Americans are asking because we’ve seen all manner of religious window dressing in the White House from choreographed visits by evangelists like Billy Graham to occasional “Photo Ops” as a president attends Sunday worship. The religion card probably grew thinnest when Richard Nixon claimed to be a Quaker, then showed no sign of it in his presidential policies.
In contrast, Romney’s religious roots are real and they go deep. The Latter-day Saints shaped his family through four generations before he was born; he has served as a Mormon bishop and the church forms his spiritual foundation to this day; and LDS teaching shapes the moral framework that will guide his future policies. That’s a conclusion that Romney himself likely would agree with, if he talked more about his faith on the campaign trail. It also is the conclusion of Richard Ostling, one of the nation’s most respected journalists, having served both as the religion writer for TIME magazine and the Associated Press. Ostling’s updated book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, has become the standard one-volume overview of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for non-Mormons.
“Most books on the Saints, as they call themselves, tend to be anti-Mormon screeds or soft-focus proselytizing. This book is eminently fair, well researched and exhaustive. … These authors are diligent referees of fights past and present.” That’s how the New York Times lavished praise on the Ostling book when it first appeared in 2000.
Richard Ostling and his wife Joan Ostling, also a veteran journalist, then extensively expanded the book in 2007 in light of the 2008 presidential campaign. Joan died of cancer in 2009. Their book stands, in 2012, as the best reading available for non-Mormons to grasp the breadth of the LDS church’s complex theology, structure and weekly customs. The updated edition includes a section on Mitt Romney.
In Part 2 of this series, we welcome Richard Ostling for our ReadTheSpirit author interview. Richard agreed to talk about the ways he sees Mormon faith and culture as relevant in the 2012 presidential campaign. ReadTheSpirit recommends that anyone interested in these issues order a copy of Mormon America via Amazon where you will find it available in paperback and in a Kindle edition. Beyond fascinating reading for any individual who wants to understand this rapidly growing church, the book also makes for terrific small-group discussion.
TODAY, we are sharing three short excerpts from Richard’s book to give readers a sampling of the writing style and breadth of coverage. Together, these three short clippings show how effectively this book becomes a kind of Mormon 101 crash course for non-Mormon readers. The entire book is nearly 500 pages, but here are three brief excerpts, taken from three different sections of the book’s introduction. …
OSTLINGS’ MORMON AMERICA: MILESTONES IN U.S. POLITICS
The people known as Latter-day Saints have created a powerful, self-contained American subculture and yet simultaneously have long sought full acceptance in the nation where their creed was born and from which it has always been led. In that quest for respectability, two momentous dates stand above all others: 1890, when the founding Prophet Joseph Smith Jr.’s teaching of polygamy was cast aside, and 1978, when the church eliminated the invidious barrier that kept Saints of African blood from the full status and participation that was routinely bestowed upon other male members.
Though not dramatic in such theological terms, the year 2007 marked a different sort of exponential advance toward normalization. Nevada Democrat Harry Reid became majority leader of the United State Senate, the most influential Mormon officeholder in U.S. history and one of the most familiar faces on TV newscasts. Simultaneously, Massachusetts’ former Republican Governor Mitt Romney launched the most promising bid by a Mormon to win the U.S. presidency … Previous LDS aspirants were Senator Orin Hatch, Congressman Morris Udall, Mitt’s father Governor George Romney, and founder Smith, who was waging a quixotic White House run when he was assassinated in 1844.
OSTLINGS’ MORMON AMERICA: RISE AND REPUTATION
Mystery surrounds the church that Smith built. Though it is hard to imagine when contemplating this placid (Salt Lake) valley with its prosperous metropolis, no religion in American history has aroused so much fear and hatred, nor been the object of so much persecution and so much misinformation. Mormons are intensely patriotic Americans; they even believe the U.S. Constitution and the democracy it enshrines were divinely inspired. Yet their own church is rigidly hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, and almost uniquely secretive. It is also, relative to size, America’s richest church, with an estimated $25 to $30 billion in assets and an estimated $5 to $6 billion in annual income, mostly from members’ tithes.
The church began in upstate New York in 1830 with six members. By 1844, when the 38-year-old Smith was assassinated, the flock had already grown to over 26,000. During the past quarter-century, it has moved up to fourth place in size among America’s church bodies, with worldwide membership nearing 13 million. More than half of those members now live outside the United States. Non-Mormon sociologist Rodney Stark has projected that if present trends continue there will be about 267 million members by 2080, making Mormonism the most important world religion to emerge since Islam arose nearly 14 centuries ago.
(Note on Numbers: Membership was “nearing 13 million” when the Ostlings’ latest edition was published. As of mid 2012, Church officials report membership at more than 14.4 million worldwide.)
OSTLINGS’ MORMON AMERICA: CULTURE AND LEADERSHIP
(After Smith’s founding), Mormonism—as the movement was quickly nicknamed—provided nationalistic Americans with a very American gospel. Despite demanding claims on the lives of believers, it was from the beginning optimistic and upbeat, a reaction against the establishment New England Calvinism. It denied original sin and stressed individual moral choice, proclaiming that every human could progress toward godhood. It was a religious version of the American dream: Everyman presented with unlimited potential. Its theology provided a highly idiosyncratic emphasis on disciplined self-reliance, and post-Enlightenment liberalism on the nature of man and God.
A church without professional clergy, but with a highly centralized and authoritarian structure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ruled top-down by a self-perpetuating hierarchy that is ritualistically “sustained” by unanimous vote at church conferences in Salt Lake City. Atop the pyramid is the current president, prophet, seer and revelator, who chooses a first counselor and second counselor and acts with them in a collective First Presidency. Next comes the Quorum of Twelve Apostles who hold lifetime positions and are always listed by seniority of attaining that rank, then echelons of lower authorities and officeholders. There is neither a forum for public debate nor a church legislature to set policy. Obedience to tenets and administrative minutiae as defined by the General Authorities at Temple Square is the only allowable response.
The church’s General Handbook of Instructions, which covers everything from church disciplines and governance to instructions on how to dispose of worn-out holy underwear, is a confidential document issued in numbered copies distributed to a specific list of officials. The annual church almanac is odd as denominational yearbooks go. It gives extensive statistics on members, baptisms, missionaries, wards (congregations), stakes (geographic subdivisions similar to other denominations’ dioceses or districts), and the like, but no financial statistics. It provides pictures and biographies of church authorities, but few clues as to their function. Unlike other such reference works, it contains no directory of the organization’s bureaucracy. It does, however, meticulously list every LDS believer who ever medaled in the Olympics.
(Note on Current Leadership: You can see the current Latter-day Saints leadership online at the LDS website, which is one of the most active religious websites in the world—even surpassing the Vatican’s website in daily usage. There also is a biography of the 16th President of the Church, Thomas Monson. He took office in 2008.)
(Note on the Underwear Reference: Special Mormon garments are mentioned occasionally in news reports about the Church nationwide. Sometimes these references poke fun at the church, a matter that Mormons find offensive. The LDS website has a special page briefly explaining such garments. Church leaders compare their practice to Jews preparing themselves for various rituals by wearing special garments. Other religious traditions also involve special clothing.)
(Note on How to Refer to Latter-day Saints: The church provides a detailed Style Guide, which explains that the full name of the Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a small “d” on the word “day.” Church officials ask journalists to avoid calling their religious body “the Mormon Church.” They prefer that members be called “Latter-day Saints” but the term “Mormon” is acceptable, as well. The Style Guide also explains that the term “Mormonism” is acceptable in describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Continue by reading our interview with Richard Ostling.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.