Thursday, May 24, 2012

Latter-Daze Wingnuts

'Tis hard to speak seriously about Big Love's church. Amy Davidson gave it a go in a recent piece in The New Yorker. Of course, she doesn't gave any consideration to Big Love, The Sociopath. The loon engaged in homophobic hate crimes as an adolescent and — as an adult — tortured the family dog on his wild drive from Belmont, MA to a summer vacation in Canada. The dog ran away — repeatedly. That's what the voters in November 2012 should do: run, not walk away from this loon. If this is (fair & balanced) fear & loathing, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Latter-Day Politics
By Amy Davidson

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What is wrong with talking about Mormonism when talking about Mitt Romney and his run for the Presidency? On CNN last Sunday, David Axelrod, President Obama’s strategist, promised that his campaign did not consider Romney’s faith “fair game.” The implication, there, is that Mormonism is a weak point to be exploited—a card that one would only expect the Obama team to play from the bottom of the deck. And given that suspicions about Mormonism are widely thought to have cost Romney votes in the South, there may be good reasons for thinking so. Romney has also said, rightly, that some matters of faith are properly private. It might be that, in the interest of civility and electoral prudence, neither Obama nor Romney can initiate a conversation about what it means to be Mormon in this country. But perhaps the rest of us should, because the story is complicated, fascinating, and utterly American.

There are two ways, at least, to draw the line between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Presidential election. One can take Mormonism as a starting point, and try to use it to understand Mitt Romney. Or one can take Mitt Romney’s candidacy as an opening for a discussion of the story of Mormonism. It would be absolutely wrong to vote against Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon, rather than because of his political position. At the same time, it is hard to see what would be lost by anyone, on either side, if we were to seize this moment to talk about a faith whose history is a narrative of change, tolerance, exploration, and reinvention.

Jodi Kantor took the first, Mitt-based approach in the Times this past weekend, in a long piece that was careful to assert its interest in Romney’s religion not for its own sake but for how it explained him as a businessman and a politician—as “a man whose faith is his design for living.” There is something to learn there, on subjects like requiring charity recipients to work, and encouraging women not to, but the most jarring thing Kantor turned up may have been Romney’s habit of “belting out hymns (‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’) while horseback riding.”

Romney himself took a tack similar to Kantor’s when he spoke at the commencement at Liberty University, the school Jerry Falwell founded. Romney didn’t name his church, and he didn’t have to. It is a good bet that many members of that audience had it in mind, along with the belief that he was not a Christian, or not a proper one, when he came up to speak. His answer was complicated and tellingly humble: he effectively conceded the theological distance while saying that his religion brought him close to evangelicals politically:

People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.

That “common worldview” is a reasonable place for a dialogue; there is every reason to question and challenge it. There is a balance to be struck in using Mormonism to inform those exchanges—treating it as a road map, as Kantor does, rather than insisting on some contorted catechism. Heckling Romney about, say, the Mountain Meadows massacre in 1857 would only be a distraction, and a cheap one. At the same time, learning about his response when he was in his thirties and his church stopped barring black members from the priesthood could be illuminating. (“I was anxious to see a change in my Church,” he told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” in 2007. “I can remember when I heard about the change being made…. I heard it on the radio and I pulled over and literally wept.”)

Romney also told the Liberty students that “your values will not always be the object of public admiration. In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world.” There is a story there, too; this is where the broader approach to the discussion of Mormonism is useful. It is also why it was disappointing that Romney’s speech at Liberty, which also included references to a “Judeo-Christian” America, felt a little bit like a religious test of the sort the founders despised—like a closed-off complaint about a supposed war on religion, rather than an assertion of tolerance.

Lawrence Wright, in a long piece on Mormonism for The New Yorker in 2002—which includes some striking conversations with Romney about his time as a missionary and his polygamous great-grandparents—notes that by the time Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was in his twenties he “had become one of the most controversial men in America…. In the nine years that remained in his brief life, Smith and his disciples were driven from one settlement after another, in what was an unparalleled assault of religious persecution in America.” Smith was killed by a mob in Illinois; there are many reasons to be dubious about some of the stories he told, and yet—and maybe partly for that dream-infused reason—his life is a parable of American possibility. The religion he began, scorned and chased across frontier borders, would become one of the only major denominations to be born in the New World. One can’t properly tell the story of the American West, or firmly grasp our political and intellectual history, without it.

But the early response to Mormonism is also an admonition about our country’s capacity to forget itself, when confronted with a religious, ethnic, or political minority, or anyone who inspires fear—from Nauvoo to the Korematsu decision to warrantless wiretapping. Wright notes that “writers such as Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle described the Mormons in terms similar to those the press uses to describe the Taliban today.” We need to talk about Mormonism because we need to talk not about what religion each of us should be but about the country we ought to be. Romney has presented us with the right moment. Ω

[Amy Davidson is a senior editor at The New Yorker, having joined the magazine in 1995. She focuses on politics and international affairs. She edits profiles and features. Davidson attended Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude (Social Studies). After graduation she worked for about 18 months in Germany. Her editing contributions to The New Yorker have won the National Magazine Award and the George Polk Award. Davidson is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.]

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