Published May 14, 2007
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference which brings together a select group of 20 nationally respected journalists with 3-5 distinguished scholars on areas of religion, politics & public life.
“Mormonism & Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?”
Key West, Florida
Dr. Richard Bushman, Governeur Morris Professor of History, Emeritus, Columbia University
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: No matter what your views are of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, we can at least be glad that he is still doing well in the polls because it makes our topic all the more interesting. One of the reasons we picked this subject, obviously, is the ongoing discussion in the current political campaign. But as we thought about a speaker to address the topic, the one name that came up constantly was Professor Bushman, who is perhaps the leading historian and scholar in America on the subject. We are delighted that Professor Bushman can be with us. His biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, is just out in paperback. Professor Bushman, thank you so much for coming.
DR. RICHARD BUSHMAN: Thank you, Michael. It’s wonderful to meet in person all of these bylines. I will tell you that my strongest impression is how young the group is on the whole, except for a few grizzled old sages like Kenneth Woodward down at the other end of the table.
KEN WOODWARD, Newsweek: I love it, thank you.
DR. BUSHMAN: I was struck by the immense cultural power that resides in all of these young people. In fact, I asked Michael if during the second half of the Q&A I might take over the meeting for a while. Instead of you asking impossible questions and me generating imaginary answers to them, I would begin to ask you some questions, because I would be very interested in knowing how you situate Mormonism and your estimate of what is happening on the religious scene generally.
I think the starting point is suitable: Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. It brings to a head the general question of how Mormonism bears on politics and democratic government. Romney is not the only eminent Mormon politician.
I know many of your questions will be about specific aspects of Mormonism. Ken has mentioned some of them in a recent piece that he did. But I think I’ll leave those for the Q&A period and instead give you a historical perspective on Mormonism’s relationship to politics going way back. I’ll also try to speculate a little bit about its possible bearings on Mitt Romney. I’m not altogether persuaded that Mormonism has a huge influence on his concrete political thinking. It probably has an influence on his attitudes toward participation in government in some fundamental way, but that is a question that perhaps we can discuss later.
I think it would be useful for you to see how Mormonism has related to politics over its century and three-quarters of existence, which will permit us to speculate about how this might all bear on Romney. Some of it is directly relevant.
It is a little bit difficult to talk about Mormonism and its relationship to Romney because it’s so unclear what Mormonism is. We have divided views of Mormons. On the one hand, Mormonism and Mormons are suspect, they are forbidding, and under the nice exterior there is something menacing. On the other hand, Mormonism is the archetypical American religion. Mormons are ideal model citizens, and they are very nice people. I often hear that.
Ken Woodward said last night, where in the Bible do they use the word “nice?” So maybe this is particularly —
MR. WOODWARD: He is taking that to heart.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah, that is right.
That split image applies also to Mormonism’s history, which also divides right down the middle. We think of the 19th century as a time when Mormonism was radical in about every dimension you can imagine, while in the 20th and 21st centuries Mormons are considered conservative in about every dimension you can imagine. When Vice President Dick Cheney wanted a place to deliver a commencement address to a safe audience, he wrote to Brigham Young University. He gave the talk there this year.
The interesting thing is that this switch from radicalism to conservatism occurred in such a short period of time, from about 1890, when polygamy ended, to about 1910, after the Reed Smoot hearings, which I’ll talk about a little more later on.
So the question is, which is the true Mormonism? Which is the one that is most likely to affect Mitt Romney? Let me talk first about 19th century radical Mormonism and point out some aspects of it that don’t always get emphasized in histories of Mormonism but were absolutely critical to its original impetus.
The radicalism, of course, is basically theological. You have to say, at the very least, that Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet, was daring and bold; perhaps you could say he was extravagant and rash. He seemed to be willing to challenge virtually everything in American culture. Beginning with the theological: he claimed to write new Scripture. His Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants broke the monopoly of the Bible on the word of God. He even claimed he could revise the Bible, the most sacrosanct text in the Western world, through his own inspiration. He added new passages and corrected the language where he chose, which was, by any measure, a heaven-daring act for a Christian to undertake in the 19th century.
In the social sphere, he breached Victorian moral conventions with the introduction of plural marriage, which nearly cost him his wife and nearly brought the church down. A lot of church members were horrified. In all of those ways, he was clearly radical.
But let me get a little closer to politics by talking about his daring in the re-envisioning of society. What is not recognized about Joseph Smith is that there is a very deep strain of what I am calling “civic idealism” in him, by which I mean the construction of a new kind of urban society that would embody Christian principles more thoroughly.
The Mormon Church was organized in April of 1830. Within six months, Joseph Smith added to the church organization a civic organization, which he called the City of Zion. He attached it to the Book of Revelation’s reference to the New Jerusalem. In 1831, a site for the city was chosen in Independence, Mo. It was to be a place where the saints were to gather. It was a “city at the end of time” in that it was to function primarily as a place of refuge in the calamities that were certain to accompany the return of Christ in the last day.
He planned that city, laid out a plat for it and instructed his people to gather there — not in a rush but in good order and in due time. From that point on, the creation of a City of Zion was at the very heart of Joseph Smith’s work. In fact, he called it “The Work.” By those words, he meant gathering people from out of the world into the city, instructing them in the ways of God, building a temple and then sending out missionaries again to gather more. When one of these cities reached its capacity, which he estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 people, they were to build another city and, as he said, “so fill up the world in these last days.”
His commitment to this city over against congregational worship is dramatized by the fact that never in his life did Joseph Smith build a chapel. When the population of Kirtland, Ohio grew large enough — there were hundreds of Mormons in the town — that members came to him and suggested they ought to put up a little meeting place, he said, “No; I have another plan,” and proposed the Kirtland Temple. Its two chapels stacked on top of another served as a meetinghouse, but it bore the name “temple” and served purposes that went far beyond a simple meetinghouse. From then on, wherever he built a city, he built temples — and never a chapel.
In Nauvoo, Ill., the 5,000 to 10,000 people in town met outside in groves of trees or, in cold weather, in houses or other buildings. They were very casual about Sunday worship. Someone was selected as the moderator and he called people out of the congregation on the spot to preach. There was no pastor for many of these congregations. The organization at this level was thought of as temporary. The little branches of the church were really holding pens in preparation for the time when Mormons would all move to one of the gathering cities.
The city was meant to be not just a gathering place but an ideal society. One Scripture describes it this way: “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” It was to be a unified, egalitarian, righteous society. Everyone was to live there. Farmers were to live in its bounds, their farms outside the city and their houses inside. A population of 15,000 to 20,000 seems small to us, but it wasn’t small against the scale of cities in that time. St. Louis had 10,000; Cincinnati, the largest city in the West except for New Orleans, had 30,000 in 1830. So 15,000 or 20,000 is genuine urbanization; it’s not a little village, but a city.
To deal with the poor, everyone who came to the city was to consecrate everything — all of their property — to the bishop of the church, who in return would deed back to them properties sufficient for their needs. It was an equalization program.
In fact, the word “equal” has a fairly strong place in Joseph Smith’s revelations. For example: “That you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things. For if you are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things.” At another point, he made the drastic statement that inequality was a sign that the whole world lay in sin. These Cities of Zion were to create unified, egalitarian societies and eventually fill up the world.
Joseph Smith’s thought evolved as he went through life. Initially, the city was just a place for Mormons, a “come-ye-out-of-Babylon-into-Zion” gathering place. But by the time he got to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith saw the city as more open. One of the first ordinances passed by the Nauvoo council was a toleration act specifying that all faiths were welcome in the city and listing a number of them: Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Jews and “Mohammedans,” as Muslims were called. There was probably not a Mohammedan within a thousand miles, but it was a gesture of openness to every religion.
Nauvoo, then, was to be a diverse city, indicating that Joseph Smith’s civic idealism went beyond his own people to envision a much more cosmopolitan society. Nauvoo didn’t develop that way; it came to an end too soon, but that is what he projected. Up to this point, Joseph Smith’s reformist impulses were restricted mainly to the church and its program. But during the Nauvoo period — a seven-year window from Nauvoo’s founding in 1839 to the Mormons leaving there in 1846 — he expanded the city’s scope.
Smith also got more involved in politics. Initially, he was disdainful of politics the way all millenarians are, taking the attitude that the nations of the earth are going to crumble and the kingdom of the Christ, as a Messiah, would arise. Smith was forced into politics by the abuse that the Mormons received. As soon as they were driven out of their first city site in Independence, Mo., he turned to the government for redress. He never obtained it. No level of government, from local justices of the peace to governors to the president of the United States — to whom he constantly appealed — ever came to the defense of the Saints. But Joseph Smith became a great devotee of constitutional rights because they seemed like his only hope. He said some very extravagant things about the Constitution being God-given because of those rights and became quite conversant in constitutional matters. He even visited the president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, in the White House in 1839.
Gradually, then, Joseph Smith backed into American politics. In the fall of 1843, as the 1844 campaign began to take shape, the authorities of the church wrote to all of the known political candidates asking them about their views of the Mormons, and none returned a satisfactory answer from the Mormon point of view. The Mormons wanted a pledge that these candidates would protect them if they were attacked again, and they couldn’t get it.
Joseph Smith was nominated as a protest candidate in February of 1844. Like other protest candidates, he began to warm to his work and got quite excited about it. He may have dreamed for a moment that through some strange concatenation of events, he would get elected. Every candidate has to dream such things.
His involvement in politics was manifested in a political platform of which he was very proud. He would bring it out whenever he had visitors and read from it. It is an interesting document because it represents a man whose world had been his own people, whose own project had been to create a kingdom of God, and who now had to turn his mind to politics.
He began by citing the Declaration of Independence, the famous passages about all men being equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, which of course could be a lead-in to religious rights. But he didn’t use it that way. Instead, in the very next sentence, he talked about the obvious contradiction: “Some two or three million people are held as slaves for life because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” His platform called for the elimination of slavery, proposing that the funds from the sale of Western lands, a major source of revenue along with the tariff in those days, be devoted to purchasing slaves from their masters in order to avoid the conflict that would otherwise ensue.
Josiah Quincy, soon to be mayor of Boston, visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1844 when this platform was in circulation. Much later, Quincy wrote about that visit, saying that Joseph Smith’s proposal for ending slavery resembled one that Emerson made 11 years later in 1855.
As Quincy put it, writing retrospectively in the 1880s, “We, who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty” — Joseph Smith’s and Emerson’s — “would have been worthy a Christian statesman. But if the retired scholar was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader who had committed himself, in print, as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844?”
I cite this example to illustrate the radical tone of Joseph Smith’s political thought, which seemed to carry over from his religious radicalism. It extended to prison reform and better treatment of seamen, big issues in the 1840s and 1850s. Smith seemed to identify with all of the underdogs in society. I think that was why he thought he might get elected – because the little people, the beat-up people, would rise and select him.
This part of his platform accords perfectly with what modern people like us would have liked a candidate in 1844 to say. But Smith went beyond our sense of political propriety in other parts of his platform: he blended his role as candidate with his role as prophet. He was already mayor of Nauvoo and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion when he ran for the presidency. He seemingly had no sense that church and state should be separated. He gave no hint that he was going to give up his religious offices if he were to become president of the United States.
In the closing peroration of his platform, Joseph Smith indirectly, but I think clearly, offered himself to be the priest of the people, as well as the president. “I would, as the universal friend of man, open the prisons, open the eyes, open the ears, and open the hearts of all people to behold and enjoy freedom, unadulterated freedom; and God, who once cleansed the violence of the earth with flood, whose Son laid down his life for the salvation of all his father gave him out of the world, and who has promised that he will come and purify the world again with fire in the last days, should be supplicated by me for the good of all the people.” He would be the intercessor as priest as well as prophet.
Of course, that is point at which moderns part company with Joseph Smith. We don’t want a prophet with his authoritative words from God governing the nation. That seems to lead to the exclusion of unbelievers and the repression of naysayers. All the alarm bells go off when we see these roles merging.
But I would appeal to you, before you turn away completely from that idea, to pay heed to the underlying theme of that platform and that proposal. I think it can be argued that Joseph Smith actually felt he was fulfilling one of America’s dreams. We think of the American dream as the promise of ascent for the wretched refuse of the teeming shores – the promise that in America, everyone has a chance to prosper and to achieve respectability. That is a dream for the individual.
But there also is a corporate dream, whether we like it or not, and that is of a righteous America, a people who are blessed of God — an America not too far from Joseph Smith’s Zion, where the people are of one heart and one mind and dwell in righteousness and there are no poor among them. There is an American dream of a goodly society. Joseph Smith’s word for his own political philosophy was “theo-democracy”: God and the people.
This corporate American dream includes a virtuous political leadership with the unselfish purpose of seeking, without regard for personal good, the public good — not just to manage the varying interests of society but to bless people. This is the way Joseph Smith put it: “The wisdom which ought to characterize the freest, wisest and most noble nation of the 19th century should, like the sun in its meridian splendor, warm every object beneath its rays. And the main efforts of her officers, who are nothing more nor less than the servants of the people, ought to be directed to ameliorate the condition of all, black or white, bond or free.”
I think you are aware of the aspiration of the Puritans for a “city on a hill” notable for its goodness more than its wealth. The dream of a goodly society lies behind famous pictures like “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” which depicts Washington ascending to heaven accompanied by angels, just like Mary, turning him into a secular saint, almost. It is evident in the post-Civil War rhetoric describing Abraham Lincoln as the savior of the people, one who sacrificed his life for the nation’s freedom.
All of that is in our background and is part, I think, of America’s image of itself. I think it is manifest even in 21st century cynicism about politics. For what is the starting point of cynicism but hope for the good politician who serves the public, a hope that is forever being thwarted, leading to disillusionment?
As concluding and capping evidence, think of President Bartlett on “The West Wing” —
— a secular saint if there ever was one. Not only is he wise and good in all of his political judgments, he also has a large heart that encompasses the well-being of everyone around him. Or think of the other cliché figure: the young political intern who dreams of finding a candidate who will redeem the nation and who can be followed to the ends of the earth.
What I’m suggesting is that the image of goodness is in our collective imagination; it’s present in our national culture. In fact, our finest political rhetoric has appealed to this grand corporate dream of America as a goodly nation. It was Kennedy’s gift to speak in that voice; to a lesser extent it was Reagan’s. And in my opinion, Joseph Smith simply expressed in his own way that underlying aspiration when he offered himself as a prophet president. The French dream of grandeur, we’re always saying. Americans dream of righteousness and being a good nation.
How, then, does all that apply to Mitt Romney’s candidacy? The question in my mind is, can he tap into this vein of civic idealism in American culture? His 19th-century Mormon heritage gives him plenty to work with. And I can assure you, from what I know of him, it’s his natural bent to seek to be a good president in the moral sense. But the question is, is his Mormonism a help or a hindrance?
One of the problems of speaking to this kind of latent idealism is finding a language that will work. Leaders have traditionally invoked the Bible, but in a multi-religious nation, how much longer is that rhetoric going to be usable, especially when the political left is so worried about the Christian right and concerned that any reference to righteousness shades over into repressive self-righteousness?
Romney, like every politician, faces the problem of finding a language, but he has the double handicap of being a Mormon. Every word hinting at religious idealism will sound Mormon, even to his natural allies among conservative Christians. How can they trust words that sound like they may have emanated from Salt Lake City?
I, for one, will be listening for how Romney calls Americans to their higher destiny. I think Americans yearn for that call, especially now after all the scandals of the last few years and the defamation of our character around the world. But the question is, can Romney find words that will sound American rather than Mormon?
Let me now turn to the other issue I spoke of earlier: the shift from radicalism to conservatism in Mormon history and the implications of that change for Romney in 21st-century politics.
Brigham Young did not claim to be a prophet like Joseph Smith. He claimed to be inspired and have God’s will revealed to him in the administration of the church; he didn’t claim to look into heaven as Joseph Smith had. He did, however, perpetuate Joseph Smith’s notion of Zion. In Joseph Smith’s time, Zion was a city where people gathered — first Independence, Mo., then Far West, Mo., and then Nauvoo, Ill. Under Brigham Young, Zion became a collection of small village-cities up and down the Great Basin, all of them following the same plat that Joseph Smith had laid out for the City of Zion. Zion was transformed from a city into hundreds of villages spread across the Western landscape.
Instead of the equalization of property, Brigham Young instituted a series of varied cooperatives. Some of them were very radical: common cooking and common eating in a single dining hall. Others were simply cooperatives where farmers would pool their resources to perform the functions of the middleman in marketing farm products. The exact form differed from Joseph Smith’s time, but the same zeal remained to create a society dedicated to God.
One of the most eminent of these cooperatives was a big department store that has recently fallen into the hands of Macy’s. It was called Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institute, or ZCMI. Over the doorway of ZCMI were the words “Holiness to the Lord,” precisely the words engraved on the front panel of the Salt Lake City Temple. The idea was to consecrate ordinary economic life to God.
And it wasn’t just the consecration of economic life, but of political life, too. Brigham Young was appointed as the first governor of Utah, and he would have remained in that position if he hadn’t been ousted by the federal government. The church set up schools, it managed the courts, it regulated the irrigation system — no small thing — and it created a political party, the People’s Party, distinct from Republicans and Democrats.
All told, the charges that Utah was a theocracy were well founded. It was a theocracy, a merger of church and society under God. Two complaints about Utah were directed against Mormons in the 19th century. One was polygamy, of course, but the other was theocratic rule by Brigham Young, his successors and the presidency of the church.
This was the radical Mormonism of the 19th century, descended from Joseph Smith and continued by Brigham Young. It included a far-reaching social critique. Young criticized capitalism as often as he did philandering. Mormons were sympathetic to European revolutionaries in 1848. They saw themselves as a society set against American society with all of its inequities and iniquities.
It was a society that, as we know, was doomed to defeat. For 40 years, Mormons resisted attempts of the federal government to end polygamy and to destroy theocracy, but finally they gave in. The government began imprisoning Mormon men who had more than one wife and denying Mormons their civil rights. They couldn’t serve on juries, polygamists could not vote in elections, the government began to escheat all Mormon property — including their precious temples — and the church was actually unincorporated. By the late 1880s, it looked like the church, as a church, would be obliterated.
That intense pressure from the federal government was backed up by every branch of government, including the Supreme Court, which was, in Joseph Smith’s spirit, the Mormons’ last best hope. They believed to the end that the Constitution was on their side and that they were simply claiming religious freedom, but the Supreme Court knocked down their claims one after another. Eventually they saw it was hopeless. In 1890, the president of the church announced that they would no longer practice plural marriages.
It wasn’t just polygamy that Mormons gave up; they dismantled the whole theocratic structure. The People’s Party was dissolved and Mormons were instructed to join one or another of the national political parties. They were sometimes assigned: “You become a Democrat; you become a Republican.” There are Democrats in Utah to this day who are Democrats only because their great-grandfathers were told they should be.
They also began to give up all of the church businesses. Not immediately, but steadily over the course of the 20th century, they were not only turned into capitalist enterprises, but the church divested itself of ownership. The church elementary school system was given up. The hospitals have now all been turned into private corporations. All told, the Mormon theocracy was leveled.
Mormonism gave up on its radicalism because the United States government beat it out of them. They were forced to the point of extinction and then realized it all had to be abandoned to preserve their existence as Mormons. As a result, everything became secular. Mormons, in reaction to this treatment, turned to laissez faire liberalism, having no confidence in the government. Their history gave them no reason to trust the United States government as an agency of the people.
The old idealism revived during the Depression when the Mormon welfare system was organized to care for the Mormon poor. It was an elaborate system of productive organizations to grow and can fruit, grow sugar beets, make shoe polish and glue, the whole works. But that was all done within the church; it was sectarian reform and was not advanced through the government. In fact, it was considered a sign of shame to go on the government dole. Mormons were told to rely on the church and their own families first.
How does all of this bear on Romney? I think the obvious question is, how far will he trust government when his Mormon heritage teaches him to be distrustful of government? His instincts will be skeptical. Joining that problem to the problem of finding a language of idealism raises the question, will he find a way to use the government for any kind of idealistic purposes, or will he remain suspicious through to the end?
His organization of healthcare in Massachusetts — though I gather it’s falling on hard times now, being more expensive than anticipated — was a hopeful sign, not just because Romney tried to solve a big problem, but because he approached it as a pastoral problem. “How do you care for the children of the commonwealth?” And he did it in a Mormon way. The idea of talking personally to all of the politicians, trying to get some kind of a consensus, is very much the way Mormon congregations work. There is never a vote or a power struggle. The people strive for mutual consent. It struck me as promising for Romney to work that way in the state.
So I leave that as a question, along with the question of how he will rouse people to the cause of the nation: how will he use the nation’s government to solve the nation’s problem?
Let me turn, then, to a third side of the influence of church history on Mitt Romney. One aspect of this abandonment of theocracy was a pullback from government in general. Mormons realized that theocracy only led to pain. As a church they became very sensitive about any kind of theocratic involvement in government.
This was reinforced in the famous seating hearings of Reed Smoot in 1904. Smoot was an apostle — a very high official in the Mormon Church — elected to the Senate on a Republican ticket, but refused a seat. To settle the question he went through hearings for four years. This protracted examination brought forth all of the opposition to Mormons that was still residual in the nation. It was charged that they were still practicing polygamy, that they were still theocratic, that their reforms were superficial and not to be trusted.
The president of the church, a man named Joseph F. Smith, nephew of Joseph Smith, was called to testify. He was asked over and over again, will Reed Smoot be obligated out of his loyalty to you as the prophet of the church to do what you say in political matters? Over and over, Joseph F. Smith answered, no, he is not obligated; he should follow his own conscience and the obligations he feels to his constituency, not to the president of the church.
The repetition of that question was an indication of the deep suspicion that prevailed and I think prevails to this day. To calm the fears, at the end of the hearings, the church authorities codified the testimony of the church president in an official statement: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds to the doctrine of the separation of church and state.” At the time that was a departure, but an accurate statement of what they had come to believe. “They believe in the non-interference of church authority in political matters and the absolute freedom and independence of the individual in the performance of his political duties.”
On these terms, Mormonism entered the political scene: We will not interfere in politics or in the action of any politicians who are members of the church. And that policy hasn’t changed over the century.
There is, on the church website, this statement: “Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated church position. While the church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they are elected to represent.”
On the whole it is fair to say that by comparison to the 19th century, the church has withdrawn from politics. It does get entangled in Utah politics; it’s such a large part of the state’s economy and population that engagement is inevitable. The church also occasionally takes stands on political measures that it considers to be moral issues, such as prohibition, but it doesn’t direct politicians how to vote. There is nothing like the Catholic bishops’ statements. There is no bishop who would threaten to excommunicate a Mormon because he took a position contrary to church positions on abortion or gay marriage or anything of that sort — nothing like the Pope’s recent statements in Latin America.
So I believe that we should truly be able to lay aside fears that Romney will receive directions from Salt Lake City. There is nothing in the record of the past century that would lead one to think otherwise. The question is, why does this fear keep coming up with fairly well-informed people — the same question over and over again? “Is Romney going to be directed by the church president?”
I think it is because of the logic of revelation. It’s not necessarily a logic that believers themselves follow, but a logic that unbelievers think is required of believing Mormons. The necessary consequence, unbelievers think, of believing that your prophet is a prophet speaking for God is unquestioning submission.
So the question is, why doesn’t that work? Why are there church members who don’t follow their prophet when it comes to political opinions, gay marriage certainly being one of them, but abortion being another, and many other things? The same thing is true for the Catholic Church. There are lots of good Catholics who don’t necessarily do everything that the Pope says. I hope I am safe in saying that.
MR. CROMARTIE: Very safe.
DR. BUSHMAN: Very safe, okay. How can an institution be so self-contradictory? There is a clue given in a statement recently posted on the church’s newsroom Web page defining the bounds of church doctrine. It says, “Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of church doctrine.”
The fact is that in Mormondom, the revelation doesn’t come solely to the president of the church, but rather infuses the whole church. Everyone is to receive revelation for their own positions, whether as a father or a bishop or a Sunday school teacher, or whatever it is. And that extends from church doctrine to political statements.
So, Mormons believe that all of those strong injunctions to follow the prophet are one end of a paradox. The other end, they say, is that they have to decide for themselves whether they believe what they prophet says. So there is legitimacy within the church for taking an independent position, contrary to what the president of the church may say.
I would say that rather than worrying about dictation from Salt Lake City, we should be more concerned about whether or not Mitt Romney is able to use the agency of the government for the idealistic ends that are truly his legacy as a Latter-day Saint. I’ll stop at that point.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.
E.J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: First of all, thank you for that really helpful talk. I want to start with a narrow question and then a couple of broader ones.
Utah is very interesting politically. In 1912, it was one of only two states that voted for Taft. But then it was all Roosevelt and Truman during the New Deal years. Then from 1952 on, it voted Democratic only once. Can you explain these shifts and what Utah was like when it was — or appeared to be — a New Deal state during the Roosevelt and Truman years?
The second question feeds into the first. I think any tradition is at a disadvantage if its scripture was written 150 years ago instead of 1,000, 2,000 or 6,000 years ago. It’s harder to explain away inconvenient things. I would be curious if you could talk a little bit about what aspects of Mormon Scripture might be dredged up against Romney. I’m not doing negative research for Giuliani or something. I’m just curious what we’re going to confront, because I imagine we’re going to see a lot of that. How, in fact, do the passages that might get thrown at Romney compare with passages in the Old and New Testaments that might actually be problematic to modern people?
And then three other quick things related to that —
— and then I’ll stop. The theoretical roots of polygamy; the whole problem with black people that sort of went away, it seems, in Mormon theology; and lastly, any thoughts on George Romney versus Mitt Romney? Otherwise, I have no questions.
I figure you can answer everything, so I want to take advantage.
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, when you get those switches back and forth, you know that there is a contradiction or a polarity inside the culture. Someone has said that Mormon doctrine should best be described as a set of dilemmas — as contradictory goods posed against one another.
My father was a Democrat growing up in Utah. He was not a very well-off person. I think Mormons have always identified with underdogs because they felt like they were underdogs so much of the time themselves. So the appeal of the New Deal, of caring for the people, was very inspiring. FDR had that great gift of speaking to the better angels of our nature, and I think Mormons responded to that because it was a language they hear in church a lot. On the other hand, there is always the suspicion of governments, which I think means that, under the circumstances, Utah could go Democratic again. It’s not forever-and-a-day locked into that Republican platform.
I don’t think there are things — Ken can probably think of some for me — in Mormon Scriptures that are going to be scandalous to the moral order of the nation, other than polygamy, of course. Things are more likely to be scandalous to the theological order of the larger Christian community. For example: the ideas of God having a body of flesh and bone, existing in time and space rather than outside, and having once been a man like ourselves. That sort of business just drives other Christians up the wall. But I can’t think of anything outside of the polygamy Scriptures that is going to disturb Americans in general.
Polygamy. How many people want me to talk about polygamy? I know you all are curious. Polygamy is an interesting thing because it serves as a Rorschach test. People project onto Joseph Smith and the polygamists their own sense about human nature. “It’s just what you would expect men to do;” or “Yeah, that is what I would like” —
— that sort of thing. Neither of those, I think, is accurate in Joseph Smith’s case.
It’s a perplexing problem for Mormons for a variety of reasons. One important reason is that it is so contrary to Mormon contemporary ideas of family — companionate, eternal friends going on with their children forever, versus a community wives constituting a family. So that is an ideological problem for Mormons.
It’s also perplexing because Joseph Smith himself gave so few rationales for it. The best rationale is one revelation written down in 1843. That is virtually all he said on the subject, and plural marriages are depicted simply as part of the restoration of the ancient order of things. Smith brings priesthood out of the Bible. He brings temples out of the Bible. He brings the temple rituals out of the rituals for sanctifying priests in the book of Exodus, and he brings polygamy out of the Bible. That is all he said, that the injunction for polygamy is to go and do the works of Abraham. Beyond that, it’s hard to understand.
In actual fact, polygamy seemed to have served a function in society. We now have a fine-grained study of polygamy in one community where we know every family in the community and all of the details about them. And what polygamy seems to have been was a way in which young women without male protection — no father, no older brother, no near relative to care for them — were absorbed into Mormon society.
Polygamy went up when the immigration rates went up. And the young women who came into these families in this little town were young women in that position. Not all of them – but that was the single most common type of plural wife. More than 50 percent of them fit this description. So it was a way of caring for people and may have contributed to the resilience of the society.
But Mormons themselves are puzzled about the meaning of polygamy, beyond what Joseph Smith said about it.
JOHN WILSON, Books & Culture: I’m interested in this question posed for us about whether Mormonism and democratic politics are compatible. It seems particularly interesting to me, not just because Romney is a candidate, but because so many of the arguments that are made in this debate are also being heard in arguments about evangelicals and Catholics. I think of Damon Linker’s cover story in The New Republic last year and a number of other stories that have raised questions about the compatibility of certain faith commitments with Democratic politics.
I want to focus on one particular strain of criticism that was very sharply expressed in a quote from Jacob Weisberg in the TIME magazine cover package on Romney this week. There was a quote from Weisberg saying that someone who believes the kind of things that Romney believes lacks the capacity to serve in the office of president. I thought that was a very interesting way of putting it. He didn’t say he disagreed with his policies, anything like that – but that he lacks the capacity.
It reminded me of a wonderful passage from Saul Bellow‘s novel, Herzog, in which Herzog is thinking of Freud’s famous question, what do women want? And then Herzog goes on and says they eat green salad and they drink human blood. It’s a wonderful wisecrack, but it’s also a way of expressing a certain way of thinking about women that has a long historical pedigree: that they lack a certain rational capacity. They are wonderful in some ways, but it’s just something that they don’t possess. And, of course, that was one of the reasons they were long denied the vote. It was presumed that they lacked this capacity.
It seems to me that a certain conception of rationality underlies what Weisberg and many others have said in this vein. And so I have two questions for you. One is, could you tease out their understanding of rationality such that someone like Romney would simply not have the capacity to fulfill this office? And second, who would be some intellectual allies that Mormons and others who might be the butt of the same charge might find outside their own faith tradition? In other words, where are their intellectual allies for responding to this conception of rationality?
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, their natural allies, which are all conservative Christians, refuse to accept them as allies, and that makes it very difficult. The question is, what is different about believing that an angel appeared to a person and told him about ancient records on plates of gold, and believing that a man who died and was buried rose again after three days and came back to life? Is there something sort of qualitatively different, or is it simply familiarity that makes a difference? Is it less rational to believe in an angel than to believe in a risen person?
Mormons say, look, all founding religions have miracles; that’s what gives the religion its impetus, that God intervenes in some incredible way. It’s the belief that God is really involved in human life. Islam and Judaism also have these founding miracles. The question is, is there something inherently more irrational about Mormon miracles than other miracles, or is it just a matter of familiarity?
If it’s just that you say Romney departs so far from the rational standards of our time, he must be crazy — within Mormonism, it’s not a departure. We have lived with these stories all of our lives. OK, we know angels are rare, but why not have angels? So it isn’t like Romney has to strain himself to believe or that in his believing mode something snaps and he goes crazy; these beliefs are just part of his culture.
That’s why I’m curious about the nature of this question, about why this seems more irrational than the irrationalities of every revealed religion.
MIKE ALLEN, Politico: Just for clarification, Latter-day Saints believe in both of the miracles you were just talking about, right?
BUSHMAN: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
ANNE KORNBLUT, The Washington Post: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the political atmosphere was like around the 1890s and 1904, and if you could talk about who the anti-Mormon forces were then. Who was driving the case? I’m also wondering if you could elaborate a little bit about the conservative Christians who should be natural allies but aren’t, and what your perception is of why they are so reluctant to be. One of the numbers that struck me in all of our polls was the percentage of Republicans who say they would never vote for a Mormon. I just want you to talk about that a little bit, and what your take on that is.
DR. BUSHMAN: In the 1890s, the Mormons themselves were simply struggling for survival and holding onto any raft that came by. A lot of them became Republicans because the Republicans were in power and they needed their support. That is why Reed Smoot got seated, because Teddy Roosevelt wanted his help in holding onto Utah.
In the nation as a whole, there was the whole Protestant establishment. Historians are now talking about the 19th century as the era of the Protestant establishment. It wasn’t the formal payment of ministers as in most established churches, but it was the sense that Protestant values governed the nation; they governed the politics; they governed the moral sense of the nation. So you had women’s groups, you had religious groups, you had pastors, and they enlisted politicians who doubtless were themselves outraged. So it wasn’t a party division; it was an up-swelling movement that assaulted the Senate during these hearings. They continued to just pummel them with requests. T.R. made the difference.
On the question about natural allies, Mormonism has always been an embarrassment to Christianity. It goes back to the 1830s when, on their own left, Christians had to face the Deists, who said the Christian miracles were ridiculous. To defend themselves, Christians had to find some kind of rational support. William Paley, of course, is the archetypical character, but there were scores of books written trying to mobilize evidence that you could believe the resurrection, that those witnesses were authentic.
While they were fighting that battle, the Mormons on the right came up with these ridiculous stories of angels and gold plates and claimed the same right to believe in miracles, mobilizing the same kind of evidence that Christians used for the resurrection. This required Christians to repel Mormons to prevent the Deists from grouping them with the lunatic fringe.
Christian groups have been as forceful as any in trying to put down the Mormons, I think, partly to protect their position as respectable philosophically. I once in a meeting asked a group of evangelical Christians — a small group; Mark Noll was there, Richard Mouw, various other distinguished people — why don’t we join forces in making a case that there are grounds for believing in the existence of God simply because the spiritual life confirms it? People believe there is a God because it’s manifest to them spiritually.
They really didn’t want any of that. They wanted to maintain their philosophical, rational claims, defending their miracles on sort of a quasi-scientific basis. They did not want to get in bed with the Mormons and their strictly subjective view of things. So there is kind of a gap intellectually. Mormonism has never embraced philosophy; it is not particularly interested in philosophy. I would say our most natural ally among the philosophers, frankly, is William James whose view of God is very close to the Mormon view of God.
MR. CROMARTIE: The emphasis is on experience.
DR. BUSHMAN: Because the emphasis is on experience and belief in a God — I’m going to get myself in trouble so I’m not going to say much, and I won’t answer any further questions on this subject — but a God who has to cope with reality in the same manner that humans have to cope with reality, using his immense powers.
MR. WOODWARD: I have a quick comment and two short questions. The quick comment is on behalf of President Bartlett, who went to Notre Dame.
I thought I would remind you of that. And it isn’t pessimistic, because he did. But in 1956, the Republican Party — the national committee passed a declaration saying that President Eisenhower was not only the political leader of the county but also the spiritual leader of the country. So there is a certain resonance going on.
I know you’re curious about what people around the table think about Mormonism. My first question is a very serious question. I think of 19th-century work society — busy, work, pull yourself up by your bootstraps — and, as you know from my comments in the Times, that has always been my experience with Mormons. So where does the doctrine of grace come in, the doctrine that maybe there is something that happens that is God’s initiative and I have nothing to do with it? I don’t see a lot of room for an effective doctrine of grace.
And the other question is — and I’m sure you’ve played this before, but I think it might clarify a little bit – what if you ask this question: what is the question that Mormonism answers? I mean, you can do that with Buddhism; it’s suffering, and it’s sin for Christianity. Does that help us get at some sense of the quick of Mormonism by asking, what is it the answer to — other than just historically?
DR. BUSHMAN: That is a terrific question. Let me begin with grace. I think partly as a form of denominational differentiation, Mormons resisted high Calvinist theology in the 19th century. They were, like so many other groups, trying to differentiate themselves from the evangelical culture of the revivals, which basically came out of a Calvinist view of depravity. Mormons don’t like the idea of depravity. So that led to an emphasis on works. You are capable of choosing the good, and God will recognize and reward choosing the good.
In the late 20th century, that is reversed. You’re probably aware of this yourself, Ken. In dialogues with evangelical Christians, Mormons are recovering their own grace theology, which is plentifully present in the Book of Mormon. And they are recovering it not just at the high level of discussion between BYU faculty and Baylor faculty, but right down in the congregation, seemingly growing out of the needs of the people themselves. There is this sense that, look, we can’t do it ourselves; we have to have the grace of God. There is no other hope for forgiveness or salvation.
The doctrine of grace is part of our scriptural culture. I’m sure as time goes on, these elements will be emphasized in varying degrees. Right now, grace is getting more and more powerful among the Mormon teachers.
What questions does Mormonism answer? David Brooks had those interesting columns a few months ago about how people will die for meaning, and Charles Taylor was on the TV lately saying the spiritual questions are the big questions, which I think is very close to David’s sense of meaning.
What Mormons really try to do is to offer a story — a story of human existence that begins in the world before and comes to this world. It answers the classic questions of whence, why, and where. It’s not just something that stands above Mormons, but is imbued into their minds. It’s related to the Christian story of fall and redemption, which is another story of the meaning of life, but it extends that story into the pre-mortal life and into eternities hereafter.
Over and over again, I talk to people who joined the church, and I say, why did you become a Mormon? And they say, it answered my questions. I don’t know exactly what they mean by that, but there is a sense that their perplexities about life somehow were put to rest by what the Mormon missionaries told them.
MR. WOODWARD: I wouldn’t disagree with that. This Mormon story is ritualized and retold in temple ceremonies. So it’s not something that you could just get once and sort of walk away from if you were a Mormon. But for that reason — that it locates you in a larger world, it locates this world in a larger world, it makes it very palpable – to that extent, then, it seems to me, that what a candidate for president believes on these matters might not matter to another candidate, but it very much matters to Mormons. I’m thinking, therefore, that is why asking what that world looks like is a relevant issue. Whether it’s fair or not is another question. Am I making sense?
DR. BUSHMAN: In other words, you think everyone has a right to ask a Mormon — to ask Mitt Romney — what do you think is the meaning of life?
MR. WOODWARD: I think people want to know that, and I think it isn’t the meaning of life so much as it is the situating of this world in this larger drama.
DR. BUSHMAN: Right.
MR. WOODWARD: I know from talking to Mormons in Salt Lake City that one thing is this guarantee that I will see my children and I will see my parents. I have never asked a Mormon what the meaning of the religion is that I didn’t get that kind of an answer — perfectly understandable, and one that is universal. So I think of what that life is like, how those connections are — I would say they are almost polygamist, or sometimes I think of them as that way in the next life, because they are part of the answer that Mormonism provides through those that embrace it. It becomes relevant when the first Mormon looks like he is going to have a chance at the presidency.
DR. BUSHMAN: Would there be an equivalent question that you would ask of Senator John McCain?
MR. WOODWARD: I don’t think so. I think this is the Mormon time at bat.
It will have to be done once, it seems to me, and then it won’t have to be done again. But when a Muslim runs, it’s going to have to happen, and if a Jehovah’s Witness ever runs, it’s going to come up. You only get one shot at the plate, but I think it has to be taken. I’m not saying he has to do this, but I think somewhere along the line it has to happen. And it’s legitimate to ask those questions because people are curious about them.
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, your curiosity here evidences that.
MR ALLEN: Sir, one factual question, and one a matter of opinion. I was interested in your description of the end of polygamy in the setting of having lost Supreme Court cases and the heavy hand of the state on the church. How does that square with the church’s teaching? I think that it was related to a revelation or a prophecy.
And second, I wonder what your theory is about why there seems to be a sort of PC exemption for Mormons such that people feel free to talk about them in a way that we don’t feel free to talk about just about any other religious group.
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, I would be interested in your answers to that question.
The way the story is told now, and I think there is some pretty good evidence of this, is that though the announcement ending polygamy sounded like a policy switch — “We are no longer going to perform plural marriages” — it really was based on a revelation. I would be almost positive, just because of the parameters of Mormonism, that the president of the church would not do anything so drastic unless he felt like he had the backing of God, whether it was an angel appearing to him or just a very powerful feeling, like Spencer Kimball had when the blacks’ situation was changed. I think Mormons just say to themselves, he must have had a revelation, and there is some evidence that he did.
MR. ALLEN: Wait. But it occurred at the same time in the historical setting that you were describing?
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED: So it was convenient, really.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah, that is a nasty word.
Let’s say it was astute or fitting or suitable or necessary.
That is always a problem when you have revelation that governs administration. Is it just a justification for what is inevitable, or is it really from God? And I don’t know any way to solve that problem, except that on the blacks, the church held out a long time and caused a lot of pain among Mormons for that doctrine to be held on to for that long, until finally the change was made.
MR. DIONNE: When was that?
DR. BUSHMAN: 1978. But you had another question.
MR. ALLEN: Yeah, the PC exemption.
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, that is a curious question, and in fact, it’s one I hope to discuss later. Why do Mormons appear weirder than most? Is it just a matter of the strange beliefs, or is it an accumulative effect: someone breaks the PC barrier and others follow. You know, the way Mormons are treated in Angels in America — you certainly couldn’t do that for lots of religions, but it went down big on the New York stage and in the movies. What would be your explanation for it?
MR. ALLEN: I’ll defer to the moderator for that.
MR. CROMARTIE: The moderator gives you permission.
MR. ALLEN: I’ll defer to my colleagues.
DR. BUSHMAN: Too bad. A good dodge, but it didn’t work.
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, think about it, Mike, and if you come up with the answer, raise your hand again.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: Look at “The Simpsons.” I think there are other groups that are opening for ridicule. If you look at evangelicals on the “The Simpsons,” or — you know, I think there are other groups.
UNIDENTIFIED: “South Park.”
DR. BUSHMAN: Evangelicals get it pretty hot and heavy on the New York stage. You can really say nasty things about evangelicals and get laughs.
SALLY QUINN, The Washington Post: Are you a Mormon?
DR. BUSHMAN: Yes, I have always been Mormon.
MS. QUINN: And you are a practicing Mormon?
DR. BUSHMAN: Very practicing.
MS. QUINN: I’m sure you have heard of Martha Beck.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yes.
MR. CROMARTIE: But all of us haven’t.
MS. QUINN: Martha Beck is a Mormon woman who wrote two books. One of them was called Expecting Adam. She was getting her Ph.D. at Harvard, as was her husband, when she got pregnant and discovered that the baby was going to have Down syndrome, and she decided to have this child anyway. It’s an extraordinary book, just an amazing book. She suddenly was open to an enormous amount of criticism and almost ostracized by a lot of her friends at Harvard, all of these brilliant people who felt that it was wrong to have a child who was retarded. Once she had the child, it was even more difficult. So she and her husband decided they would go back to Salt Lake City because people there were so accepting of everyone. She decided she would go back there and that would be a place where she could raise her child with Down syndrome.
She went back and had an absolutely horrendous experience. She wrote another book called Leaving the Saints. She finally did leave the church. In her book, she revealed that her father had sexually abused her when she was a child. She talked about how she went back, and she had this Ph.D. from Harvard, and she was trying to fit in and bring her child into it, but she went to work as a teacher at Brigham Young University and found that the church was very unaccepting, very dogmatic, and that she couldn’t teach what she wanted to teach. Because she spoke out against some of the beliefs, she was in effect banned or banished from the church, she and her husband. Finally, they actually had to move away to Arizona because it became so untenable a situation.
And I think that reading a book like that — I have no knowledge of Mormons at all, really, but reading Martha’s books, I was absolutely appalled at some of the things that I read about the Mormon Church and the closed-mindedness and demands on people that they adhere to the beliefs or they will get banished.
So I think that kind of story is where a lot of these perceptions come from. I don’t know whether every word she wrote was true or not. It sounded pretty true. I think that sets the stage for my next question, which is, how Mormon is Mitt Romney? I mean, is he someone who would adhere to all of the beliefs of the church? In Martha Beck’s case, when she went against church policy, she was banned or banished. Would that happen if Romney disagreed with the church, and particularly their positions on women?
MR. WILSON: I read the same book. I have also read a lot of other memoirs in the last 20 years. In fact, it seems that about half of the memoirs that I have read that have gotten the most attention — that is, the ones that have been translated into multiple languages and won prizes and so on — have subsequently turned out to be downright hoaxes. I’m not talking on the level of minor fabrications, but just outright hoaxes. So I think that first of all, to judge any institution, or any subject at all, by a memoir is a very dubious proposition.
I also think it’s significant that in that particular memoir, oddly enough, the author did not mention the fact that she and her husband both came out — he as gay and she as lesbian. It seemed odd not to mention that in the book, because whatever you think about that, whether you think the official Mormon teaching on that is right or wrong, it is very clear what the teaching is. One could infer that by not evening mentioning that and how all of that played out in the story, that could perhaps be a red flag to judge some of the other things that she says in the book.
MS. QUINN: Was it clear that they came out as homosexual before they left Salt Lake City? I’m not clear that that — I understood it to be after they left and went to Arizona that they both —
MR. WILSON: My understanding is that that had something to do with the incidents that she describes in the books, but that she does not mention that as part of the context.
MS. QUINN: Well, in any case, if that were true, if they were in Salt Lake City at the time and came out as homosexual, they were banished. I’m not making a judgment here. I’m simply saying, I read this book. This is my one exposure to Mormonism. I think other people have the same kinds of ideas. These are stories that you hear, and I think this is why there is a lot of suspicion. I had dinner recently with a group of evangelical Christians who invited me for dinner, and the subject came up — Mormonism. I didn’t say a word. They went on for 45 minutes about how dangerous they were — crazy and dangerous, and it would be a disaster for this country. So there is that perception.
ROME HARTMAN, CBS News: But with the question you have asked, I would like to know, how Mormon is he? Is he devout, is he a cultural Mormon?
DR. BUSHMAN: Romney is a thoroughgoing Mormon. You know, he has held significant positions in the church and so I can answer that very quickly.
The Beck book — I have read them both, the Adam book a little more closely. She is a marvelously persuasive writer, very appealing and self-revealing. She confesses everything, so she wins your trust almost at once. I had trouble with the Adam book because I felt like she was neurotic about Harvard. Harvard had turned into a boogieman that represented the world of rationality and was threatening to exclude her or judge her in a way that I thought beyond belief. It was very strange how that functioned in her mind.
MR. CROMARTIE: You speak as a Harvard grad.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah, every degree I own is from Harvard. That is the one thing that I have to confess to you all here publicly.
The charges of her father’s abusing her, which is a very large part of that book, have been contested by the rest of the family. It’s a very large family. I think there were 10 or 12 kids. They couldn’t believe their father would do it. They saw no evidence of it, and they knew her well, living with her. So as John suggests, some of the factual basis of it is thrown into doubt, and so you have to start with that.
In terms of shunning, this is a kind of stereotype of the way religious communities work. The same thing is said of the Amish and many other groups. Having grown up in Mormon communities, I am not aware of this being practiced or happening to anybody that I ever knew. You hear stories of it happening, and it may have happened from time to time. But my own feeling is, it’s sort of a mixture of some actual actions — she might have been fired from BYU, and I think she was for some of the things she was saying or something she was doing — and her own sense that these evil people were after her. So there is a sort of a mixture of her own paranoia with some actual actions.
If you lived in a Mormon community, you wouldn’t feel like this was happening all of the time, that people were in danger of being shunned. There are examples, and I am sure they will come up here, where people have been excommunicated for taking a stand contrary to Mormon doctrine, and we’ll have to describe that, but to make this typical of the true character of Mormonism is misleading. It would be very hard to persuade any Mormon that anything like that goes on.
DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN: I’m interested in a clarification on the teaching authority, if we can say that, versus kind of revelation. If you shy away from the philosophical or rational kind of development, what is the teaching authority then based on? Is it personal revelation to the prophets, or just how does it work in general, say, in regard to an issue like contraception or abortion or so on, and then how is that binding on individual Mormons or on Mormon politicians? I think you said earlier that they don’t have to follow one thing or the other in the Mormon Church.
Secondly, I’m interested to know more about the teaching of Jesus’ mission in Central America.
DR. BUSHMAN: On the first question, “teaching authority” is not a phrase we use. Is that a Catholic phrase?
MS. GALLAGHER: Yeah. I don’t know what you would call it. Do you have such a thing? Teachings, where do they come from?
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah, it’s one of the mysteries of how it works in that Mormons, both individually and as an official church, have always rebuffed attempts to systematize ideas. There is no creed. If a book is published called Mormon Doctrine that tries to outline Mormon doctrine, it’s repudiated by the president of the church. Over and over again, people go back and say, look, follow the Scriptures, read the Scriptures – which in a way begs the question of how you interpret the Scriptures. But every effort to do doctrine systematically is resisted. In that way, it’s kind of an anti-intellectual thing against systematic theology.
When it comes to things like contraception, that comes out of the united feelings of the general authorities of the church, which consists of the president of the church and the Twelve Apostles and other general authorities, who probably are what you’re looking for if you’re asking about the teaching authority of the church. There are Catholic versions of these hierarchical figures, are there not? The people in Rome who interpret the doctrine for the benefit of the church?
MS. GALLAGHER: Yeah. But then it wouldn’t be open necessarily to interpretation — it would be binding, in other words, in a Catholic vision of things. But you’re saying they do make these recommendations, but they are not binding.
DR. BUSHMAN: That is right. There is great respect. The leaders are followed; they are honored. People wouldn’t try to contradict them, but “binding” isn’t a word Mormons use. We talk about the “counsel” of the brethren. This is what we advise you to do, and this has great weight, but it isn’t like it straps down your conscience.
MS. GALLAGHER: So what is the teaching, then, on contraception, say.
DR. BUSHMAN: You know, it’s changed. When I was first married and a little alert to such things —
— there was a lot of talk against contraception, and that all just faded. You never hear a word about it now. And that is also one of the things that moderates the reception of this kind of teaching authority. That is, there are times that something seems relevant, and then it sort of fades, and other things come to the fore. So there is sort of a give-and-take between the needs of the people, who are always talking to their bishops and stake presidents — look, I have a problem; what could be done about this? – and that seeps up to the higher levels of the church. Over time, these teachings change coloration.
MS. GALLAGHER: Is that the same for abortion?
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah, the same for abortion. There was a moment in the late 1980s when the church came down with an absolute no on abortion. And then very quickly it moderated – look, the health of the mother has to be taken into account; all sorts of other things. So it’s kind of a moderate conservative position at this point.
MR. WOODWARD: It seems you have a magisterium, but what you lack is that informal body of theologians or thinkers whose job is to reflect on the content of faith, and magisterial teachings. So there is no placenta like that — am I right — for these things to go through?
DR. BUSHMAN: That is true. And you must add the fact that there is no professional clergy, which means no clergy trained theologically. No one seeks to situate every teaching of the church against a broader Christian tradition. The process has a kind of informality to it.
MS. GALLAGHER: My second question refers to what I understand the Book of Mormon to be about, which is Jesus’ ministry to the people of the Americas, which I think they more or less locate as Central America. I wonder if you would explain that a little bit more, and talk about whether Joseph Smith was ever there.
DR. BUSHMAN: In Central America, you mean? No, he was not ever there. He was strictly confined to the Northeast United States and the West. He went to New York and Missouri – sort of that quadrant.
The story is limited to the Book of Mormon itself, which, I assume you understand, is meant to be an ancient story. The event you refer to simply builds on the idea that Christ, after his death, visited America and taught people here for many days. In effect, he instilled the Christian gospel, including the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, into the culture here, then disappeared but also said he was going to visit other branches of the house of Israel – the ten lost tribes – throughout the world. That is the story. It occupies maybe 22 chapters in the Book of Mormon.
I think the significance of it is the same as the significance of the Book of Mormon in that it breaks, again, not just the monopoly of the Bible, but of Palestine as the land of holy events. It spreads this to America, and by implication, to the world, because once you break out of that spot, then the great events of Biblical history can occur everywhere. That is one of the strong thrusts of the whole movement, to imply that God is revealing himself at other places, other times, and to people other than the people of Israel.
MS. GALLAGHER: Was that the only place that he went outside of Palestine, according to —
DR. BUSHMAN: The only one that is recorded, but Jesus himself says, I am going to visit all of the other lost sheep of the house of Israel, quoting John.
DR. PHILIP JENKINS, Pennsylvania State University: I want to raise an issue that might be delicate, so bear with me a little bit. People are looking at the Book of Mormon and discussing the ideas of the Book of Mormon, but my impression is that if I were to join the church, I would read the Book of Mormon, but then increasingly I would learn other doctrines that would be revealed progressively. Some of those doctrines, or many of those doctrines, I think, would be very surprising, and they would be far more surprising than the idea of Jesus speaking in Central America.
For example, I believe there is a doctrine of the evolution. Evolution is a very fundamental Mormon concept, evolution in the sense of evolution towards deity or divinity of believers — that you evolve towards the stage of a godlike figure with your own world which you rule and populate, and that each world is ruled by a figure who originally enjoyed human status on another world, so that, for example, once upon time there was a man on another planet who became the God of this world.
Mormonism is different in the sense that it does include a large body of doctrine that is revealed by progressive stages, by degrees of knowledge. Now, if I am misstating those doctrines, please tell me; that is absolutely not what I want to do. But the sense that people believe these kinds of inner doctrines may go some of the way to explaining the suspicion. When phrased in a crude way for outsiders, this can almost be presented as a kind of science-fiction religion. I’m speaking in terms of stereotype. Please understand the respect for the religion that I’m trying to present, but also that I think it’s important to bring this out for this audience because at some point, if Romney is a candidate, someone is going to raise these doctrines as ideas, and if there is not some kind of answer or explanation or description, it’s going to come as a shock. Would you care to respond to it?
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, I hear two things in your comment. One is the notion of peculiar, heterodox, wild ideas about the nature of God and how to cope with such departures from conventional Christianity. The other is the idea of a certain degree of trickery. That is, you’re brought into the church with simple, plain doctrines, like the story of the Book of Mormon.
DR. JENKINS: I am not trying to make these accusations, please understand.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yes. I do understand. I thought you were very tactful in the way you stated it. But still, that is the question, because often the evangelical critics of Mormonism will make that very point. They will make it look like it’s simple, but boy, wait till you get inside of it and you’ll find all sorts of terrifying beliefs.
I think the missionary system of the church is not deceptive in the sense that it does present basically what Mormons work with, live by day by day, which is belief in revelation, belief in these new Scriptures, belief that you shouldn’t smoke, drink, and so forth, should pay tithing — all of those basic things are made clear. But once you get into the church, there is a vast amount of lore about how the priesthood works, how the ecclesiastics work, things about baptism for the dead and genealogical work that don’t go into the fundamental teachings. Not that the missionaries would conceal them consciously, but they just don’t figure in the everyday conversation of Mormons or the life of a Mormon. You can be a perfectly good Mormon without knowing every last detail.
However, when it comes to the doctrines that you describe, which are extreme departures from standard Christianity, I think they mean quite a bit to Mormons — not to all Mormons, but to many, including myself — as an elaboration of these stories of eternity, as I call them. So you get a larger and larger picture. The trouble with them is that when you begin to explore them in detail, there are all sorts of mysteries and perplexities, things you can’t understand because you’re out at the edge, and how does this work, how does that work — I don’t know how it works. But the overall picture is that humans are being taught by a father to become like him. That is a fundamental Mormon belief.
And it can be stated quite innocently in a way that many other Christians would agree with, that the purpose of becoming a Christian is to become godly, become like God, in his moral image. It’s just that Mormons carry this further and start talking about governing worlds. The business of governing worlds is an extrapolation that is not in the Scriptures; it’s just something Mormons have made up to make it concrete. But all of that is part of this extended picture, which does come as a shock to many people.
I don’t think it’s a matter of concealment, but just milk and meat.
DR. JENKINS: Thank you very much.
MS. QUINN: What are the secret doctrines?
DR. BUSHMAN: You have stated them all right there. There are things that go on in the temple that are not talked about outside the temple, but they are not really doctrine; it is really a set of rituals that are practiced in the temple that are not discussed.
MS. QUINN: Like Skull and Bones? The garments.
DR. BUSHMAN: The garments. All right, shall we talk about the temple for a minute since that came up?
This goes along with this “secret life” of Mormons. Sally, you were referring to that earlier. What do they do when it comes down to it? Do they shun people and beat them up and so on? That has always been part of the story of Mormonism — you know, the “hidden horrors” of Mormonism — these advanced doctrines, and then the temple, because Mormons insist on saying it’s sacred, not secret — but it is secret. Mormons do not talk about what goes on in the temple outside the temple, even to each other. Inside the temple they will talk about it, but not outside. There will be glancing allusions, but never a full-fledged description.
The way I put it comes out of a conference we held when the Manhattan Temple was dedicated in 2004. We wanted to have a scholarly conference to mark that occasion, so we got Jonathan Z. Smith, a very distinguished scholar of ancient religion, and others to come, and we talked about it. Smith talked about how we call this a sacred space. How do you define a sacred space?
That’s a very interesting question: how do you create a sacred space? The theme of the conference was, how do you do it in the modern city, where there are all sorts of groups? Just like time is set aside on the Sabbath devoted to God, can you have space set aside that’s devoted to God? Mormons have become very good at that. Before you can go to the temple, you can’t simply be a member of the church. You have to see your bishop. Every two years you have to talk with your bishop who will ask you a set of questions. Are you committing adultery? Are you honest in your dealings with people? Do you believe in God and Christ? And so on down the list. It’s a worthiness interview, and you have to have a recommend to get past the front door of the temple. Once you get past that door, you immediately go to a changing room where you shed your outer clothes and put on special white clothing. In the temple you speak in whispers. You don’t speak aloud. And then outside the temple you don’t talk about it at all. Some people think of this as secretive in the sense of hiding things. But for Mormons, it’s all part of the process of creating a sacred space. When you walk in there, life is different. You just feel things are on a different plane.
When you come out, it’s not usually an overwhelming vision you have experienced, but you feel elevated. It becomes very important for Mormons to go into that space, just like practicing the Sabbath, keeping it holy, has an exalting effect on human life. So that’s the way I look at the temple ceremonies.
Mormons know you can go online, get every last word of the temple ceremony. It’s all there. So it’s not like it’s hidden from the world. Anybody can get it. But among us, we don’t talk about it that way. It means something to us. It means a lot.
MS. KORNBLUT: Can children go to the temple, or is it something that happens past a certain age?
DR. BUSHMAN: They can go into the temple for certain purposes, for example, to be sealed to their parents for time and eternity. Those 12 years old and above can go to be baptized for the dead, but not through all of the temple ordinances. There you have to be older — 18 or older.
STEVE WALDMAN, Beliefnet: When our website Beliefnet started, literally the first week, one of the first dilemmas that came up was, OK, we’re doing the navigation for the site, do we put Mormonism under Christianity? And we called up an evangelical scholar, and he said, no, of course not. And we called up a Mormon scholar who said, yes, of course. A tie goes to the faith itself, so we put Mormonism under Christianity. But I wondered if you could talk a little from a historical point of view about whether there has been any evolution in Mormonism’s self-identification as Christian over the years. Is it the same as it always was? Is there any shift in that?
I also have a practical question related to that. We’ve talked about the belief in the Bible — Old Testament and New Testament — and the Book of Mormon. Could you give us a little bit of a sense of weight? In a Mormon upbringing, is the Book of Mormon really the heart of it, or is the New Testament the heart of it and the Book of Mormon an elaboration? Could you give us some sense of how Christian the identity is for Mormons growing up?
DR. BUSHMAN: I think Mormons have always thought of themselves as Christian — as more Christian than the Christians themselves. That’s what Christian reform groups do — they say, we are the true Christianity. It’s become more crucial to Mormons to insist on that identity since all these other groups have tried to exclude us from the Christian circle. There is almost an overemphasis on saying, we are Christian. The fact is, we know we’re Christians, why can’t that satisfy us?
I wouldn’t say there’s been any significant evolution. The Bible has always been accepted. Mormon missionaries have always taught from the Bible more than they have the Book of Mormon because that’s the lingua franca of Christians.
In terms of weighting, if you ask a Mormon, the first answer they would give you is they’re all equal. In fact, we probably give the Old Testament more credit than most Christians do. We don’t give priority to the New Testament particularly. The Book of Mormon went through a period when it was not very commonly used in church teaching materials. The Bible was primary. This was during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. But I think using this was primarily a matter of maintaining communication with the larger Christian world. Mormons have always been confident that everything we believe can be found in the Bible, at least in embryo.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the Book of Mormon has come back. In general, I would say that now Mormons are probably more likely to cite the Book of Mormon because it’s simpler and plainer. Biblical texts get complicated; they seem to come out of a more remote culture. On the whole, I would say the Book of Mormon is our preeminent book in terms of usage, but theoretically they’re all equal. They’re all considered the word of God. There is this qualification, of course: They are equal as far as the Bible is translated correctly. There is a feeling that the Bible lost some of its potency in the process of transmission down through the generations.
MR. DIONNE: Correct me if I’m wrong. It’s my impression that the logo of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed to make the words “Jesus Christ” much bigger than they used to be.
DR. BUSHMAN: Right.
MR. DIONNE: I also visited the Mormon historical sites a number of times, and the film explaining Mormonism also has seemed to me to go through significant revision in the sense that Jesus’s role has increased substantially. Is that also true, and if so, what is the significance of that?
DR. BUSHMAN: It’s really not much more than I said. This is our defense against the accusation we’re not Christians. We don’t want to leave any doubt about that, so the emphasis.
FRANKLIN FOER, The New Republic: I just checked online. AskMormon.com is available, and I think you could make a fortune charging people 25 cents to answer their questions. We seem to be in the middle of a kind of Mormon moment, I guess you could say, with “Big Love“, the Romney campaign, some other example that I’m sure supports my proclamation of a journalistic trend. And Key West panels. You’ve been asking us for our impressions of Mormonism. At this moment, I want to turn the question to you and ask your impression of this moment in the Romney campaign and whether within the Mormon community there’s some sense of anxiety over this moment, or whether people are grateful for this opportunity to explain their faith to the mainstream and view this as an opportunity to break past a lot of the old clichés and stereotypes?
DR. BUSHMAN: Everything you said is true. I’ve realized that a lot of —
MR. CROMARTIE: Which is also the case with Frank, by the way — almost everything he says is true.
MR. FOER: Who is the real prophet sitting here among us?
DR. BUSHMAN: I don’t think it was Michael Paulson, but someone from The Boston Globe was writing a story about how the Mormon Church is going to be affected by the Romney campaign. Exactly the question you asked. I thought it was a good question. My own feeling is it’s very good to air all of the inner feelings. Sally’s question was very interesting to me. You’ve been really influenced by Martha Beck. This image of the church as secretly ominous and oppressive is common. I think those things need to get out in the open. Mormons need to hear it, and the people who voice those questions need to talk to Mormons about it. As long as we’re all polite to one another, there isn’t going to be true understanding.
What I’m hoping is that the discrepancy you sensed between Martha Beck’s Mormonism and Mitt Romney’s – the question, can he really be a Mormon if Martha Beck’s is the true Mormon? — will be continually thrust upon people. They will have to ask, can it really be that fairly sensible, pleasant, educated people believe all these crazy things and are part of this nutty religion? I hope that discrepancy will become more and more clear and will lead to a realization that all of these things can become sensible. That is, if you live by them, after a while they work for you in making your life better and bringing you closer to God, and this is a legitimate form of religious expression despite the seemingly fantastic nature of the faith. I’m hoping that this juxtaposition will lead to that realization.
MR. FOER: As someone that Michael Cromartie recognizes as a prophet —
— I think it wouldn’t be self-serving of me, therefore, to point something out. John Wilson mentioned the Damon Linker story that we ran in The New Republic. We also had an excellent exchange between Damon Linker and Professor Bushman that went on for several days online and was quite a slugfest.
MR. CROMARTIE: Can we get that online still at TheNewRepublic.com?
MR. FOER: Yes.
MR. CROMARTIE: Does it cost anything?
MR. FOER: No.
But if you want to pay —
MR. CROMARTIE: Feel free.
JOHN FUND, The Wall Street Journal: I very much appreciate your comment about looking at it from other perspectives. Almost every religion can be seen to have talked about miracles or have incongruities in its doctrine. I agree with you that this discussion is very important to have now because here we are, eight months before the first presidential primaries, and I think everyone has remarked how this presidential campaign seems to be on super-accelerated speed.
I just was picking up the wires today. The largest newspaper in South Carolina has an article about a wave of anti-Mormon literature that’s being dropped into Republican households in anticipation of the debate this week. The headline is, “Mormons: A Dangerous Religion.” It’s anonymous. There’s no author. “Mormons in Contemporary American Society: A Politically Dangerous Religion.” And this morning, every talk show host in the country apparently got this eight-page email from a former Mormon talking about whether Mitt Romney can serve two masters. I think one of the points this woman makes is really what I wanted to ask you, because it’s the one that political reporters are going to ask you the most frequently. “Do you know that if Mitt Romney does not follow what the prophet of the Mormon Church tells him to do, that he is an apostate and could lose his place in the Mormon afterlife?” I know you mentioned all of the doctrines at the time of Reed Smoot’s debate about how politicians who are members of the church should not follow the dictates of the prophet. I guess my question is, is there any ancient historical basis for a statement like this?
In other words, if somebody were to look at Mormon doctrine in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, before the Reed Smoot debate, is there some basis for this statement? And even if it’s not part of the official church doctrine, do some Mormons believe that if you publicly state that you’re not going to follow the dictates of the church leadership that you’re somehow an apostate and would lose your place in the Mormon afterlife?
The basis for this question is this: outside consultants have always told Mitt Romney that at some point he’s going to have to make the John F. Kennedy speech, where in Houston, Texas, he said, I’m not going to be bound by the pope. There’s this undercurrent, which I think really has to be addressed, asking, can Mitt Romney remain as faithful a Mormon in the eyes of his co-religionists as he wishes to be should he make the John F. Kennedy speech, or something similar to it? Or would a large portion of the Mormon Church view him as less than a full Mormon if he were to make that declaration?
DR. BUSHMAN: I think it depends a lot on how you state it. I don’t think in any case he’d be shunned or lose his place in the afterlife. I don’t think that is an issue. But would he lose his standing and respect if he came out and said explicitly, I am not going to follow the prophet? It would be like Kennedy saying, I’m not going to obey the Pope. What he can say is, I’m going to have to follow my own conscience, come what may. And that statement would be perfectly acceptable, because every Mormon believes the same thing. You have to follow your own conscience above all. Can you sense that distinction, or is that not clear to you?
MR. FUND: Could you elaborate on that just a little bit? It’s a distinction that a lot of people won’t want to understand, and some people refuse to understand it, and some people are just going to have to have it repeated over and over.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah. I don’t know who of you can help me on this — how can I use different words?
MR. FUND: Well, what John F. Kennedy said in Houston was, I’m a practicing Catholic. I believe in my faith, but there is no reason that I’m going to follow the dictates or the commandments of the church in my public life or in my actions as president. They are not going to be dictated or overly influenced by the fact that I am a practicing, faithful Catholic.
DR. BUSHMAN: Mitt Romney could easily make that statement. The church has made that statement – that politicians are not required to comply.
MR. FUND: Did the Mormon Church say something different before Reed Smoot? Before 1903? Is there any factual basis for the claims of these former Mormons?
DR. BUSHMAN: It was not an issue in the 19th century because no Mormons were involved in politics.
MR. FUND: Well, there were territorial governors. Clearly there was a political leadership in the territory.
DR. BUSHMAN: They were all imposed by the United States government. There was no right to elect them. There was an immense loyalty to Brigham Young, and people went along with his policies. He had theocratic authority, but it never came down to that issue. There was nothing that brought that issue to a head, so I would say that actually, there’s nothing in Mormon history to sustain that belief – nothing I can think of right now.
CLAIRE BRINBERG, CNN: Hasn’t Romney been kind of making the Kennedy comparison for all of his public life? I mean, when he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, he cited the “I don’t speak for my church and my church doesn’t speak for me” line, so I don’t know why he would not be willing to do it now. But do you think that he might be forced to make a Kennedy speech, even though he’s been laying that groundwork for decades?
DR. BUSHMAN: I think the problem is whether he can find an occasion where he can deliver that speech for the very reason that he has been saying it for decades. You need to find a moment when the issue is posed in such a way that an answer is required and then he comes forward with it. It may sound just like the same old thing, because what more can he say than he’s already said? He needs some way to drive the point home.
MR. WOODWARD: This thing that John’s just read, it seems to me, has a basis in fact. And this is one reason why some clarification is going to have to be made. My understanding is that if a revelation or a very serious teaching comes along, I’m to confirm it with my own personal experience. But if I won’t, or just simply can’t do it, or if I don’t buy it, as long as I keep quiet, that’s fine. But I cause scandal to the church and to other Mormons if I speak publicly.
I suspect — correct me if I’m wrong, I’m not the Mormon in this room — but it seems to me that’s what this pamphlet is about. It’s using that to tar or handicap Mr. Romney in a different setting, and it seems to me it’s that kind of thing that requires him to speak out and clarify these things.
DR. BUSHMAN: There have been lots of people who have spoken out, Gene England, whom you know, being one of them. Occasionally he was talked to by this person or that person, asking what he was up to, but he was never forced out of the church.
MR. WOODWARD: My understanding is that you can be. As long as that’s there, you’re going to get people like this saying, uh huh, you see?
DR. BUSHMAN: I don’t think you can be. You can be if you oppose the doctrine of the church in the sense of teaching directly against it. But especially on political issues, I don’t think you could find any precedent of that happening.
MR. WOODWARD: Well, I agree, they’re applying a possible sanction in one sphere to another sphere to criticize Romney, it seems to me. In other words, what you’re saying is right. It wouldn’t apply to a political statement, but it does apply to some kinds of things that are publicly opposed by a teacher, say, at BYU or something like that. Some of the feminists have gone through this. I think since it’s possible in that sphere, they might drip on Romney unfairly.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah.
PAUL FARHI, The Washington Post: I want to come back to a question you raised right at the beginning, which is, why does this prejudice continue? Mitt Romney’s father ran for president. I was a little kid at the time. I don’t really remember, mainly because I wasn’t terribly engaged, but I don’t remember the same level of concern, invective, or prejudice that we seem to see now against a Mormon candidate. Have we devolved? Have we gone retrograde?
DR. BUSHMAN: I think his father was protected by the 1960 campaign. We learned our lesson then. If George Romney was in the shadow of Kennedy, Mitt Romney is in the shadow of the Christian right, where there’s been all that intervention, so we’re hyper-sensitive to religious involvement.
MR. FARHI: That sounds like a yes.
DR. BUSHMAN: That what, things have changed?
MR. FARHI: Well, that we’ve somehow devolved in our political culture to where this kind of suspicion is a little more acceptable.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah. If your aim is a society where everybody can participate on an equal basis, no matter what their personal belief, then yes, we have devolved.
DAN HARRIS, ABC News: I have two separate questions. First, there’s all this talk about the distrust among evangelicals toward Mormonism. If you were working for the Romney campaign, what would you tell him to say to these people? There’s this argument made by political experts that he’s going to need them in order to win the primary or the general. How can he bridge the gap?
Also, you talked a lot in your opening remarks about how quickly the religion went from radical to conservative. I wonder how Mormons today look back at their past and reconcile some of the differences. Do they look back and say, wow, there were some excesses? Or is there something they say to themselves about their past that helps them bridge that gap internally?
DR. BUSHMAN: Your first question, I think, applies to Mormon doctrine rather than to the social issues, where he’s got this problem. There, I think the answer is emphasis on the positive. I mean, he is a believer in Jesus Christ. He’s trying to live a Christian life, and I think going into details about Phil’s description of the doctrines and trying to defend them is just going to get him into trouble. I think he’s got to emphasize what he truly is, and I think he’s actually doing a pretty good job of that, or all he can do. It may not be enough. I’m doubtful it’ll be enough. But I don’t think there’s anything else he can do — he’s just going to get in more trouble than not.
On the radical versus conservative question, Mormons actually love their radical roots. It’s like all these neo-cons that once were Marxist.
I think there is a feeling that somehow religion was more intense then. We were willing to give all, consecrate all of our property to the church. We were willing to give up respectability by practicing plural marriage. The plural marriage is sort of covered up by the church because it’s a public relations disaster, but in terms of Mormons themselves, they’re willing to honor those people as having done a lot.
So it’s sort of our glorious flaming youth when we did many daring things. And I think for intellectuals, it’s a cultural resource that can be drawn on in times of need. That is, there may come a time when we will need to become radical again for some reason to change the social order in some respect, to head back towards equality. I don’t think we’ll go back to polygamy, but I think we might go back to a kind of a social radicalism in time. That’s the way I think of culture, as a mine of possibilities that you can draw upon from time to time. That’s why I don’t like to repudiate anything, even if it’s unpopular or ungainly at a certain moment in time.
Mormons don’t have much trouble with that past, believe it or not.
ALAN COOPERMAN, The Washington Post: I’m reminded of a moment in 1996 when the mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov, was considering a run for the Russian presidency and had been touted by none other than Boris Yeltsin himself as a possible successor. And in the end, Nemtsov did not run, and he was asked why he did not run. His answer was that his mother told him not to run because he’s Jewish. She said that if he ran and won, it would be a disaster for the Jews.
This conversation makes me feel that as Mitt Romney runs for the presidency, Americans are going to learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and at least initially as they learn more about the church, their feelings toward the church are going to harden. It strikes me that it’s unlikely that Romney will get us over that hump. I think that there’s a certain point at which that would change, once Americans really understood Mormons, knew Mormons, et cetera, they might not feel such hard feelings toward the church. But it strikes me as unlikely that the campaign will get us over that hump. I wonder whether you agree, and whether you worry that in that sense, this campaign will be a disaster, in fact, for Mormons.
And, if I might just add, what could get us over the hump? Would it actually be knowing more about the church, or knowing individual Mormons and seeing how they live their lives in real ways?
DR. BUSHMAN: We had a previous conversation where you broached this theory, which I found very intriguing. And so at lunch today I mentioned this to the people at the table, and their question was, where is Alan on that curve?
MR. COOPERMAN: I can tell you. As a little bit of a follow up, I appreciated, found both disarming and charming, the way in which you spoke about revelation in the church in answer to the question of whether it was convenient. You said to think of it as astute, et cetera. And I note that the leaders of the church, I think it was President Hinckley not long ago, who, when asked about polygamy, said something similar. He said it came by revelation and it went away by revelation.
I’m tempted to make some of this off the record, but I guess I won’t — I just won’t go into gory detail. My own experience is that one of my very closest friends going back many, many years is a “jack Mormon” — that is, in Mormon parlance, a not good Mormon — but comes from a very good Mormon family, and through him I’ve known Mormonism in a familial setting. I’ve sat with his family many, many times. I have the sense that many Mormons, like many Jews and many Christians, pay a certain amount of heed to the doctrines and miracles and the Scriptures of the church, but they really live in a community. And what the church really is to them is a very, very vibrant community. I have seen through my friend’s family the way that that community works in real people’s lives. I believe, as a kind of amateur scholar of religion, that this is what religion does in general, and what attracts people to religion is the way it works in practical ways. It creates community and helps people get through both emotional and real physical needs.
So that’s where I am on the curve. I believe there’s a great deal I have to learn about Mormonism and Mormon doctrine. I know very little about temple rituals, but I think I’ve had enough personal experience with Mormons that I don’t find — I believe many Mormons take their faith seriously on the one hand, but — you know, because someone is Christian and proclaims themselves Christian, do you assume that that person believes without exception every single thing that his or her church teaches and would abide by anything that the leaders of that church state? I don’t think that’s true of Christians, and I don’t think it’s true of Mormons.
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, I couldn’t have given a better answer myself. I would just add that this sense of a whole life pattern, being part of a community and part of a pathway is integrated with the doctrine. Part of what draws Mormons together is that they have this common set of stories and understandings that they’re able to refer to — just the allusion and people know what it means — plus the rituals of the temple and the rituals of the baptism and laying on of hands and ordination. But that life pattern really ends up being self-enforcing, and people who join the church who never get into that pattern may defect. They may disappear. If you want to get into the pattern, if you get a real taste of Mormonism, it becomes quite compelling.
MR. COOPERMAN: But if I could, you didn’t answer my question about how much of a disaster this campaign might be for the church
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, it’s related to my answers to Sally Quinn’s earlier question. If it compels people to think not just about these stories, these horror stories they hear about Mormonism, but to compare them to Mormons they know, then they will begin to realize that Mormonism is something different than is depicted in those extreme examples that seem to be typical but are not. It is a life. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it except to know a lot of Mormon people and how they live their lives.
MS. HAGERTY: I have a comment which I’d love you to respond to, and then I actually have a question. The interesting thing that I’ve realized sitting here is that with virtually every other presidential candidate that I can think of since I’ve been aware of presidential candidates, I actually knew where they stood on issues. Often you can get that from how they approach their own faith. You have a more liberal Christian like Hillary Clinton, and you kind of know where she’s going to stand on issues like abortion or on same-sex marriage or things like that. You know where George Bush is going to stand, or where an evangelical will stand. Or a Lieberman — you knew where he stood on things, and for all of them it derived from their personal interpretation of their faith. I think what’s really perplexing for me, and it might be perplexing for Americans, is that with this whole sense of personal revelation, I’m not sure I would be able to predict where Mitt Romney would stand on what — on the issues that are really, really important to certain segments of the population, like same-sex marriage or abortion — things like that.
That’s my comment, and I’d love you to talk about whether there’s a roadmap of how we can predict what he believes according to Mormon doctrine.
The other thing I wonder is about Christians as his natural constituency. As we can see, a lot of conservative Christians don’t support him. What is his second natural constituency? I mean, how can he possibly — how can he possibly have a chance? Is it blacks? Is it Jews? Is it liberal Christians?
MR. CROMARTIE: Probably not blacks.
MS. HAGERTY: Yeah. No, I mean, if he can’t win the conservative Christian vote on the moral issues, because that’s where he’s got an appeal, who can he appeal to?
DR. BUSHMAN: Those are good questions. There’s a kind of irony here. What you’re saying is it would be more reassuring if there was a tight linkage between what the church taught and what Romney —
MS. HAGERTY: At least we’d know.
DR. BUSHMAN: At least you would know. You might disagree — even though most people don’t want that kind of dictation coming out of the church. I think you’re right in saying that there are Mormons who are split on all those issues. But isn’t that true for Catholics, too? Don’t they have differing views on stem cell research and —
MS. HAGERTY: Yes, but when someone becomes a candidate, generally you know which side of the line they stand on, and we don’t —
DR. BUSHMAN: — with him. Well, that’s his big problem. He’s changed his stand, and I feel badly about that. But it’s true; you’re going to have to take him for what he says rather than what his religion says he should be. I don’t know any other way to get around that.
In terms of his natural allies, ideologically, I don’t think there’s a group that’s going to be closer than the conservative Christians, on the social issues, anyway. I think his appeal will be on the basis of competence. He’s been very effective in virtually everything he’s done. There’s a kind of a technocratic voter, let’s say, who just wants efficiency — someone who can run a tight ship and make it work. Personally, I think he’s winning as a personality. People who talk to him like him, and they have confidence in him. He exudes enthusiasm and hope and intelligence, and I think that’s going to reach a large number of voters. Not everyone is divided into religious ideological camps, and he may get that group.
MR. CROMARTIE: So, who would be his other natural allies, his natural constituency, if it’s not religious conservatives? Would it be MBAs? Or —
DR. BUSHMAN: Investment bankers.
UNIDENTIFIED: Venture capitalists.
UNIDENTIFIED: Economic conservatives.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah, small businessmen who admire a man who —
UNIDENTIFIED: Hair dressers.
DR. BUSHMAN: Dentists.
UNIDENTIFIED: No, Edwards has that locked up.
CATHLEEN FALSANI, Chicago Sun-Times: In answer to your question about how we’re seeing this, I found myself in a rather peculiar position about six weeks ago. As a columnist, I was asked by my editor in chief to write a column about Romney. I don’t usually sally into the political forum in my weekly column about religion and pop culture, but I did. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I did a lot of reading. I didn’t know much about him apart from the fact that he had great hair and he was really handsome and he was Mormon.
I ended up writing a column as an evangelical defending Romney, saying that his faith, or at least the label that he applies to it, wouldn’t give me a moment’s pause. His politics would, but not his faith. And that’s coming from someone who was raised as a Southern Baptist, who read The Kingdom of the Cults, who was taught that Mormons were members of a cult, and not only that, they were dangerous. They were our competition going door to door.
So that had something to do with it.
I’d like to think that this moment in our history in public discourse can be a learning moment, not just about what the LDS Church is and what it believes, but a learning moment about identity and faith and beliefs and that it doesn’t really matter what the label is, you’ve got to ask the person — the man, the woman — what he or she really believes. And beyond that, what it means for how they live their lives and the decisions they make, learning that these are individual decisions and that’s what we should be focusing on.
There’s no more reason to believe that Mitt Romney as a Mormon would do something x, y or z that we could set out before us and predict, than if he were a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran or a Buddhist. I think we just need to learn that lesson, that if we don’t know, we need to ask better questions. If there’s something we’d like to know about his faith and how it might affect a decision he could make or could not make in the future, we should ask him that explicitly and not make assumptions.
One last thing. Somebody said earlier that there was a PC exemption for Mormons. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the public conversation about religion has just changed, and we’re saying things out loud that we might have whispered to each other five, six, seven years ago. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s just the Mormons’ turn in the spotlight, but it’s no more scrutiny than evangelicals or Scientologists get, or — the Dalai Lama was just in Chicago — Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists. So, that’s my two cents.
One last thing. I do think the reason Mormons are an easy target is because of the Ned Flanders factor, the dork factor. They’re clean living, they don’t swear and they’re sort of an easy target to take a tweak at.
DR. BUSHMAN: Just absolutely disgusting.
MS. FALSANI: Yeah, I know. How annoying. Hidely-ho.
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, as you can imagine, I like your statement very much. Let me ask you a question — maybe the whole group. Could you possibly make the case that the hierarchical churches, Mormonism and Catholicism, are less of a threat to politics than congregational churches on the Christian right? I mean, the Southern Baptists don’t have a hierarchy. It’s all congregational. But in some ways, they seem to be affecting politics and the politics of their candidates and public officers more than the Roman Catholics and the Mormons. It’s very hard to find Mormonism in Harry Reid‘s policy. He just is a public servant.
Could it be true that the hierarchical churches — maybe as part of a bending over backwards phenomenon — are less threatening to politics than these Christian right congregational groups?
MS. FALSANI: Well, I don’t think so. I think they’re equally threatening and non-threatening, no matter what your religious beliefs are. I was raised Southern Baptist. If you were to try to peg me into anything that remotely looked like what that should be today, I wouldn’t fit at all. Certainly the way I was raised stayed with me, but I don’t know. I mean, is it because they’re sort of freelance Christians, they’re sort of all over the map, you don’t know where they’re going to pop up and what their policy’s going to be? I think you can say the same thing, as I was saying before, about Mormons or Catholics or any group. You know, just because it’s written down and codified doesn’t mean that they check off everything on the list.
DAN GILGOFF, U.S. News & World Report: I’ve got a couple of quick questions. You talked a little bit about the historic sense that Mormons had of a civic idealism, the extent to which Mitt Romney might articulate that and the risk he might face in overly identifying as a Mormon or using a distinctly Mormon lexicon that wouldn’t resonate, perhaps, beyond that community.
I’m wondering, are there any glimmers so far that you’ve witnessed with him, either as a declared candidate for president or perhaps in his campaign for one term as the governor of Massachusetts, in which he has articulated even glimmers, perhaps, of a Mormon lexicon that is anything near what George Bush might have done in terms of employing an evangelical lexicon? Have you seen any flash of that, or has that just been completely absent?
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, we really ought to ask Michael Paulson, who’s been hot on his heels for a number of years. I would like to hear an answer to that question, but let me ask you your response to my suggestion that Mormons — that Americans do hunger for an idealistic statement on the nation’s purpose and destiny. Is that true?
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah. And would finding a language be a great advantage for a politician and perhaps for the nation to pull us together into some kind of idealism?
ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE, The Economist: We’ve got realpolitik now, no more of this idealism.
DR. BUSHMAN: Well, OK, so you’re saying Bush sort of scotched idealism for a while.
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, you know, we could have a big sharing time —
DR. BUSHMAN: You’re really an agenda man, Michael, I can see that.
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, that’s why I’m here.
MR. GILGOFF: My other question is this: over the last few decades, the last three decades, say, with the rise of the Christian right, that movement has shown an increasing openness to building bridges of what might be termed co-belligerence, whether it be with the Catholic Church, replacing hostilities with real friendships there; the black Protestant churches, which many evangelical churches were at odds with during the civil rights movement; or other traditions. I’m wondering if there’s been, during that same time, any lessening of the evangelical opposition to making common cause with Mormons on political issues, given that there have been these total turnabouts in relations with the Catholic community, black Protestant community and others, including the Jewish community.
MR. CROMARTIE: By the way, mention the name of your book, Dan, that’s on some of this, just for the record. Dan’s got a new book out on this.
MR. GILGOFF: The book is called The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War, just published by St. Martin’s. Thank you very much for the platform. I appreciate it.
MR. CROMARTIE: Glad to.
DR. BUSHMAN: Mormons have been involved in discussions with evangelicals with real progress, I think, in mutual understanding, largely through Richard Mouw at Fuller Theological Seminary. Mouw gave a famous talk, many of you may know about it, in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, in which he apologized on behalf of evangelicals for their verbal abuse of Mormons and in return for which he was assaulted with thousands of e-mails criticizing him for having given away the store. I think that represents the reality. On the level of educated thinkers on both sides, there is a compatibility. It’s very much like the Catholic-evangelical conversations that are going on now. They are not nothing. But down at the grassroots level, as John Fund pointed out, there’s this anti-Mormon literature and great condemnation of Mormons. So it’s going to be quite a time before the two cultures as a whole — or two societies as a whole — are compatible.
MR. CROMARTIE: I’ll be curious to find out who is spreading the literature, and I’m sure John Fund will find out for us in South Carolina. I mean, is it the John McCain campaign, is it the Rudy Giuliani campaign?
DR. BUSHMAN: I don’t think you even need a political motivation. I mean, you don’t need a politician. There’s just plenty of that animus among the people in the South.
STEVE DRUMMOND, NPR: I don’t understand the geography of the church outside Utah, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.
DR. BUSHMAN: This goes back to Philip Jenkins’ presentation. More than half of all Mormons live outside the United States. In Africa, along with everybody else, Mormons have reaped converts, and very heavily in Latin America and the Philippines, and then spotted here and there — slow in Europe. Within the United States, the heartland is Southern Idaho, Utah and Arizona, with California as a powerful colony — the whole West Coast really is a powerful colony — and then sprinkled everywhere. Manhattan has 14 Mormon congregations in it now, and Brooklyn and Queens have an equal number.
In the South, there is a strong Mormon tradition that goes way back, despite the opposition coming from the South. I would say there would be as many Mormons in South Carolina as in Iowa. It would be pretty evenly distributed. They tend to focus around schools, because Mormons get into education, and around business centers where technicians of any kind are needed — there are a lot of Mormons in that. Then there are conversions and they spread out from that point.
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: Can I say a word in favor of suspicion and paranoia?
We’ve talked a lot about convictions and what Romney believes, but what is equally, I think, important is connections — the sort of people he’s going to bring into an administration. Do we know what proportion of his entourage, the people who are close to him, are Mormons? Do we know what proportion of his funding is coming from Mormon sources? And in parentheses — this is all something that puzzled me — is it really the case, as I’ve been told by several people, that Mormons are hugely overrepresented in the CIA?
DR. BUSHMAN: Why is that relevant?
MR. WOOLDRIDGE: It’s not, really — it’s part of the paranoia.
DR. BUSHMAN: I think Romney raised more money in Utah than in any other state. So there are going to be a lot of Mormons behind him. I don’t know about his staff. I know it’s not strictly Mormons. I know there are a lot of non-Mormons. Do you know, Anne?
MS. KORNBLUT: From what I know so far — and you guys can all correct me if I’m wrong — lots of them are businesspeople. His staff in Boston, especially, has been venture capitalists. I know Jewish advisers to him on the foreign policy in particular; he’s had a connection to some of the neo-cons. I have not seen, at least on policy and politics —
MR. CROMARTIE: That would be a great story idea, if I might just say that in a roomful of journalists.
MS. KORNBLUT: I will say there are pockets. A former senior adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in Washington, Bob Stevenson, is a Mormon, and he has been helping Romney corral some of the Mormon support, but I haven’t seen it. Has anyone else seen something different?
MR. ALLEN: Yeah, in fact, there is no visible member of the senior staff who is Mormon. John says his finance chair is. But the point is it’s rare.
UNIDENTIFIED: There is no Mormon mafia. That’s the —
MICHAEL PAULSON, The Boston Globe: In Massachusetts, he had a gay member of his cabinet. His chief of staff was a woman. There were no Mormons in the administration.
MR. CROMARTIE: Yeah, I want you to address that when we come back to you, Michael, in a moment here. Clare is next.
UNIDENTIFIED: What about the CIA?
DR. BUSHMAN: It’s a rumor that’s spread around. I don’t know of any count. Lots of Mormons know a language because they’ve been in a foreign country on a mission. They tend to be good Scouts. They tend to keep their noses clean. So I don’t see anything incompatible with the CIA.
MS. BRINBERG: I’ll save my comment about suspicion and paranoia for a little bit later because I do have two questions that I would like to ask.
We’ve seen in some evangelical churches and some black congregations vague kinds of get-out-the-vote messages close to an election. There are voter scorecards, there are candidates coming in — is that something that you would see in a Mormon congregation?
My second question is — I don’t want to phrase it — is America ready for a Mormon president, because that implies everybody will grow into it eventually and it’s OK that we’re not right now. But if you look at polls, you had an ABC poll that said 36 percent of the country would not be comfortable voting for a Mormon for president. When you attach a name and a face to that Mormon, maybe you’ll have a different number, but when you see that kind of a number, do you think it’s possible for a Mormon to be elected right now?
DR. BUSHMAN: In answer to the first question, no. It’s forbidden by the church for any candidate to use the church or church congregations for any political purposes. You cannot make political announcements from the pulpit or anything of that sort. You can’t get access to mailing lists for Mormons. That’s part of this anti-theocratic thing. It goes way, way, way back.
In terms of whether he can win, of course that’s the question that everybody is asking right now, and I think it’s going to depend heavenly — heavily —
— whew, was that a slip or not? I think it’s going to depend heavily on his personality and character. Can he sell himself and his views? He’s a very winning person. I think he’s going to win over a lot of wavering middle people, including some like Cathleen’s evangelical friends who will say, look, this is a godly man; he’s a faithful family man; he believes in good values; why not? Then there is going to be the suspicion factor from many others that will simply exclude him.
MR. CROMARTIE: Fifteen evangelical leaders went up to Boston about four or five months ago and met with Governor Romney, and they came away very, very impressed. They pressed him on doctrinal questions, but they still came away quite impressed.
MR. WILSON: I want to follow up on Dan’s question. I would say that whatever happens with Romney in this election, I think there has been a profound change in just one generation in how evangelicals relate to Mormons and vice versa. I think the change has been from both directions, and I think what you said was a little too pessimistic. On the one hand, yes, there are these conversations that we’ve both participated in, but you were saying that’s at the level of professors who are getting together with other professors and talking, and it’s quite different still at the grassroots. And I would say there has been a lot of change at the grassroots.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still many evangelicals like the ones Sally spent an evening with recently who feel extremely strongly about the danger posed by Mormonism. But when Cathleen wrote that column several weeks ago, I wrote her about it because it resonated so much with my own experience, and I thought back to what a huge change there had been since I first was exposed to books like The Kingdom of the Cults and we had speakers come and talk about how terrible Mormonism was. The climate is very different now. At the same time, you will encounter many Mormons today who have been strongly influenced by evangelical writers such as Philip Yancey and a number of others. You talk to them and they sound more evangelical than somebody in your own church. The language they use, the way they speak about Christ — the idioms that they use are familiar evangelical idioms. There is change taking place from both directions. I think that’s just going to continue, regardless of what happens in the Romney campaign.
MR. PAULSON: Frank said we seem to be in this Mormon moment in the popular culture, and I wonder if there is anything parallel going on in the academy. What is your sense? You’re in the relatively rare perch of being a Mormon historian at an Ivy League university. I wonder, what is the state of Mormon studies in the American academy, and what are the live questions that people ought to be looking at?
DR. BUSHMAN: There are two universities — a strange pair: Claremont Graduate University and the University of Wyoming — that are actively raising money for a chair in Mormon studies. Not to mention Utah State University. There have been a number of conferences on Mormonism — two of them at Yale within the last couple of years, one with the Library of Congress, others in various places — where Mormonism was discussed within an academic setting. I gave a paper on the Book of Mormon to the Intellectual History Seminar in the Charles Warren Center at Harvard with a huge group present to discuss seriously the place of the Book of Mormon in American literature.
I think it’s on the radar screen after being off it for a while. It’s being treated gingerly by people not knowing whether or not to take it seriously but still recognizing that it’s unavoidable. I mean, you’ve got Romney — I ask myself, why in the world did this ever come about that a Harvard seminar on the Book of Mormon would attract all these people? But there was Kim Clark, who was the dean of the Harvard Business School; there was Mitt Romney; and now university professor Laurel Ulrich, who is running the seminar, a Mormon herself. Mormonism not only grows in numbers and spreads, but there are more Harry Reids and Gordon Smiths around. You can’t disregard it. It’s forced on your attention. That affects the academy as well as political reportage.
So my guess is that we’ll see a huge number of books that are an introduction to Mormonism. Presses all over the place are trying to find something because they sense there is a market there. I’m writing one myself as a matter of fact.
MR. CROMARTIE: What’s the tentative title?
DR. BUSHMAN: Do any of you know the Oxford series “Very Short Introduction?” It’s a terrific series on Hegel, quantum mechanics — perfect. So I’m doing one for that series.
MR. CROMARTIE: The publisher is Oxford?
DR. BUSHMAN: Oxford University Press, yes.
MR. CROMARTIE: We mean to promote books here.
DR. BUSHMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I just think it will be an irresistible subject.
MR. PAULSON: As I think about where to look for experts as we write about this issue over the next year and a half, what kind of academic freedom and objectivity should we expect to find at BYU?
DR. BUSHMAN: More than you think. The restrictions at BYU are for getting public speakers who lecture and may say something that will embarrass the church. There is hypersensitivity to that; it’s amazing, and I think wrong. But to get someone out there who will speak very candidly about Mormonism, that’s no problem at all. If you went to the political science department or English department, you’d find a lot of very smart people who think about these things and could give you good answers to questions.
MR. HARTMAN: When he was in high school, my son had an enormous crush on a beautiful young girl who occasionally used to come to our house wearing a t-shirt that said, “I can’t, I’m Mormon,” and I found that really a comforting thing.
It made me just naturally positively inclined toward the whole thing.
You know, in every faith tradition, people exist along a continuum from incredibly devout, observant and knowledgeable about the teachings to the other end of the spectrum, where people have a vague identification of themselves as Jewish or Christian or possibly Mormon — that’s what I want to ask about — but they really don’t know much about the doctrine. It’s an identity more than it’s a belief.
Part of what we’ve heard today is that a lot of people think one of the things that’s very attractive about Mormon communities is their sense of family and community and mutual support. I wonder if it’s possible for you to estimate or quantify what that range looks like in America. In other words, what percentage of people might you consider cultural Mormons as opposed to the number who are truly devout and observant and knowledgeable and really conversant about all of the doctrines, even the secret ones.
DR. BUSHMAN: One numerical measure of that is the percentage of people who tithe their income — who give 10 percent of their income to the church. That’s some measure of commitment. That’s probably around 25 percent of the stated membership. The stated membership includes everyone who was ever a Mormon of any kind — born into the church or converted to the church — even if they’ve long since gone. So that’s 25 percent of the total Mormon-identified population.
There are 12 million Mormons. The population is around five million in the United States, and I’m really speaking more of the United States than the rest of the world, so it’s 25 percent of 5 million. That’s one measure. Most of those people would be conversant — they would be going to the temple, they would be conversant with all the doctrines.
Then you get a lot of people who hang on just because the Mormon Church takes good care of them and there’s a home teacher who visits them, and they will not be necessarily conversant in all the doctrines, but deeply affectionate. A lot of Hispanics and other immigrants join the church under these circumstances. At the end of the spectrum you get people who know a lot about the church but don’t like it and have left it. So it’s not an ignorance spectrum we’re talking about; it’s commitment and proximity to the heart of things.
There are other types that you could work out, but those are some of them.
MS. QUINN: I agree with Cathleen’s view that everyone should be entitled to his or her own religion, and I really believe it’s not what you believe but how you behave that’s important. So when I look at someone like Mitt Romney, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m also looking for — if you divide people into three groups: exclusive, inclusive, and pluralistic — I’m looking for a leader who is pluralistic, who accepts everybody completely. We have a new website on The Washington Post/Newsweek called On Faith, and we have about 80 panelists from every different religion. The hardest group to find panelists for is Mormons. We have one Mormon, and that’s Mike Otterson, who is the spokesperson for the Mormon Church, and we keep saying, get us Mormons, get us Mormons, but nobody wants to do it. The only other problem we have is with Catholic priests.
We did get some guest voices when we had a question on Mormonism. We wanted Bill Marriott and Harry Reid, and they both turned us down, and then I called Mike and he got them to speak out. But Marriott’s PR person told him not to do it, that it would be dangerous for Mormons. Basically what he said was, I love my family, I care about my community – you know, all the things that you would want to hear from somebody, and yet there is this real reluctance. I think that’s one of the things that lead people to believe that there is a secrecy, when in fact what they finally wrote was lovely and very compelling.
So I do think that there is this problem of Mormons not wanting to speak out, and I’d like to take this opportunity to invite you to be on the panel.
DR. BUSHMAN: What can I say? I have to volunteer.
MS. QUINN: Anyway, maybe you have an answer to why people have been so reluctant to speak out and to talk about it.
DR. BUSHMAN: I don’t know; Mormons are very talky about their faith. I think it may be a kind of defensiveness; they don’t know whether they can trust you, whether it is a trap. I think I could easily find well-spoken Mormons who would be very pleased to take part in an operation of that sort. Have you ever gone onto any of the Mormon blogs?
MS. QUINN: Not many. I mean, I’ve seen one.
DR. BUSHMAN: It’s a huge, huge operation. You know how the blog industry goes. And there are a lot of very talky, thoughtful Mormons there. There is one blog called “Times and Seasons,” which is named after the church newspaper in Nauvoo. It’s at Timesandseasons.org. I can’t think of any of the others. I’m not a blogger myself. But if you get on “Times and Seasons” and just ask the question, “What are the Mormon blogs?” – you would get a pile of them.
MR. CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, join me in thanking Professor Bushman.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.