The future can’t be proven. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. The world is brimming with philosophies and religions that declare with absolute certainty what no one can possibly know. Religions in particular specialize in describing for us what we cannot see, as well as what the future holds for us once we leave this mortal existence. That in itself is a pretty strange concept. It should not surprise us then that religious speculation about the world beyond this one sometimes sounds like science fiction.
Are Mormon beliefs strange? Though their religious doctrines originated with the Bible, as did those of other Christian churches, Mormons are often accused of being stranger than most. But is that a fair assessment? Sure, they believe God the Father has a body of flesh and bones, and that he resides on a distant planet named Kolob. But compare that to, say, Catholic doctrine: that God is three persons in one, and that he fills the Universe, without form. The latter might be more familiar to most Americans, but which one is actually stranger?
Are Mormons Christians? Are they a cult? Are they neither, or both? As Willard Mitt Romney plods toward clinching the GOP nomination for President of the United States, these questions—and the deeper discussions that hinge on them—are being asked more and more frequently about Latter-day Saints. Just recently I listened to a liberal talk radio show where neither the callers nor the host seemed to have many facts at their disposal (though there was plenty of urban legend) about Mormons. Let’s consider a few of the topics they explored.
Is Mitt Romney a Christian? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.” The official name of his church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Are Mormons Fundamentalist Christians? No. So most fundamentalist Christians maintain that Mormons are therefore not Christian at all. But Christians come in many flavors. Mormons, like most Christians, believe that Jesus of Nazareth is divine, the son of God the Father, and that eternal salvation is possible through his sacrifice for those who repent and are baptized as he was, by immersion in water. That’s pretty Christian.
Is Mormonism a cult? Yes and no, depending on your definition. There’s a fine line between indoctrination and brainwashing. When anyone raises a child with the belief that there is only one true way, one true organization, and that straying from either leads to eternal punishment and estrangement from those you love, that’s pretty darn close to brainwashing. But Mormons don’t really differ from devout Catholics in this from a doctrinal standpoint (although Catholics are much more lax in practice than Mormons). And Orthodox Jews can be said to be equally rigorous in hewing to strict doctrinal and social behaviors, the violation of which would result in ostracization from the religious body. Heck, some Christian Fundamentalist sects will expel you for dancing. Footloose, anybody? (And the original was filmed in Utah Valley!) So Mormons aren’t so different from other religious bodies in requiring compliance to rigid social standards.
Does Mitt Romney wear “magic” underwear and participate in secret rituals behind closed doors? Yes, presumably. As does any Mormon “in good standing.” But temple garments with tiny commemorative symbols are employed only as reminders of “sacred” covenants one has made, and Mormonism is not alone in such practices. Jews wear clothing that they believe God has commanded them to wear: yarmulkes and prayer shawls. And Masons, though not a religion, participate in temple ceremonies very similar to those of Mormons, which are likewise restricted to members. So what if people put on funny clothes when they perform rituals? Priests and pastors have been doing this for millennia.
Does Mitt Romney pledge allegiance to the president of his church? Kind of. All good Mormons are required to regularly reaffirm their belief that the current president is a “prophet, seer, and revelator,” as was the church’s 1830 founder, Joseph Smith, and that they will “sustain” him in word and deed. And while the church has no doctrine of infallibility regarding this individual (as do Catholics regarding the pope), there is a de facto belief throughout the LDS church that the prophet can never lead church members astray. What “astray” means is open to debate. What Romney believes is anybody’s guess, but he doesn’t “take orders” from the prophet any more than Catholics take orders from the pope. In fact, it seems much more likely that Rick Santorum would do the pope’s bidding, than Romney would that of his own church’s prophet.
Where things really get interesting however, is in the matter of the Mormon Church’s belief in its own divine role in America’s history and future. I treat this topic in previous posts regarding belief in a prophecy by Joseph Smith that “the time will come when the Constitution and the Government will hang by a thread and will be ready to fall…but this people, the Latter-Day Saints, will step forth and save it.” This prophecy, coupled with the church’s teaching that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God for the divine purpose of establishing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a free land, forms the basis of my political thriller “By A Thread: A tale of truth, trust, and betrayal.”
I purposely blurred the lines between reality and fiction for best effect, prompting one reviewer to remark, “As Beaudet adds layer on layer to the story, it’s like a punch in the gut. I kept thinking, this could really happen.” Many other readers have had a s similar reaction.
But fiction aside, it is interesting to contemplate the effect that belief in this prophecy will have on not only Mitt Romney’s perspective on his possible presidency, but on the Mormons who believe he represents, in part at least, the fulfillment of it. Mormons aren’t as crazy or different as Fundamentalist Christians and Rick Santorum would have us believe, but the Mormons’ rigid tenacity to the belief that they are chosen by God to perform a “marvelous work and a wonder” in the last days will make them worth watching as this election year proceeds.
—Marty Beaudet, author of the political thriller By A Thread and the psychological thriller Losing Addison, is a one-time practitioner of both Catholicism and Mormonism, and is at present a disinterested party when it comes to matters of religion.