And rather than shy away from Mr. Romney’s faith, as some campaign aides have argued he should, they have decided to embrace it. On the night Mr. Romney will address the convention, a member of the Mormon Church will deliver the invocation. On Sunday, this new approach was apparent as Mr. Romney invited reporters to join him at church services.
The blogger behind Ask Mormon Girl offers her own personal stories and insights about being raised in the LDS Church — its beautiful elements and some its internal tensions — and how this presidential campaign season is a “white-knuckle moment” for many Mormons. She’s smart, candid, incisive, and, yes, she might even make you cry.
Romney, Mormonism, and the American Compromise
by Terryl Givens, guest contributor
Mitt Romney is threatening to disturb the American compromise with Mormonism.
Nineteenth-century observers were largely indifferent to the new religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830. Most dismissed his claims about angels and gold plates as just another example of American gullibility. “Had we not seen in our own days similar impostures practiced with success,” yawned one Illinois contemporary, “[Mormonism] would have excited our special wonder; as it is, nothing excites surprise.” But in Missouri and Illinois local tensions erupted in violence, and national concern intensified when Brigham Young — relatively safe in the refuge of Utah — announced a system of plural marriage in 1852.
For the next forty years, from the popular press and pulpits alike, cries for the eradication of this “relic of barbarism” streamed forth from the pulpits, press, and party platforms. Then came concessions — but limited concessions — from both sides. Mormons abandoned polygamy and political isolationism. And America granted partial accommodation. The deal was signed in 1893 — but it was a devil’s bargain. Here is what happened.
At the choral competition of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, on Friday September 8, in front of packed crowds, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir dazzled the audience and the judges alike, to win the silver medal. (The general consensus of Mormon and non-Mormon alike was that they had actually earned the gold.) The recipients of rapturous acclaim, the choir had suddenly become America’s sweetheart. They were invited to provide the patriotic music for the placement of the Liberty Bell at the Chicago Exposition. Their farewell concert was standing room only, journalists raved to a receptive public about the singing sensation, and concert promoters lobbied the choir to tour the east. Suddenly, Mormons were not just legitimate, they were popular.
And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the festivities. In conjunction with the grandiose Columbian Exposition, organizers had planned a World’s Parliament of Religion for September 11-22, 1893, in order to “promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths.” Over three thousand invitations had been sent worldwide, to bring together representatives of every world faith and Christian denomination in a momentous gesture of interfaith respect and dialogue. Many faiths were underrepresented — but only one group was deliberately and conspicuously left out altogether. And that was, not unpredictably, the Mormons. So even while the choir was singing its way into history and America’s heart, the Mormon church was emphatically denied a voice in the nation’s first attempt at a comprehensive interfaith dialogue. What seemed like a contradiction was actually a compromise.
In the century since the Chicago fair, Mormons have been lauded for their choirs and their football. They are largely respected as good, decent, family-centered people, who are welcome to sing for presidents and dance with the stars — and everyone agrees to avoid theological questions. But as presidential nominations near, Romney’s candidacy threatens this compromise, because what a Mormon presidential candidate actually believes seems far too important to table. And when Mormon theology enters the public discussion, the words Charles Dickens wrote in 1851 strike many as still apt: “What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say, is mostly nonsense.”
But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy. But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction. And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community. What are these fundamentals?
- God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
- Men and women existed as spiritual beings in the presence of God before progressing to this mortal life.
- Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).
- God has the desire and the power to save, through his son Jesus Christ, the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most perversely unwilling, that will be our destiny.
- Heaven will principally consist in the eternal duration of those relationships that matter most to us now: spouses, children, and friends.
None of these beliefs is relevant to a political candidate’s fitness for office. But they should be the starting point for any serious attempt to get at the core of Mormon belief. And there should be no compromise on that point.
Terryl Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Before we marry the guy next door, don’t you think we ought to have a fling with a tall dark stranger and see if he can support us in the manner to which we’d like to be accustomed?
—Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention
Does anybody else find this statement by a leading Evangelical voice a bit incongruous? I understand what he’s getting at — not settling for Mitt Romney when there may be a better alternative for Evangelicals and social conservatives — but it seems quite strange for the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention to be advocating for a political affair, if you will. The language is just so odd.
By the way, this quotation was excerpted from Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s excellent piece on today’s NPR Morning Edition. If you are interested in politics and/or kingmaking, this report is for you.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
He told me that, as human beings, our work isn’t measured by taking the sum of our good deeds and the sum of our bad deeds and seeing how things even out. He said, ‘The only thing you need to think about is: Are you trying to improve, are you trying to do better? And if you are, then you’re a saint.’
—Bryce Clark, speaking about Mitt Romney, who as a 19-year-old sought Romney’s advice as a Mormon spiritual leader in Boston.
This profile piece in The New York Times is several months old but does a fair job of exploring the candidate’s authority as a faith leader and human being.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Unorthodox Spectrum of Mormonism Explained
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve had a sense of déjà vu as the discussion about Mormonism has heated up as of late, with exactly the same dynamic occurring in the last presidential election season. But the discussion this time is more serious.
It’s not just the fact that two Mormons — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — are viable presidential candidates. It’s a Broadway musical. It’s more than one successful TV drama. We’re in, we’re coming to say, a “Mormon moment.” Joanna Brooks, giving just one of the many helpful pieces of perspective in this conversation, compares the rise of Mormons in politics and culture to the rise of the Mormon-owned Marriott Hotel chain. A highly disciplined, highly effective frontier culture grows up and migrates back out into centers of power. It’s a classic American story. But there’s also some kind of religious and cultural coming of age here, for Mormons and the rest of us.
I couldn’t have found a better person than Joanna Brooks to shed some distinctively informative, candid, and meaningful light on it all. She’s a literature scholar and a journalist. Her Ask Mormon Girl blog and Twitter feed is a remarkably reflective, compassionate community of questioning with Mormons of many stripes. And Ask Mormon Girl, as she notes on her website, is housed on the “legendary Feminist Mormon Housewives blog.” That is just one of many things that does not meet the traditional American eye on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but which we engage through the voice and life of Joanna Brooks.
She grew up, as she tells it for starters, at the southern tip of the “Book of Mormon Belt” — Orange County, California, that is, which I’d associated more vividly with evangelical Christianity. Her father was “bishop” of their congregation several times growing up — a volunteer position that Mitt Romney has also held in his communities across his lifetime. Her mother is a “professional Mormon,” as she affectionately puts it — with, among other things, a serious avocation for genealogy. Joanna Brooks uses words like “rich,” “imaginative”, and “robust” to describe this faith that formed her and that she continues to love.
She has also struggled mightily, suffered disappointment and heartbreak, with this tradition she loves. She became an intellectual and a feminist at Brigham Young University, and then watched the university and the Church for a time condemn and disown the very Mormon mentors who’d inspired her. She was vociferously opposed to the proactive role the LDS Church took in California’s Proposition 8 referendum. But she is a probing force inside the Church’s wrestling with pain and confusion over this issue. Her blog is a model of compassionate presence, both to LGBT Mormons and to parents struggling to reconcile their religious beliefs and their love for their children. She honors the human confusion here that is not exclusive to Mormons and the added complexity that their theology of the family and eternity gives to subjects of marriage and sexuality.
Most of this conversation, though, is not about hot-button issues or presidential politics. It is an informative, energetic, and often moving journey into life on the other side of the American perception that Mormons are weird at best, a cult at worst. Joanna Brooks does not defend her tradition in any simplistic way, but she does make it three-dimensional and far harder to parody. Consider, for example, as she helps us do, the ambivalence and pain that Mormon married couples feel at their church’s legacy of polygamy. Hear her explanation of her sense of the “strangeness” of accusations she’s heard since she was a child, that she — a follower of Jesus Christ, a serious thinker about notions like atonement and grace — is not Christian. On a lighter note, but with just as much illumination for the listener, she is candid and corrective about a lingering obsession out there with ritual Mormon undergarments.
The most classic American story in this Mormon moment, perhaps, is how Joanna Brooks and other faith-filled and “unorthodox” Mormons are claiming their place in the unfolding story of this young frontier tradition. It is evolving from the inside in ways more meaningful, perhaps, than its outer rise to prominence in politics. Maybe in hindsight, we’ll see this Mormon moment as an occasion for this increasingly influential American phenomenon, composed after all of human beings, to become more articulate about itself and more comprehensible to the rest of us in its complexity.
Variations on Washington Post Headline(s) about Romney Response
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
How often is the substance of a report informed or clouded or steered by the headlines that precede it?
Today’s Washington Post may be a fine illustration of this question. Take a look at the four headlines written for a single article by Philip Rucker. A reader can get a very different sense of Mitt Romney and the presidential candidate’s response last night to recent comments about his Mormon faith made by an Evangelical Christian pastor of a megachurch in Dallas.
So, a bit of context with a compare and contrast of each headline in its context. The lede for Sunday’s print edition:
“Romney Pushes Aside Mormonism Question”
And on this morning’s home page of WaPo’s website:
“Romney Condemns Religious Bigotry But Doesn’t Talk About His Faith”
The main page of the politics section reads:
“Romney Treats Issue of His Religion as Settled”
Finally, the headline that tops the actual article:
“Romney, His Mormonism a Campaign Issue Again, Condemns Religious Bigotry”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Following this year’s presidential campaigns wouldn’t be nearly as fun without the humorous, and often spot on, commentary of Ana Marie Cox. The former Wonkette blogger and now TIME magazine Washington editor has been covering the Republican candidates on the campaign trail and posting extensively on Swampland, TIME’s political blog, via her twitterfeed (definitely subscribe to this if you like pithy metaphors), and her Flickrfile.
That she even posted the picture was surprising, but what grabbed my attention was item #3 from her “Missing Mitt” vid: learning more about Mormonism. A refreshing take… and then she cited a Jon Krakauer book, Underneath the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, as her source of information about the LDS Church. Now, I haven’t read it, but I kinda gotta think the subtitle isn’t a promising starting point for Krakauer’s narratives, which, in my humble opinion, tend to have a judgmental, condemnatory tone to them. Robert Wright in his review for The New York Times points to this deficiency:
“Certainly the picture of religion presented in the book is unflattering. Linking the Laffertys to Mormon history means stressing its violent and authoritarian aspects. And of course neither of these is an invention of Krakauer’s. (Polygamous societies in general tend toward authoritarianism, as the anthropologist Laura Betzig has shown. She attributes this to the need of powerful men to control not just women but the understandably unsettled lower-status males who, through the grim mathematics of polygamy, go mateless.) Still, it would have been nice to see some of religion’s upside. Something must explain the vibrancy of mainstream Mormonism, and I doubt it’s just the dark energy of residual authoritarianism. Religion, like patriotism, can nurture virtue within the group even while directing hostility beyond it.”
Have any of you read this account? Do you think it’s a good reference book for learning about the LDS Church? Well, after reading a Tom Stoppard play and a biography on Heschel, I might just have to check this out.