Former Mormon: What Americans Need to Know About Mormonism


This post originally appeared in Away Point. 

When religious minorities run for public office, people get worried about whether loyalty to their creed or religious hierarchy may affect their ability to perform elected duties. How might Mitt Romney’s faith affect his social, economic or diplomatic priorities? Should Americans be wary at the prospect of a devout Mormon president? Garrett Amini is a Seattle web developer, a past leader in the secular student movement, and former Mormon. He studied the Mormon religion first as an insider and then as a skeptic. 

Valerie Tarico: You grew up Mormon, but left the faith as a young adult.

Garrett  Amini: I did. I was raised in a devout Mormon family and was highly active in the church in my youth. I began to doubt after going to the temple prior to serving a mission for the church, and spent the next year studying every aspect of the faith I could, eventually concluding that it was false. I still find it fascinating, however, and spend a significant amount of time reading and researching about the faith.

Tarico: How would you describe Mormonism briefly to your average American who has grown up surrounded by Protestant or Catholic Christianity?

Amini: It helps to know a little history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s in upstate New York. As the teachings go, Smith prayed and asked which branch of Christianity was the right one, receiving a vision telling him that none of them were true to God’s plan and that he should start a new denomination. He was also visited by the angel Moroni, who directed him to find a buried record of a lost ancient civilization of Christians living in the Americas. The records were written on golden plates in what Smith described as “reformed Egyptian,” and Smith was given the ability to translate the records into what we now know as the Book of Mormon.

Mormons believe that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are scriptures from God, and focus upon the atonement of Jesus Christ. They are not trinitarian, and believe Christ and the Holy Ghost to be distinct individuals separate from Heavenly Father. They also believe that there is a living prophet on Earth who continues to receive revelation from God.

The early history of the church is tumultuous – the church moved several times in the eastern states to avoid persecution. Eventually, Smith was killed by a mob at Carthage Jail in Illinois in 1844, and Brigham Young led the church westward to Utah Territory. In part because of the early isolation in Utah, they tend to form close knit communities and extended family networks. The Church places a lot of emphasis on service and on proselytizing, and young Mormons often dedicate two years to serve as missionaries.

Tarico: Do Mormons think of themselves as Christians?

Amini: Yes, absolutely. In fact, it may even be offensive to a Mormon to say that they are not Christians. Mormons define their gospel and teachings to be centered around Jesus.

Tarico: How is Mormonism different than Protestant or Catholic Christianity?

Amini: Mormonism was initially very similar to other protestant faiths – the Book of Mormon itself contains little (doctrinally) that would contradict most forms of Christianity. As Mormonism developed, through ongoing revelation through Joseph Smith, the church became increasingly doctrinally unique. Brigham Young’s presidency in Utah near the end of the 19th Century saw some of the most distinctive doctrines take shape.

Since Mormonism has become less isolated in the past 80 years or so, the doctrine has drifted away from some of the more unique doctrines. Modern Mormon leaders now emphasize doctrinal points that are not far from other Protestant Christian views.

One key difference between Mormonism and other forms of Christianity is that Mormonism is highly bureaucratic and centralized in its authority. Modern Mormon teachings are shaped by a group called the Correlation Committee, consisting of the leaders of the church. All written or taught materials are run through the committee, which takes great care to craft the message and tone. These materials have significantly de-emphasized the more controversial doctrines in recent years.

Tarico: So what Mormon teachings would be controversial to other Christians?

Amini: One example is a doctrine known as the God cycle, which was put as a couplet by past Mormon prophet and president Lorenzo Snow: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.” In short, God once had a body on an Earth, was tested, and became edified and the God of our world. If we are righteous, we may also be able to fulfill that divine potential. Interestingly enough, while this doctrine was taught and re-taught by Joseph Smith and later prophets, the church has begun to de-emphasize this doctrine. Gordon B. Hinckley, prophet and president of the church last decade, was asked about this doctrine on an interview with Larry King, and replied “I don’t know that we teach that; I don’t know that we emphasize it.”

There are other doctrines that are controversial that are no longer taught, such as polygamy. Polygamy was practiced by Joseph Smith in secret, and Brigham Young solidified the doctrine and made it public, even going so far as to declare that having multiple wives is a prerequisite to attaining the highest level of paradise in the next life, and to become a god.

Young taught a number of unique doctrines, including one called the Adam-God theory. Young taught that God Himself came down to Earth in the form of Adam and started the human race. Christian opponents of Mormonism will often bring up doctrines such as the Adam-God theory, but that hasn’t really been taught since the time of Brigham Young.

The church also officially discriminated against anyone who had “even one drop of Negro blood” until 1979. Prior to that, black men were not allowed to have any authority within the church, interracial marriages were not permitted in the temple, and black people could not lead a prayer in church, among other things.

Tarico: How did it come to be OK to be Black and Mormon?

Amini: In 1979, it was overturned according to a revelation to Spencer Kimball, who was president of the church at that time. I’m actually rather surprised it took place that early – Ezra Taft Benson, who later became president of the church, once said over the pulpit at a church General Conference that the Civil Rights movement was a communist plot.

Tarico: From the outside the beliefs you listed sound strange.

Amini: They do, but I don’t think they’re really that much stranger than any other faith – we’re just used to our own flavors of strange. Mormonism even resolves and answers some of the odder quandaries of Christianity, such as why God would create the world in the first place, what happens in the next life, the issue of hell, and the concept of the Trinity.

Tarico: When we talk about Romney in the presidency, it brings up some of the same fears Kennedy faced—that his first loyalty will be to the Church authorities.

Amini: It is reminiscent of the Kennedy election, but since Mormonism is less well-known than Catholicism, that fear is reinforced by ignorance.

We have a bit of interesting history regarding the Romneys and the authority of the church. George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, was governor of Michigan in the 1960s, and supported the civil rights movement. He received a letter from Delbert Stapley, a member of the Mormon twelve apostles, asking him to withdraw his support from the movement in accordance with Mormon teachings regarding race. Romney actually defied Stapley, and continued to support the Civil Rights Act.

I think that Mitt Romney is much more in-line with the positions of the church on social issues than his father was, but it does go to show that you can’t predict how an individual would govern merely based on their religious affiliation. Take Rick Santorum and John F. Kennedy, for example. They’re both Catholic, but where JFK said that he believes the separation of church and state to be absolute, Santorum said that the thought of it makes him “want to vomit.”

Tarico: What are the most important things to Americans to understand about the Mormon religion and how it might affect a Romney presidency?

Amini: In the temple ceremony, Mormons do make a covenant to obey the church absolutely if they were ever asked, essentially giving the church veto power over your life. That possibility is scary to people who are looking at Romney as a president, but Roman Catholics essentially give the papacy the same power; and Evangelicals give the Bible (as interpreted by some leaders) the same power.

Many kinds of Christians have managed to govern according to the laws of the land in spite of religious commitments and covenants. At the same time, religious people are definitely influenced by their beliefs. We could ask, for example, whether George Bush’s Evangelical beliefs about the Middle East adversely affected our policies there – or whether a Santorum presidency might adversely affect the health of American families if men and women are less able to choose when to have children.

Tarico: How might the Church leadership seek to affect a Romney presidency?

Amini: Well, again, many kinds of churches seek to influence the presidency. The Catholic Bishops have regular meetings with U.S. presidents, and the Evangelical community is allowed to hold an annual prayer breakfast with the President. The Mormon church, however, rarely takes political stands. They did strongly oppose (and may have caused the defeat of) the ERA, opposed the Civil Rights Act, and now fight against Gay Marriage, but otherwise, the Church is largely silent. The people of the church are generally strongly conservative, though.

Tarico: Why is the culture so conservative?

Amini: The philosophy is in line with a conservative way of thinking. If you are not a Mormon, you must either be ignorant of the faith, or have some personal issue preventing you from belief. There’s no such thing as an honest intellectual disagreement with the Church. It’s a very insular community, and those on the outside aren’t trusted like those on the inside. That kind of hierarchical thinking and tribalism is very resonant with the conservative world view.

It’s also difficult to question the church, or have a nuanced view of its truth claims. Believers encourage education but decry people who “trust to their own understanding” as learned fools. They discourage critical questioning of the Church to the point that any materials that might challenge the truth claims of the church are labeled “anti-Mormon,” and regarded as “spiritual pornography.”

Mormons also have a historical impetus toward patriotism. Having establishing what was nearly an independent country in Utah, they eventually needed to reintegrate to the United States around the turn of the previous century. At this time, they began abandoning some of their distinctive doctrines, and took great steps to portray themselves as deeply patriotic.

Tarico: How about Mormon doctrines and internationalism?

Amini: Mormonism is an American religion, and lends itself strongly to American exceptionalism. The Book of Mormon teaches that the land the United States now occupies was designated a sacred and blessed land from the creation of the Earth. Mormons also believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri, and that when Christ returns, Zion will be established there. Mormons see the Founding Fathers as divinely inspired, and the U.S. Constitution as an inspired document nearly to the point of scripture.

Interestingly, the church recently reported that it counts more members outside the U.S. than within.

Tarico: Talk to me about women and reproductive rights.

Amini: Mormons teach that the greatest thing a woman can aspire to be is a loving housewife and mother. It is a divine role to care for children. At the same time, because of the Correlation Committee, these teachings are carefully worded.

The church abhors abortion, but doesn’t take a firm stance on birth control. Most couples I have talked to were not forbidden to use any form. However, Mormons believe that we existed before this life, and that there are souls waiting to come down. Growing up, I often heard stories told by mothers who claimed to see their unborn children in visions, waiting to come down to earth. Also, Adam was told to multiply and replenish the Earth. So while Mormons aren’t instructed directly to have lots of children, it is implicit in the theology and culture.

Tarico: Will the Church continue to resist gay rights or will Mormons adapt?

Amini: That’s hard to speculate on, but we could look at what the church has done in the past. It was inconceivable in the 60’s that the Church would ever allow black people to become full members, but that was reversed. Homosexuality will likely prove more difficult due to the Mormon doctrine of eternal marriage and how heterosexual norms are fundamental to Mormon eschatology. I think it is possible that over time Mormons, will adopt an attitude that is more like mainline Christians. The generation in charge of the church right now still thinks that homosexuality is a choice. Perhaps by the time my generation runs the church, things will change.

Tarico: But right now the Church is actively opposing gay marriage.

Amini: Gay marriage is in more direct conflict with Mormon doctrine than perhaps any other Christian denomination, due to the role gender will play in the Mormon afterlife. Still–this may be a little cynical of me–the Church runs itself like a business, and I believe that the stance they have taken on gay marriage is less of a moral one, and more of a political strategy to ingratiate themselves with the broader Christian community.

Tarico: How would former Mormons tend to look at a Mormon presidency?

Amini: Most ex-Mormons I know are politically liberal. I can’t conceive of a democratic Mormon president. Harry Reid is a paradox – he’s part of the team, but not part of the team. I would bet that a Romney presidency would not be looked at favorably by most ex-Mormons because they’ve rejected the criteria by which he makes decisions.

Tarico: Is the “I’m a Mormon” marketing blitz timed in support of the Mormon Presidency?

Amini: Well, I think the Church leaders recognize that if Romney does well, they will do well. They recognize that they are perceived as odd and that having a mainstream candidate will do good things for their image. My guess is that they’d be pleased if he won, but I don’t believe they are trying to orchestrate it.

I think that the Church is concerned primarily with its own survival. They have a growing problem with what I call ‘evaporative cooling’: as access to a wide variety of information becomes more and more ubiquitous, it becomes harder to isolate the members from information that conflicts the official history and teachings of the church. The more inquisitive, critical, and passionate a member is, the more likely that person is to encounter this information, and that often results in a faith crisis.

For example, most Mormons know that Brigham Young had multiple wives, but far fewer know that Joseph Smith did as well. When a young Mormon discovers through the internet that Joseph Smith had thirty-three wives, some as young as fourteen, and about a dozen who were already married, his or her faith may never recover. The church is just starting to recognize the problem, and some leaders are starting to talk about being more open and honest about church history.

Tarico: Anything else?

Amini: If there is something to fear about a Mitt Romney presidency, I don’t think it’s his faith. He is not going to nudge us toward a Mormon theocracy. If anything, I think the Mormon church would follow Mitt Romney’s lead on political questions before Romney would be led by the church. 

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