Since Mitt Romney became the Republican presidential hopeful, I’ve seen a lot of confusion in the media, online, and at the water cooler about what Mormons really believe. People of most faiths and non-faiths have been wondering if they should be concerned about the possibility of having a Mormon in the White House. I have written this post to address the confusion. It ended up a lot longer than I wanted, but I tried to paint a factual and unbiased picture, even as I recounted my personal experience with the Church.
I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the mainstream Mormon church). Both of my parents were also born into Mormon families. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins (more than 125 of them) are all Mormon. As a child, I attended church and primary school every Sunday. At 8, I was baptized by immersion in water, wiping my 8-year-old sins clean and allegedly allowing me to hear the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, a spirit entity who would tell me right from wrong. At 12, I was conferred the Aaronic (lesser) Priesthood through the laying on of hands. I was found worthy to enter the temple and made numerous temple trips where I participated in sacred temple rites, including personally standing proxy in more than 30 baptisms for the dead. I was active in an all-Mormon Boy Scout troop. At 16, I was awarded the office of Priest, giving me the authority to bless and administer sacrament, collect fast offerings, and even to baptize others into the Mormon church.
At 17, I left the Church. In the years preceding that I had come to realize that I was an atheist and I despised many of the Church’s social stances. I mention my age because it is important; at 18, Mormon men are expected to accept the Melchizedek (greater) priesthood, become an elder of the church, and shortly thereafter go on a 2-year mission to spread the gospel. I had other intentions (namely college and grad school), and as I approached my 18th birthday and planned my future, that fact was steadily becoming apparent to my mother. So unlike many young adults, I was not able to slink off to college, stop attending church, and quietly join a campus atheist group. Decisions about the priesthood and my mission and my future in the Church were looming. I argued constantly with my parents about religion and it eventually came to head in a huge fight, after which I left home. Leaving home and the church caused a rift with my family that even a decade later has not completely healed.
History of the Mormon Church
The Mormon church was founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in the mid-1800’s during a period of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Smith was unsure which church to join and exactly what to believe. So, by his account, in 1820 he went into the woods near his home in Manchester, New York to pray and ask God which church was correct. There he claims to have experienced what is known as the First Vision. In it, Smith says, God and Jesus appeared and told him that all the existing churches on Earth were corrupt and that the fullness of the true gospel would be revealed to him in due time.
In 1823, Smith was asleep in his bed when, again by his own telling, he was awoken by a bright light. In the room with him was the angel Moroni, who revealed to Smith where he might find buried the Golden Plates. These plates were to contain the long-lost writings of ancient prophets who lived in the Americas, as well as an account of Jesus’s appearance in America after his death and resurrection. Though Smith searched for several years, he could not find the plates and claims that Moroni reappeared several times to tell him it was because he was unworthy. Finally in 1827, Smith allegedly found the plates, along with the Urim and Thummim, mystical “seer stones” meant to allow Smith to translate the plates.
Smith was able to keep the plates hidden – from pretty much everyone except 11 witnesses (some of whom would later claim they had seen the plates in a vision and not with their “natural eyes”). He began the arduous process of “translating” them using the seer stones. Though initially alone, he was later aided by believers such as Olivery Cowdery and David Whitmer who would go on to become early leaders in the Mormon church. By Smith’s account, when he was done, the angel Moroni returned and took back the plates. The resulting “translation” was published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.
During the translation, Smith and Cowdery claimed to have been visited by an angel who bestowed upon them the “Holy Priesthood,” or the power to act in God’s name (most notably the authority to baptize people). The angel also told them how to build up God’s church in the true gospel. After this revelation, Smith and Cowdery began using the newfound priesthood and Book of Mormon to recruit and baptize new church members. By 1831, the church had hundreds of members and had established headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio.
While in Kirtland, the church began to organize and resemble the modern Mormon church. The term “Latter Day Saints” came into use. It was “revealed” that while church members might receive revelations, at any time there could be only one Prophet (in this case, Smith) who could speak with revelatory certainty and determine church doctrine. Also established were the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to lead the Church’s missionary work. Kirtland was the site of the first Mormon temple and where the temple rites were first practiced. Many of these revelations and practices were codified in a book called “The Doctrine and Covenants”, which is today considered the 3rd Mormon sacred text (though it has been amended over the years). It is also said that this is where Joseph Smith first began practicing plural marriage, when he secretly married Fanny Alger as his second wife in 1833.
In 1839, Smith moved the Church headquarters from Kirtland, first to Far West, Missouri, then to Nauvoo, Illinois. Along the way, there were several schisms in the Church which led to the founding of splinter groups, some of which still exist today. It was also in Nauvoo that Smith introduced baptism for the dead and plural marriage, at least for Church leaders. Though Smith publicly condemned polygamy (this is reflected in the Doctrine and Covenants from that time) and denied having multiple wives his entire life, it is clear from historical records that he practiced and advanced the doctrine in secret with Church leadership.
It was the polygamy issue that ultimately led to Smith’s death. In 1844, the local Nauvoo Expositor threatened to publish an article detailing the extent of polygamy in Mormon leadership. Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, organized the local militia and destroyed the newspaper. For this unconstitutional act, he was imprisoned by the Governor in the Carthage, Illinois jail. While there, an anti-Mormon mob stormed the jail and murdered Smith and his brother Hyrum. Shortly after, Smith’s 1843 polygamy revelation was published posthumously. In it, Smith counsels his wife Emma to accept his plural wives or be “destroyed”. At the time of his death, Smith had somewhere between 29 and 48 wives.
After Smith’s death, there was a power struggle which resulted in several LDS groups being formed. Most Mormons ultimately followed Brigham Young to what would become Salt Lake City, Utah. In addition to leading the Church, Young initially established a theocracy in Utah, publicly allowing the practice of plural marriage. Non-Mormon residents were uncomfortable with the religious rule and in 1857 the United States Army invaded Utah in what is known as the Utah Mormon War. It ended with Young stepping down as governor and a non-religious government being installed. However, Young continued to lead the Church until he died in 1877; he was survived by 51 wives and 56 children.
Mormon polygamy went unchallenged until 1878, when the Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States that plural marriage was not protected under freedom of religion. Nonetheless, the practice continued until 1890, when Congress disincorporated the Church and seized many of its assets. Bowing to this pressure, church president Wilford Woodruff officially suspended the practice. It did not dissolve existing plural marriages, but put a stop to any new ones. After this, relations with the United States government steadily improved.
In 1875, the Mormons established Brigham Young Academy (later to become Brigham Young University) in Provo, Utah. Also around this time, in 1880, the final sacred text of Mormonism, “The Pearl of Great Price”, was cannonized. It contained a number of Smith’s writings, the most prominent of which were the Articles of Faith, a concise listing of the 13 fundamental doctrines of Mormonism.
Aside from growing steadily, the Church remained largely unchanged in the early half of the 20th century. The next (and last) noteworthy change in Church doctrine was in 1978 when church president Spencer W. Kimball issued a declaration that all church racial policies would end. Prior to 1978, blacks were not allowed to participate in temple ordinances (without which they could not enter the highest kingdom of heaven), neither could black men enter into the priesthood. The modern Church reports a population of 14 million worldwide, with nearly half of those in the United States. They have nearly 75,000 missionaries worldwide. While many Mormon splinter sects still exist (at least 4), the vast majority of Mormons are affiliated with this mainstream Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Modern Mormon Beliefs
Let’s start with the very basics. Mormons have 4 sacred texts, usually bound together in what’s called a “Quad.” The texts are:
- The King James Bible
- The Book of Mormon
- The Doctrine and Covenants
- The Pearl of Great Price
The last of these sacred texts contains, among other things, the 13 Articles of Faith penned by Joseph Smith in 1842. These articles describe the basic tenets of Mormonism in terms of mainstream Christianity. As a child, all Mormons memorize these articles to 13 separate, haunting melodies. I can still recite them word-for-word, though it creeps out my wife when I sing them. They are definitely worth a read in their entirety, but I’ll call out the highlights:
- Mormons believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are three separate entities.
- Mormons do not believe in original sin.
- Mormons believe that Jesus Christ died for mankind’s sins.
- Mormons believe that the Bible is the word of God, but with the reservation that it may have been translated incorrectly. Basically, if the Bible disagrees with the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon trumps.
- Mormons believe that the end-times are coming.
Of course, the Articles of Faith only scratch the surface of Mormon beliefs. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll uncover a number of beliefs and practices not found in mainstream Christianity:
- Mormons believe in modern revelation (they’d have to). The head of the church is believed to be a Prophet and can receive revelations concerning church doctrine and beliefs, keeping the church relevant and living.
- Mormons believe in two spiritual authorities, the Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood (collectively referred to as the Priesthood). The power of the Priesthood is required for almost all Mormon rituals. Only men may hold either Priesthood.
- Mormons believe in a scripture-based health code called the Word of Wisdom. Received as revelation by Joseph Smith and codified in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Word of Wisdom prohibits the use of drugs and tobacco, as well as the consumption of alcoholic beverages and “hot drinks” like coffee and tea. In modern history, it has also been interpreted by many as a directive to avoid or limit the consumption of caffeinated soft-drinks like Coca Cola.
- Mormons construct temples that are different from normal churches. In these buildings (approximatley 150 of them worldwide), sacred temple rites are performed. Only Mormons in good standing with the Church who have a temple recommend from their local bishop may enter.
- Mormons believe in baptism (and other ordinances) for the dead. These rituals are performed in Mormon temples using living people as proxies. Because Mormonism was so late to the religious party, there are billions of people who never had a chance to accept it and are consequently waiting in spirit prison for these soul-saving rituals. This is why Mormons are so big into geneology – they want to make sure all of their dead relatives make it into heaven. To be clear (because I’ve heard some confusion on this point) this practice has not been abandoned. There were some policy changes after the public uproar over the Church baptizing Holocaust victims; since then, they are being more careful about exactly which dead people they baptize. But baptism for the dead is alive and well in the mainstream Mormon church.
- While we’re on the subject of temples, I’ll go ahead and address an issue that critics love: temple garments or “magic underwear.” These are a special type of two-piece underwear worn by most Mormons after they have been endowed that represent a personal relationship with God. They are worn every day (and usually every night) under your normal clothes, except during activities where they would be impractical (like swimming or exercise). Women are usually counselled that this will help them dress modestly, as the cut of the garments prevents the comfortable wearing of tight and revealing clothing.
- Mormons have a unique view of the afterlife. When people die, they either go to paradise or spirit prison, essentially based on whether or not they are Mormon. But this is just a temporary condition until Jesus’s return and the final judgement. In the final judgement, we’ll all be reunited with our bodies and be sorted into one of four places (in order of increasing desirability): Outer Darkness, Telestial Kingdom, Terrestrial Kingdom, and Celestial Kingdom.
- Mormons believe in something called exaltation in which the most righteous men will be promoted to Godhood in the afterlife and create universes and planets of their own.
As an atheist I’m concerned about all religions, and my concerns about Mormonism are similar to my concerns about Christianity in general… except magnified.
Sexism. I know many Christian denominations practice discrimination against women, but sexism in the Mormon church is pervasive and overwhelming. They have created an endemic system of oppression in which every man is a clergy member and disobeying or arguing with a man is essentially a rebellion against God. This culture is maintained through separate religious schooling for boys and girls after the age of 12. At this age, boys are elevated into the priesthood, putting them in a position of power over all women (including their own mothers). I experienced this first-hand when my parents divorced and I became (as a teenager) the spiritual head of the household. Girls are taught the importance of chastity until marriage and conditioned to believe that much of their worth comes from the men they will eventually marry and have children with (birth control is strongly discouraged). They are also taught that they cannot enter the Celestial Kingdom without a husband.
Of course, there’s also the obvious history of polygamy. While they have tried very hard to distance themselves from the practice in the past century, it is accepted within the Church that plural marriage will be restored in heaven and all good Mormon men will have multiple wives there with whom they will father spirit children to inhabit the worlds they create as gods.
A related issue is the difficulty women face in receiving a divorce in the Church (to avoid being reunited with the same man in heaven). Women are almost always initially counselled against divorce by their bishops, and I have even known two women (at two separate churches) who were advised to stay with their physically abusive husbands. Even if a divorce is granted, a woman’s temple recommend is revoked until she has proven to Church leaders that she is once again holy enough to enter the temple. This rule does not apply to men.
Racism. Although the Church’s racial policies were officially abandoned in 1978, the reality is that dark-skinned people still face considerable discrimination within the Church. For a first-hand account, I would point everyone to Neeta Linda’s “Born Evil: That’s what the Mormon Church Taught Me as a Brown and Female Child”. Speaking from my experience, off-the-cuff racism was a common occurrence in Sunday school and Seminary. I’m not sure if my teachers would have acted differently if there were a black person in class, because it never came up (the vast majority of Mormons are white).
Of course, it’s pretty easy to perpetuate racism with so much Mormon scripture and tradition pointing toward the darkening of skin as a curse from God. The easiest example is in early in the Book of Mormon:
“And [God] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God; I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.” (2 Nephi 5:21)
This black-as-punishment motif is reiterated throughout Church tradition. It is believed by many Mormons that in the War in Heaven, a number of spirits would not side with either Jesus or Satan. As punishment, God cursed them to inhabit black-skinned bodies when they came to Earth. Many Mormons also believe that God cursed Cain with black skin for slaying Abel, and it is from Cain that all black people are descended.
Homophobia. Mormons, like many Christian denominations, believe that any sexual activity outside of opposite-sex marriage is immoral. This rule prevents anyone engaging in same-sex sexual activity from receiving a temple recommend. Mormons who confess to same-sex attraction are usually counselled that with work and prayer they can overcome their temptation. This, combined with the tremendous pressure to marry (especially for women), leads many to marry someone of the opposite sex anyway (though the official Church policy warns against this).
The Church’s political involvement in gay rights issues has been well-covered in the media. It actively opposes all efforts to legalize same-sex marriage or civil unions. In 2004, the Church officially endorsed a constitutional ban on gay marriage. In 2008, the Church raised $40 million in support of California’s Proposition 8 and provided 80-90% of early volunteers who raised awareness by walking door-to-door in election precincts. The Mormon Church is seen as perhaps the driving and deciding force behind the passing of Proposition 8; this is explored in the 2010 documentary film 8: The Mormon Proposition.
Today, the Church still stands as a formidable force against gay marriage and (unlike mainstream Christianity) I do not see that stance changing anytime soon. Mormon beliefs and notions of the afterlife are very gender-role-specific and it would require wholesale rewrites of almost every Mormon doctrine to allow same-sex relationships.
So far, the post has been about Mormonism. Now let’s talk about the election. You may have seen this coming, but if it’s not already clear I’ll go ahead and disclose that I will not be voting for Mitt Romney. Is it entirely because of his religion? No – I probably wouldn’t have voted Republican anyway. But is his religion part of it? Absolutely. It is incredibly unlikely a follower of such an oppressive and discriminatory faith could represent my social values.
But maybe there are some of you out there who are on the fence. Maybe you want to vote for Romney, but you’re concerned about his religion (rightly so). I would urge those people to consider the concerns I listed above, especially if you’re intention is to vote Christian. Please recognize that there is only one real Christian running in this next election. So if that’s your deciding factor, head on over to Amazon and pick up an Obama 2012 Bumper Sticker.