Romney Won't Spill the Beans on His Mormon Faith
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After the Today Show used video clips of me talking (ranting, to some) about the racist history of the Church of Latter Day Saints as a lead-in to Matt Lauer's interview of Mitt Romney, I feel compelled to clarify the obvious: religious affiliation is not a good reason to vote for or against a candidate for president. I mean any religious affiliation, including Scientology (if that's a religion). I know at least one Scientologist who would be a better president than many of the current candidates. I might know more, but they tend to be a bit secretive about being Scientologists, so ...
I don't hate Mormons. Some of my best friends are Mormons. Well, okay, one of my best friends is Mormon. Or used to be. He's not sure anymore. He's glad he grew up Mormon, likes the values he learned, the respect for family, etc. He's just not sure about some of the crazy beliefs of the religion. He would like to distance himself from some of that stuff and still be a Mormon -- the way Rudy Giuliani can be pro-abortion and very fond of divorce and sequential marriage and still be, or at least call himself, a Catholic. But Mormonism isn't as flexible as Catholicism. It's a hook, line and sinker deal. You buy it all -- every word of the Book of Mormon and its supplement, the Book of Abraham -- or you're not a Mormon. My friend is a surgeon. He says the Mormon doctors he knows are like him. They have doubts about some things in the books and there are some things in the books that they simply can no longer believe. He can't imagine any Mormon who graduates from medical school or Harvard Business School like Mitt Romney thinking any other way. But if Romney were to admit to such doubts and reservations, the Church of Latter Day Saints would be forced to say he is no longer a Mormon. And a candidate for president without a religion ... well, that could only happen on The West Wing.
When I created the West Wing's Republican candidate for president played brilliantly by Alan Alda, I wanted for dramatic purposes to give him the worst problem I could think of. Sex with the interns being a bit dated, I chose to make him a closet atheist. When the press started to close in on him with questions about when he last went to church, he refused to answer. He said he would answer any question about government, "but if you have questions about religion, please, go to church." Mitt Romney has chosen a different course. He said: "Some question whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate's religion that are appropriate. I believe there are. And I will answer them today." And then he left the podium without taking any questions.
The media thought this was a perfectly sensible approach. TV pundits of all stripes fell all over themselves to praise the speech. They gushed at how admirable it was for Romney to stand up for what he called "the faith of my fathers." The cable news networks seemed ready to cut straight to Romney inauguration coverage. No one thought to ask what is or was the faith of his fathers?
Romney felt politically forced to give the speech specifically because evangelical Christians seem to know a little too much about the faith of his fathers. Many evangelicals believe and have said publicly that Mormonism -- contrary to Romney's assertions -- is not a Christian religion but an abomination of Christianity. Here's a sampling of why: Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri; that Jews were the first people in America; that Indians descended from Jews and are a lost tribe of Israel; that Jesus came to America; that after the next coming of Christ (which will be the second or third, depending on how you count his trip to America), the world will be ruled for a thousand years from Jerusalem and Missouri; and to answer Mike Huckabee's now famous question, yes, they believe "Jesus and Lucifer were brothers, in the sense of both being spiritually begotten by the Father."
When Matt Lauer asked Romney the Huckabee question about Jesus and the devil being brothers, Romney refused to answer and handed the question off to the Church of Latter Day Saints. The Church issued a deceptively worded statement that most reporters incorrectly read as a denial of the brotherhood of Jesus and Satan. In fact, the Church could not and did not deny it. The Church did correctly point out that attackers (meaning critics) of Mormonism often use the brother bit. Critics also use the Church's 70 year delight in polygamy and sex with very young girls, which also happens to be true. Critics of Mormonism have plenty to work with without inventing anything.
The pundits had no idea how deliberately misleading Romney's speech was. They loved the bit about Romney's father marching with Martin Luther King. None of them knew that if at the end of the march with George Romney, Martin Luther King was so taken with Mormonism that he wanted to convert and become a Mormon priest, George Romney would have had to tell him that they don't allow black priests. George Romney might also have had to explain to the Reverend King that Mormons believe black people have black skin because they turned away from God.
I give you the words of the holy Book of Mormon:
"And I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark and loathsome and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations."
Brigham Young, the most revered president of the Mormon Church, who marched his people all the way to the Utah territory because he so vehemently hated the laws of the United States, taught that sex with black people would kill white people. Instantly.
"Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so."
It took the Mormons ten years after Martin Luther King was killed -- ten years -- to decide to allow black men to be priests. They did so only after the president of the Mormon Church said he had a conversation with God in 1978 in which God finally decided it was time to allow black priests. Mitt Romney was 31 years old when he heard that lie. At 31, was Mitt Romney smart enough to know the Mormon president was lying about having been told by God that it was time to remove one racist tenet of the faith of his fathers? In 1977, at age 30, was Mitt Romney still accepting the racist position of his church? Does Romney really believe that God had to wait until 1978 to change his mind about this? Did Romney know that the Church had to change its racist policy in order to preserve its tax exempt status? We'll never know. No reporter will ever ask those questions because questions about the faith of his fathers are off limits even though, in an attempt to win evangelical Christian votes in Iowa, Romney dragged that faith into the campaign and asked to be admired for strictly adhering to it.
If the Washington Post finds that Romney ever, however briefly belonged to a country club that did not admit blacks or Jews or Muslims, it'll be dogging him with questions about that, but there will never be questions about his faith because as Newsweek's Eleanor Clift said, "Every religion is full of crazy beliefs."
Eleanor said that in response to my comments about Mormonism on last week's McLaughlin Group. Eleanor has gotten no heat for that comment, but I have been attacked widely -- beginning right here on HuffPost -- for getting into the specifics of what Romney, in effect, said he believes when he said, "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it."
On McLaughlin, I was asked to review a political speech. My approach to reviewing political speeches is to examine what deceptions are employed. Romney's speech, like every speech by every candidate for president, had its deceptions. No one else was willing to talk about those deceptions because that would involve talking about a candidate's religion, which we must never do, even if the candidate has just done it.
This week, I went on Hugh Hewitt's radio show so Hugh could attack me for attacking his favorite candidate. It was a good conversation. Hugh began by asking if I am Catholic. I gave what sounded like a very Clintonian answer that depends on what you mean by the word Catholic. I explained that there are Catholics -- very few -- who, Romney style, adhere to everything their church says. Then there are American Catholics, most of whom believe the church is wrong about abortion and wrong about the death penalty and used to think the Pope was wrong about the war in Iraq being a mistake but have now switched back to the Pope's side on that one. I don't feel empowered to say Catholics like that are not Catholics. Once we got past that, Hugh asked if the Catholic Church is wrong to not allow women priests. I said, yes, the faith of my fathers is wrong about that. I then happily admitted to many failings and evils in the Catholic Church and in past Popes. This frustrated Hugh's strategy to hang all the problems of Catholicism on me the way I seemed to be hanging all of Mormons' problems on Romney. But I have never given a speech defending Catholicism and saying I believe every bit of it. No Catholic politician has ever given that speech. All the Catholics running for president now -- Democrat and Republican -- as usual, are very open about disagreeing with their church on abortion and other things.
The more you know about Romney's religion, the more you want to ask him questions about it. Your religion was founded by an alcoholic criminal named Joseph Smith who committed bank fraud and claimed God told him polygamy was cool after his first wife caught him having an affair with the maid and who then went on to have 33 wives, and you really believe every word that he said and wrote? Do you really believe that the American Indian is genetically descended from Israelites? Would it shake your belief if DNA testing showed no such relationship between Indian tribes and Jews? Do you really believe that Jesus Christ came to America? Do you really believe that your possible general election opponent, Barack Obama, is black because his people turned away from God? Are you in favor of big increases in federal funding for Missouri or turning the site of the Garden of Eden into a national park?
I wouldn't ask Romney any of these questions if he hadn't decided to make a political speech in which he pretended to tell me about his religious beliefs.
I could vote for a devout Mormon for president or anyone with any religious affiliation if I agree with the candidate's policy positions. I used to agree with a lot of Romney's policies before he flip-flopped on all the ones I agreed with. Flip flopping for political convenience is a Mormon tradition. In 1890, the Mormon president claimed he had a chat with God that finally convinced him polygamy was no longer cool, thereby allowing Utah to become a state. That was quite a flip from Brigham Young's anti-American position. When Brigham Young -- a deadly serious racist and a hero of Romney's who actually got a mention in the speech, unlike the unmentionable Joseph Smith -- was told Utah could not be admitted to the United States as long as it allowed polygamy, he said, "Then we shall never be admitted."
In his "faith of my fathers" speech, Romney had the audacity to say "Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world." Weren't any of the Romney speechwriters worried that someone was going to point out that Romney's religion jettisoned its beliefs to gain statehood? Of course not. That would mean talking about a candidate's religion, which, by current press convention, only the candidate is allowed to do.
The unprecedented relentlessness of Romney's flip-flopping is his campaign's biggest problem. The Mormon thing has done a fine job of diverting attention from the flip-flopping. Romney knows he can use the Mormon thing whenever he wants without fear of getting trapped in an uncomfortable question. On the campaign trail, he has actually said, "I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy." And no reporter has thought to ask the obvious follow-up about how conflicted he must feel about his great grandfather having had five wives.
In the Jack Kennedy speech that Romney's speech is being compared to, Kennedy said that the truth of how he would govern was not to be found in his religion but in his record in government. Romney could not say anything like that since his record in politics is littered with liberal positions, including Clinton/Giuliani-like support for abortion, that he is now running away from.
I, for one, am a libertarian on marriage. I don't think the state should tell any of us who we can marry or in what order. I'm cool with gay marriage, Giuliani's serial polygamy, and Mormon style polygamy as long as it does not involve the rape of children under the age of consent and as long as women can marry as many men as they want. I know you think those are crazy beliefs. All I have to do to prevent you from attacking me for those beliefs is to create a religion like Joseph Smith did. Then you wouldn't dare question my faith. Well, okay, you would at first. But a few generations from now, when one of my many descendants proudly proclaimed it "the faith of my fathers," no one would dare question that faith.
Lawrence O'Donnell is executive producer of the "The West Wing," a frequent panelist on the "The McLaughlin Group" and
former Chief of Staff for the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.