Newsweek/Daily Beast reporter Jamie Reno published a provocative interview this week with Sue Emmett, a direct descendent of Brigham Young and a former LDS Church member, that plumbs controversial aspects of Mormon faith and culture, including the status of women in the faith and a tendency among some Mormons to manage the way they speak with non-Mormons about complicated aspects of our history and religious practice.
Flagging concern about how this highly managed communications style has impacted the Romney campaign and might shape a Romney presidency, Reno quotes a former LDS Church employee, who states, “Every Mormon grows up with the idea that it’s OK to lie if it’s for a higher cause.”
That doesn’t quite ring true to my own experience, though I do understand well the truth-swerving phenomenon Emmet and Reno describe. In fact, I cringe when I see the way it connects to Romney’s own tendency to avoid frank disclosure—this week, it’s tax returns—and the frequent charges that ambition and opportunism rather than consistent principle shape his policy stances.
Of course, it’s nothing shocking that an American minority group might develop its own way of talking to outsiders. But in some Mormon circles one does hear bitter accusations of “lying for the Lord,” and sometimes one does witness among Mormon people today the remnants of a deep-seated sense that telling a complete, straightforward story is not always good for LDS interests.
The most penetrating assessment of this Mormon cultural phenomenon comes from linguistic anthropologist Daymon Smith, who ties defensive communication mechanisms—telling outsiders one story in order to protect another version of the story for insiders—to Mormon polygamy and particularly to the decades in the late nineteenth century when federal prosecution of polygamy sent many Mormon men on the “underground.” (Read an excellent summary of his dissertation here.)
Double-speaking on polygamy continues. I myself wrestle with it whenever I’m obliged to talk about Mormon polygamy in public. Since 1890, LDS Church leaders and members have stated publicly and repeatedly that we do not practice polygamy, that the practice has officially ended. This is an earnest effort to distinguish contemporary members of the mainstream LDS Church from ultra-orthodox splinter groups of fundamentalist Mormons. And it is true that any Mormon who were to marry and cohabitate with a two living spouses today would be excommunicated.
But polygamy has not been eliminated from Mormon life. (I’ve discussed this topic at length here.)
The fact is that current Church policy does allow for a living man to be “sealed” (married for eternity) to more than one woman at a time. For example, a widower or divorced man who has elected to terminate his civil marriage but not his LDS temple marriage is permitted to marry another woman in an LDS temple with the assurance that both first and second marriages would be eternal. The same is not possible under current Church policies for living LDS women who have been widowed or civilly divorced.
This may seem like a technicality. But when combined with the fact that polygamy has never been renounced as a doctrinal principle by the Church and that it remains on the books in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of LDS scripture, it fosters a belief among many mainstream LDS people that polygamous marriages will be a fact of the afterlife. Some mainstream Mormons dutifully anticipate polygamy in heaven. Others take an agnostic view. But many others quietly harbor feelings of grief, anger, and worry. I have experienced these feelings myself, and I hear them from other Mormons all the time. All the time Mormon men and women ask, “What kind of God would expect me to live in an eternal marriage that I would hate?” Not the God I believe in.
Polygamy remains a fact of mainstream Mormon thought and belief—whether as a doctrinal remnant or as a live article of faith, no one knows for sure. And the tensions created by the dissonance between the Church’s public denial of polygamy and the private continuance of the doctrine creates tensions that lead more than a few Mormons to leave the faith.
Given this complicated and conflicted situation, what should a Mormon say when she is asked whether we practice polygamy?
A few weeks ago, I sat in front of a radio microphone for the BBC program “The World”; with me on the program was a high-ranking public relations official for the LDS Church. Together, we did the same program twice: two back-to-back hours of the same hour about Mormonism, one time for the American audiences, and a second time for the whole world. During the first hour, taping for American audiences, when the inevitable polygamy question came, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to convey in a soundbite the terrible complexity of Mormonism’s relationship to polygamy: how while it is true that Mormons today no longer plurally cohabitate, polygamy has never been eradicated from our doctrine, our scriptures, and even from current policy, and that this causes many Mormon women and men a great deal of worry and resentment. My description sounded jumbled alongside the clear and familiar official message: no, we do not practice polygamy, not at all. I felt self-conscious and incoherent and nervous about publicly contradicting Church PR officials, but also determined not to obscure the more complicated and difficult truth. When we deny those truths, their private emotional costs multiply.
Then came the second hour of programming. Our audience in this second hour was not just BBC’s American listeners, but the world. I thought about the global reach of the BBC—the reach of the former British empire. When the question about polygamy came, I imagined listeners in Wales and Bangladesh and Kenya, listeners who had no concept of Mormonism, perhaps, beyond the most rudimentary and familiar stereotypes; including nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy. I squeezed my eyes shut. “No,” I said, “we no longer practice polygamy,” agreeing this time around with the LDS Church public-relations official. As I did, I registered an old, familiar, sinking feeling. I tried to tell myself it was the best I could do.
Was I lying for the Lord? Or was I a regular Mormon struggling to tell a complicated story to a world that often reduces us to stereotypes? What should I have said? Mitt Romney has said, “I can’t imagine anything more awful than polygamy”—even though polygamy remains a live element in Mormon doctrine and practice. Is that what he really believes? Is that what he felt he had to say? Is this the best we can do?
By: Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches, August 8, 2012
When Joseph Smith, the religious genius and sometime-treasure hunter who founded the Mormon faith, announced in 1844 that he was running for president of the United States, international affairs were not his top priority. In a pamphlet outlining his campaign platform, Smith quoted James Madison’s inaugural address declaring that he would “cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations.” But he never got the chance to elaborate on his foreign policy: Later that year, while Smith was in jail awaiting trial on charges that he had ordered the destruction of an anti-Mormon newspaper, a mob of armed men stormed his cell and fatally shot him as he jumped out of the window.
On the face of it, the Mormons angling for the White House in 2012 could hardly be more different from the founder of their faith. Where Smith turned to seer stones and wildcat banking schemes to raise money, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are paragons of fiscal caution and big-business capitalism — one a self-made millionaire, the other an heir to a billionaire’s chemical fortune. Smith was a charismatic prophet who commanded his followers to accept new scriptures and doctrines, like polygamous marriage and baptism of the dead, distinguishing the Mormon faith from mainstream Christianity. Romney and Huntsman, by contrast, appear to be respectable and rule-bound to a fault.
Both have distanced themselves from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ more idiosyncratic beliefs, and Huntsman has implied that he is no longer devout. Yet their domestic records and approaches to politics speak volumes about the Mormon worldview and what a Mormon president might mean for U.S. foreign policy. Despite the partisan rhetoric that the campaign trail may require, they are realists whose international experience and instinctive prudence would rein in their commitment to any ideological grand strategy.
Smith’s risky and mercurial behavior — and the conspiracy theories of today’s most famous Mormon guru, Glenn Beck — are exceptions in the church’s history and culture, not the rule. The early Latter-day Saints (so called because they believe that Smith restored the true church in the “latter days,” the last era before the Second Coming of Christ) did not build a self-sustaining empire in the Salt Lake Valley without a fair dose of caution and business sense. Some historians argue that Smith’s schemes were more pragmatic than they seem: His church’s survival and subsequent thriving suggest he did something right. In part, Mormons have prospered by adapting their beliefs to changing times. When doctrines like polygamous marriage and the prohibition against blacks in the Mormon priesthood became politically untenable, the LDS church denounced them: New revelations indicated God had changed his mind. Mormons’ talent for careful planning and flexible strategy has contributed to the rapid growth of their church around the globe and the expanding influence of Mormons in the corridors of Washington and the business world.
This is not to say that Mormons are opportunists. On the contrary, they tend to be stalwart defenders of conservative social values and American exceptionalism. After all, the LDS church teaches that Jesus Christ appeared in America, that the true faith was restored in upstate New York when Smith uncovered the golden plates, that the Garden of Eden was in present-day Missouri — as is the site of Christ’s future Second Coming. It’s no wonder that Leo Tolstoy saw in Mormons the quintessential “American religion.” Today, popular culture stereotypes Mormons as teetotalers proud of their enormous families and patriotism. Rumor has it that the CIA and FBI treat the Mormon faith as a de facto background check and recruit more heavily on the campus of Brigham Young University than almost anywhere else.
Yet while America plays a prominent role in Mormon theology and history, Mormons have always been missionaries with no intention of stopping at any border. Over the past century and a half, the LDS church has become one of the most international organizations in the world. The church claims about 14 million members worldwide, more than half of whom live outside the United States. Of the 25 announced locations for new Mormon temples, 14 are abroad (most in Latin America). The church is increasingly non-American and nonwhite. That global missionary ethos has implications for how a Mormon president — especially ex-missionaries like Romney (France) and Huntsman (Taiwan) — would view foreign affairs.
Missions demand a paradoxical combination of ideological commitment and pragmatic flexibility. The two years (or, in the case of female missionaries, 18 months) that young Mormons are urged to devote to full-time mission work often send them overseas and leave them not only fluent in new languages and charged with a saintly esprit de corps, but sensitive to the challenges of communicating in a culture different from their own. Successful missionaries in any religion are nothing if not farsighted and practical: They are inured to doors slammed in their faces and realistic about the compromises and adjustable expectations that their work requires. Romney, for example, learned to put aside his church’s disapproval of alcohol and approach patrons in French bars.
Experiences like these teach Mormons to temper the American exceptionalism inherent to their theology. Neither faith nor patriotism stopped the church-owned newspaper, Utah’s Deseret News, from recently bucking the region’s nativist tendencies by protesting growing hostility toward illegal immigrants (it so happens that those immigrants are a growing Mormon constituency). A similar streak of apolitical pragmatism — and, it must be said, human compassion — marked Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor: He defied ideological taboos by pioneering a model for government-mandated universal healthcare. Huntsman, for his part, accepted an ambassadorial nomination from a Democratic White House, presumably because he was more interested in representing American interests in China than in toeing a strict party line.
But these candidates’ preference for pragmatism over politics seems to cut little ice with the Republican faithful. Many evangelical Christians, in particular, view the Mormon faith as a non-Christian cult. When Romney first ran for the country’s highest office four years ago, he tried to quiet rumors that a Mormon president would be the puppet of the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City or that a Mormon is too “weird” to be president. “We share a common creed of moral convictions,” he told an audience at Texas A&M University. (Never mind that shared morals do not mean shared doctrine: Yes, the LDS church seems to focus more on outward obedience than on theological details, but the faith’s fundamental tenets include some very distinctive ideas. For starters, Smith taught that God is an “exalted man” of flesh and bone and that humans themselves can ascend to godhood, while the Book of Mormon describes Christ’s visit to the Americas after his resurrection — notions that would make most Christians blanch.)
Given the lingering suspicions of such a core Republican constituency, it should come as no surprise that Romney has given his 2012 campaign, including his foreign policy, a partisan makeover. His hawkish manifesto, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, opens with an epigraph from Dwight Eisenhower, but the main tone of the prose is pure Ronald Reagan: Romney calls the Gipper “brilliant” and declares that “history proved Reagan right,” an exemplar that the next president ought to bear in mind if America is to remain “the leading nation in the world.” (The LDS church, incidentally, considers Reagan a “true friend”: His administration employed at least 14 Mormons in prominent roles.)
No Apology tries to dispel the notion that Romney is a technocrat without the guts to defend America’s superpower clout (though, with graphs of home prices and test scores, the book hardly hides his wonkishness under a bushel). He writes that unless Washington reverses the country’s economic downturn and ramps up defense spending and war on fundamentalist Islam, America faces a terrifying fate: “I suspect the United States will become the France of the twenty-first century — still a great country, but no longer the world’s leading nation.” The thought of middling-power status and Gallic godlessness may give Romney a special fright: During the late 1960s, he served as a missionary in France, where student riots and Sartre-style atheism may have hardened his conservative views.
None of this is to say that Romney won’t follow through on his pledges to expand America’s armed forces if he is elected. However, his current foreign-policy fulminations are probably as much an effort to find daylight between himself and Barack Obama as they are a reliable indication that he would pursue another round of ill-conceived, George W. Bush-style wars of ideology. Likewise, Huntsman may warn that U.S. troops are “deployed in some quarters in this world where we don’t need to be,” but his criticisms of mission creep in Afghanistan and military action in Libya are unlikely to translate into a White House staffed with America-firsters.
In the end, however, the main problem facing 2012′s Mormon candidates is not mainstream America’s suspicion of their faith, but the fact that ideology has increasingly polarized voters — and voters seem to enjoy the rancor. Detailed PowerPoint presentations rarely win primaries. And in these dark days of economic woe, when Americans are feeling impatient and desperate, voters are especially liable to be attracted to heated, rather than sober, arguments. Americans may simply be too committed to the religions of red and blue to heed the gospel of pragmatism.
By: Molly Worthen, Foreign Policy, June 13, 2011
To watch Mitt Romney these days, he of the creased blue jeans and family that looks like it came from a Betty Crocker mold, circa 1957, it’s hard to see a product of one of the most radical social and sexual experiments in American history.
But it’s true. White-bread Mitt is the great-grandson of a man who married five women. At the turn of the last century, Miles Romney was sent to Mexico by the bearded patriarchs of the Mormon Church, there to start a colony for those who thought it was divine right to have as many wives as they wanted. Romney’s father, George, was born in Mexico, a descendant of outlaws with harems.
I started thinking about the extraordinary family past of the possible Republican presidential nominee after reading part of Janny Scott’s fascinating new book, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.”
Scott, a former Times colleague, tells a story of family dislocation and fierce maternal independence. In Hawaii and Indonesia, young Barry Obama stood out like a redwood on the prairie, and was taunted for his skin color. The father he never knew was from a Kenyan goat-herding family, and the stepfather he barely knew was an Indonesian whose main passion was tennis. Obama was raised mostly by white grandparents from Kansas, and a free-spirited mother with a passion for education.
It’s a miracle of sorts, given the drift a boy with that background must have felt, that Obama’s own family with Michelle now seems so grounded — and normal. It’s also startling that Romney, whose ancestry includes six polygamous men with 41 wives, is now considered an icon for traditional family values. Mitt’s great-grandmother, Hannah Hood, wrote how she used to “walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow” over her husband’s many wives.
The background of both men is telling, in one sense: how success can emerge from the blender of American ethnicity and lifestyle experimentation. But it takes a generation, or more, for many people to get used to the novelty, as the long, despicable sideshow over Obama’s birth certificate demonstrates.
This shameful episode has little to do with reality and everything to do with the strangeness of Obama’s background — especially his race. Many Republicans refuse to accept that Obama could come from such an exotic stew and still be “American.” They have to delegitimize him. So, even though the certificate of live birth first made public in 2008 is a legal document that any court would have to recognize, they demanded more.
No American president has ever been so humiliated, and those who think it has nothing to do with race are deluding themselves. Donald Trump owes Obama an apology for doing more to stoke these coded fears about the president’s origins than anyone. But don’t hold your breath: a man without class or shame will not soon grow a conscience. The only consolation is that Trump’s disapproval ratings have skyrocketed since he decided to lead the liars’ caravan.
Had Romney been running for president 100 years ago he would be facing a similar campaign, albeit one led by Mormon-haters and the Trumps of his day. Remember, the United States nearly went to war with the theocracy in Utah Territory; at a time when polygamy was equated with slavery, President Buchanan dispatched the Army against defiant Mormon leaders. The religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, had as many as 48 wives, among them a 14-year-old girl.
The church renounced polygamy in 1890, as a condition of statehood for Utah. But the past was not easily expunged. When Utah sent Reed Smoot to the Senate in 1903, Congress refused to seat him. Smoot was an Apostle in the Mormon Church, and as such a suspected polygamist — though there was no evidence of multiple wives. After a four-year trial, and more than a thousand witnesses who were asked about every bit of Reed’s background and that of his church, he was allowed to take his place in the Senate. This was thanks in large part to the backing of the nation’s first progressive president, Teddy Roosevelt.
Today, six members of the Senate — counting the appointment of Dean Heller from Nevada this week — and two potential presidential candidates come from a church once described as a devil’s cult by mainstream Christians. If Romney wins next year, and Democrats retain the Senate, Mormons would hold not just the presidency but the Senate Majority post, in Harry Reid from Nevada. Their religion is not an issue, except with the same intolerant crowd who have followed Trump into the gutter.
Janny Scott’s book reminds us that most Americans don’t come from Mayflower stock. When I started mucking around in my own Irish ancestry, I found some border-crossers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not unlike Romney’s people in Mexico. It looks like bootlegging, rather than extra wives, may have been at stake, but I can’t be sure.
At least one president, John F. Kennedy, came from bootlegging Irish heritage. It was always a side issue, the mist of his father’s past, though nobody ever forced Jack Kennedy to prove he wasn’t a criminal. He looked like most Americans, and that was enough.
By: Timothy Egan, The New York Times Opinion Pages, April 28, 2011