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.


NY Boy Makes Good (In defense of Mitt)

December 18, 2007

Religion in the Presidential Race: A Troubling New Precedent

By Abraham H. Foxman

National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

The full article originally appeared in Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s speech to the American people about his Mormonism and faith in America was an important contribution to our ongoing national dialogue regarding the appropriate role of religion in politics.

We agree there is no place in our society for bigotry and that one’s religion should never be a test for political office. We also realize that Governor Romney is fighting an unacceptable prejudice against him because of his faith and understand his need to proclaim himself a Christian.

Yet the speech was also a reminder that it has become part of our political culture for candidates to be forced into asserting their religiosity. The creeping emphasis on religion in our political culture, with some candidates openly professing their beliefs on the campaign trail — at times even hawking them — is something that should deeply concern all Americans.

Forty-seven years have passed since then-presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy found it necessary to openly declare he was “not the Catholic candidate for president” but “the Democratic Party’s candidate who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Who would have thought the same nagging questions raised about Kennedy’s fitness for office would surface again in the 2007 presidential campaign, especially after the 2000 campaign when Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut proved that an observant Jew could run for the office of vice president without his religious faith being a factor in determining the outcome.

Fast forward to the 2007 campaign, and there are more ominous signs that we haven’t quite reached the point when one’s religious beliefs are less important than his or her qualifications. It is disturbing that any candidate should feel compelled or even pressured to explain his religious views to voters. It is outrageous that a candidate should face religious bigotry and questions about his fitness for office because of his faith. And it is disconcerting that some candidates are now engaged in a dangerous game of political one-upmanship in an effort to win over the “religious vote.”

In his address, Governor Romney made four points that should resonate with every candidate and with all Americans. First, our nation has a “grand tradition” of religious tolerance and liberty.
Second, we separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason — “no religion should dictate the state, nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion.”

Third, “a person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” And finally, no president should put the doctrine of any church above “the sovereign authority of the law.”

We welcome these four points, but there was a subtext to the speech that provided some cause for concern. The speech was not truly a reaffirmation of the importance of the separation of church and state. Rather it reflected an effort we have seen in the current campaign — indeed on the part of many of the candidates — to appeal to religious voters on the basis of shared religiosity.

The Anti-Defamation League has previously called on Americans to judge candidates on the basis of their views on issues and their qualifications, and not the nature or depth of their religious commitment. Appealing to voters along religious lines can be divisive, contrary to the American ideal of including all in the political process, and can open the door to promises that violate the separation of government and religion.

As we said during the 2000 campaign with regard to Senator Lieberman, candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters. At the same time, however, we believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.

Anyone who legitimately aspires to the presidency of the United States must be prepared to set an example and be a leader for all Americans, of all faiths and of no faith.


Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.” ADL, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, neither supports nor opposes any candidate for political office.

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.


Happy Hanukkah Everyone!

December 5, 2007

Happy Hanukka!

Almost 1300 years ago, the evil Greek king Antiochus Epiphanese placed a statue of himself as the god Zeus in the temple at Jerusalem. Furthermore, in a effort to stamp out Judaism, He banned circumcision and sent soldiers to force Jews to sacrifice pigs to small versions of the idol. One family led by Yahuda Makavi (Judah Maccabee or “Judah the Hammer”), became the rallying point for an insurgency that pushed the Greeks out of Israel and reclaimed the Temple. The story goes that when the temple was reclaimed, the Greeks defiled all the vials of Holly oil for the menorah but one. It took seven days of to make new oil to the exacting standards of the Torah. With faith, the Aaronic priesthood went ahead and lit the Menorah which “miraculously” burned for eight days, rather than one, until more oil could be prepared. That is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days with candle lighting.

This story does not appear in our Bible. The Holiday is not mentioned in it either. It does appear in yours however…

John 10:22-23 22 And [Jesus] was at Jerusalem [for] the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch…

Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew and refers to the re-dedication of the temple. Hanukkah is the feast of dedication that Jesus was celebrating at the temple. Note what he was NOT celebrating…

His Birthday! 🙂

So when you ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” Well… Jesus would celebrate Hanukkah!

And you can too!


Utah Boy Makes Good (In Defense of Jews)

December 1, 2007

Anti-Semitism: Diagnose, then attack

By Bernard Harrison

E. E. Erickson Professor of philosophy, University of Utah

There must be agreement on what constitutes anti-Semitism then it must be attacked head-on, author and professor Bernard Harrison writes:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, during his recent visit to Washington, stated in widely reported remarks that the resurgence of anti-Semitic propaganda and associated violence around the world should not be minimized or explained away, but attacked head-on.
Addressing the American Jewish Committee, Sarkozy recalled being aghast to hear a Gaullist minister dismissing recent anti-Semitic violence in France with the throw-away line, “Yes, there are synagogues burning, but there are also cars burning.”

Fighting anti-Semitism, Sarkozy said, involves agreement on what constitutes it.

“We cannot fight against what is denied,” he said. “Unless you agree on a diagnosis, you cannot find the remedy.”

Unfortunately, during the past six years, agreement on what counts as anti-Semitism has not proved easy to achieve. Since Sept. 11, 2001, a large body of opinion in Europe and America — mainly, but not exclusively, in the universities, the media and the arts — has been talking as if the existence of Israel represented the sole cause of conflict between Islamists and the West.

Such talk has two great attractions. On the one hand it appeals to those who in any conflict between an “us” and a “them” tend to take the side of “them.” Israel is both a western-style democracy, profoundly liberal in its laws, economy and institutions, and the chief ally of the United States in the region. Representing Israel as the sole cause of the conflict offers a way of exonerating “them.”

By seeing the conflict as primarily “our” fault, the fault becomes that of the West, the fault of America.

But the attraction of blaming Israel does not end there. It offers, at the very moment when its promoters feel themselves most burdened by the guilt of the West toward the Other, a way of freeing them from that very guilt. They simply load it on to the shoulders of a second Other — namely, the Jews.

The Jews, after all, are the Other immemorially chosen for scapegoat status, if not by God then by western culture. Equally they are an Other far less terrifying than the Other we confront at the ruins of the Twin Towers. We need not worry that they will respond to gratuitous defamation with riots or explosions in public places. They never have and never will. But their main advantage is that by blaming them, we regain the ability to believe in our own purity of heart and motive.

Citizens of decadent western nations we may be, but that does not mean we need take any personal responsibility for the wicked ways of the West. That responsibility rests solely with the Jews and with George W. Bush, their puppet in the Oval Office.

Yes, I am being ironic. But in putting things this way I only marginally parody a certain line of talk increasingly heard since 9/11. It is worrying when it comes from the extreme right. Coming, as it tends to do at present, from large sections of the self-styled liberal elite it is terrifying, not merely to Jews but to democrats and anti-fascists of all religions and shades of opinion.

Plenty of Jews, and others, have protested against the current climate of demonization not merely of Israel, but also of the large majority of Jews and others who support Israel.

But furious denial is the usual response to any suggestion that there is anything anti-Semitic either about grotesquely hyperbolic defamation of Israel (“a Nazi state,” “the apartheid wall”), or about attacks on the “Israel lobby” that patently revive and reanimate the hoary myth of Jewish conspiracy.

Denial is buttressed by the claim that these accusations of anti-Semitism are themselves evidence of a Jewish conspiracy to silence critics of Israel and close down debate on the Middle East. That charge, of course, reanimates another traditional anti-Semitic theme — that of the Jew who whines about his sufferings less because he is really injured than because he hopes to draw some hidden advantage from complaining.

That, however, is beside the point. The point, as ever in the diagnosis of prejudice, concerns not disrespect but truth. How, in reality, could accusations of anti-Semitism hope to stem the tide of defamation now running so strongly, let alone “close down debate”?

What factual basis, if any, supports accusations that Israel is a “Nazi state” or that Israelis are planning — or executing — a Nazi-style genocide against Palestinians?

Anti-Semitism, like any other form of prejudice, cannot breathe the air of truth. It thrives on luridly colored falsehood. That is where we need to begin the diagnosis for which President Sarkozy has issued such a timely call.

(Bernard Harrison, emeritus E.E. Ericksen Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah, is the author of “Israel, Anti-Semitism and Free Speech” published by the American Jewish Committee. He also has taught philosophy at the University of Sussex.)


Liberal Mormons: A Critique and an Invitation

November 15, 2007

[NOTE: the following essay is directed to my liberal Mormon friends. If you are happily a part of your ward, have a burning testimony and wholeheartedly sustain the brethren, more power to you. This essay is not for you.

NOTE 2: The blog has been rather quiet lately. This is due to the fact that I occasionally embark on a lengthy essay that I really don’t have time to write. The following is such and essay. It is rough and really unfinished. However, I’ve come to realize that I will never post it unless abandon any pretense of perfection I might have. I hope you still find my observations interesting]

It would be fair to say that most of my Mormon friends are of the “liberal” variety. That is to say that they are readers of Sunstone and Dialogue. They read critical academic books on Mormon history. They don’t buy everything they hear in church. At a deeper level, they seem to harbor a bitter sense of betrayal by the institutional church and hierarchy. Many still attend church and fulfill their callings. Some pay tithing and have temple recommends. Yet essentially all seem to have this under riding pain and sense of resentment.

This sense of betrayal is, I think, much deeper than those who cease to fully believe in mainstream forms of liberal Christianity and far less than those who cease to believe in the truth claims of Judaism. It may be similar to the betrayal that fundamentalist Christians experience when they realize that the Bible is not perfect, but I doubt it.

To a certain degree, this is probably a reaction to what I would regard as a corporate entity attempting to control what is supposed to be a spiritual movement. That the LDS church owns many profit making businesses has never troubled me particularly. My religion traditionally controlled (and arguably still controls) and entire country as part of it’s identity. Judaism, like Mormonism, teaches the essential interconnectedness of the spiritual and the temporal. However, the LDS church in terms of its organization, “marketing,” pattern of decision making and the “look and feel” of everything from it’s skyscraper HQ to it’s branded, franchised chapels, is the epitome of a modern American corporate entity.

In most other religions, the leadership has a professional training in, primarily, religion. The study of religion, in my experience, generally attracts people with a liberal arts orientation. The LDS church, on the other hand, tends to promote people with legal and/or business experience. To my mind, it is completely natural that such people would, with the best of intentions, create a church with a corporate model. It absolutely amazes me when Mormons tell me that the church has no paid ministry. While that is (today) somewhat true at the local level, it is obviously not true at world level. After all, someone is filling all those offices at 47 south temple and I assure you that those in the Auditing Department, the Budget Office, Correlation Department, Ordinance Procedures Division, the Ordinance Recording Systems Division, and the Audiovisual Services Division, Historical Department, Real Estate Division, Materials Management Department, Treasury Services, Controller, Tax Administration, Risk Management and, finally, Investments Departments definitely are paid salaries.*

It is then, not really surprising when an institution based on a corporate model behaves as a corporation does. That is to say, it tends to exert centralized control over it’s image by everything from dictating the font and material composition of it’s signage to controlling the presentation of it’s history. Like a corporation, it naturally values it’s general corporate identity and message over any of it’s particular members (or should I say, “employees.” Make no mistake about it, in this metaphor, the members are the employees. Perhaps most are really interns, who pay for the privilege of working. It’s the potential converts who are the customers, if anyone is). It is very easy for a corporation to sacrifice even large portions of its staff, even staff with valuable skills, if it is in its corporate best interest to do so. This is precisely the way the modern LDS church behaves and no one should be surprised by it.

If you are a “Sunstone” or “Dialogue” Mormon, you should, in my opinion, simply accept that the church does not want you. Oh, if you do not make much fuss in public and continue to pay your tithing, they will let you hang around (sort of like an intern who has paid her tuition but really isn’t working out). If you make a fuss, however, especially one that has the potential to disturb the corporate image, you will be out the door. Even if your removal creates a temporary media glitch, as did the excommunication of the September six did, still, the benefits to the long run corporate image (as well as to the morale of the employees) outweigh the costs.

While this is, to me, clearly tragic given the radical, freedom-centered, human-focused nature of Mormon theology, it’s just the way it is and you, I advise, should accept it and leave. You will not change the church by protests or symposia. It will never be changed unless the mistreated employees, the church members, transform themselves into dissatisfied customers and vote with their feet.

There are a couple of forces weighing against this movement however. One is the deep identification with Mormon history and peoplehood that many liberal Mormons have. The other is rooted in what I regard as somewhat flawed theological defense mechanism that some liberal Mormons flock to, what I call “hyper-Christianization.”

This is, I suppose, why this is a specifically “Jewish” critique of liberal Mormonism.

Though I personally see quite a number of problems with this approach, I can also understand why it might be appealing to liberal Mormons. The narrative that I hear from such disaffected former LDS insiders as Paul Toscano and Grant Palmer goes something like this: Jesus was a radical reformer who preached a liberalizing gospel of spirit and love against a powerful bureaucracy who not only misunderstood him (because they were looking for a “warrior messiah” they missed his ‘Spiritual message”), this evil bureaucracy actually killed him. Yet he defeated death and reigns forever in love. The subtext here is, I believe the identification of individual dissident with Jesus and the Sanhedrin and Roman authority with the LDS hierarchy. I’ve never heard anyone except Paul Toscano actually say this, but time and time again it has been the implication.

The only problem with it is that it is not true (to paraphrase Brigham Young, quoting Joseph Smith). Though Jesus says things like “Love you neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” from time to time, most are unaware that these lines are stolen from the “evil authority” he is allegedly resisting. “Love your neighbor” is a quotation of Leviticus 19:18 and the golden rule is a modified quotation of the Rabbi Hillel who lived roughly 40 years before Jesus. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34).

So much for universal love…

Further then that, Liberal Mormons who “hyper-Christianize” are really trading one questionable history for another. Recent works such as Randel Helms “Gospel Fictions,” and “Who wrote the Gospels” as well as
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew,

The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman to name only a few of the most popular of hundreds of scholarly and semi scholarly works, aptly demonstrate the historical, chronological and even geographic problems with the New Testament stories of Jesus.

This is not to say the Jews don’t have problems with the Hebrew Bible or Talmud. Clearly we do. I would say that they are not as severe as those that plague the New Testament, particularly at the level of textual integrity… if one confines oneself to the past couple of thousand years or so. However, the point is that if one trades one set of historical problems for another set, one should be aware and acknowledge it.

All that said, if one is really set on approaching one’s issues with the LDS hierarchy with what I’m calling the “hyper-Christianized” approach, yet remain loyal to the essential ideas of the restoration, that is, Joseph Smith and the uniquely Mormon scriptures, an option does exit. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a.k.a. the “Community of Christ” has essentially adopted the approach of dealing with it’s unique history (In addition to questioning the historicity of the Book of Mormon and so forth, its scholars now admit the RLDS church was wrong about Joseph’s polygamy, the temple and his views on God) by a sort of “institutional hyper-Christianization.” From where I sit, the Community of Christ today is basically liberal Methodism with Joseph Smith, the priesthood and a temple. If one feels a tinge of nostalgia for polygamy (without condoning it or wanting to practice it one’s self, of course) the convert to the Community of Christ can take solace in the fact that his church is now the one with institutionally recognized polygamists while the Utah LDS church has an absolute prohibition. In a twist of fate, the (church formerly known as the) RLDS church accepts polygamists, mainly in Africa, as candidates for baptism without an abandonment of their wives, while the LDS church does not. Ahhh, cruel irony!

On the other hand, there is another sort of disaffected Mormon. This sort has the same discomfort with the corporate nature of the current hierarchy but is aware of and longs for another sort of Mormonism, that of the 19th century. At first blush, the Mormon who longs for a radical theology, the gathering, informal familial solidarity, a united order and the creative intellectual, yet revelatory, approach to religious texts that characterize 19th century Mormonism has few options. One could join one of the polygamist cults such as the FLDS church or the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, but that would entail trading one crushing hierarchy for another, albeit a far less corporate one.

In my experience, most Liberal Mormons who are attracted to the 19th century do not really want to live in a theocracy or practice polygamy. (Those who do, are not really “liberal” per se and they do, in fact, likely gravitate toward polygamy).  In my experience, the liberal Mormons with 19th century orientation are attracted to the radical spirit of 19th century Mormonism but wish the freedom to research, debate and practice what they will.

For such people there is, in my opinion, an attractive option available, Judaism. Mark it now, because this is the only invitation to become Jewish that you will probably ever get. Jews do believe that we have a mission to perfect the world but not through converting people to Judaism. From the Jewish theological point of view, it is not necessary that any non-Jew ever convert. Following the 613 commandments (which for Mormons would be a reduction in total number – an LDS friend of mine counted over 1200 “commandments” in one conference edition of the Ensign years ago) are not an expectations the Jews believe God expects of everyone. To a greater or lesser degree, we believe that our practice of actually following them, sort of “jump-starts” an infusion of holiness that blesses the whole world. Thus, from the Jewish point of view, there’s really no reason for non-Jews to accept them.

However, Judaism also recognizes that there are some people who would be a good fit and, since the time of Ruth, has accepted the motivated convert. From my point of view, disaffected “19th century” Mormons would make a good fit.

Why do I say that? Well, from my point of view (which I came to independently but with which, Jan Shipps, noted scholar of Mormonism agrees), Jospeh Smith “restored” three things:

1) The “restoration” of the church of Jesus Christ – This “Restoration, though not literally restoring anything since the academic consensus is that there was no “original church” to restore, represents only the earliest phase of the Mormon Movement (Roughly the New York and early Kirtland periods) and today is basically represented by the RLDS/Community of Christ Church.

2) The “Restoration” of Israel – Of course Israel did not need “restoring” per se because we never left. Yet there is no doubt that Joseph Smith did introduce much of what is unique about Judaism, both is its biblical and modern forms into his movement. To me, it is this “restoration” that is represented by the Utah LDS church. Themes of ancient Israel predominate in the LDS church from the late Kirtland period through at least the early 1980’s (though there has been, lately, a new emphasis on Christian themes in recent LDS discourse)

3) The “restoration” of “All things.” Shipps includes such things as the temple, polygamy and even the potential reintroduction of animal sacrifice alluded to the in the LDS scriptures as part of this category. To me, these items really are part of category one since they are to a degree part of ancient (and technically modern) Judaism. What I would include in this category are the Unique LDS views of God as a man (or at least anthropomorphic in form) and as merely the highest or greatest God among many potentials, though clearly the only one really worthy of worship by Israelites. These views are represented in the Hebrew Bible and to a limited degree in Jewish literature up to the middle ages. Therefore they are a peripheral part of the Jewish tradition. But they really rely on a pre-Jewish, patriarchal narrative that was almost lost within Judaism. Therefore, to me, they go beyond a restoration of Israel and lean toward a “restoration” or rather Americanization and amplification of the patriarchal religion. Still, they are things that at least this Jew can work with.

A liberal Mormon who emphasizes what I’m calling “Hyper-Christianity” or takes my “invitation” to join the RLDS (oopps, “Community of Christ”) really abandons the full flavor of Mormonism and much that makes it interesting. That is, they only get item one “The restoration of the church.” On the other hand, a liberal Mormon gets to access items two and three within Judaism, at least to the degree that Modern Mormons do and them some. In all honestly, it’s really items two and three that 19th century Mormonism (and in terms of de-emphasizing Jesus, even 20th century Mormonism, up until the 1980’s) emphasized. It’s items two and three, Israel and the patriarchs that Judaism emphasizes today.

That this is so, is illustrated by the large number of Mormon Hymns that Jews could sing without or almost without modification. When I heard one or two that sounded “Jewish” I started investigating the church web site and came up with:

  1. Hope of Israel
  2. Israel Israel God is Calling
  3. Redeemer of Israel (Jews use the term “redeemer” to refer to God)
  4. Ye Elders of Israel
  5. Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded

[These are the specifically “Jewish” songs, not merely those what could be sung by all good people, Mormons or not, such as “Say what is truth.” If you can think of any more, please let me know. I’m sort of collecting these.]

I taught “Hope of Israel” to a friend of mine who is a commander in the Israel Defense Forces and has seen battle a number of times. He absolutely loved it! I taught “Israel Israel God is Calling” to another friend who works for “Arza,” an organization that works to encourage American Jews to “make Alyiah,” that is, to gather in Israel. She loved it as well! Indeed I would argue that these uniquely Mormon hymns (as well as “Zion stands” make more sense to modern Jews than to Modern Mormons.

Why is this possible?

Simply because many of the characteristic elements of 19th century Mormonism from the “restoration of Israel” and the restoration of “all things” have been muted or rejected by the modern LDS church but retained in Judaism. For example, the two hymns I taught to my Jewish friends are about Zion’s army and about the “gathering to Zion.” Mormonism no longer has an army nor does it encourage gathering. Judaism, modern Zion, does have an Army, the IDF. We do have a a homeland in Zion, Israel, and we are gathering. And the beauty is, if you are an American Jew, there is little real pressure to serve in the former or move to the latter. You can partake of the “flavor” without the hassle!

There are other areas in which a Mormon, especially with a 19th century orientation, would feel more at home in Judaism than among the RLDS/Community of Christ. Jews and Mormons share both a technical belief in and acceptance of polygamy. Both also share a practical ban designed to keep those pesky Christians happy. Both have isolated groups of adherents who still indulge in the practice.

As 19th century Mormons and 20th century Mormon Fundamentalists attest, polygamy is accepted by the Bible and commanded under certain circumstances. In Judaism, the specific command occurs only when one is married and one’s also married brother dies childless. One is commanded to marry his brother’s wife. The children of this marriage are legally the brother’s and inherit his goods. However, polygamy in all other cases was optional. Jews in Europe continued to solemnize polygamous marriages until the year 1006 when, under Christian pressure, Rabbi Gershom, the de facto head of the the European Jewish communities issued a 1000 year “manifesto” banning the practice to save the community. This ban expired a year ago March and at that time, there were quite a number of polygamy jokes going around the educated Jewish community! Middle Eastern Jews had no such ban however and continued to practice polygamy right up until they made aliyah to Israel, the secular government of which, banned the practice as a matter of state law. Isolated groups of Jews in the middle east, particularly in Tunisia and Yemen still practice it…Sort of our “Short Creek.”

The fact that today Jewish law permits polygamy (the “ban” having expired but not renewed) yet almost no one, other than a snickering jokester on occasion, is clamoring for it back is yet another similarity, but this time between Jews and modern Mormons. If polygamy were suddenly permitted under US law as, for example, the by product of a supreme court decision on gay marriage, I’m almost sure that the official LDS church would firmly maintain it’s current prohibition. Why? Because, nostalgia aside, like most modern Jews, Modern Mormons think it is kind of “icky.”

Finally the great added benefit for liberal Mormon of converting to Judaism is that there is NO universal hierarchy to get in your way. No one can authoritatively expel you from your people and heritage. If you develop issues in one synagogue, you may simply move to another one more to you liking.

I realize that the idea of modern revelation is attractive. However, there seems to be precious little. Gordon Hinkley, though a nice old gentleman (I’ve met him), admitted on Larry King that “no one knows the future” and in a previous interview that he simply prays about issues and waits for a “still small voice.” This is certainly not prohibited in Judaism.

The bottom line is that in Judaism you will still have a magnifying filter through which to view the world and a people who will be a family to you wherever you may be or may roam. You will still have Zion to strive for. What you will not have is a corporate hierarchy that desires to control the minutia of your life and threatens to destroy your family and community relationships if you object.

*Coleman, Neil K. “A Study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an Administrative System, Its Structure and Maintenance.” Ph.D. diss., New York University


Quote(s) of the day…

October 29, 2007

Quote (s) of the day…

From a Catholic commenting on an article in the Atlantic, “the Seal of a Convert,” comparing the brouhaha over Romney’s religion with the non-issue of Harry Reid’s:

“Mormonism’s weird fantasy about Jesus powwowing with Amerinds is extremely odd, but no more so than our Virgin Mary fetish.”

As a Jew, I can attest that this is absolutely true. I rarely agree with pronouncements from Saudi Clerics, but this quote reminds me of one that I enjoyed. Apparently there were some evangelical Christians trying to get the Saudi government to expel Mormon workers. To do this, they wrote a letter to the Mukata (the religious police) arguing that Mormons were polytheists and therefore should be deported according to Saudi law. What came back was this ruling:

“The petty squabbles between you Christians do not concern us. We find that you are all dangerously close to polytheism”*


Sometimes I think God made Mormons to let other Christians know how Jews feel… 😉

BTW, I know the blog has been slow lately. I started working on a piece called “Liberal Mormonism: a Jewish Critique and Invitation.” That has somewhat spun out of control. I need to finish the last little bit and finally post it this week.

Thanks for your patience.


*This story was told to me as true by a Mormon who allegedly received a copy of the letter.