Mitt Romney Bows His Head in Prayer in Elko, NevadaMitt Romney bows his head in prayer in Elko, Nevada while on the presidential campaign trail. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Mitt Romney is threatening to disturb the American compromise with Mormonism.

Nineteenth-century observers were largely indifferent to the new religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830. Most dismissed his claims about angels and gold plates as just another example of American gullibility. “Had we not seen in our own days similar impostures practiced with success,” yawned one Illinois contemporary, “[Mormonism] would have excited our special wonder; as it is, nothing excites surprise.” But in Missouri and Illinois local tensions erupted in violence, and national concern intensified when Brigham Young — relatively safe in the refuge of Utah — announced a system of plural marriage in 1852.

For the next forty years, from the popular press and pulpits alike, cries for the eradication of this “relic of barbarism” streamed forth from the pulpits, press, and party platforms. Then came concessions — but limited concessions — from both sides. Mormons abandoned polygamy and political isolationism. And America granted partial accommodation. The deal was signed in 1893 — but it was a devil’s bargain. Here is what happened.

At the choral competition of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, on Friday September 8, in front of packed crowds, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir dazzled the audience and the judges alike, to win the silver medal. (The general consensus of Mormon and non-Mormon alike was that they had actually earned the gold.) The recipients of rapturous acclaim, the choir had suddenly become America’s sweetheart. They were invited to provide the patriotic music for the placement of the Liberty Bell at the Chicago Exposition. Their farewell concert was standing room only, journalists raved to a receptive public about the singing sensation, and concert promoters lobbied the choir to tour the east. Suddenly, Mormons were not just legitimate, they were popular.

And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the festivities. In conjunction with the grandiose Columbian Exposition, organizers had planned a World’s Parliament of Religion for September 11-22, 1893, in order to “promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths.” Over three thousand invitations had been sent worldwide, to bring together representatives of every world faith and Christian denomination in a momentous gesture of interfaith respect and dialogue. Many faiths were underrepresented — but only one group was deliberately and conspicuously left out altogether. And that was, not unpredictably, the Mormons. So even while the choir was singing its way into history and America’s heart, the Mormon church was emphatically denied a voice in the nation’s first attempt at a comprehensive interfaith dialogue. What seemed like a contradiction was actually a compromise.

In the century since the Chicago fair, Mormons have been lauded for their choirs and their football. They are largely respected as good, decent, family-centered people, who are welcome to sing for presidents and dance with the stars — and everyone agrees to avoid theological questions. But as presidential nominations near, Romney’s candidacy threatens this compromise, because what a Mormon presidential candidate actually believes seems far too important to table. And when Mormon theology enters the public discussion, the words Charles Dickens wrote in 1851 strike many as still apt: “What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say, is mostly nonsense.”

But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy. But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction. And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community. What are these fundamentals?

  1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
  2. Men and women existed as spiritual beings in the presence of God before progressing to this mortal life.
  3. Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).
  4. God has the desire and the power to save, through his son Jesus Christ, the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most perversely unwilling, that will be our destiny.
  5. Heaven will principally consist in the eternal duration of those relationships that matter most to us now: spouses, children, and friends.

None of these beliefs is relevant to a political candidate’s fitness for office. But they should be the starting point for any serious attempt to get at the core of Mormon belief.  And there should be no compromise on that point.

Terryl GivensTerryl Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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What a thought-provoking piece - thank you for sharing it!

the idea that those who do not accept Christ as their savior are "perverse" is not relevant to a candidate's fitness to run a secular state over a nation of many faiths (religious or otherwise) may not be negotiable for this author but thankfully we live in a secular democracy with protections for minorities and religious freedoms.

To bring Dickens up to date, "what [humans are doing is mostly self-destructive because of our belief in religious/philosophical] nonsense". "God"

The God thing for me seems to be such a simple problem.  I don't choose, or dismiss, but indulge in all religious mythology.  By doing so my idea of the divine is so much vaster than all religions put together.  The Creative Forces of Life, by whatever name are just that.  'God' is a name, and a definition that comes with it.  You cannot box the Creative Forces of Life.  The perceived 'divine' is in all aspects of the creative, even the negative.  The divine, by any name is life, and the universe we are within.  To me, the divine is all names, and at the same time nameless, and as omniscient as the very atoms, or sub-atomic particles that provide substance.  I see the whole divine, 'God', in every face, every aspect of life, that I revel in, but I refuse to delineate with a name.  If I want to name a divine force, if I have a story to give human reference, I recognize this as only part of a whole just as we are all pieces of the whole of life, the divine.  We call ourselves 'I', but in reality, we are innumerable parts that can be infinitely reduced.  How can 'God' be anything but a reflection of reality?  Is life not diversely miraculous, amazing, bewildering, unfathomable, and so on?  Why do we need stories of a man/diety who can do tricks for us to prove the existence of the divine and miraculous?  Who needs only belief when one simply needs to open their eyes to find divine creative forces in the reality of every day?  For me religious argument is so unnecessary, since I find some answers in all spirituality.  I don't believe the same way that Mormons believe, however, I appreciate their deep (somewhat cultic) sense of family and community.  Still I like to base my believes firmly on what I witness in reality, often scientifically proven, using mythology as metaphor and lesson, not the undaunted truth.  That being said, still I can understand the ambivalence in the general population of level headed thinkers (and non-religious types) towards Mitt Romney's religious beliefs and convictions.

What a beautiful thought provoking way Judi to state what most "God" fearing or loving people believe but then narrow the scope of their belief and appreciation for the wonders of the universe by confining that belief system to restrictive adherence to man created God images and definitons.   Phil Ahrens

Having grown up in and left the Mormon culture, I have been giving this a great deal of thought.  What ARE my feelings about Mormon culture vs Mormon theology?  I came to the understanding that they are essentially inseparable, for reasons that are too complex to go into here.  Some of the commenters have alluded to the truth of how Mormonism came to be, but left out some of the juicier bits.  The key thing, however, is that devout Mormons (which I find to be a relative term, with degrees and variations) tend to run their lives and their businesses the way the LDS church is run.  On an individual level they may be personable, but not flexible. 

I do not judge Mr Romney for his religion, but I am wary of his assumptions about how things work.  Both his public statements and the fall-out from his campaign are evidence that he truly does not grasp that doing things in a different way might be productive.  The stories about his investment firm and both his involvement and his "distance" are very much reminiscent of how Mormon culture operates.  It is the culture, not the theology, that those of us who choose to leave have to struggle with, both in redefining ourselves, and adjusting to a world that operates in a less rigidly structured, hierarchical way.  I don't think it matters much what Mormons believe, but I have seen enough of Mitt Romney to be leery of his capability to grasp the subleties and complexities of being President. 

By the way, Joseph Smith, bless his heart, was also a philanderer.  Caught in the act of adultery, he had an epiphanic "revelation" that God wanted his chosen people (all male) to have multiple wives.  Convenient.  After Smith's death, Brigham Young carried the revelation to Utah and engaged in it enthusiastically.  Mormons have been revising their theology ever since, as needed.  I don't think Givens attempt to frame Mormon theology in the current preferred set of principle is valid.  They don't quite match what I learned as a child.

i have very much enjoyed this post and the lively discussion it produced.


Brigham Young and the entire Mormon
hierarchy would have been hanged in 1857, had the Mountain Meadows
Massacre been prosecuted to its fullest potential .. Whence some one hundred and forty, California bound Arkansas men and

Were slaughtered under a flag of truce, after Mormons decked out
as Indians attacked their wagons .. Forty two white men were hanged at Gainesville Texas in 1862, for
failing to support the Confederacy, the same year thirty eight Santee
Sioux were hanged in Minnesota,

After five American settlers were killed
by Indians, whose case rested on their assertion that the settlers had
fired first, while eighty five Irish traitors, were justly hanged in New Mexico in
1846, they had deserted General Taylor’s command, and joined Santa
Anna’s forces in Mexico.

Then crossing back into Texas, slew eleven of
their former comrades from ambush, on the northern banks of the Rio
Grande .. Fifty four Mormons took part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, of
whom thirty two were from England .. Brigham Y was up to his neck in it

As well he received livestock and property looted from the wagons!
John D Lee Mormon Bishop and adopted son of BY, was the single Mormon
executed by firing squad in 1877, twenty yrs after the event!

Provo Utah is the site of at least one FEMA camp – picture inbred
descendants of the massacre perpetrators, having their way with the
thousands of internees, using the same rationale that fueled the MMM,
that the victims are “Gentiles!”