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Why I Don’t Convert – Essay on a Wash. Post Article

February 6, 2008

The Washington Post has an interesting article on the challenges that await the new LDS president, Thomas S. Monson. The short version is that the main issues facing the LDS church are a declining growth rate and a very high attrition rate.

As a non-Mormon who finds many LDS beliefs attractive, finds LDS history fascinating, personally impressed with Joseph Smith and has attended many LDS meetings, people often ask me why I don’t simply convert. In addition to a general loyalty to my Jewish heritage and the fact that I don’t believe in Jesus as anything other than an early Reform Jew (If I had to choose between Jesus and Joseph Smith, I would choose Joseph), there are a few other reasons that might have some general application to the questions raised by the above article.

1) LDS services and classes are exceedingly dull.

Going once or twice, particularly in an older, architecturally interesting chapel in Utah is an interesting cultural experience. More than that, particularly in one of the newer, corporate, branded cookie cutter chapels is, to me a possible substitute for chemical anesthesia. Mormons sometimes say that they have a superior form of worship because other than the sacrament prayers, they have no “set prayers.” I can assure you that this is not true. I can easily give “classic” Mormon prayers for any occasion. I used to illustrate the effect of cultural prayer to my students by having them call out a church or religion and I would give a prayer in that cultural “language” (I stopped doing this, even though it made a great point, because it seemed disrespectful). Mormon students would give me 100% accuracy. It true that in Judaism, our services have mostly set prayers, but there are hundreds of them and they are very complex with rich theological content (there are volumes of commentary on them). Mormons also have set prayers, but only have a few – Maybe a half a dozen or dozen at most.

It’s my impression that adult classes and materials are geared to about the sixth grade level. It seems as though there are well informed and interesting individuals in most classes, but it also seems that their input is not welcomed. Most people seem to know less about Mormonism than I do. Perhaps this is arrogant or unfair of me (I have an MA in the history or religion and teach a unit on Mormonism at the undergraduate level), but I am not, after all, a Mormon.

2) The level of centralized control seems oppressive

Attending a Mormon church reminds me of going to a McDonald’s or shopping at Target. It’s “branded” and standardized building regulated service standard lessons and “General Handbook of Instructions” are the same from place to place. I realize that this is a comfort to some. I suppose that shopping at Target or eating at McDonald’s in a new city is also comforting to some. I’m not one of those people. I don’t eat at McDonald’s and I rarely shop at Target. I like new out of the way restaurants and small owner-run shops.

I have to say that the best experience I ever had in a Mormon church occurred when I was on a Motorcycle trip that crossed Utah from North to South. It was in the late summer and I was unprepared for the rapid temperature drop up in the mountains. I had a great dinner at the “Bakery” (which included a restaurant) in Manti. I struck up a conversation with a local rancher who turned out to be a Mormon bishop in which I complained about the unexpected cold. He offered to put me up for the night and I slept in a room filled with genealogical information and diaries of his polygamous ancestors. I spent most of the night reading them (with his permission) and then went to church with his family in a quirky old chapel filled with equally quirky personalities who went way off the lesson manuals. The classes were filled with theological debate and local history. I suppose that these people were too close to the the Mormon core to be worrisome to Salt Lake, but they were way off the reservation… In any case this was, by far, the best experience I had in a Mormon service and it was, by far, the most independent.

In Judaism, we of course, believe in revelation. For those who accept Kabbalah, there is a belief in continuing revelation or at least inspiration (particularly in Chabad, also known as Lubavitch Hassidism, pronounced Lu-BAH-vitch. They are the largest, most geographically diverse of all the hassidic sects. The Salt Lake Chabad Rabbi, Benny Zippel was a good friend of Gordon B Hinckley, met with him regularly and had a direct line to his desk).

That said, we consider study of and debate on religion a way to honor God. It does not, in the big picture, seem to make us less “unified” on the big issues. We have vigorous (REALLY vigorous) internal debates yet when there is an issue of common concern, we seem to do a fairly good job of putting that aside and work together. At the local level, we have Jewish “Federations” which send representatives from each Jewish institution (not just synagogues) in a local region. It works like congress (only better, hopefully). I was once the representative from my synagogue to the “Community Relations Council” which govered how the Jewish Community related to Non-Jewish institutions including everything from interfaith Dialogues to Educating the police about Jewish concerns and unique needs. I was always amazed how well Jews who held VERY diverse opinions about religion and engaged in vigorous debate were able to unify at the drop of a hat when the need arose. My point here is that a belief in revelation is not necessarily inimical to religious debate and free debate is not necessarily a barrier to unity. Lastly, a culture that discusses and debates is, according to my taste simply richer and more interesting than one that doesn’t. I simply cannot imagine myself gravitating to a religion or culture that walks in lock-step.

In conclusion, let me reiterate how much respect I have for Mormons and Mormonism. As I said, I love reading about Mormon History and Mormon Theology. When I read the sermons of Joseph Smith I feel his rough charisma and appreciate his unlettered brilliance. Whenever I pass a new Mormon chapel, I smile, even though I would be unlikely to go in. I see it as one more amazing tribute to Joseph Smith’s radical vision. Even though I understand the historical forces that caused it, I am still amazed and saddened though, that such a radical vision could become so utterly dull in its modern manifestation. I say this not to insult, but merely to inform with one or two reasons why the modern* LDS church would not be attractive to a person like me.

Moshe Akiva

*Sometimes when I read about Joseph Smith, I imagine that if I had lived in his day we would have become good friends. He did, in fact, befriend the two legitimate Jews who he encountered: Alexander Neibauer who converted (and was an ancestor of Hugh Nibley) and Rabbi Joshua Seixas, his Hebrew Tutor, who did not convert.


Jewish Community Mourns Gordon B Hinckley

February 3, 2008

Public Forum letter

The Jewish community of Utah mourns the departure of a dear friend. Our hearts go out to the family of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and our LDS neighbors. With his passing, we remember and honor this great man.

A precept of the Jewish religion as defined in Leviticus (19:18) is the Golden Rule: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” As an individual and as a leader, President Hinckley epitomized the Golden Rule for us and so many of his brethren. We should all take great pride that throughout President Hinckley’s tenure, relations between our two communities grew. We cherish and honor his legacy of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. As our Jewish community thrives in Utah, we must thank President Hinckley and the LDS community for supporting our religious institutions and cultural activities. All has been done in the spirit of openness and respect fostered by President Hinckley.

Goodbye to a great neighbor.

Ron Zamir
Chairman, Jewish Community Relations Council of the United Jewish
Federation of Utah
Salt Lake City


Judaism, Mormonism and “Salvation”

January 24, 2008

On Wed, 23 Jan 2008 20:27:23 -0800 (PST), Red Davis <> wrote:

>The great question is: Is there anything you must do to be saved?

>I ask it because anti-Mormons like to yell at us LDS that we are lost because we “believe in salvation by works” when “salvation is by grace alone, not by works” — and that if we want to be saved, we must perform a work to be saved — leave the LDS Church.

Interesting question.

The Hebrew word for “salvation” (Gulut) or “Saved” (Gulah) appears hundred of times in the Hebrew bible and in our prayers. However, it almost universally refers to physical salvation from harm or exile (Galut). Thus I sometimes say that for Jews, salvation means to be free of the Christians! 🙂 [I’m mostly kidding here]

By “salvation,” you probably mean final forgiveness from sins and eventual reward in the afterlife and avoiding hell.

First of all, traditional Judaism, like Mormonism, rejects the concept of eternal hell. Hell for us is much like the Catholic purgatory or (a little less) like your spirit prison. It is a temporary place where the soul is purged of sin preparatory to meet God. Thus, in a sense, Jews believe in universal salvation.

Now, as to forgiveness of sins in this life…

In reference to grace works divide, Judaism is not as easy to categorize as many Christians might imagine (I presume we are assumed to be 100% “works based”). I would say that we accept a “mixed” system similar to Mormonism in some respects. Our scriptures and prayers refer to forgiveness as an act of God’s “Chessed.” Chessed is usually translated as “kindness” but in terms of meaning it is essentially the same word as “grace.” That is to say, “unmerited kindness.”

Beyond that we really have two forms of forgiveness which are accessed by a variety of means. Unlike Christians, Jews have a strong concept of communal forgiveness. Yom Kippur, for example is about communal forgiveness primarily (For the individual, it also is about forgiveness for unintentional sins). That is to say, it’s about God forgiving Israel as a communal unit and maintaining his relationship with us. Thus in the service there are several “confessionals” in which _everyone_ confesses to virtually _every_ category of sin that anyone could commit even though it is unlikely that any individual in the room committed many of them. The idea is that some Jew somewhere probably did sometime, and we ALL are sorry about that. I have to say, we really are. I think that, like Mormons, Jews have a strong sense of communal responsibility. Thus when one of us screws up, we all feel it. I think that this is not really true among Christians (but maybe I’m wrong here).

Anyway, there is then the issue of individual, intentional sin. That has to be taken care of at an individual level. The process is somewhat similar to Mormonism in that it emphasizes repentance. That is, sorrow for the sin and a commitment to not commit it again. At that point one asks God for forgiveness and an abrogation of the punishment. Six days a week excluding holidays the prays make room for “Tachnun” which is essentially a prayer for individual forgiveness and “Chessed” (grace). To us, it is still grace because the punishment is still deserved but we ask God to suspend it and he does.

This is where we differ most from Christians because there is no intermediary necessary. We say we are sorry. We ask God to forgive us and he does. Simple. Neat. No need for Jesus or any sacrifice.

I’ve always thought it somewhat odd that Christians think that God needs some sort of sacrifice, perfect or otherwise, for God to forgive us. It is incredibly limiting on God’s power. Indeed it denies God a power my 16 month old son already possesses — the power to forgive.

I fully realize that the whole sacrifice thing in Christianity comes originally from us but I think that Christians generally totally misunderstand it. First of all, the vast majority of sacrifices were not for sin. They were to commemorate holidays and pleasant life events with “holy barbecue.” People ate the sacrifices. In another sense, it was based on the idea that the life of a thing was in its blood (Lev 17). One could eat the meat but the life, the blood, belonged to God and had to be returned to him in the form of smoke. Kosher slaughter to this day treats the blood specially. It is totally drained and then the meat is salted and soaked to remove any last traces of it.

There were, however, sacrifices for sin. The Yom Kippur sacrifice was for the community. If one chose, one could seal his repentance with an individual sacrifice for a specific sin. On the other hand, these were for unintentional sins.

Leviticus 4:1-3 KJV Leviticus 4:1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which ought not to be done, and shall do against any of them: 3 If the priest that is anointed do sin according to the sin of the people; then let him bring for his sin, which he hath sinned, a young bullock without blemish unto the LORD for a sin offering.

These situations were neither universal not were they encouraged. For example, The bible text is clear that God forgave King David for his sin regarding Bathsheba without any sacrifice:

2 Samuel 12:13 13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin.

David then writes in the Psalms:

Psalm 51:16-17 16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

I’ve has a number of Christians mystified that Judaism continues without the temple. They assume that we need the sacrificial system to achieve what they term salvation. But really the balance of the Hebrew bible is that it is not God’s preferred way. For example:

Micah 6:6-8 6 Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

So what alternative is provided.

KJV Hosea 14:1 O Israel, return unto the LORD thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. 2 Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips.

Or as translated in the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) version:

JPS Hosea 14:3 Take words with you And return to the LORD. Say to Him: “Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; Instead of bulls we will pay The offering of our lips.

In other words, God is not particularly thrilled with sacrifice. It’s not necessary. Repentance and a request for forgiveness is all you need.

I think that this is the primary reason for the Jewish rejection of Jesus. He solves a problem we don’t have. He’s more or less superfluous. Pagan gentiles, on the other hand, seemed to need “God/men” or “God in the flesh.” They appeared to need some more tangible sign of God’s forgiveness than abstract prayer. We’d already been working through that one for a millennium or so it really was not an issue for us anymore. But for Romans and Greeks… Well, they needed a hero.

Now, I imagine that some are asking (particularly and lurking evangelicals), “What about original sin? What happens if there are sins that one has intentionally committed that have not been repented of and forgiven when one dies?

Well first of all, there is no “original sin” in Judaism. Yes there was a “first sin.” Yes, it did bring about death. But it was basically inevitable and no one much worries about it. Indeed, it was probably for the best or God would not have allowed it to happen. In this, the Jewish view is almost identical to the Mormon view. (Only we don’t believe that it was a personal “Satan” in the garden. Just a smart snake. Seriously. Read it carefully. That’s al it says. I personally believe in evolution and take the whole thing as a metaphor).

Beyond that, for sincere Orthodox Jews (which I am not), this is somewhat unlikely because they work on this every day. At most, we’d be talking about minimal issues. But even for the worst of us, hell has an end. I think the general (traditional) Jewish attitude is that if one dies with sin on his conscious, a few days in hell is deserved and one should take it like a Mensch. God loves his children and he wouldn’t do it if it weren’t good for us in the long run. It’s just part of the plan.

Hope you found this interesting…

Moshe Akiva


Torah Scroll Saved from Desecration in Provo

January 23, 2008

After a difficult journey, one of Judaism’s holiest objects finds a home

By Jessica Ravitz

Earlier this year, Rabbi Benny Zippel strolled into a Provo store on a rescue mission.  He’d gotten word about a Torah scroll, Judaism’s holiest object, that was in the hands of an antiques dealer. He needed to check it out himself.

“I went to see it and became horrified when I found out that the Scroll [sic], originally from Holocaust-ridden Europe, was getting cut up in single columns, framed and then sold to individual collectors in the area,” the rabbi wrote in a recent statement. That treatment, he described in a phone call, proved “the ultimate sign of desecration.”

Evoking a commandment he called pidyon
Shvuyim, or redeeming captives, Zippel offered on the spot to buy what was there. A Torah scroll, which contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is considered a living document by the most observant of Jews. This one, he thought, needed saving.

About nine months later, in a Thursday evening dedication ceremony at Chabad Lubavitch of
Utah, the ultra-Orthodox organization Zippel heads, the restored scroll was reborn.

Poland to Provo

Seventy-six-year-old Alvin Segelman of
Orem tipped off Zippel. About a year ago, the retired Rutgers University professor went to visit Brent Ashworth, an attorney who, for 46 years, has been collecting rare books, manuscripts and art. While he was poking around Ashworth’s store, something caught Segelman’s eye.

“I noticed, hanging on his wall, what to me was obviously part of a Torah scroll. It struck my attention because the damn thing was hanging upside-down,” Segelman recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Where the hell did you get this thing?’ ”

Ashworth, who counts among his collectibles a first edition King James Bible from 1611, had been in the market for old Torah scrolls. He’d purchased a fragment from a 500-year-old Moroccan deerskin scroll from a
Jerusalem dealer. And along with the piece framed on the wall, he had bought a larger section that is from Eastern Europe and believed to have predated the Holocaust. That one spoke to Segelman, who says Nazis killed 67 of his relatives.

“I said to Brent, ‘I think perhaps someone else should look at this thing.’ “

Purchasing what Ashworth had was a no-brainer for Zippel, who spoke of the Nazis’ efforts to destroy all things Jewish. On the back of Ashworth’s scroll section – which included part of the book of Exodus, all of Leviticus and part of Numbers, or about one-third of an entire Torah scroll – was a handwritten message, indicating it had belonged to a man in Poland, Zippel said. The rabbi told the store owner it belonged in a Jewish sanctuary.

Ashworth agreed and sold the scroll portion to the rabbi for half of what he’d initially paid.

To be clear and fair, Ashworth had never taken scissors to the sacred item. Zippel knows this. But the guy Ashworth got it from three or four years ago did. Enter Jim Young, owner of
Provo‘s Brigham Book & Copy, whom Zippel called on next.
Young had framed cut pieces of the scroll that he intended to sell. Zippel purchased what Young still had and said he’ll likely bury those pieces in a Jewish cemetery, a practice observed when sacred text is damaged beyond repair.
Although he repeatedly hung up on a Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Young admitted he “cut a couple pieces” and said he got the scroll from Reid Moon, “a Bible guy and Torah guy in

From Turkey (or Turkow) to Texas

Moon, owner of Moon’s LDS Bookstore and the Antiquarian Bible Shoppe in north Dallas, has been working with religious books and antiquities for about 20 years. He said he remembered this scroll well because he bought it from a
New York dealer, whose name he couldn’t remember, the week before 9/11. When he made the purchase, the scroll was in six separate sections. Moon said he knew it was incomplete and therefore not kosher for use. Its history was unknown to him, until a Holocaust survivor came in one day and noticed Hebrew writing on the back of the scroll. The writing, she told Moon, was the signature of a Torah scribe, or sofer, and beside it was the name of the country where it originated: Turkey. At least this is what he remembered hearing.

That section never made it to
Utah. Young only purchased one section, in early 2002, Moon said. Selling sections or fragments is nothing unusual, he added. A quick search on eBay earlier this week showed about 50 Torah scroll fragments being hawked to would-be Web buyers.
Rabbi Moshe Klein, a fourth-generation sofer living in Brooklyn who became Zippel’s contact in restoring Utah’s newest Torah, knows his scrolls and was unruffled by the Turkey suggestion. Based on its style of writing, he has no doubt this original full Torah scroll came from
Poland about 90 years ago. He speculated that perhaps it had been commissioned by someone living in Turkey. When a portion, even a letter, of a Torah scroll is damaged, a sofer is tasked to fix it. Perhaps a piece of parchment had been repaired in Turkey.
More likely, he said the scribe was from Turkow, in
Poland. The spelling of this town and Turkey, in Hebrew, only differs by one letter.
So what happened to the five sections Moon still had? He said he wrapped them around wooden staves, dressed them with a Torah covering, and used it when he spoke in Dallas-area schools about the origins of the Bible. At least, this is what he did until Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum caught wind of it.

The Orthodox rabbi of
Dallas‘ Congregation Ohr HaTorah reacted much as Utah‘s Zippel did when he learned about this scroll two summers ago.

“My feeling was at one point it had been a complete scroll, the property of the Jewish community,” he said. “It somehow ended up outside the Jewish community, and we needed to bring it back.”

Though he hasn’t done it yet, Feigenbaum plans to hire a sofer to make his five sections part of a complete scroll. He was shocked to learn that any portion had made its way to
Utah and said he wished Moon, who at the time didn’t seem to understand the scroll was incomplete, had told him as much.

“If what you’re telling me is the truth, I feel I was lied to,” he said. “I kind of thought it was a finished story, and now you’re telling me a lot more I didn’t know about.”

From one
Zion to another

The story, at least for
Utah‘s portion of the original scroll, is now complete. Thanks to a $36,000 gift from Utah real estate developer, former U.S. Ambassador and Jewish philanthropist John Price and his family foundation, Zippel said the scroll has been redeemed, made whole and kosher again. Not without additional obstacles, though.

A sofer in
Jerusalem had been enlisted, by Klein in Brooklyn, to write that which was missing. But a man traveling by taxi across Jerusalem with the newly completed portion (two-thirds of Zippel’s new Torah), as well as other scrolls, somehow left Utah‘s piece behind. It was lost in transit, the Jerusalem sofer had to start over, and the originally planned November dedication had to be scrapped. And the man hired to create the ornate wooden staves around which the scroll is wrapped suffered a stroke before fininshing the job.

Klein, who often sends scrolls by UPS, wouldn’t take any more chances on this one. He flew out of
New York Wednesday night not just to participate in Thursday’s ceremony but because he would only hand deliver it.

“I have to schlep it around,” he said by phone the day before his flight, which ended up taking 17 hours. “It’s not leaving my sight for one second.”

Now, with its final letters written amid ceremony, the scroll, one that has been through so much, can finally rest.
“All things that come your way difficult,” Zippel said, “are a sign from above that they’re definitely meant to be.”


Jewish Reponse to Van Hale

January 17, 2008

Response to the Van Hale radio program, “Mormon Miscellaneous” episode entitled “God as a Close and Personal Father”

Dear Van,

First of all, thank you for hosting such an interesting show! I am not a Mormon myself and am in fact Jewish by both religion and heritage, but I do teach a community college course in comparative religion and have an academic interest in Mormonism. I was an employee of the Richard Evan Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU under Truman Madsen during the 1984-1985 school year and have maintained a number of relationships with Mormon academics as well. Thus my interest in Mormonism is also personal. Let me add that I have the highest regard for the Mormon faith and wish you all the greatest success.

That said, I did take issue with a few of your comments. in the “God as Close Personal Father” segment. You quoted a number of Christian writers who claimed that the Aramaic term “abba” was so intimate that no Jew would use it in reference to God. You further quotes these writers (particularly someone named “Barkley” I believe) that the Targums never use this term in reference to God nor do any Jewish “devotional literature” As someone who actually reads Aramaic and Hebrew (and Greek for that matter) and as a Jew I can assure you that this is simply untrue.

These assertions apparently came from a Jewish scholar, Joachim Jeremias, who made a statement at an inter-religious conference that “the term “abba” has a very familiar ring to it.” This is true. Many Jewish children use the term today. My own son occasionally calls me “abba.” However, this statement was used and extended by a number of Christian writers who apparently saw it as homiletically useful. This entire issue was discussed in an article that appeared in the Journal of Theological Studies some time ago (see James Barr, “‘Abba’ Isn’t ‘Daddy’ Journal of Theological Studies, 1988 as well as Geza Vermes, Jesus in the World of Judaism [1983], pp. 41, 2).

The targums in fact use “abba” in reference to God a number of times in their rather free translation of the Hebrew bible. For example:

JPS Psalm 103:13 Like as a father hath compassion upon his children, so hath the LORD compassion upon them that fear Him.

KJV Psalm 103:13 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.



KJV Psalm 89:26 He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

TNK Psalm 89:27 He shall say to Me, ‘You are my father, my God, the rock of my deliverance.’


Further, the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic “Abba,” “Av,” usually in the plural possessive “our father” or “Avinu” appears a number of times. It is a prominent and oft repeated element of the High Holiday services particularly in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer:

Avinu Malkeinu, Chaneinu V’aneinu,

ki ein banu ma’asim.

Assei imanu ts’dakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu.

OUR FATHER, Our King Hear our voice, Lord our God, pity and be compassionate to us, and accept – with compassion and favour – our prayer.

The word “avinu” is repeated numerous times at the beginning of the prayer. Sometimes in chant-like form.

The Talmud itself talks about the child learning to say ’abba’ and ’imma’ (B. Ber. 40a). The words the child was to learn are the normal words of the language–correct and grammatical adult language. The word did not have one sense of “daddy” when children said it, and another for “father” when adults said it.

Finally, the Greek word used in the New Testament to translate our word is always the normal word pater, and never a diminutive such as papas, pappas, or pappias, all of which existed at the time. Words that expressed “daddy” were available, but they are not found in biblical Greek–because they were not suitable for biblical style. They used ’abba’ because it meant “father” and not “daddy.”

To call God “Father” is to use covenant language. In all of God’s covenants, the people are “sons” or “children” by their adoption into the covenant. Even in the secular world this was so; one of Israel’s kings became a “son” of Pul (Tiglathpileser) when he became his vassal. But in the biblical covenants we find this most clearly expressed. In Exodus 4:22, 23 Israel is called God’s son because Israel has a covenant with God (the Abrahamic Covenant was in place, and the Sinaitic Covenant was about to be built on it). Playing on the word “son,” God told Pharaoh through Moses to let his son (Israel) go, or he would kill Pharaoh’s son. Later, Hosea repeats this usage when he records how God called his son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). Israel was God’s “son.”

In 2 Samuel 7:13, 14 we have the use of the word “son” for the king of Israel. This chapter is about the Davidic Covenant. And in that covenant God will be a father to the king, and the king will be his son. Thus, when the king was coroneted, he would publicly declare by what right he ruled by quoting this covenant: “The LORD said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’” (Ps. 2:7). Every anointed son of David could claim this title, “God’s Son.”

Finally, you mention that it is your view, again relying on non-Mormon, non-Jewish writers that the Judaism of Jesus day was distancing itself away from the idea of God as a person (with or without a body). I think this is also (mostly) untrue. This is an extremely complex topic and I am actually writing an academic paper on it at the moment. However, I believe the evidence is overwhelming that, while there was a strain of Hellenistic anti-materialism present in Judaism at that time, the majority of Jews continued to believe in an anthropomorphic finite God. This was, I can demonstrate, the majority view up to the 11th century and a minority view that continues to appear in Jewish writing up until the 1750’s!

Though this research would tend to support the Mormon understanding of God, most Mormons, including Mormon scholars, seem to be unaware of this research. I think that this is because Mormons have a tendency to gravitate toward Christian scholars who are notoriously unreliable when it comes to Jewish sources, to their detriment. Perhaps this is due to the fact that most Mormon apologetic work is directed against fellow Christians, rather than any antipathy to Jewish sources, but it does weaken the general Mormon argument, in my opinion.

I have to say that, while I enjoy much of your material and generally agree with you when you are dealing general Christian or Mormon sources, this same limitation seems to be true of you as well. I think you would be well served by an examination of post-Biblical Jewish source material and a survey of recent Jewish scholarship. (And even some modern Jewish practice. Occasionally I hear you saying things like “The Jews Used to do X…” When, of course we never stopped doing X. For example, I recall you saying that “The Jews” once built “booths” or “tabernacles” as part of a holiday celebration. This was at a time in which I had just built my family’s sukkah and had gone on a “tour of sukkot” throughout our community similar to the way in which Christian families seems to “tour” Christmas lights).

I hope this makes sense. I’m typing this in the remaining minutes before the beginning of the Sabbath. * I really do wish you and your show well. I only wish you would become acquainted with the vast and rich body of knowledge that Judaism has preserved and continues to generate.

All the best,

Moshe Akiva


* I never quite finished it Friday afternoon and didn’t get around to posting it until today, Thursday Jan 17th.


What Is It About Mormonism?

January 8, 2008

What Is It About Mormonism?


January 6, 2008

Our post-denominational age should be the perfect time for a Mormon to become president, or at least the Republican nominee. Mormons share nearly all the conservative commitments so beloved of the evangelicals who wield disproportionate influence in primary elections. Mormons also embody, in their efficient organizational style, the managerial competence that the party’s pro-business wing considers attractive. For the last half-century, Mormons have been so committed to the Republican Party that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once felt the need to clarify that Republican affiliation is not an actual condition of church membership.

Yet the Mormons’ political loyalty is not fully reciprocated by their fellow Republicans. Twenty-nine percent of Republicans told the Harris Poll last year that they probably or definitely would not vote for a Mormon for president. Among evangelicals, some of the discomfort is narrowly religious: Mormon theology is sometimes understood as non-Christian and heretical. Elsewhere, the reasons for the aversion to Mormons are harder to pin down — bigotry can be funny that way — but they are certainly not theological. A majority of Americans have no idea what Mormons believe.

Mormonism’s political problem arises, in large part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces. The church’s most inviting public symbols — pairs of clean-cut missionaries in well-pressed white shirts — evoke the wholesome success of an all-American denomination with an idealistic commitment to clean living. Yet at the same time, secret, sacred temple rites and garments call to mind the church’s murky past, including its embrace of polygamy, which has not been the doctrine or practice of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, for a century. Mormonism, it seems, is extreme in both respects: in its exaggerated normalcy and its exaggerated oddity. The marriage of these opposites leaves outsiders uncomfortable, wondering what Mormonism really is.

For Mitt Romney, the complex question of anti-Mormon bias boils down to the practical matter of how he can make it go away. Facing a traditional American anti-Catholicism, John F. Kennedy gave a speech during the 1960 presidential campaign declaring his private religion irrelevant to his qualifications for public office. For Romney, a Republican who would risk alienating “values voters” if he denied faith a central role in politics, emphasizing the separation of church and state is not an option. In his own religion speech, he coupled his promise to govern independently of the hierarchy of his own church with a profession of faith: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.” Although this formulation is unlikely to satisfy those evangelicals who deny that the LDS church is Christian, Romney presumably calculated that speaking about Jesus Christ in terms that sound consistent with ordinary American Protestantism would reassure voters that there was in the end nothing especially unusual about Mormonism.

Something troubling is afoot here. From a constitutional standpoint, the religion of a candidate is supposed to make no difference. Even before the founding fathers dreamed up the First Amendment, they inserted a provision in the Constitution expressly prohibiting any religious test for office. The framers recognized, of course, that a candidate’s religion (or lack thereof) would enter political debate, and they were prohibiting only a formal test for taking office. But they were also giving their imprimatur to Jefferson’s appealing notion that a person’s beliefs about religion were no more relevant to his politics than his beliefs about geometry. Romney, by contrast, was staking his character and values on his religious beliefs while insisting that no one ask what those beliefs are.

It is easy to see why Romney would see some aspects of his Mormon identity as an asset. In the elite East Coast worlds where Romney has made his career, Mormonism signifies personal rectitude, professional competence and an idiosyncratic-but-impressive rejection of alcohol and caffeine. If anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeople and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet — rather like being Jewish, but taller.

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt.  Objectively, it’s even more plausible than the existence of a God/man who became a human sacrifice for sin in first century Jerusalem.  But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

For some, then, the objection to Romney may be that Mormonism is religiously false and that voters should choose a president who belongs to the true faith. If many Americans felt this way, that would be bad news for Romney but worse news for the country, since it would mean that we had abandoned the values that underlay the constitutional ban on religious tests. But most Mormonism-related discomfort with Romney may, in fact, reflect less a view of religious truth than a sense that there is something vaguely troubling or unfamiliar in the Mormon manner or worldview. This latter possibility presents Romney with an especially tricky political problem. For such reservations are not simple prejudice; they are a complicated outgrowth of the tortured history of the faith’s relationship to mainstream American political life over the nearly two centuries since God first spoke to Joseph Smith.

Persecution and the Art of Secrecy

Mormonism was born amid secrecy, and throughout its existence as a religion it has sustained a close yet complex relationship to the arts of silence. From the start, the Mormon penchant for secrecy came from two different sources. The first was internal and theological. Like many great world faiths, Mormonism has an important strand of sacred mystery. Mormon temples have traditionally been closed to outsiders and designed with opaque windows. Marriage and other key rituals take place in this hallowed space — a manifestation of religious secrecy familiar to students of world religion but associated in the United States more with Freemasonry than with mainstream Protestantism.

Like Mormon ritual, much of Mormon theology remains relatively inaccessible to outsiders. The text of the Book of Mormon has always been spread to a broad audience, but the text is not a sufficient guide to understanding the details of Mormon teaching. Joseph Smith received extensive further revelation in the nature of sacred secrets to be shared with only a handful of close associates and initiates within the newly forming church.

The most famous such revelation was the doctrine of celestial — which was to say plural — marriage, revealed to Smith as early as 1833 but never publicized during his lifetime and formally announced to the world only in 1852, eight years after his death. And there were other doctrines of similar secrecy revealed to Smith, especially in the years just before his death. “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret,” he is reported to have said in one of his last communications with his followers.

The connections between the sacred and the secret in early Mormonism did not come out of nowhere. Believers, of course, consider the source to be divine inspiration — although over the course of the last century Mormon teaching has moved away from many of Smith’s more radical ideas, which are often not accepted by contemporary LDS members. Academic students of early Mormonism have traced the mysteries expounded by Smith to the hermetic tradition of secret magic dating back to the Renaissance and beyond. If this account is accurate, then Mormonism’s theological secrets actually have more than a little in common with religious mysteries that can be found in medieval Islamic esotericism, kabbalistic mysticism and ancient Christian Gnosticism. Successive generations have rediscovered these secrets and reasserted their antiquity in ways very similar to Smith’s discovery of ancient tablets. For example, the most important work of the kabbalah, the Zohar, presents itself as a lost manuscript written by the 2nd-century mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, though scholars maintain that it was composed in the 13th century by the man who “discovered” it.

The greatest difference between the esoteric tradition and Smith’s version of it is that Smith’s faith has grown into an organized religion rather than remaining the preserve of a select few. Almost from the start of his career, Smith was denounced as a charlatan, an impostor and worse. Such criticisms sometimes pointed to his early pre-revelation career as a treasure seeker who used techniques like the seer stone (similar in function to a crystal ball) and the divining rod to seek treasure in the countryside of upstate New York. Notwithstanding these attacks, Mormonism grew steadily. Growth brought publicity — and with it came not merely prejudice but outright persecution. This external persecution created a second, externally driven source for secrecy: protection.

Not content with polemics, Mormonism’s opponents turned to violence. In 1838, after skirmishes between armed Mormons and state militia left several people dead, Gov. Lilburn Boggs of Missouri issued a military order declaring that the Mormons had made open war on the state and that therefore they “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good.” Later, at Nauvoo, Ill., the Mormon community under Smith’s leadership came under constant pressure from skeptical and sometimes violent neighbors. In response, Smith sought and received a measure of home rule for Nauvoo, including the authority to establish his own municipal militia. Though the militia grew until it was a substantial fighting force, Smith was nevertheless gunned down by a kind of quasi-organized lynch mob after having been arrested and jailed in nearby Carthage.

Unhindered by Smith’s death, the Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young, went out to Utah to establish their own kingdom. In what felt like the relative safety of the intermountain West, Mormons began to practice plural marriage in the open — and ended up paying dearly for this lapse in secrecy. In 1856 the Republican Party made the defeat of polygamy a key plank in its first national platform, characterizing it alongside slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism.” The federal government soon criminalized the practice and then in effect outlawed membership in the Mormon Church until it would agree to give up polygamy. The Mormons appealed this persecution to the Supreme Court, which turned them down flat, holding that religious belief was protected by the First Amendment but that religious conduct was not. After the Civil War, federal prosecutors in the Utah territory and in neighboring areas convicted and jailed thousands of Mormons in the most coordinated campaign of religious repression in U.S. history.

The reaction of the Mormon Church to this new wave of persecution was, initially, to take refuge in secrecy once again. In 1890, the president of the church, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto in which he gave his “advice” to members of the Mormon Church not to enter into any marital relationships that would violate the laws of the land. Publicly this declaration had its desired effect of placating the federal government; in 1896, Utah was allowed to become a state. But like Jewish rituals under the Spanish Inquisition, plural marriage continued, secretly in Utah and also among refugees (like several of Mitt Romney’s ancestors), who fled to Mexico or other places the law could not reach.

This period of resisting persecution by living outside the law taught Mormons that secrecy can be a necessary tool for survival. As one apostle (there are 12 who guide the church) later put it in a speech recounted by the historian Kathleen Flake, “I am not dishonest and not a liar . . . [but] we have always been taught that when the brethren were in a tight place that it would not be amiss to lie to help them out.” Yet such secrecy, reminiscent of the taqiyya or dissimulation sanctioned by Shiite Islam under the threat of persecution, could be difficult to maintain. Matters came to a head when another apostle, Reed Smoot, was elected in 1903 to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Utah, despite political opposition from President Theodore Roosevelt. Opponents of Mormonism, mostly Protestants, sought to block Smoot from taking his seat.

Over several years, the Senate engaged in a series of hearings that put Mormonism on trial. The president of the church, Joseph F. Smith, a nephew of the founding Smith, was called to testify and sought somewhat unsuccessfully to conceal both the continuing practice of plural marriage as well as his own status as seer and revelator. After returning to Utah, Smith issued a manifesto of his own, in 1904, this one somewhat stronger, aimed at ending plural marriage. After that, plural marriage gradually disappeared from the mainstream Mormon scene, until it remained only among peripheral fundamentalist or sectarian Mormons who defied the church authorities and claimed a more authentic line of succession to the first prophet. In 1907, the Senate finally voted to seat Smoot. The course was set for the Mormon religious practice of the 20th century: a process of mainstreaming, both political and theological, and would set the stage for Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency.

The Mormon path to normalization over the course of the 20th century depended heavily on this avoidance of public discussion of its religious tenets. Now that plural marriage was out of the picture, the less said the better about the particular teachings of the church, including such practices as the baptism of the dead and the doctrine of the perfectibility of mankind into divine form. Where religious or theological conversation could not be avoided, Mormons depicted themselves as yet another Christian denomination alongside various other Protestant denominations that prevailed throughout the United States.

Another part of the Mormon assimilationist strategy was to participate actively in politics at the state and national levels. The condition for political success was that nobody asked about the precise content of Mormon religious beliefs and the Mormons themselves made no particular effort to tell. If 19th-century Mormon secrecy was a matter of survival, 20th-century Mormon reticence was a form of soft secrecy, designed to avoid soft bigotry. Revealing Mormon teachings would no longer have led to lynch mobs or federal arrest, but it certainly would have fueled the kind of bias that keeps politicians out of office.

What helped Mormons in maintaining theological radio silence was the way that American political norms until the late 1970s made religion a taboo subject in polite civil and political society. Probably the high point of the Mormon mainstreaming process took place when Ezra Taft Benson, like Smoot an apostle of the church, became secretary of agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In just a century, the leaders of the Latter-day Saints had gone from being murdered outcasts to being appointed to the cabinet. Mormons began to succeed in national business and came to be seen as exemplars of the patriotic American ethos. George Romney, Mitt’s father, became chairman of the American Motors Corporation in 1954 and was elected governor of Michigan in 1962. Soft secrecy was holding soft bigotry at bay.

Romney and Mormon Politics

In politics, Joseph Smith was something of a radical. He preached, instead of democracy, a version of theocratic rule within a framework given by his own prophetic leadership. At Nauvoo, Smith affected a Napoleonic uniform and made himself into a general and quasi king of the polity he had constituted. He claimed that the home-rule permission given to the town by the State Legislature rendered him the equivalent of a governor or perhaps even president of a little republic on a par with the state of Illinois in which it resided. At the time he was assassinated, he was running for the presidency of the United States in a quixotic campaign that only a true person of faith could have believed in.

Ensconced in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young modified this initial political vision somewhat. Yet he still governed in an essentially autocratic fashion, constrained by only the federal requirement that Utah take on a republican form of government in order to be organized into a territory. In the territorial period, the Utah State Legislature remained very much under the control of the leadership of the church, and the democratic trappings of elections did not ensure real competitive politics. Mormons belonged to a single party, the People’s Party, which was not disbanded until 1891, when the LDS leadership determined it would need Republicans and Democrats in order to persuade Congress to grant statehood. Even then local LDS leaders apparently assigned church members almost at random to join one of the two parties in roughly equal numbers.

As of the 20th century, through engagement with the federal political sphere, Mormons came to embrace fully the American ideals of multi-party governance and electoral democracy. They also gradually embraced the Republican Party itself — a fact that would not seem so remarkable today were it not for the G.O.P.’s history of condemning Mormonism.

The Mormons’ passage from bugbears of the Republican Party to its stalwarts may be analogized to a similar move among middle-class white Southerners, to whom the Republican Party was anathema until the 1970s and ’80s, after which it became almost the sole representative. In the case of Southern whites, a particular event shifted party allegiance, namely the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as promoted and passed by President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson knew he would be alienating Southern whites with the act, yet he went forward with it anyway.

In the case of the Mormons, however, no single event pushed them in the direction of Republicanism. To the extent that 19th-century Mormons sided with any national political force, it was the Democratic Party, the party of states’ rights — of great interest to Utah Mormons trying to buck federal control. What made the Mormons Republican was simply their move toward the conservative center of American public opinion. With Eisenhower especially, the Mormons found a leader they could admire and with whom they could work. Ike himself was famously indifferent toward the particularities of religious doctrine. Moderate Republicanism was therefore the perfect conduit for bringing Mormons into the American political mainstream.

According to Jan Shipps, a renowned scholar of Mormon history, anticommunism also played an important role in making Mormons Republican — Ezra Taft Benson, the apostle who became secretary of agriculture under Eisenhower, had ties to the John Birch Society. In the 1960s, as the Democratic Party increasingly began to embrace an agenda of civil and cultural liberties, the Mormon allegiance to Republicanism was cemented further still. Gone was the political radicalism and the concern for minority rights that accompanied plural marriage and other unusual Mormon behavior. Now the Mormons could look at the counterculture as a threat. The most prominent Mormon national politician in the 1980s and ’90s was Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, now in his 31st year in the Senate, who on the Judiciary Committee has maintained a consistently conservative position, favoring judges who are simultaneously favored by the religious right.

The rise of the religious right posed a tricky political quandary for the LDS church. On the one hand, a vocal movement pressing for conservatism and moral values must have seemed to them like a natural home. After all, they, too, were religious believers who drew upon their faith for their political conservatism. Yet there was a strand of the religious right that could potentially put it at odds with Mormonism — its barely concealed commitment to evangelical Protestant theology.

Evangelical ideology was certainly flexible. Before Roe v. Wade, for example, abortion was not a major issue for most Protestant evangelicals in the United States, and it took the active efforts of the Catholic Church to bring evangelicals on board. Yet despite being pliant on some substantive issues, Protestant evangelicals nonetheless did share a commitment to biblical inerrancy and to a rather strict definition of salvation by faith alone. Their worldview certainly relied upon some basic and nonnegotiable propositions, like the acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity and of Jesus Christ as a personal lord and savior.

Mormons were able to argue that they, too, believed in salvation and in the literal accuracy of the Bible. The difficulty was that in addition to the Bible in its King James Version, the Latter-day Saints had further scriptures with which to contend — the Book of Mormon, translated by Smith from “reformed Egyptian” and styled as “another Testament of Jesus Christ”; and supplements to various biblical texts known collectively as the Pearl of Great Price.

Whatever the variances among the four synoptic gospels, contemporary evangelicals, like their forebears, have long been committed to the exclusivity of these texts. Newly unearthed gospels or pseudo-gospels (like the so-called Gospel of Thomas, written in the Egyptian language Coptic and found at Nag Hammadi in 1945) have posed few theological doubts for these Protestant evangelicals, who have dismissed them as foreign heretical works, despite their antiquity. Against this backdrop, the rejection of the Mormon Bible is simple and formulaic. Coupled with concerns about what they consider Mormonism’s nontrinitarian theology, it has led ineluctably to an unwillingness to recognize Mormons as full participants in the category “Christian.”

In theory, the evangelical political movement says that it is prepared to embrace Jews and even Muslims so long as they share the same common values of the religious right. In the case of a Mormon candidate, though, many evangelicals are not prepared to say that common values are enough. The reason seems to be the view among evangelicals that the substantive theological beliefs of Mormons are so radically different from their own as to constitute not a sect of Christianity but a Christian heresy, which would be worse than a different monotheistic faith like Judaism or Islam. One prominent evangelical, the Southern Baptist Richard Land, has proposed that Mormonism be considered a fourth Abrahamic religion — a compromise view that has found few takers in the evangelical camp and privately infuriates Mormons who insist on their Christianity.

Faced with the allegation that they do not believe in the same God as ordinary Protestants, or that their beliefs are not truly Christian, Mormons find themselves in an extraordinarily awkward position. They cannot defend themselves by expressly explaining their own theology, because, taken from the standpoint of orthodox Protestantism in America today, it is in fact heterodox.

What is more, what began as a strategy of secrecy to avoid persecution has become over the course of the 20th century a strategy of minimizing discussion of the content of theology in order to avoid being treated as religious pariahs. As a result, Mormons have not developed a series of easily expressed and easily swallowed statements summarizing the content of their theology in ways that might arguably be accepted by mainline Protestants. To put it bluntly, the combination of secret mysteries and resistance in the face of oppression has made it increasingly difficult for Mormons to talk openly and successfully with outsiders about their religious beliefs.

Assimilation, Culture And Compromise

The general pattern of Mormon history is one of growth leading to external pressure being brought to bear on the church. Internal resistance eventually gives way to change sanctioned by new revelation, followed in turn by new growth and success. This was the pattern not only for the abolition of polygamy but also for the extension in 1978 of the Mormon priesthood to black men. Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency is the occasion for the latest round in this cycle, with cultural and religious skepticism representing the vector for outside pressure. What will Romney — or the church — do in response?

One option is for Romney to try to devise a new language for talking about his religious beliefs that will make them seem accessible and familiar without compromising them. Romney has expressly said that he will not take this tack — but inevitably he has done so, and if he is chosen as the Republican candidate or elected to the presidency, he will have to do more. This could prove a tricky undertaking, full of pitfalls to the believer. Thus Romney has felt the need to minimize the centrality of Mormon scripture by saying that he reads the Gideon Bible when he is alone in his hotel room on the campaign trail.

The formulation may be seen as a clever hedge: to the ordinary Protestant listener, it sounds as if Romney is saying that he reads the same Bible that they do. To the Mormon insider, however, Romney is simply saying that when he travels to the hotel and finds himself, presumably, without a handy copy of the Book of Mormon, he reads the text of the Bible that can be found in the drawer beside the bed. Some LDS insiders have been heard to wonder quietly how Romney could come to be traveling without his own copy of the Mormon scriptures — or why he isn’t staying in Marriott hotels, where the Book of Mormon can be found in the nightstand drawer alongside the bible.

This is a perfect example of esoteric public speaking: the attempt to convey multiple messages to different audiences through the careful use of words. Something similar is perhaps contained in Romney’s outspoken admiration for Rick Warren, the megachurch pastor and best-selling author. To the general audience, the message is the embrace of an evangelical who is as mainstream as it gets. To a Mormon audience, however, the praise is presumably intended at most as a suggestion that it is possible to learn from the remarkable organizational and evangelizing effects of a well-known public figure.

Speaking esoterically about faith has a firm basis in LDS tradition — but history suggests it may not be enough for the church to overcome the strand of soft bigotry that it is now facing. And from the church’s perspective, facing up to the reality of such prejudice is not a trivial matter. Precisely because Romney is so accomplished, so telegenic, in short such an impressive candidate, it may be a slap in Mormons’ faces if he finds that he cannot garner the support of conservative values voters. If such voters prefer, say, a pro-choice Roman Catholic of questionable conservative credentials like Rudy Giuliani, the result may look like a public repudiation of Mormonism — from the very party to which Mormons have given their allegiance for the last half-century. (Even if the charge against Romney were that he failed because he was a dissimulating phony, that would hardly be an improvement for the church, given the similarity of that charge with the historical bias against Mormon secrecy.)

If the reality of soft bigotry does not today pose an existential threat to Mormons as explicit oppression once did, it would nevertheless undercut the hard-won public face of Mormonism as a distinctively American religion characterized by worldly accomplishment. For conservatives to reject a Mormon because he is a Mormon would be an especially harsh setback for a faith that has accomplished such extraordinary public success in overcoming a history of painful discrimination.

If Mormonism were to keep Romney from the nomination, the Mormon Church hierarchy may through continuing revelation and guidance respond by shifting its theology and practices even further in the direction of mainstream Christianity and thereby minimizing its outlier status in the culture. Voices within the LDS fold have for some time sought to minimize the authority of some of Joseph Smith’s more creative and surprising theological messages, like the teaching that God and Jesus were once men. You could imagine Mormonism coming to look more like mainline Protestantism with the additional belief not in principle incompatible with Protestant Scripture that some of the lost tribes of Israel ended up in the Americas, where a few had a vision of Christ’s appearance to them. If this hypothetical picture of a future Mormonism seems unimaginable to the contemporary LDS faithful, as it may, today’s Mormon theology would look almost as different to Brigham Young.

Religious development, driven by turns from within and without, is, after all, the mark of a vital faith. Today we do not think of the Catholic pope as the occupant of the pagan Roman office of pontifex maximus, but of course the pontiff is precisely that: the living exemplar of how Christianity met, conquered and was changed by the very empire that presided over the crucifixion. All religions assimilate and change, even as they claim to hew to the old truths.

America changes, too. Today the soft bigotry of cultural discomfort may stand in the way of a candidate whose faith exemplifies values of charity, self-discipline and community that we as Americans claim to hold dear. Surely, though, the day will come when we are ready to put prejudice aside and choose a president without regard to what we think of his religion.

Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at Harvard University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes frequently on religion and public life.



Another Jewish Voice in Defense of Mormons

December 18, 2007

[Note: I am a democrat and will probably not vote for Mitt Romney (for purely political reasons), however, I have been appalled at the way he has been treated in media. I found Lawrence O’Connel’s recent rant on the McLaughlin group particularly outrageous. In any case, I have been pleased that a number of my fellow Jews have been writing in defense of Mitt and Mormonism and, as far as I know, none have been against him. Here is the second in a series of two…or three if I decide to say more personally…]

What Iowans Should Know About Mormons

Mitt Romney’s speech and American tolerance.

Friday, December 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

Yesterday, at the end of Mitt Romney’s speech, he told a story from the early days of the First Continental Congress, whose members were meeting in Philadelphia in 1774: “With Boston occupied by British troops . . . and fears of an impending war . . . someone suggested they pray.” But because of the variety of religious denominations represented, there were objections. “Then Sam Adams rose and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.”

Were Adams alive today, he most certainly would hear a prayer from a Mormon. It is hard to imagine a group more patriotic than the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But there is reason to believe that voters in Iowa and elsewhere will not accept Mr. Romney’s invitation–put forward implicitly in his remarks yesterday at the George Bush Library–to ignore religious differences and embrace him simply as a man of character who loves his country.

A recent Pew poll shows that only 53% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mormons. That’s roughly the same percentage who feel that way toward Muslims. By contrast, more than three-quarters of Americans have a favorable opinion of Jews and Catholics. Whatever the validity of such judgments, one has to wonder: Why does a faith professed by the 9/11 hijackers rank alongside that of a peaceful, productive, highly educated religious group founded within our own borders?

Many evangelicals in the GOP view Mormonism as “a cult,” or at least not a Christian faith. One Southern Baptist leader recently called it the “fourth Abrahamic religion.” I remember, a couple of years ago, sitting in on an apologetics class at a Christian high school in Colorado Springs, Colo., and hearing the teacher describe a critical moment in the history of the Muslim faith, when the rock that now sits under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem tried to fly to heaven and had to be restrained by Mohammad. Acknowledging that it sounded a little wacky, the teacher added: “Well, it’s no stranger than that guy who found golden tablets in upstate New York.” The students laughed uproariously at the reference to the Mormons’ founding father, Joseph Smith.

Six years ago, I probably could have counted on one finger the number of Mormons I had met. Having lived most my life in the Northeast, my situation was hardly unique. Then, while researching a book on religious colleges, I decided to spend some time at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In preparation, I picked up “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” by religion reporters Richard and Joan Ostling. The Ostlings offer a comprehensive account of the church’s history and theology, as well as helpful descriptions of the Mormons’ cultural and political outlook. “The onetime believers in plural marriage, considered a dire threat to Victorian probity and the entire nation,” the authors write, “have become the exemplars of conservative monogamous family values.” It is hard to disagree. Mormons marry young and have large families. They don’t drink, smoke or gamble. The church does not condone homosexuality. Members give at least 10% of their income to the church and often volunteer more than 20 hours a week in some religious capacity. With no professional clergy, the survival of congregations (or “stakes”) is entirely dependent on lay participation. All young Mormon men and many women spend two years as missionaries, their travels funded by their own families. The church stocks soup kitchens across the country and internationally (both its own and those of other faiths) with food from its farms and warehouses.

Rather than behaving like an insular cult, members are integrated into the society around them, sending their kids to public schools and assuming leadership positions locally and nationally. Once Mormons complete their missionary service, they are not obliged to proselytize, so having Mormons as neighbors doesn’t mean a constant bombardment with invitations to join up.

But many Americans, unless they’ve actually had a Mormon neighbor, might find all these rosy facts meaningless, feeling deeply uneasy with some of Mormonism’s tenets. A lot of what we call religious tolerance depends on social contact, not theological understanding, and there are only about six million LDS members in the U.S., mostly concentrated in the Western states (though increasingly less so). If you press Baptists, they will acknowledge finding Catholics’ belief in transubstantiation implausible at best; Jews like me have a little trouble getting over the virgin birth. But we all get along, for the most part, because we know each other and live similar lives as Americans, whatever faith we profess.

But most Iowans will not meet a Mormon in the next six weeks unless Mr. Romney comes to call–Mormons make up less than one half of 1% of the state’s population. So let me offer a brief snapshot, not in the hope that Iowans will vote for Mr. Romney but in the hope that, if they don’t vote for him, their decision won’t have anything to do with his religion.

The young men and women at Brigham Young University are among the smartest, hardest-working and most pleasant college kids you will find anywhere. (For better or worse, I have visited dozens of college campuses.) The student body lives by the Mormon principle: “The glory of God is intelligence.” Most reside off campus without adult supervision, yet they adhere strictly to curfews, rules about contact with the opposite sex and every other church directive. They are purposeful but seem to enjoy themselves, spending their free time hiking in the sprawling desert. And BYU has America’s largest ROTC program outside of our military schools. This last fact is one I had occasion to think about on my trip. I left for BYU on Sept. 7, 2001, and returned home a week later. On 9/11, the students gathered for a campuswide devotional. The university president tried to comfort the students with “the eternal perspective.” My eternal perspective is not the same as theirs, of course. But hearing more than 20,000 young people around me reciting the Pledge of Allegiance made me realize that our temporal perspective is the same. I’m sure Sam Adams would have agreed.

Ms. Riley is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy Taste editor.