed over for a powerful chairmanship since they knew this fact may get out and embarrass the homophobe party (see Grennell, Richard).
If the Dems really play the same twisted, evil games as the GOP, this hypocritical dipshit would have been voted out long ago. But I can personally attest that Dem candidates will not use this sure fire issue since there are many gays in the party and since unlike the GOP, we value their membership and will not attack him for being a hypocrite. Hence, he is still in Congress.
So tsar, go f yourself since this false equivalence of dems being as dirty as the wingnuts is patent bullshit.
I agree with those who say that we have a more difficult time accepting and the strangeness of Mormonism because it is a relatively new religious cult.
I look forward to the day when a major presidential candidate says, “I was raised as a ________, however, I myself do not attend worship services, and I have no problem with those of you who do.”
Well, somebody’s not afraid to call a whatever a whatever:
I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian
Al-Meda, we already had a president like what you describe….his name was ronald reagan.
the dude was never a regular church member and barely mentions faith as important to him personally.
All religions are weird. Mormonism is one of the weirdest.
To be fair, just because Democrats/leftists don’t resort to using cultural dog whistles like the righties do, doesn’t mean they don’t play ugly smear games as well. I disagree with the Tsar like you. However, in the scenario he describes (Obama waay behind) the issue will not be Mormonism, but some other issue designed to fire up the base. Bringing up holy underwear won’t get anyone from the left to the polls. Nor, do I suspect, will it keep the ultra-right away if they perceive they are winning and the scary black man is going to go away soon.
Great to see the usual leftist crowd exhibiting their vaunted “tolerance.”. (snicker)
@James Joyner: As a matter of high principle I’d like to agree with you. In practice, I have some objections:
– Like many things, this seems to be an IOKIYAR deal.
– I’m still miffed that while running in a southern primary and sucking up to evangelicals, Romney got away with saying he reads scripture every day and nobody asked which scripture.
– Mormonism really is weirder than the Lutheranism I’m lapsed from. As for Obama, Wright’s church is Church of Christ. Some of my in-laws are CoC. Seems pretty unexceptional.
– See Michael Reynolds above, you don’t get to have 200 year old myths. (OK, there is supply side economics, but who really believes that?)
– If the Republicans aren’t doing anything to tamp down the Rev Wright witch hunt, this is sauce for the gander.
– While we have closet Dominionists running for public office, we have a duty to inquire about a candidate’s religion and its effect on his likely behavior.
– Historic Mormon attitudes toward blacks and current attitudes toward gays raise legitimate questions.
– But most importantly, Romney and his supporters use his religion to define Romney in a way that Obama does not. You don’t get to use the positive aspects of Mormonism to support Romney and then rule everything else out of bounds.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Weird is relative.
The problem here is that the vast majority of Americans were raised on “check the boxes” religion –“Exoteric” (“outer” practices) religion. When one delves into Esoteric (“inner”) practices (which most Buddhist branches practice at some level), then things get “weird”.
They’re supposed to be weird.
Mormonism has certain Esoteric practices in it. All over the world, regardless of the religious base, Esoteric practices are shielded from outsiders. In Kaballah (Judaism), Vajrayana/Mikkyo (an entire branch of Buddhism), and even the Stations of the Cross (as practiced historically, and still practiced in certain places) there are things that just aren’t discussed until the practitioner is ready for them. There are teachings/initiations/rites that must be given in a certain order.
It doesn’t make sense to the Logical brain. It’s not supposed to.
A respect for what others consider to be Sacred does not really exist in American culture. Oh, some like to talk big … but very few practice it. So, should it be any wonder that many religions keep their most sacred ceremonies to themselves? This is especially true of Esoteric teachings/ceremonies/rituals.
For those that wonder, when the Mormon Temples are open to visitors they don’t leave much out — only a very few things that are strictly for the ceremonies. You really didn’t miss anything.
Hey Drew here’s the thing: as a Leftist I support the full rights of all Mormons to practice their religion as they see fit. I support the marriage of one Mormon to the next, or to any non-Mormon they choose. I support the rights of all Mormons to vote, hold property, raise or adopt children, travel freely between borders, speak their minds, participate in the political process, etc…….
I would imagine every “leftist” on this board agrees on these points. We have no problem tolerating Mormons. We may think Mormons have silly, silly beliefs (a lot of non-Leftists think the same thing), but toleration is not the problem.
So, seriously, pull your head out of your ass.
Go ahead Drew, name names, point out the “usual lefitist crowd” who are intolerant of Mormonism.
Even if you are a Mormon, you might not be allowed to enter the Temple. Mormons have to be in good standing with the church in order to be able to enter the Temple. A friend of my daughter is Mormon and her parents were not in “good standing” with the Church. They were not allowed to attend their daughter’s wedding ceremony in the Temple.
I’d argue that the LDS church is seen as odd for a good part because is is not a mainstream Christian faith. Furthermore, the more blindly one adheres to the convenient aspects of their own faith, the more odd others are (especially those closely related but with distinctive differences – at least in the Christian world).
Having lived in western Colorado for the past three decades, this narrative that some in the media so want to foist falls flat. I much prefer darn good neighbors with mildly odd beliefs (my sister is a UCC minister and she has odd beliefs) to perfectly in-sync neighbors with atrocious behaviors.
I knew about some of that. Again, that also ties into the Mormon Church’s unfortunate history with race and essentially shutting blacks out from a number of areas of the Church until the mid 70’s. Even then, the revelation that overturned the words of Bringhan Young had far more to do with the Church’s expansion into the multi-racial nation of Brazil than anything else.
Fair points. However the fact that non-Mormons cannot attend ANY services is something that is still hard to understand. Admittedly, there might not be full transparency in any religion (in most Christian traditions you cannot take communion if you are not a member of the Church). That said, the exclusion of non-Mormons from the temple is by far the most radical exclusion of any of the religions of The Book.
As an atheist I consider all religion to be nonsense. Mormons just add an additional layer to the nonsense.
So sayith the absolutist fantaicial belivers in the church of Evolution…..
The idea that animals evolved over time was originally proposed by a number of greek philosophers such as Anaximander (610-546 BCE) and Empedocles (490–430 BCE) and thus evolution long predates Christianity. And of course, since the modern evangelical Christian views on biology are actually derived from muslim philsophers rather than the early Christian church, those views didn’t appear until the development of Avicennism in the 12th century.
The Temple ceremonies are different and distinct from Sunday services, which anyone is welcome to attend. The local congregation has all sort of stuff that’s open to the public. Almost everything, actually.
Be aware, however, that in ancient Buddhist communities there are plenty of ceremonies that the public is forbidden to attend. This is especially true of the Vajrayana branches (most Tibetan branches; Shingon-Shu; …). If my sources are correct, this is also (especially?) true of the Aboriginal American religion.
Globally, it’s actually not that strange; it’s only the de-facto Protestant* cultural upbringing in the US that makes it seem so.
* I know that there are plenty of Catholics in the US, but most of the public religious discussion is in Protestant terms.
Yes, but that would rather be the point, yes?
It is not an issue of absolute, comparative-historic “weirdness” it is a question of the degree to which it is perceived as “weird” in contemporary US society.
Thanks for that correction. I didn’t realize that was the case.
@John D’Geek: Globally, it’s actually not that strange; it’s only the de-facto Protestant* cultural upbringing in the US that makes it seem so.@John D’Geek: Fair point. I still content that Mormonism’s explicit mashup of Christianity and American Exceptionalism (including the integration of Christ into the history of America) creates some of the disconnect.
But beyond that I think that Steven nails it with the answer of if we look thought a contemporary American lens versus a Comp Religion lens, we find many of the answers there.
I love how Drew managed to see intolerance in this thread.
Nearly all the comments are agreeing that Mormonism isn’t actually wierder than other religious (just newer), with a few quibbles (secrecy). None of the comments claimed they were a threat, or that one should not vote for Romney b/c of his religion. No one said Mormons are bad, or should be stopped, etc. People expressed disbelief/skepticism, and called Mormon beliefs a bit silly.
TO THE FAINTING COUCH!
Tolerance doesn’t mean deference, or even respect.
The theological beliefs of Mormonism vs. Christianity are kind of a sideshow. The Mormon Church is a very heirarchial institution that has numerous levers with which to control those who wish to remain in its good graces (allowing people to various rooms in the Temple and so on) . So the question becomes: what if the Elders of the Mormon Church threaten religious sanctions or excommunication (or whatever the mormon term is) against Romney unless he supports some social policy?
JFK dealt with similar fears about the Vatican dictating policy choices by strongly affirming his commitment to the separation of church and state. It would help if Romney made a similar affirmation.
interesting article here http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/11/biographer-recounts-romney-s-many-trips-to-mormon-church-to-discuss-social-issues.html
You don’t understand what the old testament was about?
Oh, sorry S.D. I forgot to thank you for agreeing with me, kind of 🙂
@G.A.: Then you won’t have to worry about the medicine-resistant tuberculosis [see today’s WSJ–front page] developing in India because to you, it doesn’t exist, right?
No wonder the US is sliding down the scale, given this level of stupidity.
I won’t disagree here. Sorry, I know I’m expected to be unreasonable … LOL
The LDS Temple isn’t really a “certain rooms” sort of place. Younger / inexperienced are restricted to “baptism for the dead”, but once you get a “full recommend” (most adults) you can attend all of the ceremonies, and have been through the overwhelming majority of them already. (For marriage you need … wait for it … to get married. That’s the only real exception; but any recommend holder can attend the marriages, if invited by bride and/or groom).
A legitimate question. Short answer(I don’t have room for a full treatment): it can’t be done.
The LDS Church operates on a “weird” (to hijack the term) version of the Rule of Law. Even the founder (Joseph Smith) couldn’t do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted*. Excommunication / censoring can only be done for strict, “publicly”-known reasons: excommunications/dis-fellowships never “come out of left field”.
The only time a person is excommunicated for “political” reasons is when they try to tell the church leadership that they have fallen because they don’t support/oppose “Issue X”. Disagreeing – even publicly – is fine; saying that God has rejected them, etc., is a Big No-No(TM) and will get you in trouble. (This should be self-evident, but I guess it’s not to some. I mean, if you really think the Pope is “doing the devil’s work” … you probably shouldn’t be Catholic.)
If Mitt Romney told the church what they needed to believe, he would be in trouble. But following his own conscience as POTUS is … well, pretty much expected. One of the “weird” aspects of Mormonism is that you’re expected to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. If you don’t, you’re not a very good Mormon.
Put it this way: Harry Reid is still (to my knowledge) a member in good standing. If anyone would have gotten “the push” from Salt Lake, it would have been him.
* There is a somewhat famous incident where Joseph Smith tried to refuse one of his “councilors”, but was denied.
@John D’Geek: Just out of curiosity, are you (or have you ever been) a Mormon… (sorry for sounding a bit like McCarthy there)
What are you talking about, and what does have to do with anything I said?
grumpy realist, here bro. I am sorry for being a punk most of the time because of my personality defects when it come to issues with my frustration psychosis and my uncontrolled tongue issues.It sucks for me to know things that I can’t get others to believe or understand almost as much as when I come to understand things that I don’t want to believe.
Here is a good link that will lead you many places. Please use it to, if anything, understand that even if you might think all creationists to be a crazy stereotype that they are at least not all stupid. That’s mostly me and how I get when my lack of ability and rush to intolerant furry when my arguments go completely over all participants heads including my own..
I come more and more to the knowledge that I can only harm such a debate because of who I am and how I am..
LOL! Sorry, I thought everyone reading already knew the story!
I was Mormon for twenty five years. I did the mission thing, did most leadership positions, etc etc. But I left the church a bit more than a decade ago.
I am Buddhist now (no belief necessary), which by Protestant definition is “far weirder” LOL
@John D’Geek: No, I didn’t know. I sometimes wish we could maintain bio pages, it would be really helpful.
Thanks for the background, you’ve done a great job of representing (in a neutral, fact based fashion) the Mormon Church — including answering a number of the tougher questions that I’ve always had.
Beyond that, there have been many points (especially when I am struggling with core Christian beliefs) where I’ve wondered if Buddhists (as I understand at least some of the Sects) don’t have the best approach.