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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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The racism underpinning the whole of the original Book of Mormon, which tells the story of a virtuous light-­skinned tribe warring with an evil dark-­skinned tribe (the “sons of Ham,” cursed with dark skin for eternity by God for their wickedness), was wiped away by decree in 1978. Significant changes to the hallowed “temple endowment” ceremony in 1990 got rid of the bit where women had to promise to be subservient to husbands. Even the “Temple Garments” (yes, the magic underpants) have gradually become easier and easier to conceal under “normal” clothes.

The modern Mormon aesthetic is deeply indebted to Walt Disney, but somehow even more square. Their grand temples look like variations on Cinderella’s castle. Their religious music sounds like Oscar‐nominated Alan Menken-­penned hymns. Their annual pageants — I highly recommend attending the Hill Cumorah pageant in upstate New York, in which formative stories from the Book of Mormon are acted out for an audience of thousands just beside the actual hill where Smith found the plates — are spectacular, involving massive casts and lavish costumes and thrilling theatrical effects, paired with the cheesiest imaginable dialogue and storytelling, like a vintage Disneyland animatronic “Ben-Hur.” (The sound system was easily the best I’ve ever heard at a large outdoor performance. Each line of risible King James pastiche narration was crystal clear from a hundred yards out.)

It’s very easy to make fun of a religion that literally takes communion in the form of Wonder bread, but the appeal of all that mandated clean-cut decency is also pretty easy to figure out. It pairs well, for example, with motivational business leadership books. In France, church leaders encouraged a young Mitt Romney to study “Think and Grow Rich,” the landmark self-­help book written in 1937 by motivational guru Napoleon Hill. Romney had his fellow missionaries read it, and told them to apply the lessons to their mission work.

There’s 30 minutes’ worth of Napoleon Hill babbling his claptrap on YouTube, and it’s well worth a look. Hill, enunciating in that classic “born before recorded sound was a thing” way, promises viewers a “master key” to anything their heart desires. Anything at all, so long as it can be written down on a piece of paper. Hill will show you the master key, he explains, when you are ready to understand it. “The master key consists of 17 principles, the first of which is definiteness of purpose,” and so on. (Hill never actually reveals his foolproof formula for personal success, because he prefers that the reader discover it for him- or herself.)

The book remains a bestseller, regularly reprinted. Using its lessons, millions of people have been told, anything the mind can conceive of can be achieved by a man. All you have to do is want it very badly. There was even a 1980s infomercial for the audiobook version, hosted by quarterback legend Fran Tarkenton, who made it to three Super Bowls (and lost each one).

This sort of “think yourself rich” bullshit, with its promise of a foolproof path to success made up of basic lessons in persistence and confidence combined with pseudo-­scientific hokum, is a great philosophical fit with Mormonism, which teaches that men are on a spiritual progression toward Godhood. And the fantastic thing about Mormonism is that you can apply the early 20th century version of “The Secret” — want something very, very badly and you will make it real with thought powers! — toward the amassing of material riches both here on Earth and after death, because Mormon doctrine says the believer will continue working and procreating in the afterlife. That may sound tedious and frankly hellish to you and me (though you do eventually get your own planet!), but this exaggerated re-conception of the Protestant work ethic is an essential tenet of Mormon culture and dogma. It helps that Mormonism is decidedly less squicky about rich people than traditional Christianity. (Again, Tolstoy really nailed it with that “American religion” thing.)

 
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