Protocols of the Elders
Mitt Romney’s candidacy has revived the canard that Mormons are plotting to take over America. Jews have faced that charge for centuries.
Indeed, contemporary Mormons echo their leadership’s dismissal. “The White Horse prophecy is pretty much bogus,” Orson Scott Card told me. While best-known for his novel Ender’s Game, Card is also a lifelong Latter-day Saint. He authors a regular column on faith for the church-owned Deseret News and is a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young. (He served his LDS mission in Brazil, where he picked up the Portuguese language and Catholic culture that feature in the Ender’s Game sequel, Speaker for the Dead.) On the White Horse prophecy, Card is unequivocal. “It’s not regarded as doctrinal by the church, it’s not treated as Scripture, it’s not regarded as an authentic statement of Joseph Smith, and church policy is not guided by it in any way, shape, or form. Most Mormons are unaware of its existence.”
To test this proposition, I spoke to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor of early American history at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize winner. A committed Mormon, she serves as the faculty adviser to the Latter-day Saint Student Association on campus. She’s also edited a collection of essays about the lives of Mormon women and is currently writing a book on 19th-century Mormon diaries. “Every society has these little urban legends,” she said of the White Horse prophecy. “There may be people who take it seriously. I don’t know any.”
As a Massachusetts resident and a Mormon, Ulrich often gets questions from reporters about her impression of Romney, specifically how his faith and politics relate. She doesn’t offer citations from LDS scripture. “I point out that you’ve got to evaluate this person in terms of his own positions—and there’s a wide range of positions among Latter-day Saints,” she said. “He’s somewhat to the right of the mainstream church position on some issues and maybe not on others. So, you really have to look at what he says.”
Both Card and Ulrich find the charge of theocracy laughable. “The general stance of the church, and this would of course go way back into the 19th century, is ‘please leave us alone, protect our rights to practice our religion,’ ” Ulrich explained. “Yes, there was a unity of church and state for a time with Brigham Young as governor and head of the church. But they also helped fund the establishment of a Jewish synagogue in Salt Lake and welcomed Jews,” she added. She points to the LDS Articles of Faith—which originated with Joseph Smith in the 1840s—where Article 11 avers, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” As members of a long-persecuted minority religion, said Ulrich, “Mormons—of all people—are pretty protective of religious liberty.”
Card added that Mormonism, as an international missionary religion, would rather not be equated with the United States. “Can you imagine what the effect would be in Mexico, in Nicaragua, in Honduras, in China, if the Mormon Church was viewed as an instrument of the American government? It would be difficult for us to get our missionaries into countries that now accept them. This is actually quite perilous. Our primary mission as a church is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ,” not to elect an American president. “So, those that think that Mormons are all universally united behind the idea of a Mitt Romney candidacy and that we’re just chomping at the bit to get control of the government of the United States—that’s the opposite of the truth. The truth is, Mitt Romney’s candidacy, leading to his election as president, would be perilous to the Mormon Church and would make our work worldwide more difficult.”
So, if the LDS Church and its adherents have no interest in taking over the American government and imposing their beliefs on others, why are an increasing number of commentators claiming that they do? Underlying these attacks on the loyalties and religious beliefs of American Mormons is not so much an attitude of prejudice as one of partisanship. After all, no prominent columnist imputed theocratic motives to Harry Reid when he ascended to the post of Democratic Majority Leader. And no one dared to mock the “magic underwear” of Orthodox Jews—tzitzit—when Joe Lieberman ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket, as pundits like Bill Maher and Maureen Dowd have done when it comes to Romney’s Mormon undergarments. (And if one doubts that tzitzit can be just as disconcerting to the uninitiated, go read Philip Roth.) It is only when a conservative Republican Mormon emerged as a presidential frontrunner that these issues suddenly became pressing matters of national concern. The very real and unprecedented possibility of a Mormon presidency opened the door to very real and unprecedented political rancor.
Tellingly, the sort of specious argument that Salon’s Denton makes about the perils of Mormon theocracy is exactly the sort of conspiracy theory that the same publication rightly denounces when it comes from Robert Spencer about Muslims and the threat of creeping Sharia. The latter narrative is clearly seen as false, but the equally problematic nature of the anti-Mormon argument is obscured by partisan blinders.
But one need not agree with Romney’s policies to recognize that it is wrong to play Da Vinci Code with his faith’s traditions, picking and choosing questionable texts from LDS history and using them to demonize an entire diverse religious community. One need not agree with those policies to understand that Romney’s positions are his own, and not dictated secretly by his church, which sometimes openly advocates for diametrically opposed policies.
Ultimately, there’s only one way to understand Mormons. “Meet a Mormon. Talk to a Mormon. Not about the church—just find out who we are,” said Card. “You’ll find out we’re perfectly normal. We have the normal percentage of wackos, like any other group—you can find wacko Baptists, wacko agnostics, and wacko college professors—but most of us are ordinary people. We keep up our yard, we pay our bills, we buy our houses, pay our mortgage, do our job, work hard.
“We have no more ambition to rule the United States than any other religious group. Nobody’s trying to create a Baptist president, nobody’s trying to create an atheist president,” he said. “If we have a Mormon as president, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a Mormon presidency—it’s going to be an American presidency. Just like all the others.”
Washington should back the Free Syrian Army in its insurgency against Bashar al-Assad, since toppling his regime would strike a blow against Iran