Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Latter-Day Saint

I lived for thirty-odd painful months in Salt Lake City, from November of my sophomore year until I came to Oregon to go to college. I roared at the oppressive, invasive culture, which is no place for a libertine non-Mormon. In those dark days (the 80s) and before, liquor laws prevented you from buying anything stronger than a 3.2% beer in a bar. You had to take your own bottle of wine to a restaurant and then pay an "uncorking fee" to drink it (a law intended to mark and punish non-believers). You even had to have membership at coffeeshops to get a cup of thin java. I actually engaged the religion a little more thoughtfully many years later, when
I returned and shot a documentary about the "Mormon Olympics."

I mention all of this because, despite his announcement in the very normal, very blue state of Michigan, Mitt Romney's bid to be president is going to raise the specter of his religion. It is strange, and its expression within the culture is strange, and unlike Joe Lieberman's Judaism, that's going to be a problem for Mitt--more so than Hillary's gender or Barack's skin color.

As a political bloc, Mormons have a lot in common with Evangelicals--they're socially conservative, agressively pro-market, family-oriented, and wear a lot sweatshirts and jeans. But this could be said of any fundamentalist faith, from Hinduism to Islam. Oregon's Senator Gordon Smith is mormon, as are Utah's elected officials. Utahns are reliable GOP votes, and when the issue is gay rights or abortion, Mormons and Christians stand shoulder to shoulder.

Electing a president is another matter. Chris Cillizza does a good job of breaking down the barriers of a general audience:

Digging slight deeper into the Gallup numbers, more skepticism becomes apparent. Of those 66 percent of Republicans who said they would cast a vote for a qualified Mormon, 54 percent said they would be "completely comfortable" with that decision while 12 percent expressed "some reservations" with that choice.

Combine those two questions and here's what you get: 54 percent of Republicans in the Gallup poll would vote for a qualified Mormon without a second thought; 42 percent would either not vote for a Mormon or would do so with some level of doubt.

Worse, a lot of those 54% are answering the question in the dark. When CBS asked people what they knew about the religion, only 10% knew a great deal, while 57% knew nothing at all. And only 25% had a favorable impression of it (second worse to Islam). For non-believers, the religion is pretty bizarre--so bizarre that it's mainly disguised behind a tapestry of benign Biblical beliefs. The facts--which surely will emerge--are less benign. (Below, I'll include a largely accurate, but enormously irreverant South Park that details how Joseph Smith founded the religion).

They'll learn about the strange cultural elements of the faith--men as the absolute head of the family, basements full of canned peaches for judgment day, the sphere of heaven being based on the number of kids families produce (!), the secretive weddings that happen privately in Mormon temples, the funny underwear Mormons wear--the list is long.

Mormonism's history, famous for polygamy, less so for its overt racism, poses difficult problems. (The faith believes that the Native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel who "had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations." Utah Mormons actively tried to adopt Native American children to bring them into the light. It wasn't until 1978 that Mormons allowed blacks ordination. And so on.)

Ironically, it will probably be Romney's own party who launches the viscious attacks I anticipate. Because, while Evangelicals are happy to join with Mormons as a voting bloc, they seem less willing to elect them president. All of this dirty laundry is going to come out, and I suspect many of the fringe leaders will attack Romney. More importantly, he will lose a sizeable percentage of Evangelical base voters, and the ones he keeps won't be the kinds of voters who put Dubya on their shoulders in 2000 and 2004. Romney's campaign will be a non-starter, and I'm willing to go so far as to predict* he'll withdraw before Super Tuesday next spring.

Okay, enough of the analysis, here's the entertainment portion of our post:

*Record, including sports predictions, through 2007: 9.2% accuracy. A word to the wise.


A little bird said...

You raise some really good points. Having lived as a mormon for over 6 years as an adult, and having gone through the temple experience, funny underwear, etc. I have some pretty strong opinions on the this. My only point of disagreement is your comment on the sphere of heaven being determined by the number of children you have.

Regardless of the finer points of doctrine, the big stuff is going to be enough of a problem for him.

Prior to reading your post I was imagining Romney replying to reporters askin him about the racism issue. Blacks couldn't hold the highest priesthood until 1978 (they could only hold the lower priesthood). The kicker is that if you could prove you weren't of African descent, they'd let you in. It's the whole mark of Cain issue. There's no way he's going to be able to explain how any of that is ok. The dude is screwed.

The church also disembles on the polygamy issue. It's not practiced in the real world, but in the afterlife, it's another story. A temple marriage lasts beyond death, and divorced or widowed men can remarry in the temple. In the next life, men can be be married to any number of women. It's twisty and I hope someone asks him about it publicly.

Evangelicals would happily burn mormons at the stake along with homosexuals and uppity women. I've always thought they made the strangest bedfellows. The enemy of my enemy I suppose.

Kennedy had to address his Catholicism but the prejudice against mormons is way more intense (except for maybe amongst the KKK vote).

Anyway, I'm very curious to see how he handles it and I'm looking forward to calling out the bullshit.

I knew we'd be seeing Romney running for President after watching him do interviews at the Olympics in Salt Lake. He had slick and smarmy politician written all over him.

I'm sorry you had to live in Salt Lake. I can't imagine the misery. I know a lot of mormons who grew up there thinking it was the best place ever - until they moved. Then they realized they never wanted to go back.

I should mention that I left the church several years ago and would sooner die by the sword than go back. I'm pretty low on religion period these days.

Absent Mindful said...

Dum, dum, dum, dum, duuumm.

Thanks Alworth.