10 Questions: About Mormons

Is America ready to elect a Mormon as president? It's a question a lot of people have been asking, ever since Mormon Mitt Romney announced his run for the White House. The former Massachusetts governor placed first in Iowa's straw poll a couple weeks back, and continues to have a strong showing in a number of national polls.

(Kenneth Woodward)
To get a better sense of Romney's religion, and how it is perceived around the country, we posed our 10 Questions to Kenneth L. Woodward, who served as religion editor of Newsweek for 38 years and is currently writing a book on American religion since 1950.

1. How does Mormonism differ from other branches of Christianity?

In fact, Christian churches do not regard the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a branch of historic Christianity. Nor does the LDS church regard itself as a branch of a common Christian tree. To Mormons, their church is the tree — the one true church of Jesus Christ — and the rest are, at best, withered branches. But the picture is confusing because Mormons consider themselves as the true Christians and more and more they are speaking in familiar Christian idioms.

But although Mormons speak of God, Jesus as the Son of God, salvation and eternal life, which are also Christian terms, what they mean by them is substantially different. For example, Mormons believe that God was once a man like us, that he has a wife, and that married couples can "progress" in the afterlife to become gods themselves. Because of beliefs like these, ecumenical Christians do not accept Mormon churches as members of local Councils of Churches.

2. Which Christian church does Mormonism most resemble?

Well, there are a lot of trees in the Christian forest but none resemble the LDS church. The church it most resembles is the Unification Church founded by Dr. Sun Myung Moon. Both stress the importance of marriage for salvation. Both are headed by a married prophet and are guided by the revelations of their respective founders. Both seek to unite the people of the world into one religious family — if not in this life, then in the next — and both see themselves as superceding all previous religions.

3. Some people hear "Mormon" and think immediately of polygamy and child marriage. Is this appropriate today?

Not at all. The LDS church is vehemently opposed to both. Polygamy was for decades practiced by Mormons, beginning with founder Joseph Smith, but only a few isolated groups of recalcitrant Mormon fundamentalists do so today.

4. You have written that Mormons are considered "clannish." Is that a fair perception?

If I thought this perception was unfounded, I would not have so described them. Because the early Mormons practiced polygamy and intermarriage, and because they gathered as a separate people in Salt Lake, they created clans as hearty as the Highland Scots. The Romneys are one of them, capable of sending nearly 100 clansmen into Iowa to work for kinsman Mitt Romney in his bid for he Republican nomination for President.

But today's Mormons are clannish for another, very practical reason: the church requires a great deal of a Mormon family's time. This is especially true of Mormon men. Every male Mormon is expected to join the priesthood. He is a priest not only to his family, but as a bishop, as many of them become, he may also be pastor of a local congregation. Mitt Romney went further, becoming a "stake president," which meant he was in charge of all the churches in his area of Massachusetts. There is no paid clergy in the church and so Mormons — especially accomplished members like Mitt Romney — must fill these duties while holding onto demanding jobs. Thus, Mormons typically have less time and opportunity than other religious Americans to meet and mix socially with people not of their own faith. This is a fact, not a fault.

5. What did you mean when you wrote in The New York Times that Mormonism is "a church with the soul of a corporation"?

The phrase is a deliberate play on the famous observation of British writer G. K. Chesterton, who called the United States "a nation with the soul of a church." I wanted to call attention to the fact that the LDS church is run like a corporation — owns, in fact, a number of corporations — and that much of its religious leadership is drawn from corporate ranks. So it has moved from clan to corporation in the past century, which should not surprise. Now that many corporations issue "mission statements" and hold corporate "retreats" for managers, you might describe them as "corporations with the soul of a church."

6. Is Mitt Romney's Mormon faith an issue in the way that Catholicism was for John F. Kennedy in 1960?

It's much the same, but the differences are more interesting. Kennedy faced a long history of anti-Catholicism dating back to the arrival of the Puritans at Plymouth Rock, centuries before the birth of Mormonism's founding prophet Joseph Smith. Today, polls show that most Americans do not know enough about Mormonism to reject Romney for that reason. In 1928, Al Smith lost his bid for the Presidency in part because of his Catholicism Catholic. In 1968 Romney's father George, a liberal Republican Governor of Michigan, ran for the GOP Presidential nomination and lost to Richard Nixon, but his Mormon faith was never an issue.

When Kennedy ran for President, he faced the organized opposition of a group of well-known Protestant clergymen like Norman Vincent Peale. So far, no Christian clergy have organized against Romney. But Kennedy could count on the Catholic vote, and most Catholics then were Democrats. Romney, by contrast, is fighting for the nomination of a party that includes a lot of fundamentalist Protestants, especially in the South, and some of them – including the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention — label Mormonism a dangerous cult.

7. Is it a cult?

Good question. Christianity itself began as a cult. That is, its adherents worshiped a human being as divine, which defines a cult. Today, the LDS church is just as much a church as, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the same Fundamentalists who consider Mormonism a cult also regard Catholicism as a cult. Romney should ignore them.

8. How do Evangelical Christians, so important to the Republican base, view Mormons?

Not as fellow Christians, as I said. Their main objection, besides the beliefs I've already mentioned, is that Mormons rely on the Book of Mormon, which radically reinterprets and recasts the Bible, which Evangelicals regard as the complete and only authoritative source of religious truth.

But they do like his positions on social issues like abortion and the family, which is what Romney has emphasized so far to Evangelical audiences. More open-minded Evangelicals are more interested in Romney's conservative credentials than in Mormonism's esoteric doctrines about God and the afterlife that have no bearing on politics. Romney is counting on the open-minded vote.

9. Are there any aspects of Mormonism that Americans of other faiths can admire?

Sure. Concern for the family, an emphasis on hard work and clean living are three of them. That's the image the LDS church promotes through its public relations apparatus and what the Romney camp is emphasizing too. As a made-in-America religion, Mormonism epitomizes the 19th century myth of the self-made man, which is ironic given its clan-to-corporate history. All this helps to explain why Mormons are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat when a Mormon is not among the candidates.

10. Does that mean Romney won't make a speech like Kennedy did, to diffuse the "religion issue"?

He won't unless he has to — unless, that is, his camp decides it is politically necessary. They are already working on the text and if he wins the Republican nomination the odds are he will give it. Stay tuned.