Political Ashes and an Eroding Culture

I've been watching the reactions among the LDS blogging community, and I'm encouraged a little by the results of the Super Tuesday primaries. I certainly don't wish Mitt Romney any ill will, nor have I really hoped he would lose. But the momentum took a turn for the worse, and he suspended his campaign today.

From the beginning, as I've watched Romney court the religious right for their vote, I've hoped that this will result in a wake up call to those in our community who try to identify with the Christian Right, and to those who hold to the belief that to be Mormon means you must identify with the Grand Ole Party.

From some of the reactions, that may just be happening.

We are a predominantly conservative people, but not exclusively so. Despite the numerous statements of political neutrality there remain those who insist upon affiliation with the Republican party as a mark of faith. These extremists are easily dismissed.

What is more worrisome to me is our willingness to graft into evangelical protestant circles, displaying our almost overriding need to be accepted and be just like them ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as if to be considered Christian, we must be like the Christian Right. Now that we have seen a rejection of a candidate based, at least partly, on his 'Mormonness', I hope we see a more reasoned course. At the very least, one would hope that we approach our politics informed by our faith, and not try to identify with the politics of another faith, no matter how loud or powerful they may appear.

Our doctrines are fairly fluid, we’ve seen core doctrines change over the years, and we’ve seen doctrinal emphasis fluctuate. There is strength in that ability to adapt, and there is peril. What will our response be to this latest cultural force? Will we, as a people and as an institution, try to become even more like our distant cousins? That potential is hinted at in Noah Feldman's NY Times piece, where he observes that

The general pattern of Mormon history is one of growth leading to external pressure being brought to bear on the church. Internal resistance eventually gives way to change sanctioned by new revelation, followed in turn by new growth and success.

He goes on to write:

For conservatives to reject a Mormon because he is a Mormon would be an especially harsh setback for a faith that has accomplished such extraordinary public success in overcoming a history of painful discrimination.

If Mormonism were to keep Romney from the nomination, the Mormon Church hierarchy may through continuing revelation and guidance respond by shifting its theology and practices even further in the direction of mainstream Christianity and thereby minimizing its outlier status in the culture. Voices within the LDS fold have for some time sought to minimize the authority of some of Joseph Smith's more creative and surprising theological messages, like the teaching that God and Jesus were once men. You could imagine Mormonism coming to look more like mainline Protestantism?¢‚Ǩ¬¶

Change is inevitable, and I doubt there are many who would lament the changes we've seen in the past 170 years that moderate our more radical beginnings or extreme teachings. But in those beginnings we also have some unique and inspiring doctrines.

What will, or should, change now? And what do you think is at the core of Mormonism, such that changing it will result in a serious loss of our unique identity? Are we on an inevitable course from sect to denomination?


  1. John Hamer says:

    Great post, Rory! I completely agree with you. Mainline Mormons have been attempting to build an alliance with Evangelical Christians for half a century. Along the way, it has been the Mormons who have compromised their identity and adopted Evangelical thinking. This is probably an example that will close minds, but I think that the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice divide is a real example. Mainline Mormons have adopted the hardline Evangelical position that human consciousness begins at conception, even though traditional Mormon doctrine includes an understanding of the Pre-Existance of spirits and the idea that spirits enter the body either late in the pregnancy (the “quickening”) or at birth. I remember very clearly from Saturday’s Warrior, my sister played the role of Emily. Emily was the youngest daughter in the Pre-Existent family and was going to be born into the family. However, when the mother miscarried that did not end Emily’s chance at earth life. It meant that Emily might have to be born into a different family. Ultimately the mother became pregnant again and Emily’s spirit entered the body of the second baby at birth. People may say, “well that was just a play,” but we had that same understanding as a Mormon family in the 1970s. My mother had a number of miscarriages, but she felt that there was one more spirit waiting to come down into our family. This feeling was ultimately realized with the successful birth of my youngest sister. My point is not that Mormons should be in favor of abortion. Everyone opposes abortion. My point is that Mormons needn’t have adopted the hardcore pro-life position of Evangelicals, when they might just as well have adopted the view that the government should allow everyone to exercise their free agency in this matter (i.e., being against abortion but being pro-choice). This is just one example of how Mormons compromised distinctive beliefs in order to build bridges with Evangelicals — even though Evangelicals have no interest in compromising to build bridges with Mormons.

  2. Kristine says:

    Way too many interesting questions in here to know where to start…

    I think Feldman gets it wrong when he posits doctrinal moderation as a function of cultural pressure. (One should be suspicious of any thesis that contains the phrase “theology and practices” as a compound subject of a single sentence!). Certainly there have been policy changes to move along (however belatedly) with the American mainstream, but I would argue that much of the doctrinal movement of the last half-century or so–let’s call it neo-orthodox drift, for shorthand–is largely the result of historical accidents that have amplified the doctrinal preferences of a few outspoken individuals (Joseph F. Smith, BRM, BKP…) and not a reaction to cultural pressure.

    As John’s example points out, though, the relative dearth of officially established doctrine does allow members to modulate their personal theological preferences to suit their political and ideological commitments. In fact, despite the apparent shift in members’ personal beliefs, there has been no official change in doctrine around ensoulment or abortion– when a General Conference talk made reference to “the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception”, the “moment of conception” bit was excised from the print version of the talk.

    Feldman’s final guess about the church coming to look more like “mainline Protestantism” is also flawed–it could be argued that Mormonism actually looked more like, say, Presbyterianism on the ground in 1950 than it does now, and Mormon political and intellectual commitments were both more diverse and more moderate then than they are now. What we’ve done culturally for the last couple of decades is to ally ourselves with the far-right fringes of Protestantism, rather than the mainline. And as somebody who spent high school dreading the day after the annual showing of “The Godmakers” to the youth groups of the big evangelical churches in my hometown outside of Nashville, I could have told Mitt (or anyone else who had asked) that the Christian Right will NEVER accept Mormons even as distant theological cousins, no matter what anyone says to Larry King or even (alas!) Krista Tippett.

    All of which is to say, Rory, that these are good questions to ask, but we needn’t be overanxious about the answers. The problem of finding Mormonism’s theological core is and will remain a problem for Mormons to wrestle with from within–though even if (heaven forfend!) Mormonism were to wish to assimilate doctrinally into a more evangelical position, we will be stopped short by their rejection as well as by our own theological history.

  3. Having just been turned on to Harold Bloom after reading Henry Miles’ published correspondence with Bloom in the most recent Dialogue [Winter 2007], I noticed this intriguing and timely line in the beginning of Bloom’s The American Religion about modern Mormon hierarchy and decision-making. It was written in 1991: “Benson is now ninety-three; next in line is Howard W. Hunter, eighty-three, and then Gordon B. Hinckley, eighty. Behind them is the powerful Thomas S. Monson, only sixty-two. When President Monson becomes Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, there may be less reliance upon the Book of Mormon as the royal road into the Mormon religion. [Emphasis added.]

    How does this bode for the future now that Mitt is gone and the national debate and spotlight glare on the Mormon Church has been suddenly been turned off?

  4. Matt Thurston says:

    Though not a Romney supporter, I was surprised by my reaction to his defeats in the major primaries leading up to and including Super Tuesday. I felt disappointment, even sadness. Felt it again yesterday when I heard he was withdrawing from the race. Though Romney’s “Mormonness” was only one of several factors that contributed to his defeat, it is hard not to focus more on that factor and take his rejection personally.

  5. Eric Goold says:


    I wrote this in response to your excellent post. I sent it to Dan for the Election Issues issue, but he didn’t want it. I say change is indeed inevitable. But there’s a fundamental irony: what makes us different (as Mormons) is what makes us strong. That ‘core’ you speak of, hopefully, will never change. Anyway, this is what your post made me think of.

    Mitt Romney dropped out of the Presidential race today, and I am glad. I disagreed with basically every political position he took, and changed, and took again. I firmly believe that no man, even a Mormon one, should be allowed to buy the Presidency, which is essentially what he was attempting. Just because he?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s rich, doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t mean he?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d be a good President. I thought he ran a condescending, smarmy campaign and his attempt to be the standard bearer for Ronald Reagan was not only revoltingly egocentric, it was also vastly misguided. I thought his sound bite in Florida with inner city youth was the most pathetic pandering I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve ever seen. I thought his bickering and sniping with John McCain and Mike Huckabee was demeaning and shameful. Mitt Romney?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s legacy in the 2008 campaign is one of shame and disgust, as far as I am concerned.

    But I still would have voted for him.

    I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve had the misfortune of watching this election from South Carolina, my latest outpost in a vagabond writing career. The Palmetto State is a firewall for the Republicans. South Carolina has voted for every single successful Republican Presidential nominee since 1980. You can?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t win as a Republican, everybody says, if you don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t win South Carolina. McCain won, mostly because of his military record and there are so many veterans down here. Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher, was a very close second. Romney didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even beat Fred Thompson, who will never be President but could definitely play a good one on TV.

    South Carolina has a well-earned reputation for dirty pool when it comes to the election season. Bizarre groups will emerge with no official standing or ties to candidates but who use whatever tactics are necessary to get their man elected. In 2004, they spread the rumor that McCain had fathered an ill-legitimate child with an African American mother. It was obviously false but it worked; George Bush won the state and used the momentum to roll to the nomination. These Southerners will stop at nothing.

    This year their favorite target was Romney. And what did they go after? His Mormon faith. You may hear otherwise in the media, but I can say this for a fact: Evangelicals hate Mormons. They always have, and they always will. And they had much cannon fodder to fire at Romney.

    Mormonism is a cult, they would say. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìDon?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t you believe that Jesus and Satan were brothers??¢‚Ǩ¬ù Huckabee notoriously asked Romney. And then they have the garments to work with. Do you really believe in holy underwear? Those jokes even made the talk-show circuit.

    The last straw for me was when the newspaper I work for ran an anti-Mormon ad. It was from ex-Mormon.com or one of those other internet sites that purport to have ?¢‚ǨÀúall the truth?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ about our false religion. The advertisement said, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìDo you want to know what Mormons REALLY believe??¢‚Ǩ¬ù Go to such and such website and learn the truth. Blah blah blah. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d seen them all over the internet but I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d never seen one in print. Somebody paid to have that put in my paper, and my paper gladly took their money and ran it.

    I was sickened. I was dismayed. Just think about the outrageous double-standard. If we had printed an ad that was anti-Jewish or anti-Catholic, we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d get sued. If we printed one that was anti-Baptist, all the nut jobs around here would put on capes and hoods and come burn down our building.

    Romney had to give that now infamous speech from Texas earlier in the campaign that was supposed to defend his faith. It was a typically anticlimactic speech from Romney in a season full of them. He didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t really do much defending of Mormonism, he just spoke in random terms about his right to HAVE his faith.

    That, to me, is the fundamental issue. No other candidate was required to defend their faith. No other candidate was forced to justify the difficult doctrinal issues that ALL religions (particularly Christian ones) abound with. It is a fundamental irony that a party that requires its candidate to have and express faith, held Romney?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s faith against him.

    People voted against Mitt Romney because he is Mormon.

    I would have voted for him, for the same reason.

    PS The very best summation of all these Romney issues that I have seen in on The New Republic website. Check out the blog written by Christopher Orr called, “Mitt Romney as Tarantino’s Superman.” It accurate. It hits all the nails on the head.

  6. Gordon Hill says:

    The Mormon people have been used and disrespected by the evangelistic politiclal assault against Romney. The Mormons are a minority that only asks to have a political voice in America.
    Sadly, in Utah, Mormons are a majority and work to deny a political voice to minorities such as gays, feminists and people who responsibly use alcohol.
    The Mormons are and should be bitter about the assault on Mitts religion on the national political scene but, will they understand that they are doing exactly the same thing to many responsible people in Utah who are non-mormons or ex-mormons.
    What goes around comes around.
    I doubt that most mormons will see any connection between the disrepect they were shown in the national elections and the disprespect they show to non and ex mormons in Utah by not allowing them a political voice.
    I’ve read the comments in the D News and the Trib and Mormons are bitter but, none of them seem to understand that in Utah they are guilty of the very same intolerance that they complain about.

  7. R.W. Rasband says:

    Utah politics has been for too long corrupted by one-party rule. Maybe the shock of Mitt’s rejection will cause some reassessment among LDS voters (especially if Huckabee manages to weasel on to the ticket as vice-president.)

  8. R.W., why would Huckabee have to “weasel” his way to a VP spot? It sees to me that he is winning his way in that direction, contrary to Mitt who was caught at the chicken coop gate.

  9. Stece says:

    Rory your article, even though it is well written, is out of date and I might add out of touch. Let me explain.

    The LDS can never close the gap to the main stream Christianity. As long as the LDS church doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t accept the Trinity there will all ways be an unbridgeable gap. I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t care if I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m personally considered a Christian. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a title derived by men, I only care about my standing with God. This is an old argument that has gone on too long. The LDS belief that the Godhead is three separate personages flies in the face of what the Nicene Council established in 325 ad.

    Looking at the population of churches in the US the LDS church is fourth in the number of members. The Catholic church has about 66 million followed by the Baptist faith with 16 million. Methodist / Wesleyan with 8 million and the LDS faith with 5.5 million. Keep in mind those figures are just within the US. (stats from http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html)

    Change, why? The rate of growth of the LDS church gives it the upper hand. People can publicly laugh at the LDS church now but there will come a day when the church is too large to do so.

    Change Why? Let me quote LeGrand Richards in A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, p.3-4 revised edition.
    A member of the Roman Catholic Church, came to Utah and spoke from the stand of the Salt Lake Tabernacle?¢‚Ǩ¬¶?¢‚Ǩ¬ùYou Mormons are all ignoramuses. You don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even know the strength of your own position. It is so strong that there is only one other tenable in the whole Christian world, and that is the position of the Catholic Church. The issue is between Catholicism an Mormonism. If we are right, you are wrong; if you are right, we are wrong; and that is all there is to it. The Protestant haven?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t a leg to stand on. For, of we are wrong, they are wrong with us, since they were a part of us and went out from us; while if we are right, they are apostates whom we cut off long ago. If we have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there is no need for a Joseph Smith and Mormonism; but if we have not that secession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and Mormonism?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s attitude is the only consistent one. It is either the perpetuation of the gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the gospel in latter days.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

    I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m not changing because some splinter religious group thinks or says I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m this that or the other. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s bad practice criticizing someone else?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s religion. To criticize a religion you are not active in is like watching TV while standing outside looking through the window, you get the point, but miss the meaning.

  10. Thomas says:

    Stece, I’m coming to think that the LDS leadership plays up the differences between the LDS conception of the Godhead and the traditional concept o the Trinity, in order to preserve at least some crucial difference between Mormonism and the rest of Christendom that would justify all the fuss and bother of a Restoration.

    The fact is that, to use the language of the Nicene Creed (whose actual contents most Mormons couldn’t tell you), Jesus Christ is, in fact, “of one Being” with his Father. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants both declare that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost constitute one God.

    I imagine Mormons, if they ever really thought much more about any of this, would describe “God” as a kind of three-person corporation, composed of the three personages of the Godhead. Just as Acme, Inc. is deemed one entity, despite consisting of multiple individual shareholders, so do the members of the Godhead combine in one sense into one God while at the same time maintaining their individual identities.

    And this really isn’t too far off what classical Trinitarianism (as opposed to the modalism many Christians accidentally practice) declares about the nature of God, although being strung out on Platonist metaphysics, they’d probably recoil from the corporate analogy. In my opinion, this is a semantical issue hardly worth bothering with. The more significant difference, I think, lies in the Mormon conception of a personal, material, human-like God, who (depending on whom you ask) may or may not have been a mortal man at one point, and who humans can aspire to be made like.

  11. Steve says:

    Should we change trying to fit in?

    The question was asked in the article, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìWill we, as a people and as an institution, try to become even more like our distant cousins??¢‚Ǩ¬ù

    Is that what we are trying to do, fit in or close the gap? Or, how much focus should we put on becoming more like our distant cousins?

  12. Rory says:


    Perhaps I’m out of touch or out of date, but I don’t think you’ve read my position carefully. I’m not advocating change, I’m lamenting the tendency of our more conservative members to ally themselves with the Christian Right, and the perceived loss of some of our unique strengths.

  13. Steve says:

    I see where you are coming from with addressing your comments toward the conservative members tendencies.

    There are so many question marks that I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m getting different feel.

  14. Nate Housley says:

    I agree that much of the Church’s cultural emphasis has been influenced by politics, but I disagree that core doctrines have changed. To me, the core doctrines of the Church are the divinity of Jesus Christ and the reality of the Atonement and the nature of God and our relationship to Him. Plural marriage can come and go without disrupting those truths.

    Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but when I read the article you reference, I disagreed with his assessment that the Church would continue to go mainstream. In fact, given mainstream Christianity’s dependence on politics to keep it unified, it seems rather shortsighted to predict such a thing in light of this year’s primaries and the splintering of the GOP. Considering that the popular moral wedge issues like abortion are being pushed to the backburner, I predict more political diversity in the Mormon community, which means more distance from mainstream Christianity.

    Also, the author of the article must have missed the recent General Conference in which several speakers emphasized the LDS conception of the Godhead specifically in relation to that of mainstream Christianity.

    Plus, considering mainstream Christianity’s aversion to science and Mormonism’s emphasis on education, we may take this chance to go along with the rest of the country in ditching mainstream Christians as backwards.

  15. Nate Housley says:

    Thomas, I don’t think the LDS leadership has to play up differences to justify a Restoration. The difference between a metaphysical and a physical God is enormous. Aside from the philosophical implications of an endlessly retreating perfection (Platonism), a God who is a person and has passions elevates our human instincts. It is incoherent to maintain, as most Christian churches do, that our bodies pollute our spirits but that we should nonetheless avoid polluting our bodies through such things as fornication. Laws regarding physical purity (chastity, word of wisdom) make sense if something physical can be divine.

    Furthermore, a human God who feels passionately forces us to retrain our vision of paradise. Rather than some sort of blissful detachment, true joy is anxiously serving and loving and feeling pain because of one’s attachment to others. This in turn affects the way we live our lives.

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