Mitt, Moochers, and Mormonism’s Other Legacy
There are many stories on which a Mormon is raised: narratives of the elect, America and the Constitution, the latter days, and free agency—all of which play a role in Mitt Romney’s “severe” conservatism. The bombshell release of video in which he trumpets his disdain for moochers, and reveals a remarkably casual approach to Middle East politics, all resonate with the Calvinist heritage of Mormon theology, as well as with principal Mormon narratives. But Mormonism also holds the seeds of a decidedly progressive politics—a possible Mormon liberation theology.
Does Romney’s religion matter? It’s a question that has been asked many times this election season. My answer, below, is in two parts, as I journey from End Times theology (the “latter days”) through Mormonism’s radical social and political past.
I grew up at the end of the world. As a Latter-day Saint, I made my debut just before the final curtain. During my youth, rumors circulated about neighbors and boyfriends whose special “patriarchal blessings” prophesied that they would never taste of death. That fairly clearly set the limit on time. The rebellious Sixties just confirmed what the Cold War had already shown us—that we were in a final showdown with evil that would only get worse until the second coming of Jesus which is now.
Mormons have a smidgen of the survivalist in them. They expect total political and economic collapse, and are instructed to store what has come to be known as the “two-year supply”—a stock of water and imperishable food items to sustain them in the event of (the imminent) catastrophe. My dad used to tell us that he built our ranch to be able to house the extended family during the chaos to come; and possible treks on foot back to Nauvoo, Illinois, the site of the original Garden of Eden and the future New Jerusalem, punctuated normal conversation.
As an elementary school student, I used to draw crayon farms with imaginary fields that could provide for all our needs, and I am still plagued by an obsessive-compulsive ritual that must stem from these days. I harbor secret fears about being able to provide for my own children in the event of apocalypse, and play mental games in which I am magically granted all of the foods (“carrots, peas, beans, corn…”) or personal items (“soap, shampoo, toothpaste…”) that I can pronounce in my head before, let’s say, the subway door closes. (I’ve gotten good at it.)
End Times talk left me with an ingrained pessimism that took years to overcome.
The most sinister elements of the End Times narrative, however, involve the unconscious attitudes and orientations it engenders. These include a lack of social trust, militarism, and narcissism (a preoccupation with one’s own elect status and general safety and an interpretation of scripture in which ancient writings were really meant for us; the people to whom they were addressed being a sideshow in our drama).
Manichean and alarmist, it pits Light versus Dark—extreme dark. Those who belong to the Light “hear my voice” (i.e. recognize and believe the right doctrines—in this case, Mormon) and “follow my commandments,” which favor a “purity” understanding of religion. The Book of Mormon, for example, ranks fornication as “most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood” and Mormon leader Bruce R. McConkie wrote in his encyclopedic Mormon Doctrine that it is better to surrender your life than to allow someone to “steal your virtue,” leaving you “unclean.” It also encapsulates the class understandings of the Calvinist heritage.
Those of the Light should not be hard to identify, then. They are us. In these times, however, the wicked walk the earth disguised as the righteous, deceiving even the “very elect.” Despite a “veneer of piety,” McConkie warned, the Gentiles (non-Mormons) will be subject to “apostate darkness and… every form of evil.” “Any show of godliness is to be in form only,” he cautioned, “not in substance.” For the then-Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, this veneer was evident in the Sixties antiwar movement. He warned the faithful against wearing clothing or otherwise displaying “the broken cross, anti-Christ sign, that is the adversary’s symbol of the so-called ‘peace movement.’” The watchword, then, is beware.