Friday, June 29, 2012

Mitt's Mormonism: A Mormon Journalist Asks for Serious Discussion

I honestly know little about Mormons.  In the evangelical-dominated community in which I grew up, Mormons were a minuscule and fairly hidden minority.  I remember one Mormon classmate in my high school, and as I look back on my memories of her, I'm ashamed to remember that people at times did issue taunts to her about her "strange," polygamous, non-Christian religion.  As those Southern evangelical classmates of mine understood Mormonism to be, that is . . . .

As I shared here in a posting several months ago, one of the big surprises of the research I did in the past year or so for my forthcoming book about Wilson R. Bachelor, a 19th-century doctor-philosopher in western Arkansas, was the discovery of a letter Bachelor wrote to a Mormon newspaper, Zion's Ensign of Independence, Missouri, in 1893.  Bachelor's brother William was a Mormon and lived in Independence, where he and his wife, who married at Nauvoo and were then dispersed with other Mormons after the murder of Joseph Smith, ended up affiliating themselves with the branch of the LDS church that called itself the Reorganized LDS.

The most surprising information in the 1893 letter was that Bachelor's parents and sisters became Mormons in an early Mormon mission in west Tennessee in 1839.  I have long known about Bachelor's Mormon brother William, but hadn't realized his parents also became Mormons at some point in their lives.  The only family members who did not convert to Mormonism in this period of mission were Wilson himself and his oldest brother Moses, who is my ancestor.

Discovering this letter told me something I had never known about my ancestors: that one of my family lines converted to Mormonism in Tennessee in the 1830s.  No tradition of this has passed down in my family, and the finding surprises me because Wilson Bachelor's 1889 autobiography makes no mention of his father's religious background, while it notes that his mother was a Methodist.  It surprises me as well because, if any branch of my family has strong tendencies to be suspicious of religion and churches, it is this family, which has a history of religious dissent going back to the colonial period, and which has (on both sides of my mother's family, which is where the Batchelors fit in) many Quaker ties in the colonial era.

All the preceding as prelude: I want to recommend highly Joanna Brooks's essay in Religion Dispatches two days ago.  It's entitled "Romney: 'A Life Balanced Between Fear and Greed'?"  Brooks is a Mormon herself, and I read anything she writes with great interest, since I trust what she has to say about her faith community--and I learn from her.  In this piece, Brooks laments the superficiality of media discussions of Mitt Romney's Mormon background, and she concludes,

I’m waiting for the story that transcends the flat ethnicity paradigm and gets the deeper and more persistent question of religion and moral bearings: 
How does the most religiously devout candidate in recent memory reconcile a life of religious commitment with a values-neutral approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace? 
Why does religion play an outsized role in the politics of gay marriage and contraception but apparently has no say when it comes to big-ticket items like national spending and economic policy? 
That profound disconnect certainly did not originate with Romney, but it may in fact be the key to understanding how he would lead and govern.

To my mind, these are very important questions to ask about Romney and his Mormonism--and it doesn't escape my notice that Brooks is asking them from a specifically Mormon perspective.  Why is it, I wonder along with her, that gay marriage and contraception are moral issues, while how we make money and share and use our wealth are values-neutrral questions--off-limits as we discuss the interface of religion and politics?

How have we arrived at this position in a nation with the soul of a church?  How did Mormonism get there, since this religious movement was born in persecution and had a strong communal, even socialist, ethos in its formative period?

As an outsider with little knowledge of Mormonism, but one who makes yearly (and sometimes twice-yearly) visits to Salt Lake City to do research, I've long been struck by the strength of the Mormon communal ethos.  I'm struck by how Mormons take care of each other.

I have to admit that I'm struck, too, by the strong impression--which may be entirely unfounded, since I'm an outsider--that the ethos of communal care does not extend beyond the community of saints to gentiles, and that gentiles are even, at times, regarded by some Mormons who make their living in fields that depend on gentile dollars (e.g., the hospitality industry) as something akin to sheep to be fleeced.

The very way in which the temple is configured in Temple Square--the way in which the doors to its holy of holies face away from the public square--has often struck me (again, as an uninformed outsider) as a statement about the inward turning of the Mormon ethos of communal care, and how it deliberately shuts out anyone who is not a member of the community of the saints.

But to say all of this is also to say that built into Mormonism from its foundational period--and this is evident even to an unschooled outsider like myself--is a very strong ethos of communal concern, which is represented nowhere at all in what Brooks calls (rightly, it seems to me) Romney's "values-netural approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace."  And I would welcome the opportunity to learn more, during this campaign period, about why this disconnect is there.  And what Romney thinks about it.  And what Mormon leaders and the Mormon people as a whole think about it.

I also remind myself as I ask these questions how far short of any bona fide Catholic ethic of concern for the common good many American Catholics fall in our political and economic outlooks.  And how shameful it is that, instead of bolstering that faltering ethic of concern for the common good and the least among us, the U.S. Catholic bishops are now helping the super-rich try to attack and deconstruct this concern--even as they pay insincere lip-service to their commitment to Catholic social teaching.

And how four men of my own faith community willingly voted in yesterday's Supreme Court decision to dismantle a healthcare system that, while it's radically imperfect, at least offers to bring millions more Americans into the network of basic healthcare.  For totally partisan reasons that have absolutely no grounding at all in what we Catholics profess about Jesus and his concern for the poor . . . .

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