Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy has put the Mormon issue back on the public agenda. The former Massachusetts governor reminded voters on December 6 that America’s constitution prohibits a religious test, and asked to be judged independently of his Mormon faith. But as Groucho told Chico in A Night At the Opera, there nonetheless is a Sanity Clause. Voters may reject a candidate whose religious views are crazy, for example, someone who thinks he talks to God. Does Romney believe that he himself will become God, as Mormon doctrine teaches?

Americans express disquiet about Romney’s religion; 27% of respondents to the 2007 Pew Center poll held an unfavorable view of Mormons, about the same as of American Muslims (29%), against only 9% for Jews and 14% for Catholics. These numbers suggest that Americans are not as dumb as they look.

Just what is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons? Joseph Smith Jr., the forger, treasure-hunter, magician, polygamist and self-styled priest-king of the American continent, invented an American version of Europe’s ethnically-founded idolatry. Each European tribe that rebelled against Christianity styled itself the Chosen People. Smith concocted a tale in which Americans actually were the Chosen People, and America was the Promised Land of the ancient Hebrews and Jesus Christ. In short, Smith took to the extremes of fantasy and forgery an impulse towards national self-worship that always lurks somewhere in American Christianity.

Smith was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice of American religion. The New England Puritans had set out to become a New Chosen People in a New Promised Land, and instead had become complacent and prosperous Unitarians. In the then frontier provinces of northern New York, where poor farmers came to try their luck after leaving the thin soil of New England, the notion of American Chosenness continued to resonate. In Smith’s purloined account, America actually was the New Israel, the home of emigrating Hebrew tribes, and the site of Jesus’ return to Earth.

American popular culture makes a running joke of Smith’s 1827 claim to have discovered golden tablets containing the history of an Israelite migration to North America including a cameo appearance by Jesus Christ. Thanks to the animated satire “South Park,” Americans know that Smith “translated” golden tablets that no-one else could see by looking at “seer stones” inside his hat. That is the power of mass media; one half-hour cartoon can undo the work of a million missionaries.

Belief in the Book of Mormon is one of the strangest collective delusions in history. The circumstances of its forgery are transparent and exhaustively documented. After supposedly finding golden tablets composed by the aptly-named Angel Moroni, Smith “translated” 16 pages of them using his treasure-hunting stones. A friend showed the manuscript to his suspicious wife, who hid or destroyed it. Smith could not exactly reproduce the “translation” which he had dictated free-style, and stood in danger of exposure were he to produce a different version. Instead he received a new revelation to translate not those golden tablets, but yet another set of tablets that no one else could see.

Historians have demonstrated that a sizable chunk of the supposed Book of Mormon was copied from a novel by a certain Reverend Solomon Spalding, who concocted the notion of an ancient Hebrew migration to North America as an entertainment. Most of the remainder was lifted from a 1769 edition of the King James Bible, with printer’s errors intact. A history of the patriarch Abraham that Smith later “translated” from ancient Egyptian papyri was shown to be an ordinary Egyptian funerary document. A useful summary of the facts has been published online by Father Brian Harrison of the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico. [1] An exhaustive report is found in the book Mormon America, by Richard and Joan Ostling (Harper 2007).

From the hard-luck farmers of upstate New York and assorted frontier ragtag, Smith formed a synthetic nation that worshipped itself with the same fervor that the half-Christianized European barbarians devoted to their own ethnicity. It was a remarkable achievement, and it is hard to quarrel with American professor Harold Bloom’s praise of Smith as “an extraordinary religious genius.”

What distinguished the Latter Day Saints from the quasi-pagans of European Christendom, though, is a characteristically American frankness that had no inhibitions about idolatry. Everyone could become God, Smith preached in 1844:

I am going to tell you how God came to be God. God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man … If you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form – like yourselves, in all the person, image and very form as a man … We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and will take away and do away with the vail, so that you may see … The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is coequal with God himself.

Convinced of his own divinity, Smith took his do-it-yourself Chosen People on a parodic Exodus, to a new settlement in Illinois. There he organized military forces and in 1844 was proclaimed by the church council “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on earth,” explaining, “I am above the kingdoms of this world, for I have no laws.” It was also revealed to him that he was entitled to multiple wives. Smith’s imperial ambitions provoked a confrontation with local authorities and his eventual murder. His disciple, Brigham Young, continued the mock-Exodus to Utah, which remains the Mormon center.

According to a recent survey, 99% of the students at the church’s Brigham Young University believe that Smith was a prophet, despite overwhelming and authoritative evidence that he was a con man. To understand the Mormons we must look below the surface of belief. Why we believe something cannot be separated from what we believe.

How do we distinguish revealed religion from an idolatrous cult? The first question to ask is, what is revealed? Judaism and Christianity are founded on an event – the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, and the spiritual Exodus, namely Christ’s Resurrection. Jews are persuaded of the love of the Creator God because they left slavery in Egypt for redemption in Canaan under circumstances that they understood to be miraculous. We cannot prove they were miraculous, but we know that they were improbable. Nowhere else in all the myths of all the peoples does a despised slave-people emerge to freedom, and nowhere else is the national salvation of a specific people understood as the intervention of the God of all humankind, for the eventual redemption of all of humankind. Christianity makes the Exodus spiritual and offers it to all who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The existential truth of Jewish belief stems from the singular event that created the Jewish nation, according to its historic memory. Christians believe that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ makes the Exodus universal; Jesus Christ becomes the Passover lamb whose sacrifice redeems all humankind from death; its existential truth lies in victory over death.

Mormonism offers quite a different sort of revelation: a book purportedly translated through Smith’s top hat. In that respect, Mormonism resembles Islam more than Christianity. As Franz Rosenzweig said of Islam and the Koran, “The book sent down from Heaven – can there be a more complete renunciation of the concept that God Himself descends, and gives Himself to humankind, to reveal Himself? He sits enthroned in His highest heaven and sends humankind – a book.”

What attracts people to the cult of the book? The answer is that we covet the Kingdom of God. Christianity requires each Gentile to abandon the nation of his birth, and as an individual to join a new nation, the People of God, the Israel of the Spirit. But the barbarians who invaded the territory of the Roman Empire during the 1,000 years from AD 200 to 1200 came to the cross not as individuals but as tribes. From the half-Christianization of the barbarians came the desire of each nationality to be chosen in place of the universal church, the spiritual Israel, and to be immortal not in the Kingdom of Heaven but in its own skin. (See Why Europe chooses extinction Asia Times Online, April 8, 2003.)

As Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn said in a 2005 lecture at Hebrew University,

Identification of one’s own people as the chosen, and hence one’s own country as the Promised Land, is one of the sources of European nationalism … it was only in the 19th century that nationalism assumed that threatening perverted form of an ideology of power which idolized one’s own people, one’s own nation, and which led to the great catastrophes of the 20th century.

In contrast to the ethnic idolaters of Europe, the Puritan founders of New England set out to be a new Chosen People in a new Promised Land, famously expressed in John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon of 1631. Like Cardinal Richelieu’s Francophile Catholic Church, or Henry XIII’s Church of England, the Puritans desired to be a Chosen People of the flesh, not only of the spirit. But unlike the Europeans, they sought to build the city on a hill from a green field, with none of the ethnic attachments that dragged down the Old World.

American Christianity often fails to understand its inner tension between the earthly and heavenly kingdoms. Abraham Lincoln’s famous epigram said it best: Americans are an “almost chosen people.” Mormonism helps clarify the issue, for it is a freakish variant of the “Judaizing heresy” that underlay the founding of America: the conceit that America was a new chosen people in a new promised land. This worldliness ultimately led the Puritans to Unitarianism, a sort of pseudo-Judaizing that ends up in agnosticism – for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

The trouble is that people don’t want to be an “almost chosen people,” pilgrims on this Earth hoping for the Kingdom of Heaven. They want the kingdom in a suburban subdivision with a shopping mall, and they want to be chosen, by which they mean they want these comforts as an eternal grant. They want to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, or in a pinch, in Utah’s barren and forbidding one.

That is why Americans fall away from Christianity, to indifference, or occasionally to cults such as the Latter Day Saints. Americans keep returning to the Christian message, roughly once every couple of generations, in awakenings that later become ossified. Today’s bland mainline Protestants, whose members are leaving in droves for the newer evangelical denominations, arose in large part out of the great awakenings of the 19th century.

There is nothing at all “American” about “American religion,” contrary to the assertions of Bloom and Yale Professor David Gelernter. What distinguishes America is the absence of ethnicity: America is a state without a nation. But human mortality is everywhere the same, and humankind responds to it within a delimited range of choices.

American must endure the same tension between Christian salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven and the emulation of Jewish salvation in this world. The trouble is that Christians cannot imitate Jews, not at least, for very long. The “Judaizing heresy” of the Puritans was inherently unstable. The Puritans lapsed into Unitarianism by the time of the American Revolution. It was left to the Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards to lead the great awakening of the 1730s century, and Methodists and Baptists to lead the great awakening of the 1820s. Smith offered an alternative to re-awakened Christianity in the form of a frontier parody of Judaism, complete with priests, temples, an Exodus and a raft of silly rituals taken from Freemasonry.

The Puritans saw themselves as a new Chosen People in metaphor only. It was a metaphor they failed to sustain. No more than its European forebears was American Christianity able to overcome the desire of half-converted Christians to be a Chosen People in this world. The difference between America and Europe is that in the absence of ethnic idolatry, American Christianity has been able to regenerate itself every second generation, in the form of a new great awakening, while the Europeans lapsed into an ethnic morass from which they have not emerged.

If the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a tyranny tempered by incompetence, as the old joke goes, the Mormon Church is a megalomania atrophied by age. Although the Latter Day Saints claim 13 million members, less than one-third are active. Unlike American Christian denominations, the Mormons have had small success in Africa and Asia, the centers of Christian evangelization. As punishment for their sins, the Mormons must live in their promised land in the Rockies. One can see their present-day concerns in the selection at Utah video stores, for example, local-market movies about the forbidden love between a Mormon boy and a Methodist girl.

Mitt Romney should be judged on his own merits, not on the dubious history of his church. Perhaps he believes not a syllable of Smith’s ravings, but remains a Latter Day Saint out of deference to his family. Contrary to his December 6 appeal, however, the voters have every right to ask.

1. See The Wacky World of Joseph Smith

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