Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

A look inside what it means to be Mormon

Posted by Charles II on July 21, 2012

Via Barry Ritholtz, a fascinating autobiography of the conversion of a family into Mormonism, its backsliding out of the church, and the conflicted feelings of an ex-Mormon. A sample of Walter Kirn, TNR:

I’d never been a good Mormon, as you’ll soon learn (indeed, I’m not a Mormon at all these days), but the talk of religion spurred by Romney’s run had aroused in me feelings of surprising intensity. Attacks on Mormonism by liberal wits and their unlikely partners in ridicule, conservative evangelical Christians, instantly filled me with resentment, particularly when they made mention of “magic underwear” and other supposedly spooky, cultish aspects of Mormon doctrine and theology. On the other hand, legitimate reminders of the Church hierarchy’s decisive support for Proposition 8, the California gay marriage ban, disgusted me. Deeper, trickier emotions surfaced whenever I came across the media’s favorite visual emblem of the faith: a young male missionary in a shirt and tie with a black plastic name-badge pinned to his vest pocket. The image suggested that Mormons were squares and robots, a naïve, brainwashed army of the out-of-touch. That hurt a bit. It also tugged me back to a sad, frightened moment in my youth when these figures of fun were all my family had.

As for Romney himself, the man, the person, I empathized with him and his predicament. He no more stood for Mormonism than I did, but he was often presumed to stand for it by journalists who knew little about his faith, let alone the culture surrounding it, other than that some Americans distrusted it and certain others despised it outright. When a writer for The New York Times, Charles Blow, urged Romney to “stick that in your magic underwear!” I half hoped that Romney would lose his banker’s cool and tell the bigoted anti-Mormon twits to stick something else somewhere else, until it hurt. I further hoped he’d sit his critics down and thoughtfully explain that Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences. Instead, Romney showed restraint, which disappointed me. I no longer practiced Mormonism, true, but it was still a part of me, apparently, and a bigger part than I’d appreciated.

Sometimes a person doesn’t know what he’s made of until strangers try to tear it down. (emphasis added)

Now, I think that Mormonism is a cult, and one based on a transparently phony sacred history. I think that Kirn’s description of the sacramentalization of lying as part of fundamentalist belief is accurate. Once you accept lying as acceptable to God, it’s almost impossible to turn back. But we would do well to understand why this cult is so successful: it gives people a strong community committed to bailing out members in distress.

There are many fascinating points that Kirn makes: that healing by the laying on of hands does not occur instantly, but through the slow process of understanding that one is cared for by one’s community. The comical tale of sex right up to the brink of intercourse that somehow qualifies as chastity. The moving story of how Mormons talked Kirn’s father down from what sounds like a psychotic break and rescued his family.

But this thing about community is what is most fascinating. We see this on the left in movements like Occupy and, indeed, the old trade union movement. America is suffering from shattered relationships, from the nuclear family on up to the polarized national dialogue. The right wants to solve this by totalitarian methods: a one-party state dominated by a few powerful elders, the imposition of religion by the state, and draconian steps to force families to stay together. But what is the vision of the left? The closest thing I hear is the idea of worker-owned enterprises, ala the Mondragon cooperative. But I do not sense a larger vision that encompasses the family and the nation as a whole.

We often learn the most important things by listening to those with whom we disagree the most vehemently. I recommend this article.

10 Responses to “A look inside what it means to be Mormon”

  1. Mark Gisleson said

    Can’t agree. Mormons are numerically incapable of stealing the election without the help of every rightish Christian in the USA. Ridiculing Mormons may piss off Mormons, but it drives a wedge between them and their allies. I’ve had a few righties criticize me for ripping on Mormons in various forums, but their heart obviously isn’t in it because I’m simply saying what they’ve always believed: Mormonism is a crackpot cult.

    For electoral reasons alone, Mormon bashing is good politics. As for the Left’s vision, maybe someday we’ll get to have one again, but so long as our electoral choices are right v middle, we’re locked out of the discussion.

    Job one: crush Romney. Job two: create a third party to keep the Democrats from getting a pass and continuing to Wall Street America.

    But that’s just one crank’s opinion.

    • Charles II said

      Maybe the point is that criticisms of the LDS should focus on things that matter, rather than peripheral issues like so-called “magic underwear.” Making lying part of the rite of initiation is important. Supporting hate-the-gays legislation is important. Turning the Church into a political actor, an abuse of the First Amendment, is important.

      It has been said that good policy is also good politics. Driving wedges between people over false or peripheral issues is bad policy and, I think, in the long run, bad politics. Criticize the Mormon Church for legitimate reasons and even many Mormons will support you.

      • Mark Gisleson said

        Well, I’m pretty sure Magic Jesus flying from the Middle East to North America after his crucifixion is something that matters. Five gold plates matter, and making up your own set of angels should be noteworthy. And, truthfully, magic underwear is magic underwear, and the geriatrics that run the church have never expunged that nonsense from their teachings (not like they had to with polygamy which, frankly, I wish they’d stuck to their guns on as it would have made gay marriage a lot easier to get).

      • Charles II said

        Can you prove that Jesus didn’t fly to the Americas after His crucifixion, Mark? You got a list of authentic vs. inauthentic angels?

        Whereas I can prove that the Mormon Church promoted the Prop 8.

      • Mark Gisleson said

        And you’re right about that, but I’m right that the rightwing doesn’t care about Prop 8 (that or they applaud the Mormon’s actions), but they do care very deeply about Magic Jesus stories.

        I will cede you the high ground if you cede me the winning electoral strategy.

      • Charles II said


        I’ll cede you a very short-term winning strategy, a.k.a. a tactic, Mark.

      • Mark Gisleson said

        Thank you, because frankly, all we have left are tactics. We on the fringe can be as high minded as we like, but with the media in the bag, only hardball wins elections.

        I can’t call myself a Democrat anymore. I know I have to vote for them (mostly), but I’m very sick and tired of being a good American.

      • Charles II said

        The right has indeed taken advantage of our patience and good will.

  2. MarkH said

    Everyone has learned a lot about Romney in the last few months. His faith is hardly *the* most important part of it. But still, it’s important for the general public to be educated about the candidates for high office and Mormonism is part of the picture.

    • Charles II said

      Just curious, Mark… did you read the article at the end of the link? What do you think of the appeal of Mormonism being its communitarian idealism and what the Democratic Party might learn from that?

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: