Sunday, September 11, 2005

One Nation Under Gods, and Mitt Romney, over before it began   posted by Razib @ 9/11/2005 03:04:00 PM

A few months ago the buzz around governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts as a candidate for 2008 began to build. You can read a long profile in The Atlantic from September, or this shorter more politically oriented one in The Weekly Standard dating from last June. Romney is in some ways a Republican "dream candidate." Romeny looks presidential, has had a very successful business career, "saved" the Salt Lake City Olympics, and seems to be able to be all things to all people politically (ie; moderate or conservative). But as this Amy Sullivan piece in The Washington Monthly points out Romney is going to run into the "Mormon" problem at some point.

What is the "Mormon" problem? Most of you likely have little familiarity with Mormons and Mormonism aside from seeing missionaries around the neighborhood or reading about polygamy in your high school history books. On the other hand I attended a high school which was 50% Mormon, and by senior year almost all of my close friends were devout Mormons (I was somewhat straight edge back then, which meant that I wasn't comfortable hanging around my non-Mormon friends as they generally liked to get baked all the time). At one point I developed such an interest in Mormonism that I was reprimanded by the Vice Principal (who was a Mormon) for passing out copies of the Book of Mormon on campus (I ended up converting one girl! My Mormon friends were not pleased since they knew I was doing this more in mockery than sincerity). I saw the tension between non-Mormons and Mormons first hand throughout high school (the Mormons were termed the "Mormonites"). One particular example illustrates the tension that seethed under the surface. In my AP English class there were three popular girls who sat I next to. One day I noticed that Andrea and Erika were gone, and I asked Jana, who was present, where they were (seemed strange that they got sick on the same day). Jana told me that the were off on a "Mormon related activity." Without any further prodding Jana, who I knew was from a somewhat conservative Presbyterian background, started telling me that Mormonism was a "cult" and that they "really weren't Christian" and that Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) was a "crook and liar." She was just repeating the talking points that were commonly presented and reinforced in most of the non-Mormon churches in the local area. Her outburst wasn't atypical, and my Mormon friends would often talk about experiences when they were younger when people would disparage their religion when their acquaintances didn't know that they were Mormon. The point is that in much of the country Mormonism isn't a well understood religion, but in regions where Mormons and other Christian groups are well represented, other Christians, in particular evangelicals, are well aware of the differences between Mormonism and other forms of Christianity. Not only is Mitt Romney peaking early but Christian networks will start "spreading the word" about Mormonism if he becomes prominent on the national stage, and I wouldn't be surprised if James Dobson interviewed an "expert" on the Mormon "cult" within the next year if Romney doesn't fade. For secular people the differences between Mormonism and other forms of Christianity are not of great note. So I doubt that the media will really see the underground evangelical groundswell that will surge in response to any scenario where Romney is a front runner until the candidacy is already dead on arrival. The problem with Mormons is not that they aren't "Christian," it is that they try and assert that they are Christian, which enrages evangelicals.

But if Romney was the focus of my post I would be putting this on the politics blog. I'm not, and the reason is that Mormonism is a world religion which arose in the light of history (there are about 3 million Mormons in the United States, another 3 million abroad). While questions about the "historical Jesus" or "historical Muhammad" are filled with speculation, supposition and textual analysis, Joseph Smith is a historical personage, and the growth and elucidation of the Mormon religion has been copiously documented. Mormonism can give us insights into how religions crystallize into a "mature" form over time, and the influence that the whims and preferences of a founder might have as well as the buffering and canalizing power of a particular sociohistorical context. I have posted on Mormonism before, but this post will be far longer and cover more ground.

Update: You can find much more via google. To clear up a confusion for some people: I don't think Romney's religion problem is that great in a general sense. A 1999 poll noted that only 17% of the public rejected voting for a Mormon (vs. 3% for a Jew), but I suspect that a disproportionate number of that 17% are evangelical Christians who are the core of the Republican primary electorate. I don't think Romney's Mormonism is any more problematic for the the vast majority of Americans than George W. Bush's Methodism, but the vast majority of American voters are not going to be voting in the Republican primary in South Carolina.

In preparation for this post I read One Nation Under Gods, by Richard Abanes, which is a history of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) skewed toward its 19th century roots. Abanes is an evangelical Christian who is moderately hostile to Mormonism. Nevertheless, Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, gave the book a blurb so I assumed it was more than your typical polemic. The book has hundreds of endnotes, which you can use to check Abanes' shading of his sources (a Mormon group has examined many of the endnotes). Since I am not totally ignorant of Mormonism I could judge to a moderate extent the accuracy of many of the points Abanes was making, and in general I think he presents a pretty accurate narrative, though sometimes his sampling and culling of the record can be irritating. Instead of forming my idea of what Mormonism is and how it came to be Abanes simply added more depth and detail to my conception.

There are two threads that Abanes weaves throughout the book:

1) Mormons put their Church ahead of the United States and there is reason to suspect that putting Mormons in positions of power is dangerous to the health of our republic.

2) Mormons are not Christian.

I actually reject contention #1 (ie; I don't think a Romney presidency would be all that bad, assuming that he didn't govern like a social conservative on the warpath against fetal stem cell research) and think that #2 is highly colored by Abanes' own evangelical Christian background. There are a few areas where the author's bias crops up in a problematic manner. I will offer two examples:

1) The author is an evangelical Christian and he assumes that most of the readers are Christian, so he appeals often to the Bible to refute Mormon claims. For example, he gives considerable space to debunking claims of Mormons that Joseph Smith and Mormonism are foreshadowed in the Bible via textual analysis. This can be taken to such lengths that I feel many non-Christians will find Abanes' digression irrelevant to the main substance of the book as well as unpersuasive because of the vagueness of the passages being cited. For example, the author attempts to refute Mormon claims (often dating to the 19th century, but still brought up in contemporary Mormon apologetics for the practices of their forebears) that polygamy was sanctioned by the practice of the patriarchs (ie; Abraham and Jacob were polygynous). Abanes responds that almost all references to marriage in the Bible imply monogamy, so polygyny must be a pagan practice that the patriarchs had picked up from their neighbors. As someone who has read the Hebrew Bible multiple times, and Genesis dozens of times, I don't find this persuasive at all. God makes quite clear what is verboten and what is not, and polygyny is not proscribed in the law.

2) Sloppy logic tends to creep in now and then when the author veers from an objective third person vantage point to a more personal first person Christian opinion. In the chapter which explores whether Mormons are Christian (the answer is a strong negative) Abanes asks the reader to consider if Christians can be considered Mormon. Since Christians can not be considered Mormon, according to Abanes it stands to reason that Mormons can not be considered Christian. I will not even deign to critique this sort of argument, but will just observe that this is not out of the range of the talking points some of my evangelical Christian friends have subjected me to. Clearly this sort of "logic" is meant for the choir, the syntactic style of logic is more important than the formal structure and clear inferences.

With those caveats in mind, I will move on to the substance of Abanes' book.

Joseph Smith

Abanes spends a lot of time on the character of Joseph Smith. The short of it is that Joseph Smith was a narcissistic conman. For a more contemporary example of the con that Smith managed to pull off just consider L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. I know that Mormons will find this offensive, and there are Mormon apologetics which refute this contention (of course), but unlike Muhammad, the Buddha or Jesus Christ there are newspaper articles and studies by investigators that asked people who knew Smith and his family about his character and origins. Joseph Smith's family were lower class New Englanders who had fallen in the world. They were part of a class of poor Americans who made their living by their wiles and their ability to exploit the "cracks" in civil society (they regularly did not pay back debts and moved on).

It is important to know that many of Smith's formative years were spent in the Burned-Over District of upstate New York where there was an efflorescence of new religious movements due to the Second Great Awakening. Abanes does not cover this topic in great detail, perhaps because he wanted to emphasize the character of Joseph Smith as sui generis and particularly diabolical (if Abanes was being explicit I suspect he would have asserted that Smith was inspired by Satan). But I have read that the Mormon rejection of a conventional hell (there are multiple levels of heaven, and an "Outer Darkness" for Mormon apostates) and baptism after death derive from Smith's affinity for the Universalist sect that was popular during this time throughout New England and upstate New York (the Universalists eventually folded into the Unitarian Church in 1960, ergo, Unitarian-Universalists). The Universalists themselves trace their intellectual lineage back to the 5th century theologian Pelagius who was rebuked by St. Augustine and declared a heretic. Abanes might have elided over this because acknowledging this would have emphasized that many of the ideas of Mormons can be found among early Christians, though those particular views were eventually rejected by the consensus of the Church.

But in any case, Abanes notes that Smith was an inspirational preacher, who hopped between various denominations and mastered the King James Bible (KJV) as well as choice phrases in Latin or Greek which would induce awe his audience at particularly pregnant moments. Joseph Smith was also a gifted storyteller, at least according to his mother, and spun tales about Native Americans out of the air. Finally, he was rather tall (over 6 feet) and judged to be handsome. His combination of imagination, verbal aptitude (at least orally) and handsome visual aspect seem to be reasons why Smith rose up and succeeded as a messianic prophet figure.

Abanes also notes other aspects of Smith's personality. He was the type of person who thought very highly of himself and would state that he was extremely handsome, gifted or good to all who would listen. His physical size combined with his narcissism also meant that Joseph Smith enjoyed picking fights with others, and even when he was a prophet of great power he would enjoy wrestling and throwing down men who he thought needed to be brought down in the world. Smith's sexual apetites were also extravagant, and it seems plausible that the Mormon practice of polygamy derived from the need for Smith to engage in sexual liasons with women (often young) he found attractive. Abanes also chronicles Smith's stints as a small-time conman who tracked buried treasure using a "magic seerstone," his founding of an unlicensed bank (or as he termed it, "anti-bank") and his time as a criminal under indictments in Missouri.

And of course, there was also Smith's period as a "lieutenant general" in Illinois who headed up a Mormon army of 4,000. This was the second largest armed force in the United States after the federal army, which had 8,000 active duty men under arms. Joseph Smith liked to parade in military uniform and march his troops through the Mormon dominated town of Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith even announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1844 (he also fancied that he would of course one day be king of the world after the impending Second Coming).

In sum, Smith was a megalomaniac according to Abanes. But this opinion is also held by most non-Mormon scholars from what I have seen, so though the details are likely disputable most non-Mormon scholars of note tend to agree on the general direction of the vector.

"Persecution" in the Midwest

The standard picture presented by Mormons (personal communication, their literature) is that they were driven out of the Midwest by those who attacked them because of their religion. The truth is more complicated, as is implied by the fact that Joseph Smith raised an army of 4,000 in the mid-1840s.

Like Smith most of the Mormons were Northeasterners. Their first major migration was to Ohio, where Smith had some supporters. But a revelation from God directed Smith to tell his Mormons that Zion, where Christ would return to earth, was in Jackson county Missouri, and so a massive migration of thousands of Latter Day Saints ensued. As I noted above most of the Mormons were by origin northerners so there was already a built up bias against them from the local residents who were pro-slavery southerners by identification. Additionally, Abanes asserts that most of the Mormons were lower to lower-middle-class converts who were immersed in the occult and magical fringes of the Second Great Awakening, so they often alienated the natives by claiming that they would be exalted when Christ returned and flaunted magical powers and occassionally even claimed to cast spells and hexes on those they disliked. On a social level there was a tendency for Mormons to stick together and discriminate against non-Mormon businesses. On an individual level they were generally not derived from the "respectable" segment of American society and so not particularly polished in their habits or comportment.

These factors led to the translocation of the Mormon community to another county in Missouri after the final precipitating event of perceived anti-slavery editorials by the Mormon newspapers (recall that the Mormons were Yankees). But soon enough the new non-Mormon neighbors complained about similar goings on as had previously occurred at the original Mormon settlement. Ingroup-outgroup dynamics simply alienated Mormons from the surrounding community. The resolution to this problem was to allocate to Mormons a particularly underpopulated county where they could live by themselves so as not to alienate non-Mormons.

But after Joseph Smith's banking failure (he printed money without authorization) he had to leave Ohio and once he became the core of the Missouri settlement Mormons spread out and began infiltrate other counties in violation of the implicit agreemant made with the state legislature (which specifically alloted to Mormon settlers their particular county). So again, tensions flared. Eventually there were atrocities as armed Mormon fanatics clashed with local militias, and at one point there was the so called "Mormon War" where the state of Missouri came close to exterminating the group. Joseph Smith and his confederates were arrested after he had to sue for peace (the state of Missouri mobilized everyone against the Mormons), but eventually he managed to escape to Illinois. Once in Illinois the Mormons managed to turn the town of Nauvoo into their own state within a state. Attempts to extradite Joseph Smith to Missouri failed because he always had a bodyguard and he even had a local ordinance passed with forbid the entry of those whose intention was to take him back to Missouri for trial. Abanes documents instances of murders, beatings and extra-legal torture performed on non-Mormons and dissidents in Nauvoo by Mormon fanatics. Eventually the practice of polygamy and the fact that Joseph Smith had become a law unto himself prompted the state of Illinois to to intervene, and Smith was arrested and killed by a lynch mob. You can google to find those particular details.

After this the vast majority of the Mormons fled to Utah as the federal government was moved to act against their army and warrants were out for the arrest of Mormon leader Brigham Young....


Utah territory (which was a far greater expanse when Mormons originally settled it) was hardly populated by any other whites so the Mormons under the leadership of Brigham Young established their own theocratic state for nearly five decades. Abanes documents instances of violence against non-Mormon residents, and conflicts between Mormons and federal troops. It seems that the Civil War gave the Mormons a respite as the federal government neglected the Utah situation for several years. Abanes notes that the Mormons gleefully tracked the casualties back east as they assumed that the End was at hand and the United States would have to turn to the Mormon Church to save the Constitution and the republic. This period witnessed a great deal of hostility between Mormons and the rest of America, and it seems accurate to say that Mormons were in America, but not of America.

To illustrate the degree of hostility between Mormons and the rest of the population of the United States, consider the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This was an incident where it seems likely that the Mormon leadership colluded with Native American tribes to plunder an affluent wagon train. When the Natives couldn't finish the job the Mormons appeared on the scene as rescurers but killed all individuals over the age of 6 after the settlers had agreed to a truce in return for safe passage (Mormons assume that those under 7 are innocent).

Abanes also suggests that the hallmarks of Mormonism and its relationship to the United States persisted after the 1890s when Utah became a state persisted. For example, Abanes asserts that until 1945 church presidents were polygamists. Abanes also notes that an oath that Mormon males took until 1924 when they entered the priesthood (all Mormon males are members of the priesthood) swore vengence upon the United States for the killing of their prophet and leaders. Abanes notes that all church presidents, including the present one, swore this oath!

Abanes' narrative doesn't extent much into the 20th century, the period during which Mormons "normalized" their relationship with the rest of America. Instead, he moves on to specific topics that are crucial to the perception of Mormons by non-Mormons.


It is well known that the Aaronic priesthood was off limits until blacks until 1978. It is less well known that it is a common Mormon belief that the Native Americans are descendents of ancient Hebrews (by and large), so of course they were white, and their dark skin is a result of sin. The book of Mormon speaks glowingly of those who turned to virtue and Christ becoming "white and delightsome," and until 1980 Mormons spoke of Native American converts "whitening." I have queried this particular point with Mormons before and generally it elicits anger and outrage, but very little outright denial. And Native Americans are not the only "cursed" people, the standard idea is that dark skinned peoples were born into their bodies because they sinned in their preexistent lives in heaven by following Satan instead of Jesus. White people followed Jesus and so were born into white bodies. Another explanation is that non-white peoples are descended from Cain, who had a "mark" set upon him by God (ie; dark skin). The Mormon ideas about race aren't too hard to google, or too original in light of 19th century America, so I'll leave it at that.

Are Mormons Christian?

Abanes spends a lot of time on this topic. Are Mormons Christian? Abanes concludes that Mormons deviate from historic Christianity. I emphasize historic because the particular form that Christianity took by the 4th century compressed and obliterated a great deal of variance in theology and practice, and some Mormon beliefs and practices likely fall under the rubric of some ancient Christian sects. But, if "Christian" is conceived of as an expectation (assuming some variance) within a particular range, Mormons likely fall outside of any expected range. Why?

Here are some points.

1) Mormons reject the Trinity. They believe that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are separate individuals.

2) God has a physical body (ie; hands, head, body, etc.).

3) Jesus and Satan are brothers, one of God's many children (one line of thought is that the Heavenly Father is the literal father of all human's, at least their preexistent selves).

4) God was once a mortal being who was eventually exalted to Godhood.

5) This exaltation is the fate of Mormon males who follow proper rules, rituals and hold to true belief (women can attain some level of divinity only by marriage to an exalted male).

6) God is married to the Heavenly Mother. There is some talk that God might have other wives. There is also some talk that the conception of Jesus was a rather more physical process (since God is a physical being) than is normally conceived of in Christianity.

7) God lives on Kolob, a planet in this universe (I believe in the Pleiades cluster).

8) Mormons are henotheists, they worship one God, but accept a multiplicity of Gods. In other words, not only can Mormon males become God of their own universe, there are likely other Gods in the universe who created their own planets, and there were Gods in the past (one responsible for the Creation of the God of this planet).

9) Though polygyny is banned by mainstream Mormons, Mormon males may be "sealed" to more than one woman sequentially. That is, Mormons believe that the afterlife is characterized by normal familial relations, and a man may have more than one afterlife wife (imagine his first wife dies).

10) Jesus created the earth from matter, instead of out of nothing as in traditional Christianity.

11) Mormons have prophets (Joseph Smith) and post-Bible books (Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, etc. etc.).

12) Mormons believe Christ will return to Missouri to usher in his Earthly Kingdom and that Adam and Eve fled to Missouri after being expelled from the Garden of Eden.

13) As I have alluded to above, Mormons believe that our spirits are preformed and that we have had experiences/lives in heaven before our earthly one. One reason Mormons have so many children is that they are creating bodies for these spirits.

14) Mormons have a rich tale of a War in Heaven between Satan and Jesus. This is generally not emphasized or explicated in mainstream Christianity (it really isn't fleshed out in the Bible, there is some material in the Apocrypha), but is a feature of Milton's works of fictional interpretation.

I could go on and on. But it is important to note that very few Christian churches accept Mormon baptism as valid.

Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is their savior, and they follow Christ, so they are Christians. But look at some of the beliefs above. If you ignore that Mormons revere Christ more than Muslims do (though Jesus is highly thought of in the Koran) on a relative scale it seems that Islam or Judaism are more like mainstream Christianity than Mormonism. For example, Mormons are not really monotheists! Not only do they dispense with Trinitarian theology as philosophical gibberish and accept that the three aspects of the Godhead are actually separate beings, they accept that other gods may exist.

I don't particularly care that Mormons aren't Christians, but it engrages Abanes and many evangelicals because they assert that Mormons are confusing people as to their true nature. I went to the LDS website and found this page titled The Nature of God. There is no hint here that Mormons reject the Trinity or the peculiarities of their ideas of the nature of God in comparison to other Christians (or other monotheists). The language used in fact makes it very difficult to note any difference from mainstream Christianity. Here is the president of the church responding to the FAQ question as to whether Mormons are Christians. Again, there is no explicit falsity but a definite sidestepping of the differences between Mormonism and other Christianities. I spent about 30 minutes going through the links and I found nothing that hinted at most of the points above. I suspect there is information on the site that would yield the data above, but it seems to be relatively hidden.

Abanes and other evangelical Christians are concerned because they suspect that people are being seduced away from true Christianitity to a non-Christian religion posing as Christianity. To Abanes and his fellow believers people are being led away from salvation by the duplicity of Mormonism. Since I'm not Christian the Mormon soft-pedalling of their beliefs doesn't strike me as despicable, they are simply using tactics common to missionary religions: preach to people in a gentle and accessible manner when possible, reinterpret the religion in terms that non-believers can relate to. Eventually converts do find out the details of the Mormon religion, but no doubt they are more emotionally prepared for the somewhat shocking details by that point. Muslims do the same thing when they talk about Jesus being a revered prophet, Hindus when they state that Jesus is an avatar of the Godhood and Christians often attempt to identify the Christian God with the God of a local people (ie; the Mizos or Karens of Southeast Asia had Gods which resembled the Christian God a great deal so missionaries simply implied that Christianity was their primal religion and the traditional religion was a garbling of their true faith). I do think that Abanes has a point though when he offers that Mormons believe that mainstream Christianity isn't really true Christianity, that the Mormon Church is restored church of the days of yore. But ultimately this point is only relevant because evangelical Christians form at least half of the Republican primary electorate. In the long run Romney is toast. Either that, or political consultants are actually worth the millions they are paid (I'm skeptical, Romney should pray to Jesus if he is serious about running for president).

Religion is always true

One of the most amusing aspects of Abanes' book was that he often wore the hat of the skeptic and true believer (in evangelical Christianity) in quick sequence. While Abanes was quick to contextualize Mormonism and show how Joseph Smith's milieu and subsequent historical events affected the path of the development of the religion he obviously believes that evangelical Christianity is a good recapitualization of the primitive Christian church that needs no contextualization (see the beliefs of the author's own church). In fact many Mormon beliefs can be thought of as state of the art popular culture science and scholarship, for the early 19th century!

Abanes shows how Smith seemed to be strongly influenced by the pop archeology of his day which posited that the Native Americans were descendents of Hebrews (the 10 tribes) and that the Mound Builders had once had a marvelous civilization which collapsed under the weight of their sin. Many of the rites and rituals performed in Mormon temples also seem to derive from Freemasonry, which was a vital and powerful movement during Joseph Smith's day. In the pre-genetic era Smith's idea that skin color was a reflection of ancestral iniquity were not entirely implausible, as was a Lamarckian concept that lightness was acquired through correct belief was heritable. Smith's penchant for women and subsequent normalization of polygamy influenced Mormonism for decades, and today Fundamentalist Mormons who number in the tens of thousands (and least) continue to carry that particular torch. But plural marriage (as they like to call it) was practiced by some groups in upstate New York during that time period so it was not that revolutionary or unprecedented when the Mormons introduced it. The idea that Mormons espouse about the physical nature of God is grounded in "common sense" which rejected some of the more peculiar Greek philosophizing which entered into Christianity (Mormons mock the idea that God sits upon a "topless throne" as logically incoherent). The Mormon God is not outside logic so they avoid some of the more common conundrums posed by the definition of God within the monotheistic tradition (ie; omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient).

Many of the ideas from the early 19th century do not stand up to 5 minutes of reflection. The Mormon idea that Native Americans are descended from the 10 tribes of Israel is refuted by modern archeogenetics, linguistics and paleoanthropology (the historical events posited in the Book of Mormon are eminently testable). The Book of Mormon records an old world civilization with horses, cattle, wheat, wheels and advanced metallurgy which seems to have left no archeological or biogeographical record to speak of. We know how skin color emerges as a phenotype in its broad sketch, and though one can find ways of reconciling the Mormon idea that darkness is a curse from God upon sinning spirits with anthropology and genetics, the original Mormon prophets and presidents seemed totally unaware of the manner in which their model was expressed in this world (despite numerous revelations from God!).

The details of the history of the Mormon Church are on public record. Reports about Joseph Smith's history as a conman can be found in public records (arrest warrants) and newspaper articles. The wars between Mormons and other Americans are also verifiable via newspaper reports. Though these reports are are likely skewed against the Mormons the obituaries of those killed by Mormon toughs can likely be tracked down. Newspapers and investigative journalists spawned a cottage industry documenting the peculiarities of polygamous 19th century Utah.

Abanes points out that the original copy of the Book of Mormon was filled with grammatical mistakes, double negatives and other syntactical errors common among lower class Americans of the early 19th Joseph Smith. He notes that Joseph Smith translated the Golden Plates upon which the the Book of Mormon was written from "Reformed Egyptian," a language no one had, or has since, discovered any other evidence of. Additionally, when a follower of Smith showed some transcriptions of Reformed Egyptian script to a classicist in New York the man simply responded that what he saw before him was a hodge-podge of chicken scratches and garbled Roman and Greek letters. There are also peculiar anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, the Jews who arrived in the New World in the 6th century before Christ set up synagogues...when synagogues were not a feature of Judaism during this period. Names like "Timothy" crop up in the text which aren't appropriate for Hebrews of the 6th century. Abanes also points out that prior to French occupation in the 1860s the Comoros islands were spelled "Camora" in Arabic, and their capital was "Moroni." The final battle between two Native American groups in the Book of Mormon happens on a hill called Cumorah, and the man who survives that battle and becomes an angel is "Moroni." The 1830 Book of Mormon spells "Cumorah" "Camorah."

The list goes on. Abanes is quite clearly enraged that anyone could even credit Mormonism since it has such a falsifiable paper trail. He notes that when confronted with basic facts that cast doubt on their religion Mormons often rely on a personal testimony of faith! Abanes notes multiple times that Mormons are subjective, that their religion is rooted in emotion, that they reject rationality when it comes to their spirituality. Personally, I find this rich. The modern Protestant tradition in large part rejects the cool rationality of Thomas Aquinas in favor of justification by faith alone. Protestant philosophers like Cornelius Van Tail forwarded the idea of Presuppositionalism, that the world is intelligible once you presuppose the truths of the Bible (ergo, Christianity).

I will grant that the claims of mainstream Christianity are not so nakedly falsifiable as the claims of the Mormon religion, but I suspect that the same cognitive processes are at work. The relative growth of Mormonism despite its patently false claims about the history of the New World is no surprise, people don't (in my opinion) examine their own religion with the same degree of rigor as they do everything else in the world. I have been in the presence of evangelical Christians mocking the Hindu concept of the incarnation of gods in human beings. I remember reading Ibn Warraq's experience of meeting a Muslim who proudly displayed a copy of Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell's refutation of Christianity, without any self-awareness that the arguments mapped almost perfectly onto Islam.

In Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust there is the following contention:

...disconfirming evidence only seems to make believers try harder to understand the deeper truth and to strength religious beliefs. For exampe, after reading a bogus article on a new finding from the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to contradict Christian doctrine, religious believers who also believed the story reported their religious beliefs reinforced (Batson 1975)....

In other words, for the vast majority of Mormons, including Harvard educated believers like Mitt Romney, no falsifying information will shake their faith. The Domneh are extreme examples of the inability of believers to accept anything that contradicts their faith, in their case, their Jewish Messiah, Sabbatai Zvi, converted to Islam and died a Muslim in good standing. The Domneh outwardly converted to Islam along with their Messiah, but inwardly continued to practice a form of crypto-Judaism and developed a theology which explained away their Messiah's conversion to Islam as another twist on his Messianic mission.

This does not mean that believers are always immune to falsifying evidence, I am making probabilistic, not deterministic, assertions. Abanes offers documentation that Mormons who sought out the truths of Mormonism via archeology eventually ceased to believe (though often outwardly maintaining fellowship). The same can be said about men who trained as geologists but were from Creationist backgrounds, Ronald L. Numbers in The Creationists assayed men in these positions and they universally rejected Creationism but were extremely troubled by this development in their lives and did not want to speak of it. A shaking of the faith is not just limited to religion, some of the same cognitive processes are at work among those who are politically active, as it is difficult to move beyond the axioms one has held without question for
so long. And many of the people who reject their beliefs based on data or logical inconsistency are cognitively atypical (most people do not become geologists for oil companies or devote their lives to archeology that supports their religious beliefs).

Possible Traitors?

Abanes begins his book by citing a speech where then presidential candidate Orrin Hatch acknowledged that Mormonism might be needed to step in and fill the breech as the United States collapses. He points out that George Romney (Mitt Romney's father) also expressed this viewpoint. Abanes is clearly implying here that Mormons are a government within a government, that their first loyalty is to their church, and that push come to shove they put their faith above their patriotism. He notes that the Mormon church is an extremely wealthy entity which is notoriously secretive about its reach, though it is well known that it is one of the largest landowners in the western United States. It seems clear to me that the detailed documentation of Mormon opposition and conflict with the American republic in the 19th century was simply background to support Abanes' contention that Mormons are a threat to the United States. Many people know that the Mormon church advises their members to stockpile supplies, and it seems clear that many within the church see themselves as a shadow government that might emerge in the case of a possible civilizational collapse. The Mormon church already runs its own welfare system in Utah, and it is excellent at placing church members in jobs. A high birthrate means that Mormonism is perceived as a fast growing church. Mormons like Brent Scowcroft are well placed in government, and their reputation for honesty and clean living means that they are often recruited to agencies that deal with national security like the CIA.

First, Mormons only grew by 10.7% between 1990-2001, a strong implication that they are hitting the inevitable "plateau." Second, it seems as many Americans convert out as convert in to the Mormon faith. We don't need to fear a "Mormon planet." Most of the growth of the Mormon church is occurring overseas, not in the United States. And Mormons are not the only religion with a mixed (at best) relationship with governments. Roman Catholics were for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries perceived to be a fifth column more beholden to Rome than Washington D.C. Jews in many nations have been assumed to be Jews first and nationals second. Even evangelical Christians like Abanes no doubt express a patriotism contingent upon the character of the American republic, that is, if they perceived that the "Anti-Christ" was working through the American state then no doubt as Christians they would turn their backs on patriotism and work against the government. The reality is that all people have divided loyalties. For most of the population there is religious faith, along with national sentiment, ethnic affinity and familial ties. During the 19th century adherence to the Mormon religion dictated interests at variance with that of the American republic. For most of the 20th century Mormons were patriotic Americans because they had found their own place in the republic. It is true that in many ways Utah is run as a Mormon republic, but expressions of Protestant Christian piety are also common throughout much of the American South in a fashion that would seem insensitive in the West or Northeast. Balancing religious faith with national patriotic feeling only seems difficult when one pushes the question to a reductio ad absurdum, but it seems that the same process can smoke out lack of pure and unadulterated patriotism in almost any religious group. Abanes extracts out allusions that Mormon politicians make to some of the more apocolyptic elements of their religion, but no doubt he would object to the same questions being asked of evangelical Christian public figures who also espouse a theology of impending End Times.


In The Creationists Ronald L. Numbers reports that in 1935 only 36% of Brigham Young University students denied that humans evolved from lower life forms, by 1973 this number had increased to 81%! What you see here is a conformity of Mormons to broad trends in conservative Protestantism which are not necessary conditions of their religion, but serve to generate common points of affinity between the two traditions. As I note above the original Mormons were often lower class converts with a fixation on the occult and magical, modern Mormons tend be stereotyped as techies and accountants (though One Nation Under God found that Mormons tended to be less socioeconomically impressive than reports drawn up by the church). Though Joseph Smith's background and personal life would not predict a church of social conservatives, Mormons have been instrumental in buttressing specific social conservative movements (anti-ERA, anti-gay marriage today). One branch of the Latter Day Saints movement, originally called the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, but now termed the Community of Christ, consists of those followers of Joseph Smith who remained in Missouri. This offshoot of the original sect has slowly shifted toward a far more traditional form of Christianity, as can be seen in their relatively transparent statement of beliefs (note how they explicitly state their acceptance of the Trinity). In contrast the majority of Mormons who migrated to Utah developed their own peculiar theology isolated from the majority of Christian believers in this country and shaped by the opinions and biases of men who had a deep hostility to the American polity and felt persecuted by the mainstream culture.

As I have noted before the human mind is not a unitary and interally consistent whole. Mormons, and humans in general, may often hold logically contradictory beliefs or behave in ways that do not cohere as a whole when viewed from the outside. Unbelievers who view Mormonism as a social phenomena can easily point out 1) obvious fallacies in their beliefs 2) deviances from the implications of those beliefs in their everyday life. But this is easy to do with almost anyone. Mormons live their lives embedded in a social world. In the 19th century when they often lived in a purely Mormon milieu they viewed the world, and non-Mormons, differently than Mormons today do. Now, it is true that Mormons are quite often exclusive and barely conceal their contempt for mainstream "Christianity" (which they consider the Whore of Babylon), but this attitude is not limited to Mormons. Mormon historical peculiarities (polygamy) and the heterodoxy of their theology likely makes their conceit more odious in the eyes of evangelical Christians.

Today Mormons are still concentrated in the Great Basin region of the West. But as I note above, 16% of Mormons are converts while 16% defect. This "churn" results in an influx of new worldviews into the Mormon church. Because of the peculiar structure of the church hierarchy the current president, Gordon Hinckley, is 95 years old and a product of early 20th century Mormonism. His successor will also likely be extremely aged. The Mormonism of these men was a purely white religion that was only then moving past its polygamist and outcaste past. But the Mormonism of this age is at least half non-white (and foreign), and the geographic range is rapidly expanding. Salt Lake City is already a majority non-Mormon city, and their high birthrates notwithstanding it seems likely that the influence of the church in Utah is likely to only go down in magnitude as religious diversity slowly creeps into the Mormon heartland (and as white flight from California begins to target Utah as Colorado "fills up").

We aren't ready for a Mormon president yet...but give America and Mormons a generation or two.