A great deal has been made over the fact that Mitt Romney is Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often referred to as just “Latter-Day Saints” or “LDS”). In many cases the commentary has been negative and even inaccurate. Interest in LDS faith seems to be growing, as evidenced by my visit to Barnes and Noble yesterday. The number of books available there on Mormonism has increased dramatically in the last few weeks.
I, of course, am not a member of the LDS faith. I’m a Roman Catholic. I’ve had Mormon friends and I’ve studied the doctrines of their faith for some time now. I’m thoroughly convinced that a president who is LDS and who lives by his church’s doctrines will be a very good thing for the United States of America. If you understand what mainstream Mormonism teaches, you’ll understand why I hold such a conviction.
Before we go much further, let’s dispose of false idea that Mormonism is a cult. I see no evidence of that. Contrary to common misconception, having unusual beliefs doesn’t make a religious community a cult. Genuine cults are communities where leaders have an excessive and often unhealthy control over their members. Examples include the Branch Davidians (led by David Koresh) and Heaven’s Gate (led by Marshall Applewhite); members of both groups were led to their deaths by their leaders.
I would not classify the Latter-Day Saints of today as members of a cult, though it may be correct that the original Mormon community under Joseph Smith did shows signs of cult-like adherence. In addition, please note that I’m talking about the largest group of Latter-Day Saints of which Romney is a member (with its headquarters in Salt Lake City). I’m not referring to the smaller breakaway groups, some of which may still practice polygamy. To reiterate, cults are marked more by the control exercised by their charismatic leaders than by unusual doctrines. It is not uncommon in the study of religious history to encounter communities that began as cults but later became mainstream.
For those who argue that Mormon beliefs are not mainstream, I can’t deny that there is a certain accuracy there. Mormon doctrines and theology, while retaining the terminology of more traditional Christianity, diverges wildly in how it uses that terminology. Doctrines such as salvation and the fatherhood of God are understood differently by LDS adherents. Mormons believe that we humans existed spiritually prior to coming to earth and that highest salvation consists of reaching the status of divine beings. As earthly children grow to become like their parents, so Mormons believe that their ultimate goal is to grow into the status of the Heavenly Parents from which they received their original creation.
There are those who enjoy poking fun at the Mormon tradition of wearing religious underwear (called “garments”) connected to their first visit to an LDS temple. Is such a practice drastically different from the Catholic tradition of wearing a scapular underneath our shirts? Is it very distant from the idea often seen on TV that an evangelist can pray over a small cloth and mail it to someone who has needs that might be answered by prayer? All religious people use outward signs as symbols of faith. Recognizing this, it seems fruitless to laugh at each other with the vain idea that our own symbols make sense while the symbols of others are silly.
For sure, Mormon doctrines are very different (heterodox) from the beliefs of wider Christianity. Nonetheless, Mormons should be considered Christians. They believe that their ultimate fulfillment as future heavenly parents themselves is made possible by the redemption of Jesus Christ. This particular version of salvation may not sit comfortably with most Christians, but it still qualifies as a theological understanding of the significance of the life and work of Christ as our Savior. Mormons explain the divergence by insisting that theirs is the true church of Jesus Christ, re-established in these “latter times” because genuine Christian doctrine had been lost, or at least corrupted through history.
Now let’s get to the core of my argument. Why do I believe Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will bless America? Well, that part is easy.
Joseph Smith, LDS prophet and founder, was a simple lad from Vermont. He was born in 1817 and lived much of his early life in the state of New York. He seems to have been imaginative and of a certain religious bent, though not beyond taking advantage of the gullibility of others to avoid hard work. Whatever you may think of him, we can’t deny that he was a man of his times, a citizen of a new nation dreaming of unlimited expansion and wealth to the west. It grew to be understood by most Americans that the young nation’s control of the entire continent, from Atlantic to Pacific, was it’s “manifest destiny.”
This national optimism was infectious. It found a welcome home in the doctrines of the Latter-Day Saints. To put it in my own words, Mormonism is the religion of American exceptionalism. The evidence for this position lies at the heart of all Mormon theology; it’s demonstrated clearly in the Book of Mormon (which Mormons believe to carry the same revelatory weight as the Bible).
For Mormons, many of the early inhabitants of North America were the lost tribes of Israel–members of God’s own chosen people. The fact that no scientific evidence exists for this position doesn’t change their belief. In addition, they believe that Christ himself visited these people and preached to them. Going back even further, Mormons believe that America is so important to the plans of God that the Garden of Eden itself was located here. And it is here, in what is now the United States of America, that God will establish a divine kingdom on earth at the end of time (the New City of Zion or Heavenly Jerusalem). We don’t have to fear that Mormons themselves will try to found this kingdom. In their early days they did try it, and failed. This failure led them to reformulate their understanding and to leave the kingdom to God’s doing.
Because of their unusual beliefs (along with the personality quirks of Joseph Smith–especially regarding plural marriage), early Mormons suffered tremendously for their faith. As far as I am aware, they are the only religious group in US history to be identified by a government officer for extermination (the so-called Missouri Executive Order No. 44, issued by Governor Lilburn Boggs in 1838). Early Mormons perpetrated their share of suffering on others, but for the most part they were on the receiving end of persecution. Personal responsibility and hard work came to be synonymous with Mormonism. It is the foundation of the LDS ethos to this day. (Such commitment to hard work is a bit ironic, given Joseph Smith’s penchant for avoiding it!)
While there are exceptions to every rule, Mormon Americans are generous and kind people who cherish their country and who believe it–and the liberties it recognizes–to be an important part of God’s plan for the world. One of the reasons that Mormons are so strict about alcohol and caffeine consumption is because of their belief in restoration. All that was wrong with the world before Joseph Smith’s “revelations” can be corrected through the restored church founded by him. Theologically speaking, America appears to me to be part of how they understand that divine restoration.
I’m not a Mormon, but I don’t fear having a God-loving Mormon in the White House–even if his understanding of God is different than my own. Given what I know about “Latter-Day Saints,” I’m looking forward to it.