This was supposed to be such a time of legitimacy for the religion of Mormonism, predicted years earlier by academics such as Harold Bloom in 1992 in The American Religion and later on in the New York Times. But little could we have imagined the subtle way the religion of Joseph Smith was to worm its way into our collective national conscience. After Bloom, critics imagined Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, two supremely intelligent, intellectual and well-meaning men finally staging a national election of which we, as a nation, could be proud.
The reality of the 2012 election season has been much less kind, watching both candidates dumb down and shift their message to please whatever portion of the voting electorate they were focused on converting. Of particular disgust so far has been the way Romney’s religion, maligned by both our government in the 19th century, and Christianity later on, has not become part of our knowing of Mitt Romney. In an age when information is constantly to be found, how is it that a member of a religion that was persecuted for so long became just another rich, white guy running for higher office? Perhaps this was a sign of a growing democratic awareness, that just like Obama’s race, Romney’s religion didn’t need to be a sticking point for voters concerned with economic issues.
Unfortunately, the distinction was much more subtle. Romney, instead of trying to start a national dialogue about his religion, tried to paint his belief system as an offshoot of Protestantism, as though the people out in Salt Lake were a harmless nondenominational part of Christianity. But Mormons are not Christians, and do not believe in the Trinity, or solely worship the Bible. When Romney gave the commencement speech at Liberty University, one of the beating hearts of evangelical Christianity in this country, he said, “There is no greater force for God in the nation than Christian conscience in action.” The graduating class, already not listening carefully to the man on stage, would have heard a different meaning from that sentence from what Romney intended. The class would see it as an invocation to their path to rise high as Christians in the United States. But when a Mormon describes an object as Christian, they mean something very different from the way America sees it. Romney is subtle here, and it is this pander to the group of Protestants at Liberty that is one of the low points of the campaign. This speech showed that Romney was not interested in engaging the public, but wanted to garner their support through a subtle sleight of hand, even attempting to join Mormonism as part of the “Judeo-Christian” belief system, an antithetical and contradictory description that makes about as much sense as a Christian-Satanist or a Messianic Buddhist.
Make no mistake: the Mormon church is not a benign entity waiting patiently for the coming of Christ. The church, which didn’t allow African-Americans until 1978, and which subjugated multiple native cultures in the South Pacific, is a bastion of American exceptionalism, teaching our country as the highest example of culture and civility. Ignoring the racial and political motives for a brief moment, let us consider the Mormon striving for the kingdom of God. When a Christian tells you they wait for salvation, they mean to attain it after death through faith in the Lord. The Mormon church paints a much different picture, imagining an earthly kingdom where the Saints rule.
Romney represents not only that earthly kingdom (some $250 million worth, and the first Mormon to gain a major party nomination for the presidency), but also the ever-important heritage link to the beginning of Mormonism, himself a descendent of a follower of Joseph Smith, the man who declared himself a candidate for the presidency in 1844, the same year the church crowned him the king of heaven in a private ceremony. After the Prophet was killed in Nauvoo, Brigham Young led the chosen people west to find a place hospitable to their belief. But Joseph’s wife and a small group of his followers instead set a different path, basing their system on blood line, and continuing the Mormon preoccupation with heritage in Missouri.
The Christian mainstream has much to think about after the oligarchs in Salt Lake subtly infiltrated their ranks. Baptists in Texas and Methodists in Massachusetts don’t seem to understand the true purpose of the Latter Day Saints, judging them as a far-flung sect of Christ’s disciples. But the only thing Mormonism wants from Christianity is the mass numbers of followers it enjoys in America and the mainstream acceptance it has gained in our Evening Land. It’s not comfortable for Christians to hear, but the truth is unequivocal: the LDS church would like nothing more than to consume Christianity whole.
Mitt Romney showed compassion, poise and intelligence as governor of Massachusetts, but his unwillingness to discuss his religion, and the absence of mainstream discussion about it has become a dark mark on our nation’s discourse.