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Everything You Need to Know About Mormonism

Pundits still haven't figured out how to talk about Romney's Mormon religion. Here's everything you need to know.

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So they created a new Mormon colony, Colonia Juarez, and after some hardship, did reasonably well for themselves. Miles even took another wife seven years after the church officially “banned” the practice of plural marriage. Gaskell Romney, Miles Romney’s son with his first wife, Hannah Hood Hill, became a builder as well, and married one woman: Anna Amelia Pratt, granddaughter of Parley. They gave birth to George a few years before the Mexican Revolution forced the whole colony back to the United States.

Romney presents a fairly sanitized version of his family’s history in his book, quoting from a glowing biography of Miles Park Romney written by his son Thomas and not mentioning what actually brought the Romney clan to Mexico, but he is frank about the church’s history when asked about it. His great-­grandmother wrote extensively about how miserable her husband’s additional wives made her. “It was the great trial of the early Mormon pioneers,” Mitt told Lawrence Wright in 2002. But the church still grapples with the origins of polygamy, which became a tenet of the religion without much in the way of explanation. Wright:

Although Romney, like other Mormons, defends the practice of polygamy in the early days of the Church by pointing to a surplus of women in Utah, census reports for the time show roughly equal numbers of men and women. Church leaders were told to take multiple wives and “live the principle.” In religions where polygamy is still practiced — for example, in Islam — the number of wives is usually a reflection of the husband’s wealth; the currency behind Mormon polygamy, however, seems to have been spiritual. Only men are given the priesthood power of salvation, and through them women gain access to the celestial kingdom. Faithful women were naturally drawn to men who they believed could guarantee eternal life; in fact, Brigham Young authorized women to leave their husbands if they could find a man “with higher power and authority” than their present husband. Apparently, many of them did, as shown by the rate of divorce at the time.

Women, by the way, are still spiritually second-­class citizens in Mormonism, though the same is arguably true in most other Western religions, so maybe we shouldn’t harp on them too much.

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The Mormonism of the 19th century bears little resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is the impossibly cheery “Donny and Marie” variety, not the armed apocalyptic homesteading cult member variety. Tolstoy — referring to the scrappy/crazy 19th century version — called Mormonism “the American religion,” and he decidedly did not mean that as a compliment. But the modern church still deserves the title. It’s the Coca-­Cola religion, with a brand that denotes a sort of upbeat corporate Americanness, considered cheesy by elites but undeniably popular in pockets of the heartland and abroad.

It is an admirable transformation, frankly, for a religion founded very recently by a man who was likely both a liar and a lunatic, then led to prominence by a megalomaniac. Despite its transparently ridiculous dogma and sordid history of racism and murder and extremely unorthodox marital practices, Mormonism has come to thrive, thanks primarily to its ability to market and rapidly reinvent itself.

If the doctrine itself is a problem, stick around for a while and wait for it to change. If you think it unlikely, for example, that multiple advanced civilizations, descended from Israelite tribes, thrived and warred for hundreds of years in pre-Columbian upstate New York without leaving any archaeological evidence behind, the church now cheerfully entertains the possibility that the hill where Smith “found” his golden plates is one of two named “Cumorah,” with the other one — the one repeatedly referenced in the Book of Mormon — likely standing somewhere in Central America.

 
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