Let’s cherry-pick two columns for today’s post- “Yes, Romney Needs to Answer Questions” from the Philadelphia Inquirer, being reprinted in other regional papers today, and “Mitt’s Faith Isn’t an Issue: As Governor, He Didn’t Try to Convert Us” from yesterday’s Boston Herald. For two columns that reach exactly opposite conclusions, it’s remarkable how similar these two pieces are. The formula, copied from an infinite number of columns written before them, goes like this: Question- is Mitt Romney weird by association with Mormonism? Analysis: Look at all the weird stuff Mormons believe! (List Exhibits A through L, with appropriate phrasing to lend as much of a weird vibe as possible). Conclusion: Does it really matter, now that you’ve just dragged the sincere religious beliefs of six million Americans through the dirt?
Yes, but as long as these writers describe Mormon beliefs accurately, it’s all fair game, right? Not exactly. Imagine that someone described one of Jesus’s healings like this: “So he’s walking around preaching all his sayings to people and a blind guy asks him to make him better, so Jesus spits in some dirt and rubs it on the guy’s eyes and tells him the magic clay and spit will miraculously just cure the guy. And that’s what Christians believe.”
You have to admit this is a somewhat truthful retelling. And yet the language in which it is framed is irreverent, disrespectful, and completely misleading about the spirit of the event. The insistence of the above commentators on using terms like “magic rocks,” and “decoder glasses” distorts and demeans the events that Mormons take as sacred and miraculous. One also hears the term “magical underwear” thrown about quite frequently, another phrase that barely hides the user’s disdain behind a thin veil of patronizing secularist bemusement.
But setting aside the feelings of Mormons when they see their beliefs characterized so flippantly, this kind of usage is wrong because it’s misleading. If your thesis is that X is weird, it’s the easiest thing in the world to support your thesis if you get to choose how you describe X, no matter what X is. Anytime you throw around words like “magical,” or “breakaway theology” people will walk away with the impression that X is just wacky. And yet, Mormons don’t believe in magic. They believe, as most Christians do, that God possesses power that he sometimes uses in the affairs of men. When you allow the believer to select the phrasing, it really doesn’t come off quite so weird does it? The insistence on framing Mormon claims as mockingly as possible obscures the truth, and therefore should be condemned.
Another great example, from the Inquirer column, is the idea of Mormon scripture’s “insistence” that all other religions are “the church of the devil.” Hmm. Actually, there is no insistence on that point at all. In fact, the phrase “church of the devil” appears twice in all of Mormon scripture. Once in the Book of Mormon, which states that “there are save two churches only; the one is the Church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the Church of the devil.” While the phrasing is strong, this statement is never again seen in Mormon scripture- hardly ‘insistent.’ Further, there’s no reason to believe it defines the Church of the Lamb of God as Mormonism and everything else as the Church of the devil. In fact, that reading is at odds with the other scripture that uses the phrase. The Mormon scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants advises missionaries to “contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.” It would be absurd to read this statement to mean that missionaries SHOULD contend with all churches, because all of them are the church of the devil.
But this is nuance and depth, elements not comfortable in the garish retellings of performers like those responsible for the above columns. The truth is that cast against modern society, all religious beliefs look strange. If you are put off by the wording of the scriptures I’ve linked here, please spend a few moments with Jeremiah or Isaiah, and you may at least broaden your discomfort beyond Mormonism. The LDS faith’s only crime is having had the gall to arise contemporaneously with the invention of the secular backdrop that now views it as so untenable. Whether or not you think that’s impressive or insanely quixotic is immaterial. What matters is that commentators on this faith ought to give it the courtesy of explaining in terms that would make its beliefs at least recognizable to its own adherents. If we’ve come to a point where that is impossible, the damage will not only be sustained by Mormons.