Pundits still haven’t figured out how to talk about Romney’s Mormon religion. Here’s everything you need to know.
Liberal politicians and pundits, from Brian Schweitzer to Lawrence O’Donnell to Jon Stewart. have begun bringing up — and stumbling over — the subject of Mitt Romney’s religion. The following is an excerpt from Alex Pareene’s e-book,”The Rude Guide to Mitt.”It can be purchased at Amazon,Barnes & Noble, iTunes and the Sony Reader Store.
“The precipitous mountain pass that led the [Mormon] pioneers down into the Salt Lake Valley and still is the route of access from the east on Interstate 80, was first explored by my great-grandfather, Parley P. Pratt,” Mitt Romney cheerfully writes in “Turnaround,” the airport bookstore leadership manual he wrote in 2004 while governor of Massachusetts.
“He had worked a road up along ‘Big Canyon Creek’ as an act of speculation when his crop failed in the summer of 1849. He charged tolls to prospectors making their way to California at the height of the Gold Rush and even had a Pony Express station commissioned along his pass.”
Romney doesn’t add — and why should he? — that Pratt was murdered in 1857, by the husband of a woman he took as one of his “plural wives.” (His ninth.) Pratt was in San Francisco proselytizing and promoting polygamy. The woman converted and eloped with Pratt, then pretended to renounce Mormonism in order to get her children from her parents, where her estranged husband had sent them. The husband tracked Pratt from California to Arkansas, and shot him dead when it became clear that he could not have Pratt jailed. This incident contributed to the general sense of apocalyptic paranoia among the Mormon community that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormon settlers — acting, according to some, on orders from Brigham Young — killed an entire wagon train of families on their way to California. There were rumors, before the Mormon militia attacked the wagon train, that Pratt’s killer was among the mostly wealthy Arkansans in the train. The Mormons attempted to blame the murder of children and women on Indians, though Mark Twain and others believed that the “Indians” were likely Mormons in war paint. (Archaeological evidence — dug up, embarrassingly, during preparations for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics — supports that theory.)
The massacre is the bloodiest and most disturbing moment in Mormon Church history, and also one of the rare moments in the 19th century when the Mormons were the perpetrators and not the victims of violence. Having been kicked out of everywhere they set up camp until they settled at their arid dead sea in Utah, they’ve retained the persecution complex, and some Mormons have a tendency to compare themselves to the Jews — members of the church even refer to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.” (“I understood a little better what my Jewish friends encounter,” Romney writes in “Turnaround,” after receiving anti-Mormon hate mail.)
The persecution was due to Victorian hysteria at their marital practices (which became quite bizarre even by our modern, degraded standards) and, to be fair, anger at their anti-slavery stance, but it was also just because Mormons were weird. They were a strange band of bearded fanatics led by a charismatic autocrat who claimed to have a direct line to God. They practiced what appeared to be a form of polytheism — while professing to be Christians — in a deeply devout country. They stole dudes’ wives.
Polygamy is the reason George Romney was born in Mexico. The Romneys had been Mormons since way back. Carpenter Miles Archibald Romney, along with his family, converted in 1837, after hearing the story of Joseph Smith finding those golden plates in upstate New York. The Romneys moved to Smith’s Mormon community in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1841, and had Miles Park Romney in 1843. Miles Park became a builder, moved to Utah, married one woman, did mission work in England, returned to Utah and married another woman on orders from Brigham Young himself. He became quite prominent in the Mormon community, building Brigham Young’s gigantic home and helping to defeat a congressional anti-polygamy law. Romney and his three wives and various children were then sent to settle St. Johns, Ariz., as part of the church leadership’s plan to settle across the entire American West. St. Johns was not particularly welcoming to the Mormon newcomers, and after various threats to hang the lot of them, the Romney clan was told — ordered, actually — to try Mexico instead.
So they created a new Mormon colony, Colonia Juarez, and after some hardship, did reasonably well for themselves. Miles even took another wife seven years after the church officially “banned” the practice of plural marriage. Gaskell Romney, Miles Romney’s son with his first wife, Hannah Hood Hill, became a builder as well, and married one woman: Anna Amelia Pratt, granddaughter of Parley. They gave birth to George a few years before the Mexican Revolution forced the whole colony back to the United States.
Romney presents a fairly sanitized version of his family’s history in his book, quoting from a glowing biography of Miles Park Romney written by his son Thomas and not mentioning what actually brought the Romney clan to Mexico, but he is frank about the church’s history when asked about it. His great-grandmother wrote extensively about how miserable her husband’s additional wives made her. “It was the great trial of the early Mormon pioneers,” Mitt told Lawrence Wright in 2002. But the church still grapples with the origins of polygamy, which became a tenet of the religion without much in the way of explanation. Wright:
Although Romney, like other Mormons, defends the practice of polygamy in the early days of the Church by pointing to a surplus of women in Utah, census reports for the time show roughly equal numbers of men and women. Church leaders were told to take multiple wives and “live the principle.” In religions where polygamy is still practiced — for example, in Islam — the number of wives is usually a reflection of the husband’s wealth; the currency behind Mormon polygamy, however, seems to have been spiritual. Only men are given the priesthood power of salvation, and through them women gain access to the celestial kingdom. Faithful women were naturally drawn to men who they believed could guarantee eternal life; in fact, Brigham Young authorized women to leave their husbands if they could find a man “with higher power and authority” than their present husband. Apparently, many of them did, as shown by the rate of divorce at the time.
Women, by the way, are still spiritually second-class citizens in Mormonism, though the same is arguably true in most other Western religions, so maybe we shouldn’t harp on them too much.
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The Mormonism of the 19th century bears little resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is the impossibly cheery “Donny and Marie” variety, not the armed apocalyptic homesteading cult member variety. Tolstoy — referring to the scrappy/crazy 19th century version — called Mormonism “the American religion,” and he decidedly did not mean that as a compliment. But the modern church still deserves the title. It’s the Coca-Cola religion, with a brand that denotes a sort of upbeat corporate Americanness, considered cheesy by elites but undeniably popular in pockets of the heartland and abroad.
It is an admirable transformation, frankly, for a religion founded very recently by a man who was likely both a liar and a lunatic, then led to prominence by a megalomaniac. Despite its transparently ridiculous dogma and sordid history of racism and murder and extremely unorthodox marital practices, Mormonism has come to thrive, thanks primarily to its ability to market and rapidly reinvent itself.
If the doctrine itself is a problem, stick around for a while and wait for it to change. If you think it unlikely, for example, that multiple advanced civilizations, descended from Israelite tribes, thrived and warred for hundreds of years in pre-Columbian upstate New York without leaving any archaeological evidence behind, the church now cheerfully entertains the possibility that the hill where Smith “found” his golden plates is one of two named “Cumorah,” with the other one — the one repeatedly referenced in the Book of Mormon — likely standing somewhere in Central America.
The racism underpinning the whole of the original Book of Mormon, which tells the story of a virtuous light-skinned tribe warring with an evil dark-skinned tribe (the “sons of Ham,” cursed with dark skin for eternity by God for their wickedness), was wiped away by decree in 1978. Significant changes to the hallowed “temple endowment” ceremony in 1990 got rid of the bit where women had to promise to be subservient to husbands. Even the “Temple Garments” (yes, the magic underpants) have gradually become easier and easier to conceal under “normal” clothes.
The modern Mormon aesthetic is deeply indebted to Walt Disney, but somehow even more square. Their grand temples look like variations on Cinderella’s castle. Their religious music sounds like Oscar‐nominated Alan Menken-penned hymns. Their annual pageants — I highly recommend attending the Hill Cumorah pageant in upstate New York, in which formative stories from the Book of Mormon are acted out for an audience of thousands just beside the actual hill where Smith found the plates — are spectacular, involving massive casts and lavish costumes and thrilling theatrical effects, paired with the cheesiest imaginable dialogue and storytelling, like a vintage Disneyland animatronic “Ben-Hur.” (The sound system was easily the best I’ve ever heard at a large outdoor performance. Each line of risible King James pastiche narration was crystal clear from a hundred yards out.)
It’s very easy to make fun of a religion that literally takes communion in the form of Wonder bread, but the appeal of all that mandated clean-cut decency is also pretty easy to figure out. It pairs well, for example, with motivational business leadership books. In France, church leaders encouraged a young Mitt Romney to study “Think and Grow Rich,” the landmark self-help book written in 1937 by motivational guru Napoleon Hill. Romney had his fellow missionaries read it, and told them to apply the lessons to their mission work.
There’s 30 minutes’ worth of Napoleon Hill babbling his claptrap on YouTube, and it’s well worth a look. Hill, enunciating in that classic “born before recorded sound was a thing” way, promises viewers a “master key” to anything their heart desires. Anything at all, so long as it can be written down on a piece of paper. Hill will show you the master key, he explains, when you are ready to understand it. “The master key consists of 17 principles, the first of which is definiteness of purpose,” and so on. (Hill never actually reveals his foolproof formula for personal success, because he prefers that the reader discover it for him- or herself.)
The book remains a bestseller, regularly reprinted. Using its lessons, millions of people have been told, anything the mind can conceive of can be achieved by a man. All you have to do is want it very badly. There was even a 1980s infomercial for the audiobook version, hosted by quarterback legend Fran Tarkenton, who made it to three Super Bowls (and lost each one).
This sort of “think yourself rich” bullshit, with its promise of a foolproof path to success made up of basic lessons in persistence and confidence combined with pseudo-scientific hokum, is a great philosophical fit with Mormonism, which teaches that men are on a spiritual progression toward Godhood. And the fantastic thing about Mormonism is that you can apply the early 20th century version of “The Secret” — want something very, very badly and you will make it real with thought powers! — toward the amassing of material riches both here on Earth and after death, because Mormon doctrine says the believer will continue working and procreating in the afterlife. That may sound tedious and frankly hellish to you and me (though you do eventually get your own planet!), but this exaggerated re-conception of the Protestant work ethic is an essential tenet of Mormon culture and dogma. It helps that Mormonism is decidedly less squicky about rich people than traditional Christianity. (Again, Tolstoy really nailed it with that “American religion” thing.)
Stephen “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” Covey is a Mormon. So are past and present Harvard Business School deans Kim Clark and Clayton Christensen, the CEOs of Dell and JetBlue, and NBA executive Dave Checketts. Mitt Romney himself was named for J. Willard Marriott, founder of the Marriott hotel empire and a close friend of George Romney. (Something Mormon-connected brands tend to have in common is that they are fairly dull.)
Romney clearly internalized Napoleon Hill’s lessons: His “Turnaround” is full of of Hillisms translated through business school and management seminars. He reprints the list of “Guiding Principles” he placed on each Salt Lake City Olympics Organizing Committee employee’s desk, as if being explicitly told to “Seek ‘Gold Medal’ performances in your own job” and “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is what really turned those Olympics around following the bid scandal.
That’s “what kind of Mormon” Mitt Romney is: the Chamber of Commerce/Fortune 500 kind, making a fortune but not too ostentatious about it, and always starting a meeting with a joke.
He’s by no means a fundamentalist, and as a non-Utah Mormon, he comes from a less insular and conservative environment than many of those raised in the church’s stronghold. But young Mitt Romney, who admits to craving caffeinated sodas as a child, was sent to France during great political and cultural upheaval, and he was repulsed by student demonstrations and mass unrest. His response was to become much more Mormon — much more respectful of order and authority, much more “gosh” and “gee willikers.” More Brigham Young than Stanford.
His time at Brigham Young was Romney’s first experience living in Utah, which Mormons run as a sort of soft theocracy. Salt Lake City has a slim non-Mormon majority, but the power rests in the heavily Mormon state government. Public schools feature Mormon seminaries, usually connected or across the street, and they give an hour a day to (wink-wink) “released time.” (They also ban school events on Monday nights, which is church-mandated family time.) Salt Lake City has faced ACLU lawsuits for selling public areas to the church, which then restricts speech in the areas. Non-Mormons can face soft employment and housing discrimination, and what they do with their free time is … heavily restricted by the state.
Even after Gov. Jon Huntsman significantly relaxed the liquor laws in 2009, the regulations remain restrictive (last June, the state banned drink specials) and often bizarre. The New York Times reported on the current cumbersome state of Utah’s liquor laws in the summer of 2011. In restaurants, patrons can’t get drinks without ordering food, and all alcohol — liquor, beer or wine — must be hidden from view. You’re no longer limited to nothing but 3.2 percent beer, but getting a cocktail can be complex:
Stiff drinks and doubles are illegal in Utah. Bars and restaurants must use meters on their liquor bottles to make sure they do not pour more than 1.5 ounces at a time. Other liquors can be added to cocktails in lesser amounts, not to exceed 2.5 ounces of liquor in a drink, as long as they are poured from bottles clearly marked “flavoring.”
It is illegal to stiffen a drink with a second shot: under the law a drinker can order a vodka and tonic with a shot of whiskey on the side, but not a vodka tonic with a shot of vodka on the side.
Romney writes in “Turnaround” of being unprepared for a heated local debate over alcohol sales at his Salt Lake Olympics. It takes a secular newspaperman to explain to him that alcohol debates in Utah are actually about the frustrations of liberal religious minorities living under conservative religious rule, and Romney still doesn’t entirely get it:
“[My church’s] opposition to liberal alcohol laws, however, had nothing to do with a desire to impose the religion on others. In fact, the Church’s members abstain from coffee and tobacco, as well as alcohol and the Church actually serves coffee in the hotel it owns … No, their issue with liberalizing alcohol regulations derives from the same social consequences recognized in other nations and communities: concern about drunk driving and alcoholism.”
That’s the church’s line, almost to the letter, and Romney’s endorsement of it I’m sure means that he has a similarly tolerant understanding of Saudi Arabian laws banning women drivers. (It’s a public safety thing! They’re such bad drivers!)
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Unlike a lot of other Mormons in the 1960s and 1970s, Romney never challenged his church on its positions on its racist doctrines, which essentially banned blacks from membership in the church.
From David Kirkpatrick, in the Times:
“I hoped that the time would come when the leaders of the church would receive the inspiration to change the policy,” Mr. Romney said. When he heard over a car radio in 1978 that the church would offer blacks full membership, he said, he pulled over and cried.
But until then, he deferred to church leaders, he said. “The way things are achieved in my church, as I believe in other great faiths, is through inspiration from God and not through protests and letters to the editor.”
Of course, Romney doesn’t always hew to the church line. Mitt broke with his church’s teachings and the position of most of his fellow Mormons when he … decided to oppose stem cell research in order to position himself for a Republican presidential run back when that was the most pressing national issue for religious conservatives.
The church is generally pro–stem cell research — it believes that the “soul” enters the body some time after conception, and that no souls are involved in the cultivation of embryos in a lab. Romney was initially strongly pro–stem cell research, purposefully staking out a position to the left of President Bush while running for governor of Massachusetts. But according to Romney in 2007, a 2004 conversation with a stem cell researcher led him to change his position on the research and even on abortion. This Romney says the scientist told him that he “kills” embryos after 14 days (the scientist in question obviously disputes using the word “kill”) and that so horrified Romney (“it hit me very hard that we had so cheapened the value of human life in a Roe v. Wade environment”) that he moved to criminalize research he’d strongly supported two years earlier, and vetoed a bill allowing for research on human eggs.
“I applaud medical discovery and the pursuit of cures for debilitating diseases,” Romney writes in the 2007 prologue to the paperback edition of his 2004 book on turning around the Olympics, “but I saw clearly where this legislation would take the nation: to the ‘brave new world’ that Aldous Huxley warned about, with rows upon rows of test tubes containing human embryos grown and harvested for science.”
The bill passed despite his veto, and now Massachusetts is a dystopian drug-addled nightmare state keeping its populace cowed with the superficial satisfactions of sex and consumption.
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @pareene