Misinformation about Mormonism is nothing new, so the bloopers in Kenneth Woodward’s editorial about Mitt Romney’s upcoming speech at Regents University in today’s New York Times don’t disturb me much. What annoys me is Woodward’s argument about how Mormons should talk about themselves.
In a nutshell, Woodward states that Romney needs to explain his religion, because many voters distrust Mormons; their reasons for this distrust include Mormon clannishness, soullessness, and secretiveness, which are all accurate perceptions; Mormons talk one way among themselves, and another way among outsiders, but their outsider talk can’t be trusted to mean what it says, so Romney should avoid seeking common ground or using a common language with conservative evangelical Christians; also, Romney says that his church doesn’t dictate anyoneâ€™s political views, which should be accepted on trust (until there is evidence to the contrary).
First, about those perceptions. If you haven’t read the editorial, you might not notice that the characterizations of Mormons as clannish and soulless have some odd justifications, in each case taking something we’re justly proud of and connecting it via non-sequitur to well-known criticisms. Mormons are perceived as clannish, Woodward writes, because…we have a lay clergy, so we’re all too busy to make friends with our neighbors. (Even the Sunday School President?) “Mormonism is a church with the soul of a corporation” because…Mormons serve missions. Yep, those two years from 19 to 21, or Grandma and Grandpa serving in a branch in Saskatchewan, apparently make us corporate drones. There are also missionaries “in its vast administrative offices in Salt Lake City [OK, I guess some people prefer it to Saskatchewan] or in one of many church-owned businesses” [whaa...?] As for secretiveness, it is true that Mormons are enjoined to use great discretion in discussing temple worship. But from there, it’s a short step to “anti-Mormon charges of secret and unholy rites” and then on to “fundamentalist Mormon sects that continue to practice polygamy and child marriage.” Woodward encourages Romney to “set the record straight,” but my gut instincts tell me that “I do not actually practice unholy rites or child marriage” is not a winning line for any politician.
Speaking of bad political advice, I don’t think Romney would be well served by avoiding “God,” “personal savior,” and “family” when he talks to Evangelicals, although those are three terms that Woodward identifies as having a disparate sense for Mormons. I’m not a fan of blurring doctrinal distinctions, but I think Woodward is wrong on the facts here. While any word can vary in meaning in a particular context, I don’t think that the Mormon experience of God, salvation, or family is fundamentally different from that found nearly everywhere else, including in conservative evangelical Christianity.
More than the ultimate fate of the Romney candidacy, I’m interested in Romney’s rhetorical situation. How do we represent our relationship to a church with more than its share of peculiarities and perceived oddities? I think we can do it without reflexive self-flagellation, the unhelpful Mormon helpfulness that wants to confess to every accusation made by detractors. To the extent that explaining our religion acknowledges that its acceptability in American society can’t be taken for granted, do those explanations actually help? Can any explanation be trusted, if Mormon belief makes Mormon use of standard religious language suspect? If we’re going to explain, can we use the word “God”?
I kind of wish JFK had just told the American public half a century ago, “Yes, I’m Catholic, and I really don’t give a shriveled fig what you think about it.”