While shivering at a bus stop on the outskirts of Rochdale last night, I was approached by two smiling teenage boys wearing ties and nameplates declaring them ‘elders’ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were so earnest and eager to talk that I felt embarrassed about trying to shoo them on with the plainly absurd claim that I’m busy - an impulse reaction to any stranger not asking for directions or the time - and instead stood talking to them until their bus arrived.
The Latter Day Saints - or Mormons - have been the subject of some debate in the USA recently since Mitt Romney entered the race for Republican Presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. A 6th generation Mormon, Romney has largely declined to discuss the specifics of his faith. He addressed the issue in 2007, shortly before losing the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination to John McCain, by invoking JFK’s reassurance that he ‘will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office.’ Despite this, a recent poll showed that 20% of the Republicans polled were uneasy about Romney’s Mormonism, with 40% viewing it as not a Christian religion.
The young men I spoke to were also a bit uneasy about the label, flinching slightly at my use of the word ‘Mormons’. Their principal concern was that I agree to read the Book of Mormon, which one of them swiftly produced from his pocket, and after some less-than-committal noises on my part, the conversation turned to the provenance of the book. Mormons believe that their religion’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr, was visited by an angel who led him to the book - written on golden plates - which he then translated and published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. Needless to say, the plates were never seen by anyone else.
I was interested to see how they arrived at their belief in this story over the competing explanation, that Joseph Smith Jr simply wrote the book himself. They countered that I can’t know either way, which is true, but as I explained to them, there is a countless number of documented instances throughout human history where people have written texts, but not a single documented instance where an angel has appeared. So by that logic, one explanation is much more likely than the other - we can’t know for sure, but we can gauge the relative validity of the two competing explanations. At this point the two elders were visibly glazing over, and seemed relieved when their bus pulled around the corner. In parting they gave me a card showing a picture of Joseph Smith bathed in divine light, and giving details of their website.
If Mitt Romney is successful in his bid to be President of the USA, he will have his finger on the trigger of the largest military arsenal in the world. He will make decisions that could shape world history for generations. After the two elders left, I was left wondering what impact these beliefs - which are a bit outlandish even for Romney’s fellow Christian Republicans, who regard Mormonism as being on a par with Islam in terms of distance from their own beliefs - would have on his decision making process. If Romney wholly accepts, as he presumably does, that God appeared in New York in 1830 to tell Joseph Smith to avoid established churches - an odd and confusing message, coming from God - then what else will he accept?
The young men I met were clearly uneasy with my questions, and were glad to get away. They seemed pleasant and harmless on their patrol of suburban Rochdale, but the notion that someone who shares their odd aversion to simple logic could become capable of shaping the global narrative for up to eight years is frankly terrifying. I’m sure that Romney would do his best to separate his religious views from the duties of the office he aspires to, but the fact remains that his decisions would be percolated and shaped in the same mental space that has been cleansed of the capacity to differentiate between absurd propositions and logical ones.