Americans are an enterprising people, and we start churches like we start businesses. (It is not always possible to tell the two apart.) There are more than twice as many distinct religious communities as McDonald’s restaurants in the United States, and eight times as many religious congregations as ZIP codes. The diversity of American creeds and the comity among their adherents is remarkable: The West Texas city in which I was raised was dominated by white Baptists and brown Catholics, but we had everything from staid Methodist congregations to foot-washing Primitive Baptists, holy-rolling Foursquare and Full Gospel churches, a tiny congregation of Latin-loving sedevacantists led by a discalced Franciscan (try that on a sidewalk in Texas in July), neo-Marcionite churches full of people who did not know what a Marcionite is, various expressions of the Seventh-Day Adventist tendency, even a few Mennonites out in the countryside. Everybody thought everybody else was going to perdition, though to the best of my recollection Janet Reno was the only one willing to dispatch anybody to hell from Texas over religious peculiarities.
But the Mormons are a tribe apart.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, you may be surprised to learn, the largest religious organization in the United States after the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church. The Baptists and the Methodists are in decline, while the number of Catholics and Mormons is growing, with Mormons adding to their numbers at 2.5 times the Roman rate of redemption. It is likely that Joseph Smith soon will have more followers in the United States than does John Wesley; already the words “Salt Lake City” carry a religious resonance no longer detectable in place names such as “Aldersgate” — or “Boston” or “Philadelphia” for that matter. (If it weren’t for E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, the religious flavor of those places would be not only gone but also forgotten.)
Mormons and Catholics are alike in that they matter. Everybody knows who the pope is, and when there’s a papal vacancy the drama of the election leads practically every newspaper in the world, and all of Europe holds its breath. Very few Americans could pick Bryant Wright out of a police lineup or tell you that he is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. What the Catholic Magisterium teaches influences public policy — and life — around the world. Mormons, likewise, have a kind of cultural electricity about them: There is no Broadway musical assembled to lampoon the beliefs of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but The Book of Mormon keeps selling out. There are few if any websites dedicated to “unmasking” the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., but there are dozens dedicated to Mormons. The Catholic Church matters in part because it is global, and in some quarters it is still held in suspicion for that reason. The Mormons represent precisely the opposite condition: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only major worldwide religion bearing a “Made in the U.S.A.” label. Forget apple pie: With its buttoned-down aesthetic, entrepreneurial structure, bland goodwill, and polished professionalism, it is as American as IBM.
Also, it drives people crazy.
“A Mormon One-World-Theocracy Brought to You by Mitt Romney?” Apparently, Romney has a 59-point plan for that, too, if you believe the more hysterical anti-Mormons, the doyenne of whom, quoted above, is Tricia Erickson, a Mormon apostate and professional opponent of all things Latter-day Saintly. She is the author of, among other works, Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The Mormon Church Versus the Office of the Presidency of the United States of America. (She also is fond, as you can see, of rhetorical questions.) She believes that the fact of belief in the Mormon faith is in and of itself disqualifying for an aspiring president.
She is hardly alone in that belief. One in five Americans declare that they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate — even if that candidate were a member of their own party. There is no other religious group that comes close to inspiring that kind of widespread hostility in U.S. voters. Seven percent of Americans say they would not vote for a Catholic, 9 percent would oppose a Jew. Five percent would oppose a black candidate, 6 percent a female candidate. Twenty-two percent would oppose a Mormon. The only groups with higher negatives are homosexuals and atheists, and their numbers are improving. Anti-Mormon hostility has been more or less constant since Gallup added the question to its survey in 1967, an innovation occasioned by the presidential campaign of a moderate Mormon ex-governor and millionaire business executive by the name of Romney. George Romney’s candidacy was hobbled by his infelicitous use of the word “brainwashing” to describe his experience on a Department of Defense–organized tour of Vietnam (“A light rinse would have been sufficient,” quipped Eugene McCarthy) and by the New Hampshire machinations of Nelson Rockefeller, who saw to it that Romney’s 1968 campaign was over before it began. For his ineptitude, Romney pere was rewarded with the secretary’s chair at Richard Nixon’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, a career-ending appointment that prevented the country from answering in 1972 or 1976 the question that went unanswered in 1968: How big a problem is religion for a Mormon presidential candidate?
“Brainwashing” is a word that recurs in the public discussion of Mormons and their beliefs, and critics such as Tricia Erickson are confident that Romney fils has had more than a light rinse. “It is my opinion that an indoctrinated Mormon should never be elected as president of the United States of America,” she told CNN. “Indoctrinated temple Mormons, as Romney is, have experienced years of brainwashing and indoctrination, and also have made covenants and oaths that they plainly cannot disobey.” She quotes approvingly from the late Ed Decker, another ex-Mormon who once filled the same market niche. Among other things, Mr. Decker accused Mormons of employing the ritualized sexual abuse of children to ensure conformity: “These acts are designed to subjugate the children involved and brainwash them into a satanic mindset,” he wrote in My Kingdom Come: The Mormon Quest for Godhood. In that book, he cites the 1990 “Pace memo,” in which Glenn L. Pace, a high-ranking officer of the Church, related to his colleagues that some 60 people had made allegations of bizarre, occult-oriented sexual abuse against figures in the Church. Mr. Decker neglected to cite the follow-up investigation by Utah’s attorney general, which found that there was no evidence at all for the claims and that their details were, as one investigator put it, “absurd,” of a piece with the other fantastical allegations of satanic sexual abuse associated with the “recovered memory” therapy that was au courant at the time. No word from the authorities on how far the Mormons have advanced in their plans to establish a diabolical monarchy with its capital in Independence, Mo. (pop. 116,830), but perhaps that is because, as Ms. Erickson worries, Mormons have infiltrated the FBI and CIA in “disproportionate” numbers.
In a telephone conversation, Ms. Erickson does not evince more than a superficial knowledge of Mormon thinking — she is very hung up on that personalized-planet business that so fascinates Trey Parker and Matt Stone, a belief that is more or less folklore. “Never mind Mormonism,” she says. “Take that out of it. If somebody told you there was this great guy, who was smart and had great experience and had made a bunch of money, and that he was going to be president of the United States — and, oh, by the way, he also believes that when he dies he is going to become the god of his own planet: Would you vote for him?” Mormons take theosis further — a good deal further — than do many other Christians, but the idea that man partakes of the Divine nature because God partook of the human nature is hardly unknown in Christian thought. It is what Gerard Manley Hopkins was referring to when he wrote, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am.” The idea of men becoming gods would not have been alien to Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, “The only begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” A half a dozen patristic sources communicate similar sentiments. There is some debate among orthodox Christians about how to treat those statements — as rhetoric? metaphor? literal statement of fact? There’s a great deal of debate about those sentiments among Mormons, too.
But you aren’t going to hear Ms. Erickson holding forth on theosis as interpreted by Saint Irenaeus vs. the spin Clement of Alexandria or Brigham Young gave the subject. Her sole qualification on the subject of Mormons is that she was raised one, and that her first marriage took place in a Mormon temple. She is the Mormon equivalent of a familiar Catholic type, the disillusioned ex-believer who thinks that having a last name ending in a vowel makes one a Vatican scholar, the my-Irish-grandmother school of theology.
But the tendency she represents has real power in it. “In the 2008 election,” she says, “it scared me to death, knowing what I know and knowing that it wasn’t going to come out. I kept waiting on somebody to come out with the truth, and nobody did. It’s not a Kennedy/Catholic situation. Mitt’s goals go far beyond this life and this earth.” And the goal to which Mitt Romney is sworn, along with Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch, and a baker’s dozen other members of Congress, is, she is convinced, “the overthrow of the U.S. government, using the political machinery of the Mormon Church to bring the U.S. government under the rule of the priesthood of the Mormon Church.” And here you thought Harry Reid and Mitt Romney couldn’t see eye to eye on the big issues.
Richard Bushman, a scholar of Mormon history and himself a Mormon, coolly dismantled Ms. Erickson’s declaration that Mormonism is prima facie disqualifying: “The question is Mitt Romney’s independence,” he wrote in response to her CNN appearance. “Will he pursue the public good as he rationally understands it, or will he bow to the judgment of Church leaders? Does his religion force him to be a puppet? Here we can turn to history for an answer. Temple-attending, believing Mormons have held national office for over a century now. Is there a single instance where they have succumbed to Church direction against their own consciences? I do not know of one myself.”
Anti-Mormonism within the Christian Right is a problem for Romney in the primaries; the anti-Mormonism of the secular Left will be a bigger one in the general election. Gallup finds Democrats 50 percent more hostile to Mormons than Republicans, and the Democrats’ choir of hate — Larry O’Donnell, Bill Maher, etc. — already is rehearsing its anti-Mormon litany, while Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, argued that Romney’s religion should be disqualifying in and of itself. Harold Bloom, writing in the New York Times, denounced “the Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed,” and fretted that Romney resides “deep within the labyrinthine Mormon hierarchy.” He echoes Ms. Erickson’s concern about the number of Mormons in the FBI and CIA.
Mormons bring out the crazy on both sides of the aisle.
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.