I have no clear idea whether Pastor Robert Jeffress is correct in referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more colloquially known as the Mormons, as “a cult.” There do seem to be one or two points of similarity. The Mormons have a supreme leader, known as the prophet or the president, whose word is allegedly supreme. They can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding. They have distinctive little practices, such as the famous underwear, to mark them off from other mortals, and they are said to be highly disciplined and continent when it comes to sex, booze, nicotine, and coffee. Word is that the church can be harder to leave than it was to join. Hefty donations and tithes are apparently appreciated from the membership.
Whether this makes it a cult, or just another of the born-in-America Christian sects, I am not sure. 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.
To give some examples. The founder of the church, one Joseph Smith, was a fraud and conjurer well known to the authorities of upstate New York. He claimed to have been shown some gold plates on which a new revelation was inscribed in no known language. He then qualified as the sole translator of this language. (The entire story is related in Fawn Brodie’s biography, No Man Knows My History.* It seems that we can add, to sausages and laws, churches as a phenomenon that is not pleasant to watch at the manufacturing stage. Edmund Wilson wrote that it was powerfully shocking to see Brodie as she exposed a religion that was a whole-cloth fabrication.) On his later forays into the chartless wilderness, there to play the role of Moses to his followers (who were permitted and even encouraged in plural marriage, so as to go forth and mass-produce little Mormons), Smith also announced that he wanted to be known as the Prophet Muhammad of North America, with the fearsome slogan: “Either al-Koran or the Sword.” He levied war against his fellow citizens, and against the federal government. One might have thought that this alone would raise some eyebrows down at the local Baptist Church. …
Saddling itself with some pro-slavery views at the time of the Civil War, and also with a “bible” of its own that referred to black people as a special but inferior creation, the Mormon Church did not admit black Americans to the priesthood until 1978, which is late enough—in point of the sincerity of the “revelation” they had to undergo—to cast serious doubt on the sincerity of their change of heart.
More recently, and very weirdly, the Mormons have been caught amassing great archives of the dead, and regularly “praying them in” as adherents of the LDS, so as to retrospectively “baptize” everybody as a convert. (Here the relevant book is Alex Shoumatoff’s The Mountain of Names.) In a hollowed-out mountain in the Mormons’ stronghold state of Utah is a colossal database assembled for this purpose. Now I have no objection if Mormons desire to put their own ancestors down for posthumous salvation. But they also got hold of a list of those put to death by the Nazis’ Final Solution and fairly recently began making these massacred Jews into honorary LDS members as well. Indeed, when the practice was discovered, the church at first resisted efforts to make them stop. Whether this was cultish or sectarian it was certainly extremely tactless: a crass attempt at mass identity theft from the deceased.
The first time I visited Salt Lake City, in 1970, the John Birch Society bookshop was almost a part of the Tabernacle. Ezra Taft Benson, later to be the president of the church, was a member of its board of 12 Apostles—and sought their approval—when he served in Eisenhower’s Cabinet for eight years. He was, if not a member of the Birch Society, a strong endorser. His pamphlet, “Civil Rights: Tool of Communist Deception” is well-remembered. This was the soil that nurtured Cleon Skousen and the other paranoid elements who in the end incubated Glenn Beck.* I merely make the point that the Mormon Church has a distinctly politicized record, and is in a weak position to complain when its leaders are asked political questions that arise directly from their membership.
So far, Mitt Romney, who praised Skousen as recently as recently as 2007, has evaded most questions by acting as if he was being subjected to some kind of religious test for public office. He’s been supported in this by some soft-centered types who think that any dislike for any “faith group” is ipso facto proof of some sort of prejudice. Sorry, but this will not wash. I don’t think I would want to vote for a Scientologist or a Moonie for high office, or indeed any other kind, and I think attempts to silence criticism of such outfits are the real evidence of prejudice. The waters are muddied, of course, by the fact that the first attack on Romney came from a man who is himself a clerical bigmouth, exploiting religion for political purposes and handing out Rick Perry endorsements. This is the sort of Southern Baptist who believes, in the words of the old ditty:
We are the pure and chosen few
And all the rest are damned
There’s room enough in hell for you
We don’t want heaven crammed.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago, Perry has not just accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, but has expressed the view that those who do not join him are headed for eternal damnation. He has sought to revise and extend his second set of remarks, but not by much. And he believes in miraculous births from virgins, talking snakes, walking cadavers, and other things that feel distinctly weird and cultish to me. The fact is that what we have here is a clash between two discrepant forms of Christianity, in which the good Pastor Jeffress holds no especially high ground and in which the Latter-day Saints, unless they lie, are among the fastest-growing churches in the United States.
The Mormons apparently believe that Jesus will return in Missouri rather than Armageddon: I wouldn’t care to bet on the likelihood of either. In the meanwhile, though, we are fully entitled to ask Mitt Romney about the forces that influenced his political formation and—since he comes from a dynasty of his church, and spent much of his boyhood and manhood first as a missionary and then as a senior lay official—it is safe to assume that the influence is not small. Unless he is to succeed in his dreary plan to borrow from the playbook of his pain-in-the-ass predecessor Michael Dukakis, and make this an election about “competence not ideology,” he should be asked to defend and explain himself, and his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.
Corrections, Oct. 17, 2011: This article originally misidentied Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith as No Man Knows My Name. (Return to the corrected sentence.) This article also originally misidentified Cleon Skousen as Glenn Skousen. (Return to the corrected sentence.)