A Mormon in the White House


So we may yet have a Mormon, Senator Mitt Romney, as the Republican contender for the White House.

Forty or so years ago this would have led to a perceived clash of loyalties: 'Who runs America?' — remember the fuss about John F. Kennedy's Catholicism? But now, due no doubt to the declining impact of religion generally, the senator's membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been the least of his troubles.

Not quite all Americans regard the issue as of no concern. Conservative evangelicals — those on the far right of the religious right — see the LDS church as a hotchpotch of heresies, based largely on private revelation, and therefore offensive to biblical Christianity. More liberal elements see it as a phantasm of fairytales; essentially harmless, almost entertaining, with an appeal to history as the first (and only?) native born American religion.

On the 'plus' side is the Mormons' patriotism, defence of family values, and promotion of health and fitness. In Salt Lake City, when I was there as a guest of Mormon leaders, the officials who welcomed me were waxing lyrical about the Australian 'Norm, the couch potato' TV adverts, which they were hoping to import.

On a leg of the journey I found myself next to a businessman who was regarded as the city's Jewish community leader. 'I live in the only place where Jews are Gentiles and Gentiles are Jews,' he quipped.

My week as a guest of the LDS could not have been better timed. The movement's world leader, who is also 'Prophet, Seer and Revelator', had just decreed 'by revelation' that black Americans could henceforth be accepted as full members. It was an interesting end to a long simmering controversy.

I spoke to some of those affected, who shed tears of joy. One of them told me he would have remained content, if fate and the church had thus decided, to remain on the outside looking in. A few days later I had a personal audience with President Spencer Kimball. I remember thinking: 'This puts papal infallibility in the shade.'

During my first few days in this fair city I was struck by the cleanliness of the streets, polite behaviour of the inhabitants, the pretty girls with their 1950s style gingham dresses. Rather like a science fiction film. After a while I was so brainwashed that I noticed how scruffy were the outsiders as they stepped out of their tourist coaches.

The shops were old-fashioned but a joy. I called on the tailor who makes the suits worn by young Mormons when they go overseas on mission. Each suit has an extra pair of pants. I was told they don't go threadbare, they rust.

A bookshop manager, himself a Mormon, directed me towards the city's Catholic cathedral, telling me to ask for Father Bill McDougall, the dean. He promised I would have a surprise in store, and he was right.

The man who came to the door was a powerfully built, thickset man, who, after leading me into the parlour, stretched full length on a couch, lit a cigar and asked me to tell him about myself. He seemed a most unclerical gentleman, and I was more interested in learning about him.

McDougall, initially a journalist on the Salt Lake City Deseret News, became a war correspondent with Reuters, covering the US Navy's role in liberating Java and the islands of the south-east. When his ship was sunk he spent nine days, clinging to a makeshift raft in a perilous sea, and vowed that, if his life were spared he would give his life to God and seek ordination as a Catholic priest. He did just that.

He said he did not feel alienated, living in a city where 75 per cent of the population belonged to a religious faith which many considered a little odd. 'I have nothing on Mormons,' he said smilingly. 'We have common values and have been victims of shared prejudice, particularly in the early years. Nowadays we just bait each other with a few jokes.' (Sample: 'Only a Mormon could lose the golden plates.')

Currently, there is a minor crisis within the LDS over accusations that the leadership has reneged on a promise to exclude Jewish gravesites and records from their custom of offering 'baptism of the dead' to those who, in their lifetime, lacked the opportunity to gain eternal life.

The practice is considered particularly insensitive to Holocaust survivors and others who do not understand the good intentions involved. Catholics are not known to have complained, other than at the annoyance caused by visitors sniffing around for access to information. It is thought Catholic saints are among the newly 'baptised'.

Probably the average American doesn't much care. The custom is a boon for genealogists, who find the information gleaned (available to outsiders) invaluable to compiling family trees.

Modest as I am, I feel compelled to mention my own small part in improving the Mormons' record keeping. Many of the genealogical records were, at the time of my visit, held in a huge room divided into sections corresponding with geographical areas. On visiting the room I noticed that the Australian section, unlike other national groups, had drawers and shelving clearly under lock and key.

The young attendant whom I asked about this said: 'We understand that some of your people have convict ancestors and you might not like it known.' I replied that the absolute opposite was the case. She then sent for her boss, who, having satisfied himself as to the veracity of my assertion, had all barriers and locks removed.

Alan GillAlan Gill is a former religious affairs writer for the Sydney Morning Herald. 

Topic tags: Mitt Romney, Mormons, US Presidential Primaries



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I lived in America for a year (in my early twenties) and was struck by the profound differences between Australian society and my place of temporary abode. I think it was the 'seriousness' of the people that confronted me to the greatest degree. And I still view the religious machinations of candidates for office in the US with some suspicion. My only contact in Australia with Mormons are the clean-cut, ultra-serious young men who knock on the door very occasionally. I've found them to be polite and enthusiastic for their beliefs - but always have the overwhelming feeling that there's a vast chasm between us.
Pam | 04 April 2012

In dealing with the diversity of religious belief and experience I try to be guided by the spirit of Good Pope John XXIII: In essentials, unity. In peripherals, tolerance. In all things, charity. Only too often my cradle-catholic conditioning seizes upon the differences between catholicism and other forms of Christianity to start with, and as for the differences between Christianity and other forms of religion, I can hardly read a sentence of their holy books/writings without pulling our my blue pencil to correct their errors. Sometimes I come to my senses and laugh at myself and say a quiet prayer to John XXIII for the Knowledge to know what is essential to my faith, the Tolerance to accept that there are many paths up the mountain to where God will be revealed, and the Charity to deal lovingly with all those who come into my company - including those I meet through press, radio, television and social media. A propos Mr Romney: I wish him well in his political endeavours. May the best man win!
Uncle Pat | 04 April 2012

Politely I would point out that Mr. Romney was a Governor of the State of Massachusetts, never a Senator as noted here.

A pleasant article nonetheless.
daveescaped | 04 April 2012

I think Cardinal George began endorsing him for Catholics indirectly sometime ago. He was a big hit with the LDS at Bringham Young University, stating "he had more in common with God fearing Latter Day Saints than Liberal Democrat so-called Catholics". I thought that was an interesting comment, considering our checkered past relationship over Baptism of the dead, which they did apologised for, but I don't understand about the Cathlolics he's disgruntled about. Not very charitable for a Cardinal.
L Newington | 04 April 2012

I live in Canada and I get to watch the United States from a view point others don’t see. I I’m also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The first mistake people make is we are LDS calling us Mormon’s is a slang name placed on members at the same time as a church we were driven from our homes usually in winter months from Ohio then to Missouri were the governor put out a exterminating order on (December 27, 1838 by then Lilburn Boggs) on our heads we then moved to Illinois and finely after our founder of our faith was murdered and mobs drove us out of our homes, farms and business killing us along the way, some walked all the way to Utah were we just wanted to be left alone. You can call us a cult all you want but I can tell you none has ever told me what to do; we are not creepy or strange. I was raised Anglican, I joined my LDS faith when I was 18. I read my Bible (KJV) and yes I have another book of scripture called The Book of Mormon another Testament of Jesus Christ, that is what is says on the cover. I have read both long before I became LDS. The Book of Mormon another Testament of Jesus Christ not only teaches the teachings of Jesus Christ it backs up the Bible in words you can understand. The Latter Day Saint movement is a faith within Christianity that arose during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century in the United States and that led to the set of doctrines, practices some call Mormonism. In its history, it is characterized by intense persecution in reaction to some of the movement's doctrines and practices and their relationship to mainstream Christianity. The faith began with the influence of Joseph Smith. Like all faiths it was started by a leader. The founder of our faith was Joseph Smith, Jr., who was raised in what was call the Burned-over district of Upstate New York. In response to prayer, he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, as well as angels and other visions, like other founders of other faiths. This eventually led him to a restoration of Christian doctrine that, he said, was lost after the early Christian apostles were killed. In addition, several early leaders made marked doctrinal and leadership contributions to the movement, including Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Brigham Young. Modern-day revelation from God continues to be a principal belief of our faith. I believe this and if you knew me you would not find me strange or weird or driven to belong to a cult in behavior. I am married with four children, a feminist and a strong believer in women’s rights. My husband is a holder of my faiths priesthood. I do not live in his shadow or in the shadow of my church leaders. Believe what you want I am a better Christians then narrow minded Evangelicals.
W Green | 05 April 2012


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