There is a weird contrast at the heart of American attitudes toward Mormons: Their doctrines may sound exotic to mainstream Christians — whose idea of sensible and respectable orthodoxy is engaging in weekly sessions of symbolic or mystically literal cannibalism in honor of a Jewish god-man who ran afoul of the Roman criminal-justice system after a dinner party went south 20 centuries ago — but, personal planets or no, Mormons themselves are practically the yardstick of normalcy. Every religion gets a stereotype, and the Mormon stereotype is: nice, clean-cut, well-mannered, earnest, sober.
And very, very white. The taint of racism still hangs upon the Mormon Church, which did not fully incorporate black members into its ranks until 1978. U.S. religious institutions — and U.S. institutions at large — do not have a great record generally on race: There’s a reason that there is a Southern Baptist Convention and a Southern Methodist Church, and that reason was slavery. If nominated, Mitt Romney will have to answer some uncomfortable questions about sitting in a racist church when he was 31 years old; maddeningly, he’ll have to do so while standing next to Barack Obama, who belonged to a racist church until doing so became politically inconvenient. Romney will be able to point to his family’s long history in the civil-rights wing of the Republican party, and to the fact that Mormonism today is, as befits a uniquely American creed, a global and multiracial phenomenon.
The first Mormons I knew well were a family of Nigerian immigrants in my hometown, the children of a local college professor. The elder son cut quite a figure as the singer in the most popular band in town, with an uncanny talent for reproducing the voice of Robert Smith of The Cure. Such was the stultifying cultural conformity of small-town life in Reagan’s America: Nigerian-American Mormons performing the music of sexually ambiguous pop icons for the Future Farmers of America.
The Mormons have worked mightily to shed their Wonder Bread image. To visit the Mormons’ website is to be assaulted by the young, the hip, and the multicultural: “My name is Sheryl Gardner, and I’m an urban schoolteacher. People are like, Yeah, I’ve never met a black Mormon, and I’m like, Yeah, we exist!” Cue the tastefully funky music. Want to meet Mormons? There’s an app for that. (Seriously: The Mormons’ Internet presence makes the Catholic Church look like . . . the Catholic Church.) But it’s still a hard sell. When Barack Obama’s political operators say that they plan to characterize Mitt Romney as “weird,” they mean in no small part “Mormon.”
“What’s happening here is not new,” says Clayton Christensen, a Mormon elder in Massachusetts who speaks with the adamantine self-assurance of a Harvard Business School professor, which he is. “The pilgrims left Europe to escape persecution and derision by the dominant churches — and the minute they set up their homes in Massachusetts, when Roger Williams disagreed with the mainstream, they ostracized him and drove him out. He had to go down to Providence. Very quickly, the persecuted became the aggressors in persecuting others. When Tyndale decided to translate the Bible into English, the Catholic Church killed him.” (The lattermost point is true to the precise extent that one might reasonably consider King Henry VIII an instrument of the Catholic Church.)
Christian anti-Mormonism, Professor Christensen argues, comes from a simple misunderstanding and the failure of those he calls, pointedly and repeatedly, “ostensibly Christian” to live up to their creed. Because the Book of Revelation is traditionally the last in the Bible, he says, “the last two verses in the whole New Testament say if you add to this or subtract from it, you will be accursed. But it doesn’t refer to the whole Bible, just Revelation. That placement was inadvertent, but people look at that and say: God has said everything he has to say and is not going to talk to mankind anymore. And then here come the Mormons, with another testament, another gospel of Jesus Christ. They view this as true heresy. It’s a big thing that we believe there is additional revelation.” There is perhaps more to it than that, as Mitt Romney is no doubt discovering with some difficulty.
Weird, diabolical, and theocratic, or nice and normal — that’s a debate that will outlast the 2012 campaign. Right now, Romney is most assuredly worried about a different question: Electable or not? Romney’s team has been quietly identifying strongly anti-Mormon voters, so as not to waste time on them. Unfortunately, a great many of those anti-Mormon voters are Republican primary voters, too. As Professor Christensen puts it: “You look at where Romney does well and where he doesn’t: He doesn’t do well where the conservative, evangelical, quote-unquote Christians live.” And Mitt Romney — Mormon muckety-muck, Brigham Young U. graduate, initiate to the esoteric secrets of the temple? He’s wishing somebody would ask him about his regulatory-pricing plan, structural reform of the federal government, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, countervailing duties on Chinese goods — but like Bill Clinton, he can expect to be asked about his underwear.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review. This article appears in the April 2, 2012, issue of National Review.