Patrick Middleton revisits the MormonsA topical subject with Mitt Romney aiming to push Barack Obama out of the White House, but “revisit” is perhaps not quite the word. I first had contact with our local Mormons back in 1988 (Reporter issue 10) since I was curious about those young missioners (“elders”) I’d often noticed travelling on buses or parking their bicycles. On that occasion I visited their centre, with adjacent temple, on avenue Thérèse in Cimiez. I was welcomed, I recall, but with little evident warmth. The young guys I met were hardly brimming over with joy and when I observed them out on sales expeditions they seemed rarely to smile and spoke to each other as little as possible. However, back then I was allowed to talk to a group of missioners and concluded that, as I wrote, their theology was “baffling” but they seemed to have some notable virtues.
Joseph Smith: going for gold
When early this year I asked to talk to the latest cohort of elders, I was given the run-around. First my request to Cimiez was simply ignored then, when politely repeated, it was passed on to national headquarters in Paris. A rather unhelpful-sounding woman told me they “would think about it” and I would hear back. I didn’t. A clue to this attitude I found in a USA Today report a while back which said that, in the context of Romney’s run for the presidency, they were anxious to present a favourable image of their church and in the US have been running an information campaign (“I am a Mormon”) with exactly that purpose. They don’t however seem too keen on open-ended discussion. In fact, Romney himself is now remarkably reticent compared with how he was as a Boston church leader in the Seventies. As The New York Times recently put it, “He speaks so sparingly about his faith that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.”
So who are the Mormons or Latter Day Saints, as they’re officially called? Of course, it’s easy for an outsider to make fun of any religion – an uppity Prod in Belfast once assured me that “Catholics worship a biscuit” – but there are aspects of Mormon belief and practice that lend support to Bill Maher’s view that it’s “more ridiculous than any other religion”. In a nutshell, so to say, Mormons are taught that thousands of years ago a bunch of Israelites crossed the Atlantic and settled in North America. Later Jesus Christ paid a visit.
The precursors of the Mormons died out around 400 AD. The modern history starts in 1827 when Joseph Smith, a farm boy in upstate New York, was accosted by a guy called Moroni who gave him a set of gold metal plates covered in hieroglyphics. He was inspired to put these into English and so we have the Book of Mormon, which offers what most non-Mormon scholars dismiss as fantasy history and theology with a variety of injunctions to the faithful: no tea, no coffee but try these magic underpants. I was given a copy but I’ve never been able to get into it – it’s like trying to read Terry Pratchett. Mitt Romney is notably evasive when asked about the magic underpants (“temple garments”) although his more forthcoming co-religionists are happy to claim that they can protect the wearer from road accidents, fire and a range of natural disasters.
From six ... to six million
Joseph Smith announced that the Book of Mormon offered “the fullness of truth leading to the highest blessings of heaven”. He started with six followers, today the US counts some 6 million Mormons with another 8 million worldwide. This growth owes much to the pressure put on young Latter Day Saints to give up a couple of years after high school to go on a mission and spread the word to all nations. The first elders to leave America departed in 1837 for Preston in Lancashire and Romney’s roots lie in that, then as now, unlovely place. Here along the Coast a couple of dozen young men arrive regularly to try to sign up locals as new Latter Day Saints. It’s a tough life: up at six, in bed at 10:30, 10 hours a day spreading the word; not much spare time, then, and anyway they’re forbidden to date, play sport or consume secular media; they can call home just twice a year. Romney was on the mission in the Bordeaux area although the details of his activity are obscure, the more so because he was out of the loop for a while following a car crash (had he forgotten his MUs?). How many converts he made we don’t know although later he Mormonized his future wife, her two sisters and his mother-in-law. Across the years I’ve managed to engage a few elders in conversation but it’s not easy. I did get one couple arguing with each other, though, when I mentioned Glenn Beck, the right-wing talk show host, who’s an adult convert to the church. One guy admired him, the other didn’t.
So can a Mormon become President?
That mission experience can sound rather like a religiously-flavoured boot camp, but it’s got its positive side. As I recall one young elder putting it to me, “You learn a language, you get to know how to relate to people, you’re able to handle yourself. All this helps when you’re on the job market and we’ve even got the same dress code as IBM.” There’s more to that than a smart one-liner. Steven C Wheelright, a fellow Mormon who was at Harvard Business School with Romney, says, “You know, on the mission you learn a lot of things you later get taught more formally at HBS.” And Romney, while playing up his business experience, has also sometimes – although more rarely now – at least implied his success owed a great deal to his specific religious background. So can a Mormon become President? Well, polls show that over a third of Americans don’t accept that Romney is a Christian. Maybe this doesn’t matter so much in 2012.