Two Mormons—Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney—are campaigning as Republicans for President of the United States, with Romney currently favored to nab the nomination. In recent days their faith has been derided by some as a “cult.” Although Mormonism is an ‘indigenous’ American creed, and has over 14 million followers internationally, the average American knows little about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
Hank Pellissier: These two Mormons that want to be President… why are they both Republican?
Lincoln Cannon: Actually, in the 19th century, most Mormons were Democrats, and today, although most Mormons in the United States are Republicans, we’re not monolithic. Members of the LDS Church tend to be Republicans, while members of some smaller denominations such as the Community of Christ and Reform Mormons tend to be more diverse or Democratic leaning. Even the LDS Church harbors some diversity. For example, one of the highest ranking Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is a member of the LDS Church. About 77% of Mormon Transhumanists are members of the LDS Church, but only 7% identify as conservative in cultural politics; and I’m both a member of the LDS Church and a left-leaning independent.
HP: Mormonism is suspected by many Americans as being very racist. Can you explain these Mormon passages? “Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with black skin and have been denied the privilege of Priesthood and the fulness of the blessings of the Gospel. These are the descendants of Cain.”
LC: That quotation is not from the Book of Mormon. It’s from a book by a former president of the LDS Church. However, there are a few passages of the Book of Mormon that I do consider racist, in that they attribute dark skin to a curse from God, which is something most Mormons reject today… The LDS Church does unfortunately have some institutional racism in its past that was resolved in 1978 when the church extended priesthood to blacks. Since that time, the church has added blacks, as well as increasing numbers of other non-caucasians into leadership roles… I confident we’ll continue to improve in this area.
HP: Which one—Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman—has the most support from Mormons, and why?
LC: Mitt Romney is more popular than Jon Huntsman. Most members of the LDS Church perceive Romney as being more serious about his Mormonism, exhibited by regular participation in church services and programs. Another reason is that Romney, like the majority of Mormons, currently positions himself further right on the political spectrum than Huntsman. This latter difference, however, may reflect their current political strategies more than enduring personal convictions, as Romney appears to have been moderate as the governor of Massachusetts. I suspect Romney, if elected, will prove to be a moderate president.
HP: Jon Huntsman has spoken out against “Obamacare.” Is there something about Mormonism—in principle—that is opposed to universal health care?
LC: To the contrary, our scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, are replete with exhortations to care for the poor and the sick. Almost any Mormon you ask would be in favor of universal health care in the broadest sense; however, we disagree among ourselves regarding whether any government can or should be the provider of that health care. A significant reason some Mormons may not perceive the need for government-run universal health care is that the LDS Church runs worldwide financial and education welfare programs that effectively supplement whatever government programs are already in place.
HP: Both candidates portray themselves as highly-qualified on economic issues. Utah (under Huntsman) had the “best” state economy, and Mormons are wealthy. Does Mormonism espouse economic practicality? A balanced budget? Sensible investments?
LC: Mormonism is a practical religion. Faith, for us, is an action word. In LDS Church meetings, we advocate hard work, emergency preparedness, and financial responsibility. The church runs successful welfare and education programs for members, as well as private universities with highly ranked financial and business programs. In my local congregation, we’ve been holding regular seminars on financial management and investment, so that members with more experience in these areas can help others with less experience.
HP: Do Mormons perceive themselves as different from other Christians?
LC: Like other Christians, we consider ourselves followers of Jesus Christ. We revere the Bible, but unlike some Christians, we do not require literal interpretation or confine ourselves from revering additional books as scripture. Also unlike some other Christians, we teach that our trust in Jesus Christ should lead us to share in the identity of Christ, worship through emulation, and become increasingly like God (theosis), which some other Christians consider heretical. Consequently, some Mormons, seeking improved relations with non-Mormon Christians, have downplayed our doctrine of theosis. I consider that a grave mistake, and a focus of my work with the Mormon Transhumanist Association has been to establish a stronger voice for advocacy of theosis.
HP: Why are Mormons homophobic? What’s in the Book of Mormon that condemns gays? Can they change their mind on this?
LC: Not all Mormons are homophobic. The Community of Christ (the second largest Mormon denomination) recently extended full membership privileges to homosexuals. On the other hand, the LDS Church certainly has been highly active in combatting the legalization of gay marriage. Why? There is nothing in the Book of Mormon that condemns homosexuality, although the book does condemn sexual promiscuity generally. I think the main reason is that we have highly developed and deeply revered unique doctrines related to marriage that most consider to be utterly irreconcilable with gay marriage. Could that change? Most Mormons will tell you that they cannot imagine that changing. Personally, I suspect it would change only subsequent to homosexual reproductive technologies becoming effective and commonplace, and non-promiscuous committed homosexual relations becoming commonplace.
HP: I’ve read reports that Mormon women have one the highest rates of anti-depressant usage in the USA. Why is this? And why can’t women be “Presidents” of the Mormon Church?
LC: I suspect there’s some truth to the observation that Mormon women have higher than usual rates of depression. There may be both environmental causes, such as a correlation between rates of depression and high altitudes, and social causes: Mormons do tend to have high expectations of themselves and others. Do the social causes of depression among Mormon women include the LDS Church’s constraints on women’s authority? I know that’s a concern for some women, but my informal observation is that they are the minority. For example, the fact that women cannot hold the same positions of authority as men in the LDS Church appears to concern me far more than any of the women in my own family. We do have many women leaders in the LDS Church; however, they are all directly or indirectly supervised by men. The LDS Church requires persons in the highest leadership positions to be ordained to the priesthood, and only men are permitted to be ordained. I expect this matter will continue to evolve with time.
HP: Jon Huntsman speaks Mandarin and was ambassador to China. Mormonism is international. Does Mormonism make a genuine attempt to understand other cultures? If so, why proselytize? Sending missionaries somewhere suggests that the indigenous culture is wrong and needs Mormonism.
LC: Mormons work hard to understand and appreciate cultures worldwide. The Book of Mormon, available in 82 languages, teaches that God speaks to and through all peoples. The LDS Church also encourages members to respect and promote their local cultures. For example, members in Israel observe the Sabbath on Saturday, and male missionaries in some tropical island locations wear skirts. Most Mormons are not moral relativists, so we may express concerns when we see a cultural aspect that we deem immoral. When training missionaries, the LDS Church encourages them to learn to love the peoples and cultures they’ll seek to serve. Sometimes we fail, but my own experience is that it can work remarkably well: my father was a missionary in France, I became a missionary in France, I since married a French woman, and we speak French in our home with our three children.
HP: There’s a high rate of tech and engineering expertise among Mormons. Is there something in the creed’s tenets that encourages tech, science, and computer knowledge?
LC: Mormonism has always emphasized education and technology, reflecting founder Joseph Smith’s teaching that “the glory of God is intelligence.” The Book of Mormon contains an intriguing story about a man named Lehi, who in ancient times sought guidance from God while journeying in the desert with his family to find a new home. One morning, upon opening the door of his tent, he discovered on the ground a fine brass ball of “curious workmanship.” Lehi saw that it contained two spindles, and soon learned that one of the spindles would move to guide him through the more fertile parts of the desert. Messages also appeared on the ball, providing additional assistance. When Lehi and his family arrived at the sea, his son, Nephi, climbed a nearby mountain to seek further guidance from God. He was inspired to make tools and build an unusual ship. When completed, the ship served to carry them across the sea to their new home. For me, this story epitomizes the importance of education and technology in the Mormon worldview. Mormons do expect inspiration from God, but we do not expect God to do what we can do for ourselves. We can learn and we can build, and so we do. Like Lehi, we expect education and technology to be part of our journey to a new and better home.
HP: The American public has formed ideas about Mormonism based the book Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, and the TV show Big Love. How do Mormons feel about these cultural depictions of their religion?
LC: Most Mormons don’t identify with these productions because they focus on Mormon fundamentalism, which is practiced by a small percentage of Mormons—perhaps vanishingly small, given that the LDS Church has been excommunicating persons practicing polygamy for about a century. The media productions do make for exciting stories, but they’re probably as likely to confuse as help you in an effort to understand a Mormon neighbor.
HP: The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, has been scrutinized by historians. Many accuse him of fraud, of being a con-man. He was arrested for charlatanism by swindling people with “magic stones.” How do Mormons accept this information?
LC: Joseph Smith was human, and I don’t agree with everything he said or did. However, he was acquitted of those swindling charges. Where I think Joseph is most vulnerable to moral criticism is in his marital relations. He should have been more honest with his first wife before engaging in polygamy. His moral failings clearly concerned him too. He mentions his own need to repent in writings that are today part of Mormon scripture. Without intending to justify any moral failings, I’ll add that I consider Joseph Smith a prophet, if ever there was one. Throughout human history, some persons have managed to articulate an esthetic that moves and shapes us, emboldens and ennobles us, invokes in us the strenuous mood toward benevolence and creativity beyond human capacity, toward the divine. Joseph Smith is one of those persons, for Mormons and even for non-Mormons, as expressed by Harold Bloom, a Jew and professor of humanities at Yale, who observes: “A literary critic necessarily is more at home with Emerson than with Joseph Smith, though I would name them both (with Walt Whitman) as our authentic American prophets.”
HP: A Rasmussen poll named Mormons as the third least-electable belief system in the USA behind Muslims and atheists. Do you think this is false?
LC: Many persons are suspicious of Mormons, mostly because they don’t know much about us. I think if you polled only persons who personally know Mormons, you’d get more positive results, as you would with persons who personally know Muslims and atheists. The LDS Church is doing a number of things to help others better understand and trust us: member profiles published at mormon.org give others insight into our personalities and interests beyond religion; media information published at newsroom.lds.org addresses common misunderstandings and clarifies official positions. At an individual level, most Mormons welcome the opportunity to talk about our religion… questions won’t offend most of us, so ask!
I interviewed Lincoln Cannon for this article because polls and pundits are suggesting that the next U.S. President might well be a Mormon, and I’m curious to know what that could imply. Personally, I’m a “militant atheist”—but I was raised Catholic, I have a master’s degree in Religious Studies, and I’ve sat quietly through dozens of Quaker meetings.
My initial instinct about Mormonism was that its invention was exceptionally ridiculous, due to the “golden plates” Joseph Smith said he received from an angel, and the incredulous tales in the Book of Mormon. In retrospect, I unfairly labeled the creed as ‘weirder’ than other magical belief systems because its mythology is recent—less than 200 years old—with its setting on American soil. But in truth, Mormon miracles are no more implausible than the fantasies of other creeds that vast populations now accept as reality, i.e., the parting the Red Sea, walking on water, immaculate conception, resurrection from the dead, paradise with virgin attendants, etc.
Recently, I’ve deeply resented Mormon intrusion into California politics—they sabotaged gay marriage in my home state by donating huge funds and volunteer hours in support of Proposition 8. I’ve also long harbored distrust of the LDS Church due to its past tradition of racism, and its present patriarchal sexism that limits women’s status, with sad repercussions: “About 17 percent of Utah women with commercial health insurance took antidepressants in 2009, according to Utah Department of Health data.”
On the positive side, I’ve been to Salt Lake City where I appreciated their help in my genealogical research, and I enjoyed the free LDS video presentations on how to solve family problems. I’ve also noticed that Mormons score highly in laudable social categories such as per capita income and average IQ.
Are Mormons a group that voters should be frightened of? Ironically, the main demographic that foments fear of Mormons is the Christian Evangelicals, who are far loonier and more reactionary than Mormons. I’m not voting for a Mormon for President, but I’d easily pick one of them over one of the Bible-thumping members of the Jesus-flock, like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann. Mormon candidates are ‘moderate’ in comparison and decidedly more rational than the brood that smears them as a “cult.”
If Romney gets elected, I don’t anticipate him giving a shout-out to non-believers like Obama did at his inauguration in 2009. His ascension would be a step back for secularists, but it wouldn’t be an apocalyptic reversal. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was preceded by paranoia about Catholics that has been utterly forgotten, and Romney, if voted in, would signify the same acceptance of Mormonism. For atheists? We’ll have to wait for a shining light in 2016.
Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Interim Managing Director and Fundraiser. He was IEET’s Managing Director on January-October in 2012, and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.
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