Mitt’s No J.F.K.
When I was a kid, we used to drive on the Beltway past the big Mormon temple outside Washington. The spires rose up like a white Oz, and some wag had spray-painted the message on a bridge beneath: “Surrender Dorothy!”
It did seem like an alien world, an impression that was enhanced when we took a tour of the temple and saw all the women wearing white outfits and light pink lipstick.
Of course, it was no more scary than scowling nuns with long rulers preaching about the virgin birth, the Holy Ghost and the hideous fates that would befall girls who wore too much makeup or French-kissed.
You’d think Catholics, who watched with trepidation as J.F.K. battled prejudice, would be sympathetic to Mitt Romney.
But even for those of us in religions that were once considered cults by other religions — my mom and another Catholic girlfriend actually had Southern Protestants ask them to lift up their hair so they could see the mark of the devil or the horns — Mormonism is opaque.
Now in addition to asking candidates about boxers or briefs, we have reporters asking Mitt Romney if he wears The Garment, the sacred one-piece, knee-length underwear with Mormon markings and strict disposal rules.
“I’ll just say those sorts of things I’ll keep private,” he told The Atlantic.
One of my Republican brothers told me he wished he could vote for “a Protestant Mitt Romney.”
The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, who ran for president the year before he died, was a lusty, charismatic Prospero. In “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a best seller about the Mormon faith, Jon Krakauer wrote that Smith was so full of charm, enthusiasm and imagination that “he could sell a muzzle to a dog.”
Not wanting to be a debt-ridden farmer like his dad, young Joseph came of age in Palmyra, in western New York. He was, Mr. Krakauer wrote, “attempting to divine the location of buried treasure by means of black magic and crystal gazing.”
When he was 17, Joseph said, an angel named Moroni came to his bedroom to tell him about some gold tablets that had been buried 1,400 years earlier under a nearby rock. Joseph said he translated hieroglyphics on the tablets using special glasses provided by Moroni, and this became the Book of Mormon.
After marrying a passel of women, some as young as 14, he had a divine revelation about polygamy that steamed his original wife, Emma.
“Emma harangued Joseph so relentlessly about his philandering,” Mr. Krakauer wrote, “that the original intent of the revelation canonized as Section 132 seems to have been simply to persuade Emma to shut up and accept his plural wives — while at the same time compelling her to refrain from indulging in any extracurricular sex herself.”
I called Mr. Krakauer — who also wrote the best sellers “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild” — to get his opinion of Mitt’s religion speech.
Mormons see themselves as the one true religion, and don’t buy all of the New Testament, he said, “which makes it curious why Mitt thinks evangelical Christians are his allies.”
Asked Thursday by Diane Sawyer on “Good Morning America” if he thought Mormons were Christians, Richard Land, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention, replied, “No, I do not.”
Mr. Krakauer can envision a Mormon making an “excellent president.”
“The Mormon approach to family life is amazing, and there are a lot of good things about the faith,” he said. But he worries that “the Mormon Church, while more welcoming, is still not a place that grants women and blacks equal status, and it’s a terrible place to be gay. The leadership is authoritarian, male, white and absolutely intolerant of dissent.”
The problem with Mitt is not his religion; it is his overeager policy shape-shifting. He did not give a brave speech, but a pandering one. Disguised as a courageous, Kennedyesque statement of principle, the talk was really just an attempt to compete with the evolution-disdaining, religion-baiting Huckabee and get Baptists to concede that Mormons are Christians.
“J.F.K.’s speech was to reassure Americans that he wasn’t a religious fanatic,” Mr. Krakauer agreed. “Mitt’s was to tell evangelical Christians, ‘I’m a religious fanatic just like you.’”
The backdrop, he said, is “the wickedly fierce competition between Mormons and Southern evangelicals to convert people.”
The world is globalizing, nuclear weapons are proliferating, the Middle East is seething, but Republicans are still arguing the Scopes trial.
Mitt was right when he said that “Americans do not respect believers of convenience.” Now if he would only admit he’s describing himself.