Back in 2006, I wrote a newspaper column about the Mormon religion — or more accurately, a fundamentalist movement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that still espoused, and espouses (no pun intended) polygamy.
In the column, I discussed some of the basic LDS teachings, and gave a truncated, and cursory, history of the faith. The day after it appeared, I was inundated with responses from around the country and world by outraged Mormons who accused me of misrepresenting their beliefs, glorifying a lunatic fringe, and erroneously stating that LDS is not a Christian movement. Eventually, I provided space in our Opinion section to a prominent local Mormon leader who took me to task for the column, while providing a reasoned and calm explanation of why Mormonism is a mainstream and valuable tradition and practice.
Some of the same argument are being heard today regarding the Republican presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon — and more than that, was once a leading figure in the LDS movement and whose family has deep and historic ties to the movement. Romney, according the article, for many years preferred to be called “Bishop Romney” in deference to his high position within the LDS church in Massachusetts.
In a story published this week, the New York Times reported that f rom 1981 through 1994, Romney was “a powerful figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints … First as bishop of his own congregation, and later as Boston “stake president,” overseeing a region akin to a Roman Catholic diocese, he operated as clergyman, organization man and defender of the faith, guiding the church through a tumultuous period of rapid growth.”
The portrayal of Romney’s role as a religious leader is even handed and even sympathetic. But it also brings up issues that many conservative Christian Republicans so far may not have wanted to confront.
Is this news? Not for anyone close to Romney of course, or other Mormons — but maybe to nervous Republican voters, especially many evangelical and pentecostal Christians who don’t consider the LDS church part of their historic faith. Some, as a Texas pastor who supports Rick Perry put it recently, think Mormonism is akin to a “cult” which is fightin’ words in religious circles.
The Times wasn’t done in its revelations about Romney and the LDS church. In a column (to be published Thursday, Oct. 20 in the print edition of the Sentinel), columnist Maureen Dowd asks, “Anne Frank a Mormon?”
Dowd, who frequently skewers the Roman Catholic Church she was raised in, is referring to the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead — including a now discarded move to baptize Jews who died in the Holocaust. Dowd also prominently quotes comedian and critic Bill Maher, a famous non believer in any and all religions, who recently said at a university appearance, “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion.”
Dowd then references another prominent atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who posted a story this week at Slate, headlined “Romney’s Mormon Problem.” Hitchens discusses the odd and somewhat mysterious beginnings of the religion and founder Joseph Smith, who he describes as a “fraud and conjurer.”
He also writes this: “In any case what interests me more is the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS, discussion of which it is currently hoping to inhibit by crying that criticism of Mormonism amounts to bigotry.” (Romney has not made this specific accusation, but has called for civility in any discussion of candidates’ religious beliefs and practices.)
Hitchens goes on to write that before Americans anoint Romney as a possible next president, he should explain “his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.”
Well, should he? Or is a man or woman’s personal belief system, and allegiances, off base in terms of political debate and media questions?
I say they’re not — as long as the playing field is level and other candidates also discuss how their beliefs may have shaped them as leaders.
What do you say?