Many things which have given me pause about Mormon communities are not actual LDS religious doctrines or teachings. They are attitudes, values, customs, and habits of thought, group norms, or unwritten rules that have arisen within Utah LDS communities evidently without being dictated by doctrine, but that have grown up, half-consciously or unconsciously. I’m not here to criticize Mormon theology or religious beliefs which are no more fantastic than those of many other religions. I want to share some observations I picked up through living in Salt Lake City for six years in the 1990s while paying attention to my cultural surroundings there.
Mitt Romney’s explanations for his not serving in the military, for example. Asked why, given his hawkish views and declared support for the Vietnam War and marching in favor of conscription, he never served in the military [full disclosure: neither did I]. Romney explained that serving as a Mormon missionary in France was of equivalent, if not greater patriotic value than service in the US military. He was bringing the LDS brand of Christianity to France. I am not interested in ridiculing this. What interests me it what this reveals about the way he thinks, his values, his assumptions, his priorities, and the apparently automatic and natural equating of the LDS mission with the advancement of US interests around the world. The French laughed his presumption of introducing them to Christianity, over 1700 years too late. During their two years of full-time work in France he and his fellow missionary failed to convert a single person to the LDS church. Romney received a total of five and a half years of religious draft deferments, deferments normally only given to full-time ordained clergy of other churches.
(Maybe he shouldn’t feel bad. The legendary 19th century Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone converted exactly one African to Christianity during his lifetime—a Muslim who later ‘relapsed’ back to Islam.)
Asked more recently why none of his five (5) adult sons ever served in the military despite their father’s continuous advocacy for a larger, stronger US military and a more openly warlike, belligerent foreign policy, Romney said, “they made different career choices” and they are “supporting our nation by helping me get elected!” Thereby doing a greater patriotic service to America than military service. Again personal ambition and self-serving choices are equated with patriotism and national service. It is these automatic, seemingly unconscious assumptions (presumptions?) that troubles me.
One of the things that annoyed me during my eight years living in Utah was the Mormon leadership frequently revising and rewriting their own history at the very same moment they were swearing up and down they never did any such thing-while they are doing it right in front of us. In the mid-1990s, for example, an LDS spokesman announced The Church had never had any restrictions on Black people or any teaching that they were associated with fallen angels, the children of Ham, or in any way lesser or inferior, either spiritually or socially. Certain prominent 19th century individual members of the church had expressed their private, personal speculations about the origin and nature of black people of African ancestry and, unfortunately, as a result some individuals mistakenly came to believe such individual personal opinions were actually official LDS doctrines and teaching, when in fact they were not and never had been. [here cue patronizing chuckle]: "Sorry you misunderstood." Many friends of mine who had been raised Mormon, were outraged at this pretense and denounced it as a total lying whitewash. “We were definitely taught in Sunday school that black skin was a curse showing they had the souls of fallen angels, those who rebelled against God.” Every organization evolves over time or it doesn’t survive. It doesn’t bother me that they changed their beliefs, but it irks me they piously deny they ever change them, in the teeth of obvious evidence.
Sometimes I would meet someone who claimed the Book of Mormon was historically accurate and supported by historical and archeological research, especially about the Maya and other early civilizations of the Americas. Invariably we would get into a debate in which I would point the evidence from science and scholarship until, realizing he was losing, my challenger would suddenly declare, “I’m sorry you are prejudiced against our church.”
“Hold on,” I’d say. “You are the one who said this was a matter of facts, evidence, reason, science and scholarship. Now you suddenly shift ground and announce it is a matter of faith? If it’s all just blind faith and arbitrary belief, then there’s nothing to debate. Evidence doesn’t matter. You just believe whatever you wish to believe.”He would retort that since I hadn’t read all the thousands of documents pertaining to LDS beliefs, apologetics, and history in existence, I was not well-informed in this matter and not intellectually competent.
“No, I admit I haven’t read every document, diary, letter, or scrap of paper written since 1830—and neither have you! No one has time. Most, if not all, are irrelevant anyway.”
“Well,” he’d sigh in condescending conclusion, “I’ve gotten used to dealing with religious prejudice every day.” I gave up on attempts at serious discussion of the history of the Americas.
The leaders of the Utah State legislature called a press conference once to denounce the arrest of one of their number on domestic violence charges by the Utah State Patrol after he had fled in his car, leaving his wife at home with a black eye. The State legislators were righteously indignant. They angrily pointed out that this man---let’s call him Brother Smith—was a pillar of both the community and the church, had a very successful business, an outstanding income, and lived in a luxurious house in a fine neighborhood. How, they asked, could such a man be a criminal?These Utah state government leaders said, in essence: “When we created this new domestic violence law two years ago, our intent was to put a club in the hands of law enforcement to use against the disorderly lower classes of society. It was never intended to be used against our kind of people and it’s an outrage that is should be! The Chief of the State Patrol has a lot to answer for. We’re going to be doing an unscheduled review of the State Patrol’s annual budget right now and I have to say, it doesn’t look good.”Almost all of these people were lawyers and, no doubt, temple-worthy LDS members. No doubt they’ve both taken and taught courses in constitutional law. Yet they see nothing wrong with different sets of laws for different classes of people. They apparently think that’s the way it should be. (Perhaps they were simply ahead of their time. Today many conservative “constitutionalists” want to ignore or repeal the 14th Amendment entirely, including its equal protection under the law clause. Not to mention the 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 19th amendments, too, in spite of their assertion they worship the constitution as God-given and infallible.)
A few months later, an investigative piece in the Salt Lake Tribune reported that one or more legislative committees had held secret caucuses, in apparent violation of their own open meeting (“sunshine”) laws. Again there was a press conferemce called by the state leaders, brimming with righteous indignation. They openly declared that their status as lawmakers put them above the law. A law-maker cannot possibly be accused of being a law-breaker. That is a logical impossibility, a contradiction in terms! Like accusing the Pope of violating Catholic doctrine, right? He’s the Pope; he has the final say on what doctrine is. This false and scurrilous accusation against the state legislature collapses from its own absurdity!
This sort of “logic” almost made my head explode. I was naïve enough to be shocked by it but there was little popular outcry or protest or disavowal, as I remember.
A three-and-a-half-minute long celebratory Mitt Romney campaign ad from 2008 is being revived and circulated now on the internet. It is called “Gimme Mitt.” You can easily find it on You Tube, as well as various blog sites. In it, the crooning narrator asserts that Bain Capital “straightened out America one firm at a time.” Whatever you think of Bain Capital, how can you possibly seriously assert that they “straightened out America”? Next we are told Mitt Romney “turned the tide in Washington.” When? How? WTF are you talking about? Finally, the pious devotee concludes “he turned water into wine…” And walked on water, too, no doubt. With Disney World in the background and fireworks exploding across the heavens. (Isn’t it sacrilege for serious Christians to claim a presidential candidate performed supernatural miracles?) And this clip is not a joke, at least, it was not made as a joke and evidently Romney admirers see nothing wrong with it. They are dead serious.
This is what disturbs me about the Mormon culture, Mitt Romney, and what might be called the Mormon Mind, much more evident in the leadership than in the rank and file. I repeat: this is not about religion per se. It’s not their theology, origin myths, or explicit religious beliefs, which are no more fantastic than those of other religions, but there is something in their leadership’s groupthink, their assumptions and presumptions, their cultural norms, that I find very disturbing. I have no precise label for it. Some combination of militant self-righteousness and what I will call unconscious cynicism and unreflective shallowness is as close as I can come at the moment. I really do not know how much of it is conscious and deliberate and how much of it is unconscious and automatic. Maybe some readers can help clarify my thoughts. Other communities have their own brands of weirdness but these are examples of what has stuck with me since my years (1991-99) in Utah. Living among Mormon neighbors is fine; living under Mormon leadership would be a troubling prospect.