Today I’m going to tackle the sensitive and topical subject of Mormonism. In contrast to my usual style, I will attempt to do so without sarcasm and snark. I’m going to attempt to be serious.
Note: Within the context of this post, for convenience, the term “Mormonism” will be used interchangeably with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Why think about Mormonism? Why now? I think, mostly, the answer to that is Mitt Romney. He’s a serious candidate for president and, like every candidate before him, his religious views get put under a microscope and become a topic for discussion.
A quick check of recent headlines can show what I mean. I just went to Google News, searched for the word “Mormon” and these are the top 10 headlines (unedited) at the time I wrote this and in the order they originally appeared:
- How do Mormons answer ‘not Christian’ claims?
- Republican Candidates Dismiss Criticism of Romney as Mormon
- Anti-Mormonism: ‘the prejudice of our age’
- Gregg: Anti-Mormon comments are ‘hate language’
- Huntsman dismisses Mormon controversy as “ridiculous sideshow”
- Mormonism may not be a cult, but it is a major heresy
- Double Take ‘Toons: Romney Pastorized?
- A Look At Mormons And The GOP
- Mormons: One may serve as president soon
- Mormonism talking point ahead of GOP debate at Dartmouth
Can a Mormon be elected president? A 2008 study by BYU suggests that a Mormon faith may be one of the largest voter prejudices:
Poll question: “If you thought he or she was otherwise well qualified, would you vote for any of the following who was running for President of the United States?”
14% said they would not vote for a “black person.”
15% said they would not vote for a “Baptist.”
16% said they would not vote for a “woman.”
31% said they would not vote for a “Mormon.”
Source: BYU (link opens PDF file)
Before proceeding further, a bit of self-disclosure. I’m an atheist. As such, the religious beliefs of presidential candidates are of lesser concern to me than other factors like how their positions on various issues align with my personal beliefs. I grew up as an altar boy in the Episcopal church, but at the age of 16, I completed the process of becoming a Mormon including a peculiar form of confession, but I was never baptized. I was a minor at the time and my mother refused to give me permission.
To me, being a devout Mormon is no more strange than someone like George W. Bush praying to God for insight regarding a particular course of action.
Unfortunately, the BYU study mentioned above didn’t look at atheism. The Deseret News (owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) may call anti-Mormonism the “prejudice of our age” but other studies suggest that atheism would do even worse. There has never been an atheist president, at least not one openly so.
The religious affiliations of Presidents of the United States can affect their electability, shape their visions of society and how they want to lead it, and shape their stances on policy matters. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and William Howard Taft were accused of being atheists during election campaigns, while others to hold the office used faith as a defining aspect of their campaigns and tenure.
Throughout much of American history, the religion of past American presidents has been the subject of contentious debate. Some devout Christian Americans have been disinclined to believe that there may have been non-religious or even non-Christian presidents, especially amongst the Founding Fathers of the United States. As a result, apocryphal stories of a religious nature have appeared over the years about particularly beloved presidents such as Washington and Lincoln.
Almost all of the presidents can be characterized as Christian, at least by formal membership. Some were Unitarian or unaffiliated with a specific religious body. Some are thought to have been deists, or irreligious. No president thus far has been an Atheist, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh or an adherent of any other specifically non-Christian religion.
If you want to be the President of the United States, the evidence is clear: You had better declare your Christianity for all to see. If you don’t, history says you cannot win.
Thus, a declaration that Mormonism is not “Christian” or that it is a “cult” is a very serious matter to the electability of someone like Romney.
Is Mormonism a cult? To answer that, you have to define the word “cult” and then apply that definition to Mormonism. Unfortunately, there is no obvious right or wrong answer. Perhaps you could identify a list of twenty characteristics that are common to “cults.” In my opinion, Mormonism would have some of those characteristics but not all. Many of them would be debatable.
For example, one trait that most would accept as cult-like would be giving all of your money to your church. And even selling your worldly goods to give that money, too. Most of us would accept that giving all is a clear sign of a cult. In the church I was raised, we were not taught to tithe. We gave what we could and it was not measured, kept track of, or required. Mormonism requires something that falls in between those two extremes, specifically 10 percent of gross income and that it is “mandatory.” I actually think this is quite clever. If it was too much more than 10 percent the “cult” accusation would have a lot of traction.
Are Mormons “Christians?” Again, this is a controversial and highly debatable question. A Google search finds many possible answers. Some say that Mormons are not “Biblical Christians.” Some say the Bible itself warns against other gospels being preached, but Mormons have another book they say adds more to the story of Jesus Christ. (That he visited the Americas, etc.)
A lot of this stuff, to me, falls into the category of, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Is God one entity or three distinct ones? As an atheist, such matters of distinction don’t matter much to me. I don’t believe in any of them. However, the question regarding the “Christianity” of Mormons is an important one when it comes to presidential politics.
What do Mormons believe? That can be a tricky area. In my opinion they are not up front about it. The Head of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says that if you want to know more about Mormonism you should go visit mormon.org. On that site you’ll find a series of videos that tell the stories of individual Mormons. For a long time I saw videos like these also on YouTube, usually with a title like, “I am a Mormon.”
What do these videos have to say?
Take a look at the screenshot on the left and you’ll begin to get the idea. The videos focus on the people who are Mormons. If we apply a bit of critical thought it becomes obvious what is not featured in the videos.
What is Mormonism about? What do Mormons believe?
These commercials for Mormonism fail to illuminate about the product. Instead, they feature happy customers.
Thinking back to my youth and when I was being taught about Mormonism during a series of meetings, I remember distinctly that the controversial stuff was left out.
I can’t argue that Mormons are not nice people. My firsthand empirical observations is that Mormons are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They are quick to lend a helping hand, very friendly and even good listeners. Mostly. On the other hand, I’ve known a couple (like my boss) who don’t always measure up to that. (Let’s just say he is ethically-challenged.)
So Mormons are just like the rest of us. Some nice, some not, although it does seem like they are more nice than not. So an advertising campaign telling me that Mormons are nice, interesting people isn’t really that meaningful, I think.
If you want to know more about what Mormons believe, sometimes you are told to simply ask. I tried that regarding some of the more controversial type of stuff I’d seen and heard on the internet. The response I got was not a denial. I was actually told, “Just like you are private about some of your affairs, well so are we.” In essence I was told: “We can’t share certain things with you until you are one of us.”
I was a little stunned about this. It begs the obvious response, “How can someone make an informed decision about joining without knowing what the beliefs are?” It seems a bit like buying a car without knowing what the payment will be. How many of us would be fine with, “Don’t worry. We’ll let you know.”
One question I asked was, “Is tithing mandatory? Is there anything reserved from those who do not tithe?” The person I asked admitted that while you do not have to tithe, a member who does not will not partake in everything the church has to offer.
Here’s a list I found on the internet regarding 10 “bizarre” Mormon beliefs. I have no idea about how accurate or truthful these may be. For some strange reason, it is extremely difficult to get straight answers and information about what Mormons really believe.
- Pleasure in Life
- Modern Revelation
- Jesus visited the Americas
- The Nature of God
- Multiple Heavens
- Multiple Worlds and Multiple Gods
For more detail about these items, including foundational scripture references, the list can be found here on an anti-Mormon website.
I read a blog entry by a Mormon that took umbrage about the assertion that Mormons can become Gods. The blog started by criticizing those kinds of “attacks” and concluded with the argument (paraphrased), “Forever is a really long time. With that much eternity is it really so far-fetched that we would continue to grow?” In other words, the author was offended by the statement but basically concluded that it accurately reflected his belief. To me, that is illustrative about the difficulty to getting straight answers to simple questions about what Mormons really believe.
Lastly, the Mormon church claims over 14 million members worldwide and clearly has an eye on growth. This is witnessed by their aggressive missionary program, attitudes towards procreation (God’s spirit children) and public relations media campaigns.
Will Mitt Romney be president? I don’t know. I consider it doubtful. Either way, the fact that he is a Mormon may or may not have something to do with the outcome. Should it? What do you think? Should religion affect presidential elections? Is Mormonism a cult? Are Mormons “Christian?” Are these the most important questions that we face as a nation?