The Mormon church, racism, and Mitt Romney

When it comes to religions, they all have such weird beliefs that comparing them to see which ones are more bizarre is futile. Can we really say that Scientology is crazier than Islam, Mormonism than Judaism? Bahaism than Christianity? How does one measure levels of craziness to enable such comparisons? And yet, people often do make just such judgments.

This is because people often mistake the level of unfamiliarity for weirdness. Recall Richard Dawkins’ amusing story (The God Delusion, p. 178) of anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s incredulity when at a function at Cambridge University, just after he had recounted the beliefs of the Fang tribes people, a Christian theologian turned to him and said with no trace of irony, “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.”. As Dawkins points out, the Christian theologian had to believe in at least some of the following things:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

This is what makes the entry of Mormons into presidential politics so much fun, because people are being introduced to a whole new set of weird beliefs and thus will require some mental gymnastics from those who would like to make the claim that it is more bizarre than Christianity or Judaism or Islam. It is interesting that when Romney was running for the 2008 nomination some people felt that Mormonism was so obviously a cult that any Mormon was too crazy to hold the office of the presidency. One does not hear such things this time around, at least not publicly. (See here, here, here, and here for examples of such earlier criticisms.)

Like other religions, Mormonism has an unpleasant history with racism, and modified its views to conform to modern sensibilities only very recently. Take the issue of the ‘priesthood’. Any white male joined the priesthood at the age of 12 and at age 18, they entered a higher-level priesthood that allowed them to serve as missionaries and hold other positions of authority that carried benefits and privileges.

This interesting article describes how until 1978 black males, although they could join the church, could not attain the level of priesthood and this was because of the belief that their blackness was due to god’s curse on them.

In his office, [Brigham Young University] religion professor Randy Bott explains a possible theological underpinning of the ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

Brigham Young himself “enforced [the ban] enthusiastically as the word of God, supporting slavery in Utah and decreeing that the “mark” on Cain was “the flat nose and black skin.” Young urged immediate death to anyone who participated in the mixing of the races.

The turbulent period of the 60s and 70s led in 1978 to then-prophet Joseph Spencer W. Kimball conveniently having a ‘divine revelation’ that opened the door to full membership in the church to people of color. Incidentally BYU professor Bott seems to feel that the old doctrine is still sound and has thus been at the center of a controversy ever since the newspaper article came out. He can hold these views and still be a Mormon in good standing and teach at their flagship university because the old doctrine was never officially repudiated, even after the 1978 revelation.

In the debate that raged around this issue during the 1970s, Mitt Romney comes out as one of those people who kept his head low and, whatever his personal views on the issue, did not want to rock the boat and seemed to feel that the authority of the church must be obeyed, even as other young Mormons fought to remove the ban. He tends to avoid talking about his views on the issue but at some point, if he is the nominee, the question is going to come up.


  1. says

    Can we really say that Scientology is crazier than Islam, Mormonism than Judaism?

    Yes, actually, we can, and must, make such judgments; just as we must judge whether one person in a mental institution is more delusional, or less able to acknowledge reality, than another.

    It is an observable fact that some theists (like some mental patients) are indeed more capable of rational thought, and/or more able to behave responsibly, than others. Putting several people, or sevaral beliefs, under one label does not automatically make them “the same” in any meaningful way. Similar, yes, but not “the same.”

    The same goes for beliefs: a religion that believes a set A of fairy-tales is at least a little less crazy than one that believes set A plus another set B. And a religion that believes an untestable set of fairy-tales is less crazy than one that believes a diferent set of fairy-tales that are easily disproven.

  2. jamessweet says

    led in 1978 to then-prophet Joseph Kimball conveniently having a ‘divine revelation’

    Correction: The man’s name was Spencer Kimball, who announced that black people were maybe people too.

  3. jamessweet says

    I dunno, I think estimating which religious doctrines are nuttier is a nigh intractable problem. Certainly, individual believers can be nuttier than others. And I think that, to a certain extent, we can see that some sects are more odious than others. (And certainly it is trivial that some individual believers are more odious than others!)

    But as to which doctrines are nuttier? I dunno, I think the problem is often intractable. Certainly we can put Catholicism and Mormonism in a different bucket from, say, Quaker and UU… but to split hairs between Catholicism and Mormonism? As I did in the thread over at Hallquist’s blog, I’ll see your posthumous baptism and raise you one ritualized faux-cannibalism. And don’t get me started on the weird pantheon of saints…

  4. mnb0 says

    I think Pastafarianism is less bizarre than any other religion. Any privilege granted to established religion should be immediately granted to Pastafarianism too. I cannot think of a better way to guarantee the separation of Church and State.

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