Mitt the Mormon
Why Romney needs to talk about his faith.
Mitt Romney appears to think that, in respect of the bizarre beliefs of his church, he has come up with a twofer response. Not only can he decline to answer questions about these beliefs, he can also reap additional benefit from complaining that people keep asking him about them. In a video response of revolting sanctimony and self-pity last week, he responded to some allegedly anti-Mormon "push poll" calls in Iowa and New Hampshire by saying that it was "un-American" to bring up his "faith," especially "at a time when we are preparing for Thanksgiving," whatever that had to do with it. Additional interest is lent to this evasive tactic by the very well-argued case, made by Mark Hemingway in National Review Online, that it was actually the Romney campaign that had initiated the anti-Mormon push-poll calls in the first place! What's that? A threefer? Let me count the ways: You encourage the raising of an awkward question in such a way as to make it seem illegitimate. You then strike a hurt attitude and say that you are being persecuted for your faith. This, in turn, discourages other reporters from raising the question. Yes, that's the three-card monte.
According to Byron York, who has been riding around with Romney for National Review, it's working, as well. Most journalists have tacitly agreed that it's off-limits to ask the former governor about the tenets of the Mormon cult. Nor do they get much luck if they do ask: When Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation inquired whether Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden is or was or will be in the great state of Missouri, he was told by Romney to go ask the Mormons! However, we do have the governor in an off-guard moment in Iowa, saying that "The [Mormon] Church says that Christ appears and splits the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. … And then, over a thousand years of the millennium, that the world is reigned in two places, Jerusalem and Missouri. … The law will come from Missouri, and the other will be from Jerusalem."
It ought to be borne in mind that Romney is not a mere rank-and-file Mormon. His family is, and has been for generations, part of the dynastic leadership of the mad cult invented by the convicted fraud Joseph Smith. It is not just legitimate that he be asked about the beliefs that he has not just held, but has caused to be spread and caused to be inculcated into children. It is essential. Here is the most salient reason: Until 1978, the so-called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was an officially racist organization. Mitt Romney was an adult in 1978. We need to know how he justified this to himself, and we need to hear his self-criticism, if he should chance to have one.
The Book of Mormon, when it is not "chloroform in print" as Mark Twain unkindly phrased it, is full of vicious ingenuity. From it you can learn of the ancient battle of Cumorah, which occurred at a site conveniently near Joseph Smith's home in upstate New York. In this legendary engagement, the Nephites, described as fair-skinned and "handsome," fought against the outcast Lamanites, whose punishment for turning away from God was to be afflicted with dark skin. Later, in antebellum Missouri and preaching against abolition, Smith and his cronies announced that there had been a third group in heaven during the battle between God and Lucifer. This group had made the mistake of trying to remain neutral but, following Lucifer's defeat, had been forced into the world and compelled to "take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan; and hence the negro or African race." Until 1978, no black American was permitted to hold even the lowly position of deacon in the Mormon Church, and nor were any (not that there were many applicants) admitted to the sacred rites of the temple. The Mormon elders then had a "revelation" and changed the rules, thus more or less belatedly coming into compliance with the dominant civil rights statutes. The timing (as with the revelation abandoning polygamy, which occurred just in time to prevent Utah from being denied membership of the Union) permits one to be cynical about its sincerity. However that may be, it certainly makes nonsense of Romney's moaning about any criticism or questioning being "un-American." The Mormons have already had to choose—twice—between their beliefs and American values.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has had to be asked about his long-ago membership of the Ku Klux Klan (which, I would remind you, is also a Protestant Christian identity organization), and he was only a fiddle-playing member, not a Grand Kleagle or whatever the hell it is. Why should Romney not be made to give an account of himself? A black candidate with ties to Louis Farrakhan could expect questions about his faith in the existence of the mad scientist Yakub, creator of the white race, or in the orbiting mother ship visited by the head of the Nation of Islam. What gives Romney an exemption?
There is also the question—this one more nearly resembles the one that John F. Kennedy agreed to answer so straightforwardly in 1960—of authority. The Mormons claim that their leadership is prophetic and inspired and that its rulings take precedence over any human law. The constitutional implications of this are too obvious to need spelling out, but it would be good to see Romney spell them out all the same.
So phooey, say I, to the false reticence of the press and to the bogus sensitivities that underlie it. This extends even to the less important matters. If candidates can be asked to declare their preference as between briefs and boxers, then we already have a precedent, and Romney can be asked whether, as a true believer should, he wears Mormon underwear. What's un-American about that? The bottom line is that Romney should expect to be asked these very important questions, and we should expect him not to obfuscate and whine anymore but to give clear and unambiguous answers to them.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Mitt Romney by Kevin Sanders/AP Photo.