Friday, August 10, 2012

Don't Lose Faith: Reading Between The Lines On Mitt, Mormonism & The Reporting Of The New Yorker

In the eighteen-twenties, in Palmyra, New York, a man named Joseph Smith—who had already been arrested for “glass looking,” the phony detection of underground treasures—said that an angel named Moroni had directed him to a set of buried golden plates, inscribed with an ancient script, which, after various stops and starts, Smith and a friend had translated into a Biblical-sounding English. 

The plates contained the Book of Mormon,...

The Book of Mormon is, in any case, only one of many pronouncements that Smith offered his new troops, apparently improvising as he went along,...

Smith held (especially in the sermons he preached toward the end of his life) that God and angels and men were all members of the same species,…

…The doctrine of God-as-Man divided Smith’s cult from the others,…

…Mormonism does have a definite Gnostic aroma,…

…Mormonism was the great scandal of American nineteenth-century religion, somewhat as Scientology is today, though Mormons understandably dislike the comparison.

Wherever they went, they infuriated the non-Mormon locals, and also managed to infuriate one another: the early history of the movement involves a bewildering series of excommunications, internal banishments, and the increasing threat of violence to enforce new rules as Smith received them. Smith was eventually martyred by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, while in the local jail awaiting trial for treason. Which of his doctrines enraged the mob is hard to grasp, but it may have been sex more than heresy.

The success of a new religious movement depends not so much on the mystical visions of its founder as on the executive energy of its first evangelist,…Brigham Young inhabited this role for the Mormons, and about as fully as any apostle ever has.

Young,… is one of the few nineteenth-century public figures to be routinely on the record saying “frigged” and “shit.” Yet the figure who emerges in the biography starts off more like Jim Jones or David Koresh. He preached a brutal doctrine of “blood atonement”…a “chilling perversion of the golden rule.”

For a time, he tolerated a group of frontier thugs who acted as personal emissaries, and, despite Smith’s gestures toward universalism, imposed a hard anti-African and pro-slavery line. (Blacks were excluded from the priesthood and from temple ceremonies.) Young was in power at the time of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in 1857, in which more than a hundred peaceful non-Mormon emigrants were disarmed under an elaborate promise of safe conduct and then murdered en masse. “The attackers mercilessly shot, stabbed, and slashed the throats of emigrants who pled for their lives,” Turner recounts, in an event he describes as “a heinous crime executed after careful deliberation and subterfuge.” For all that, the killers “appeared to remain not just in good standing but in Young’s own personal favor,”...

Smith taught that Gods and men were one species; Young made this idea a practical guiding principle.

Mormons effectively turned away from spiritual adventuring toward the gospel of prosperity. . . . Merchants who invested in the enterprise displayed a [Zion Co-operative Mercantile Institutions] sign on their storefronts, consisting of an ‘All-Seeing Eye’ ,…the Z.C.M.I. in part reflected the socialist,…doctrines that Smith had taught,…

The Mormons in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “The Book of Mormon”…are well-meaning naïfs, essentially sweet and admirable—though, to be a little heretical myself, this may be evidence, along with much of “South Park,” of Parker and Stone’s wanting to take credit for being bold without ever taking the risks or responsibility that come with being brave.

All of which leads to the inevitable question: To what degree is Mormonism responsible for Mitt Romney? Is there a thread, dark or golden, that runs from Moroni to Mitt? …The most striking feature of Mitt Romney as a politician is an absence of any responsibility to his own past—the consuming sense that his life and opinions can be remade at a moment’s need. Romney, according to Romney, never favored the individual mandate, or supported abortion rights, or opposed the auto-industry bailout, or did any of the other things he obviously, and on the record, did.

When, in 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the rule prohibiting blacks from serving as priests, one church leader, Bruce McConkie, explained, “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978.” You could find, or think you’ve found, a similar logic behind Romney’s blithe amnesia when it comes to the things he used to think and say.

Romney is better understood as a late-twentieth-century American tycoon than as any kind of believer,…It’s unfair to say, as some might, that Mitt Romney believes in nothing except his own ambition. He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.

Then again, almost every American religion sooner or later becomes a Gospel of Wealth. 

-- All bolds mine, with quotes from the (mostly positive) New Yorker Magazine review of four books on Mormon history, "I, Nephi," by Adam Gopnik.

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