Noah Feldman has published a fascinating essay in the New York Times Magazine. Feldman focuses especially on Republican anti-Mormon bigotry and wonders how Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency might change Mormonism.
The rise of the religious right posed a tricky political quandary for the LDS church. On the one hand, a vocal movement pressing for conservatism and moral values must have seemed to them like a natural home. After all, they, too, were religious believers who drew upon their faith for their political conservatism. Yet there was a strand of the religious right that could potentially put it at odds with Mormonism â€” its barely concealed commitment to evangelical Protestant theology.
According to Feldman, Mormonism responded to persecution with secrecy and has thus become unable to formulate its theology clearly:
What is more, what began as a strategy of secrecy to avoid persecution has become over the course of the 20th century a strategy of minimizing discussion of the content of theology in order to avoid being treated as religious pariahs. As a result, Mormons have not developed a series of easily expressed and easily swallowed statements summarizing the content of their theology in ways that might arguably be accepted by mainline Protestants. To put it bluntly, the combination of secret mysteries and resistance in the face of oppression has made it increasingly difficult for Mormons to talk openly and successfully with outsiders about their religious beliefs.
I have not made up my mind about this hypothesis but it certainly goes a long way to explain Romney’s Hinckleyesque approach to message as well as Gordon B. Hinckley’s own approach to public relations. It is also true that Mormon theology is so poorly defined that no one can say with any degree of certainty what constitutes Mormon doctrine.
On the other hand, we all can remember prophets who have been much more forthright and outspoken than the current incumbent. While temple ceremonies have always been secret, I am not ready to agree with Feldman entirely.
Mainstreaming appears to be primarily Gordon B. Hinckley’s priority. His immediate predecessors have been much more open about Mormon beliefs and practices. On the other hand, Gordon Hinckley also exposed himself much more to national and global media than Spencer Kimball, Ezra Benson, and Howard Hunter and is thus under greater pressure to account for an alien and “strange” culture.
If Mormonism were to keep Romney from the nomination, the Mormon Church hierarchy may through continuing revelation and guidance respond by shifting its theology and practices even further in the direction of mainstream Christianity and thereby minimizing its outlier status in the culture. Voices within the LDS fold have for some time sought to minimize the authority of some of Joseph Smithâ€™s more creative and surprising theological messages, like the teaching that God and Jesus were once men. You could imagine Mormonism coming to look more like mainline Protestantism with the additional belief not in principle incompatible with Protestant Scripture that some of the lost tribes of Israel ended up in the Americas, where a few had a vision of Christâ€™s appearance to them. If this hypothetical picture of a future Mormonism seems unimaginable to the contemporary LDS faithful, as it may, todayâ€™s Mormon theology would look almost as different to Brigham Young.
That would be a tragedy. While there are any number of issues that ought to be considered for reform, we do not have an obligation to be like everyone else. The only obligation that the United States and the American people can legitimately impose on us is that we respect the rights of others. Beyond that it is really no one’s business what we believe and what we do.
Mormons have a right to be different. America is about the right to be different.
To me, the lesson of anti-Mormon bigotry is that we remain a vulnerable minority, in similar ways as other minorities such as Jews, Blacks, or gays.
Protestant fundamentalists will never treat us as equal human beings. The ACLU, on the other hand, has a consistent track record of defending Mormons when bigots abuse the power of the state to impose the tyranny of the majority on us and our children.
If actions speak louder than words then the ACLU is our true friend. That does not mean that Mormons have to be liberals. There is nothing wrong with conservatism. Instead of pandering to Protestant fundamentalists, however, we might be better off to embrace the spirituality of a Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mohandas Gandhi.
David O. McKay could invoke that spirit when he defended the Saints in Wales or Juanita Brooks’s freedom to publish her research. McKay was a complex and contradictory person but it seems to me that his approach invoked values that were not only compatible with our self-interest but also that of our neighbors.
Nobody can ask for more.