The Curtain Falls on the Mormon Moment

With Mitt Romney’s hopes for the presidency coming to an end last night we not only close out the 2012 election cycle but we also say good bye to “The Mormon Moment.”

I felt certain that Mormonism would be used as a political device against Mitt Romney, specifically the priesthood ban. I was wrong. There certainly were left-leaning writers and opportunist who attempted to promote that angle, but those stories never really made national news. I thought a SuperPAC, unofficially affiliated with Barack Obama would create at least a few television ads attacking Mormonism’s past. Those ads never materialized. I have to say that I think the country is probably better for it. I think John McCain displayed considerable honor by not leveraging Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008 and President Obama returned the favor in terms of Mormonism in 2012.

Mormonism will continue to gain some national exposure about once every 10 years. But it will likely never receive the kind of media exposure it did over the last year. I don’t think the LDS church made any significant gains in converts or positive public perception, but it likewise did not suffer any large embarrassments.

About the most damaging thing to happen to Mormonism was the release of hidden video of the Endowment Ceremony. Interestingly enough, the publisher of that video, NewNameNoah, had his YouTube account suspended yesterday. If the LDS church had any role to play in that action, I think they couldn’t have chosen a better day than Election Day to make it happen. Any hopes for media coverage of that censorship will be unable to find a voice in the current news cycle. The video will live on and will remain publicly available, but will be much more difficult to find off of YouTube. [update: the account was reactivated the next day]

Second on the list of hits against the LDS church would be the church disciplinary actions against David Twede, the managing editor of The church wisely chose to suspend its disciplinary actions and Twede resigned on his own terms. He was able to successfully draw greater attention to his website but I think Twede made a number of missteps in equivocating about his potential excommunication being somehow tied to political comments against Mitt Romney.

Third on my list of problem areas for the church in the national exposure was the rise in prominence of some “non-correlated” Mormons such as Joanna Brooks and John Dehlin. They’ve found courage in their unorthodox views and the church has shown, that at least for the time being, it will not be calling people with such vocal views into disciplinary hearings as it did with the September 6. I think these individuals will be sticking around in the discussion of Mormonism and will be called upon by their new found media contacts to speak on Mormon matters at least as frequently as the official church spokesman. Many would consider this the greatest positive to emerge from this Mormon moment.

Robert Jeffress began the year with a discussion of Mormonism’s cultic status within Christianity. By year’s end Billy Graham was removing the word “cult” from his website not only in reference to Mormonism but toward several other religions as well. This may be the greatest benefit to Mormonism from the Romney campaign. The Evangelical use of the word “cult” as a reference toward heretical, new-religious-movements has probably come to an end. I think moving forward you will see “cult” being exclusively a reference to mind-controlling organizations.

Though a positive for the nation, I think the lack of attention on Mormonism in the outcome of the campaign is actually a negative for Mormonism. It shows that Mormonism (and perhaps religion in general) is largely irrelevant in the national discussion. People simply don’t care beyond a passing curiosity. In terms of future converts, it’s much better for a religion to be hated than to be irrelevant.

I’d wager that the next time a spotlight such as we’ve seen cast on Mormonism in 2012 will be caused by either a large political movement to legalize polygamy or some sort of leadership crisis. I anticipate the former (and for sure decriminalized polygamy) before the latter. Many Mormons may have hoped that a Romney presidency would bring about a long awaited acceptance in American culture. The energy and opportunity for that sort of shift has now ended. In the United States, Mormonism will now return to being a topic of discussion for Mormons, former Mormons, a few curious onlookers and detractors and a shrinking number of potential converts.

The Mormon Candidate

The BBC recently released a new documentary about Mormonism and Mitt Romney. I think the average Mormon will regard this as a very biased hit piece against the LDS church. But it is notable for the extensive interview with Apostle Jeffery Holland including discussion about the Book of Abraham, Smith’s treasure digging, the practice of shunning, masonry and penalties in the Mormon temple and the “Strengthening the Members Committee”.

This is part one. All the parts can be seen seamlessly by clicking this link and hitting “Play All”.

Can an Evangelical Vote for a Mormon?

As we begin to approach a new presidential election season I thought I’d write up my thoughts on this controversy. This is not intended in any way to be an endorsement of Mitt Romney or any political candidate. I don’t think Gov. Romney has much hope in becoming the Republican candidate much less win the presidency (because Evangelicals won’t vote for him). But his candidacy offers the opportunity to talk about some larger issues. There are two objections I most often hear expressed against voting for a Mormon.

1. When Salt Lake City Calls

When Salt Lake City Calls” is the name of a book that supports this line of reasoning.  Its premise is that because of the covenants made in LDS Temples a Mormon President would have a higher oath to the Mormon Prophet than to the people of the United States or the U.S. Constitution.

I don’t disagree at all that such oaths are made by Mormons who attend their temples.  Investigating the wording (and penalties formerly associated with the covenants) will reveal that they are serious, literal and binding.  Mormons are indeed asked to place allegiance to their church, its prophet and its message at the highest priority.

The question unanswered is “If a Mormon President holds to this covenant as rigidly as we might imagine, does it pose a threat to the United States?” I don’t think it poses any threat at all.  Knowing that the LDS Church and the President are going to be carefully watched and scrutinized about the nature of their relationship, I don’t think either would be interested in abusing this oath.  The image-savvy Mormon church is already quite sensitive about being accused of being a cult. They don’t show a pattern of wanting to reinforce that stereotype.  If anything, I imagine there would be a distancing in the relationship between Salt Lake City and Washington DC while a Mormon sits in office.

Second, let’s suppose the worst.  Let’s imagine that the LDS Prophet receives a revelation that all religious organizations in the United States should come under his control and he calls on every Mormon to make that vision a reality.  Let’s further suppose that the Mormon President makes such legislation a top priority in his administration.  The chances of him enacting such a law would be infinitely small.  He would be unable to find cooperation from the House of Representatives or the Senate. He’d stand no chance before the Supreme Court and the state houses of 49 states would find their own ways to nullify such a law.  He then would likely be impeached for not upholding the Constitution.  I can’t really imagine the LDS church asking a Mormon President to do anything that might harm the values of the nation, but if it did, the President would have little support from our (very intentionally) separated powers.

The truth is Mormonism is perhaps one of the only religions in the world that recognizes and cherishes the United States Constitution.  When Mormons have been persecuted it has always been their belief that the Constitution (and Heavenly Father) would save them.  Joseph Smith many times would extol the virtues of the Constitution and even predicted that there may come a time when the Mormons are the only people left to preserve it.  The Mormon church used to make American Independence Day celebrations part of its worldwide curriculum because Mormons recognize that they were able to form a new religion precisely because of the religious environment afforded by the US Constitution.  It would be out of character for the Mormon Church or a Mormon President to harm or change it.

Most of these issues were previously discussed in our history during the Reed Smoot Hearings in which it was decided if Mormons could qualify for federal public office.

2. Won’t a Mormon President Legitimatize Mormonism and Make it Mainstream

In truth, I think it will. Evangelicals will need to hold this in tension as they weigh their political choices.  But I would like to question if a mainstreamed Mormonism would be something Evangelicals should fear.

The first concern is that an increased awareness of Mormonism might cause more people to investigate the LDS church and consider becoming members.  History doesn’t really bear this out. George W. Bush and William Howard Taft were by far the most outspoken Presidents about their Evangelical faiths. Neither caused an increase in attendance at Evangelical churches (if anything their presidencies might have set the Evangelical movement back). I don’t believe any evidence exist that John F. Kennedy was able to drive a spike in Catholic conversions in his presidency either.

The second concern is that Mormonism would likely lose it’s image as an “outsider religion”.  Evangelicals might very much like to do what they can to keep the LDS church from gaining that sort of credibility.  I can appreciate the concern for aiding or boosting the heresies taught by Mormonism.  But I think an investigation into Mormon history might convince Evangelicals that a mainstreamed Mormon church might inspire reform within Mormonism.

Culturally there is a large portion of Mormons who want nothing more than to be viewed as normal.  They are aware of some of their church’s previous difficult doctrines and practices but because they don’t have to live with them they are able to pretend they don’t exist.  Many of these Mormons are actually unaware of the origins of some of these practices and assume the folk explanations they’ve heard must be true.  A Mormon President would cause Mormon origins to come to light.  An increased public discussion of these issues is exactly what is needed to cause Mormons to distance themselves from their spiritual ancestors.

When Mormonism interacts with mainstream American culture it has a habit of conforming. Mormonism wants to survive and it has a clear history of doing whatever is necessary to survive.  Polygamy (Reed Smoot Hearings), the black Priesthood ban (NCAA boycotts against BYU) and even temple death oaths (The GodMakers) are all examples of how Mormonism caved to public pressure once broader public awareness was brought to those issues. Even former LDS prophet Gordon Hinckley denied specific Mormon doctrine when asked about it in front of a national audience and claimed he didn’t know if they even taught such doctrines. Mormons will insist that these changes were made as a result of Heavenly Father’s direct intervention and communication. That may indeed be the case, but it’s peculiar that these changes occurred after outside pressure was exerted on the LDS Church.

Currently the LDS church growth rate in the United States is about the same as its birth rate.  The church’s missionary efforts seem to be faltering in countries with widespread internet access.  Free access to information about Mormonism doesn’t help the LDS church’s efforts.  Particularly when that information contradicts the LDS church’s faith-promoting version of the story.  A larger public discussion of Mormonism would only bring that information to further light.

David Clark recently stated on this blog “For now, I’d be satisfied if Mormons would be more open and honest about their history and doctrine at their public church meetings. If that were to happen, I think the LDS church would reform in short order.” I tend to agree.  There are a great many Mormons who have knowledge of and a great love for Mormonism’s many peculiarities. They will never want anything to change.  But I do not believe that is true for the majority of Mormons.  A Mormon presidency coupled with an organization’s desire to survive might be just the thing to cause a Mormon reformation.

As we speak, individuals and organizations opposed to Mormonism are forming materials and strategies to use a Mormon candidacy against the LDS church.  Add to that a candidate’s political opponents who are willing to use anything to hurt him and I think the LDS church has reason to hope there is never a Mormon president.

Compromise is demanded of every person who enters into democratic politics.  This even extends to individual voters.  A perfect candidate who matches every one of a person’s values is not likely to exist.  If it does, that person may not be electable (you might as well write your own name in on the ballot). It’s an Evangelical’s duty not to vote for the candidate that perfectly matches their values, but instead to vote for the candidate from the available and viable choices that most closely represents their values.  I think if a Mormon candidate matches an Evangelical’s political values and they think that candidate has the best possibility of winning they should feel more than comfortable in voting for that candidate.

Politically Speaking

With some trepidation I’m going to venture ever so slightly into the political realm. There has been a general conversation in the Evangelical community surrounding Governor Huckabee. There are a number of Evangelicals who believe they should and must vote for him simply because he shares their religious views.

On the other side of the coin there are a number of well placed Evangelical voices saying that it is wrong to vote for someone simply because they are Evangelical, Mormon, Black, Female, or Male. It’s also wrong to vote against someone because they are Evangelical, Mormon, Black, Female or Male. Instead, candidates should be selected based on merit and issues. Religion, race and gender are not qualifications for the office of President (a stance I completely agree with).

To be sure, I am frustrated with Evangelicals that are voting for Governor Huckabee solely based on the fact that he used to be a pastor (and even more frustrated that Huckabee is running on nothing but that). But I have to laugh when Romney supporters claim that there is religious bigotry among Evangelicals. The reason I have to laugh is that Mitt Romney got 92% of the Republican vote in Utah. 92%!!!! That’s ridiculous for any candidate. If Mormons want to throw stones at Evangelical voters for voting on the wrong thing, they first need to step out of their glass house. A voting block that large in Utah seems to be just as clearly drawn down religious lines as voting trends in the Bible Belt (if not more so).

If it’s wrong to vote against Romney because he’s a Mormon, it’s equally wrong to vote for him because he’s Mormon. Huckabee is proving what I thought to be the case when I first heard of his candidacy. A Mormon candidate’s worst nightmare is an Evangelical pastor.