Sects Appeal

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POLITICS NOVEMBER 20, 2006

Sects Appeal

Palmyra, New York, is a small town on the Erie Canal, 20 miles eastof Rochester. It's not much different than the rest of the sleepy towns of western New York, save for one accident of history. In 1823, an angel named Moroni supposedly visited a 17-year-old farmer named Joseph Smith and directed him to a hill just south of Palmyra, where he later dug up the golden plates containing the text of the Book of Mormon. Nearly 200 years later, the religion that Smith founded, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS)—better known as the Mormons—boasts over five million believers in the United States and over eleven million worldwide. For one week every July, several thousand of them travel to Palmyra to watch the Hill Cumorah Pageant: a show of epic battles, wailing prophets, and the founding moments of their faith.

This year's show, which begins at nightfall, features over 600 Mormon volunteers—a cast so large that each member is assigned a barcode to keep track of his costume and rehearsal schedule. The actors, dressed in vibrant tunics and beaded headdresses, brandishing spears, swords, and other props thought to authentically represent the ancient Mesoamerican peoples in the Book of Mormon, swarm an immense stage erected on the hill. The pageant begins with the emigration of Lehi, the Mormons' Israelite ancestor, to the New World and concludes with Joseph Smith's revelation of the restored gospel. Special effects punctuate each scene: Ten-foot-high flames engulf Mormon martyrs and cast an eerie orange glow on surrounding trees; thundering cascades of water backlit with red floodlights give the effect of flowing lava another divine punishments. The audience is rapt as Jesus flies in from above, suspended in a harness—a literal deus ex machina.

Not everyone at the pageant, however, is there to watch the show. Tom Jones, 62, a compact, spry man with a silver crew cut and square jaw, stands beside the road leading to the pageant and quietly offers pamphlets with titles like “What the Mormon Church Really Thinks of Christ." Like the blond boy obediently waving a placard printed with the words MICKEY MOUSE—SANTA CLAUS—ANGEL MORONI, and the women in long floral jumpers holding signs that say FALSE RELIGION DAMNS!, Jones is an evangelical Christian who views the pageant as a spectacle that lures the uninformed into a false religion. “Mormon tactics are so utterly deceptive,” he says. “We are rescuing the innocent before they can be deceived.”

Ever since the founding of the LDS church in 1830, conservative Christians have sought to discredit the Mormon church as a blasphemous cult. They have worked to squelch the political ambitions of its adherents, from Joseph Smith himself, who made a quixotic bid for the White House in 1844, to Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. No Mormon presidential candidate has ever posed a real threat—until Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The buzz about his potential 2008 candidacy has been growing for several months now, especially as the star of the early Republican favorite, George Allen, has dimmed. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote in July that he is troubled that “so many people would think a person's faith—whether one shares it or not—should be the only reason to deny someone the presidency.” In an interview this summer with Jackson, Mississippi's Clarion-Ledger, Jerry Falwell predicted that, if Romney is “pro-life, pro-family, I don't think he'll have any problem getting the support of evangelical Christians.” Romney might be the first Mormon candidate who mainstream evangelicals can support.

The protesters at Hill Cumorah would disagree. Although they seem like the lunatic fringe, Jones and his number represent an entrenched anti-Mormon movement that is prepared to convince voters that Romney's religion renders his campaign promises and political record moot. There is an earthly component to their antagonism: Competition for souls is an important part of the conflict between these two mission-focused faiths. More important, anti-Mormonism flows from conservative Christian psychology and from deep-rooted Christian attitudes toward the nature of faith and truth.

Tom Jones knows this battle well. He fights it in his own home, the headquarters of his St. Petersburg, Florida, ministry. What sets him apart from the other protesters at Hill Cumorah is that Jones—easily spotted at the pageant this year in a yellow t-shirt and a fanny pack stuffed with anti-Mormon tracts—is married to a practicing Mormon.

 

EVERY ONCE IN a great while, when Tom Jones can't hold it in any longer, he'll sit down and write his wife, Libit, a love letter. A 51-year-old watercolor artist with curly black hair and a taste for gauzy blouses, Libit recalls these notes with a sad smile. “The letters say things like, 'I love you and don't want you to go to hell, and I wish you'd examine some of these truths, ”” she says. “His letters don't start in argument. They're written in love—and they're where I learn about the latest attack on Mormonism. But nothing he has shown me has made me doubt.” Sometimes, Libit comes along on the annual drive to Palmyra. This year, while Tom spent his days planning outreach strategies in the basement of a Baptist church, she went shopping and visited an herb garden with friends, always toting her pet chihuahua, Picasso.

Tom is quietly hopeful that he will convert his wife. “I think the cumulative effect of all the stuff I've piled on, the documentation, the reality—down deep it has to be making a dent,” he says. “And yet, I don't dare allow myself to get excited about the possibility of her recanting Mormonism. She acts like it's water off a duck's back.”

Jones's organization, Christian Research & Counsel, is one of dozens of anti-Mormon groups—ranging from hobbyists, who manage websites from their living rooms, to professional ministries with full-time staff members that publish books, newsletters, and documentaries and send protesters to the opening of every new LDS temple or ward (the LDS equivalent of a parish). Some organizations, such as the Institute for Religious Research in Grand Rapids, Michigan, run mentoring programs for Mormons who want to leave the church. A group called Mission to Mormons maintains a revisionist exhibition on Mormon history in Nauvoo, Illinois, an important site in the church's early history. Tactics range from sophisticated theological arguments to junior-high lunchroom name-calling: Oneanti-Mormon site refers to its chief opponents as “annoying, smelley [sic] trolls.” At the Hill Cumorah Pageant, too, methods vary. Jones's volunteers prefer to stand quietly with tracts and signs. On the other side of the road, street preachers—mostly middle-aged, unshaven men with Bible verses printed on their baseball caps—screech through megaphones, wave Mormon temple garments in the air, and hoist signs that say ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL.

One day, early in pageant week, a volunteer named Calvin Arnt stands in a spot of shade, manning a table stacked with pamphlets. He is a high school civics teacher from Ontario who has spent many years in missionary work—on one trip, he went door-to-door among fundamentalist Mormon communities in the Southwest, where polygamy is still the norm. Today, he stands quietly, watching packs of tourists and combing his long ponytail with his fingers. He wears his hair long to facilitate authenticity in another one of his passions, Revolutionary War reenactment.

A gaggle of teenage girls pauses at the table. They eye the stacks of pamphlets and trade glances. One asks Arnt whether he's ever read the Book of Mormon.

“I have,” he says. “Which version do you mean?” Arnt launches into a comparison of the successive revisions Joseph Smith made to the text. This proves that the Mormon scripture was a human invention, he says. “No city mentioned in the Book of Mormon can be proven to have ever existed. You have to think with your brain, not your feelings and emotions." He draws an analogy between the Book of Mormon and a deceptive boyfriend “who says he'll love you forever, then gets you pregnant.”

The girls look repelled. Finally, their leader—a blonde who wears a Brigham Young University (BYU) visor—says that, whenever she has a tough question about her faith, she doesn't look for proof: “That's when I go down on my knees and pray about it.” Another volunteer, a soft-spoken landscaper named Brad White, lets out a sigh after arguing with a Mormon man for ten minutes. “I just couldn't get him to the point of reason,” he said.

 

AS VIOLENT PERSECUTION drove Joseph Smith and his followers farther west, he declared himself “King, Priest, and Ruler over Israel on Earth” and treated Mormon territory as a sovereign city-state, angering local and federal authorities. His revelations grew increasingly outlandish, including the doctrine of plural marriage. Although the LDS Church discontinued the practice in 1890, the image of Mormons as polygamous theocrats continues to color their reputation. But conservative Christians' opposition to Mormonism, while historically a reaction to Smith's violation of cultural taboos, is also rooted in theology. Most Christians believe that the scriptural canon of the Old and New Testaments has been closed since roughly the end of the fourth century. Smith committed grave heresy when he added three scriptures based on his own revelations: the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Between 1830 and his assassination in 1844, Smith also taught a theology that departed radically from traditional Christianity. Mormons believe that God was once a man and that he still occupies a body of flesh and bone. Every human being is a spirit-child of God who can become a god in the afterlife by adhering to Mormon moral codes and participating in temple rituals. The head of their church is a living prophet through whom God continues to communicate with new revelation. Most Christians, by contrast, believe that God's revelation ended with the death of John, the last evangelist.

Mormon theology closes the gap between humankind and God, and it elevates the place of human effort in the path to salvation. To most Christians—especially to nineteenth-century Calvinists, who viewed humans as depraved beings separated from God by a chasm of sin—Mormonism was a scandal. It still is. “The Mormons have a different Jesus,” says Ed Decker, an ex-Mormon whose ministry, Saints Alive in Jesus, is one of the largest and most aggressive in the anti-Mormon movement. “God means something else to Mormons.”

The pamphleteers at Hill Cumorah agree wholeheartedly. Many of their tracts list contradictions between Mormon theology and the teachings of the Bible. But they also spend a good deal of time trying to make their case within the framework of secular science. They have tracts and videocassettes, with titles like "The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon," packed with archaeological proof and scholarly testimony that the Mormon church is founded on imagination, not fact. Evangelicals' bafflement at Mormon faith seems a bit odd, considering that, for born-again Christians, life's most important moment is a personal encounter with Christ: an experience unimpeachable by logic or scientific method. Yet the conservative Christian fixation on “proof” has deep roots.

To strict Calvinists, the ancestors of modern American evangelicals, theology was a practical science devoted to discerning objective truth. By the nineteenth century, these theologians had to respond to the challenge that religion was not “true” in the same way that science is. To debate humanist philosophers on their own terms,they developed a rationalist style and an evidentialist approach to scripture. But, while conservative Calvinists adopted the language of science to defend biblical inerrancy, they shrank from a second challenge: that of the German historical critics, who marshaled the latest historical and literary research to challenge the authority of the Bible. Conservative theologians crouched behind the creed of sola scriptura—“by scripture alone”—the mantra of the Protestant Reformation. They eschewed history and theological tradition, focusing only on biblical text. The combined effect of these two developments was to produce an evangelical Christianity obsessed with logic and scientific proof—but only when such evidence confirmed a literal reading of the Bible.

These twin phenomena help explain several things about the differing worldviews of evangelical Christians and Mormons. First, they reveal why conservative Christians perceive no intellectual dishonesty inciting radical, discredited statements by old Mormon leaders in their anti-Mormon literature. Evangelicals refuse all claims that the LDS Church has changed over time because they have little conception of change in their own Christianity, which they believe is precisely faithful to the practices of Jesus's apostles.

Second, while most Mormons take their scriptures literally—believing that God will someday reveal historical proof that the events in the Book of Mormon actually happened—the question of “evidence" is, for most, beside the point. “Mormons are deeply interested in the rational evidence for their beliefs, but they are under no illusion that they can scientifically demonstrate the conclusions to a skeptical audience,” says Richard Bushman, a Mormon scholar and emeritus professor of history at Columbia University. “In the end, faith is faith, not science.”

Mormon ease with a fantastic story presents an intellectual problem for evangelical Christians—for example, in the debate between advocates of intelligent design and Darwinism. Many evangelicals view evolution as a contradiction of the true history of the world's creation as recorded in the Bible. But, while some Mormons are uneasy about evolution, its principles are taught in biology class at BYU, and many believe that evolution and the Bible are compatible. This is due largely to the Mormons' more flexible notion of scripture. “Mormons believe that God allowed Joseph Smith to edit language, to paste and clip revelations," Bushman says. “Revelation is current.... Not a lot is at stake for us in maintaining the inerrancy of the Bible.”

 

ALMOST 30 YEARS ago, when Libit met Tom after taking a job at his advertising company, religion wasn't a problem for them. Libit's parents had converted to Mormonism when she was six, but teenage rebellion had pulled her away from the church. Tom had grown up Baptist but was no longer a serious churchgoer.

Shortly before they married, both felt the need to go to church again. “She feigned interest in visiting other churches—she said she wanted to look around—and one was the Mormon church,” Tom says. “She wanted to lead me back there, I'm certain.” Tom was open-minded at first. He invited LDS missionaries to their home. Then a friend gave him a book that portrayed the faith as an anti-Christian cult. “I had no idea—I was reading the Book of Mormon,” he says. "I was even foolish enough to pray about it.” Soon, Tom began volunteering with an evangelical outreach group at the Hill Cumorah Pageant. “When he told me what he was going to do up here [in Palmyra], it broke my heart,” Libit says. "It felt like he was cheating on me. I don't think I've ever been so devastated.”

In 1993, Tom retired from the advertising business, and, by 1996, anti-Mormon ministry had become his full-time preoccupation. He is convinced that many Mormons don't understand what their church really believes—and that those few who do try to conceal the shocking truth. He considers it his duty to "inoculate" the unsuspecting, at Hill Cumorah and in his everyday life. His wife no longer invites him to her church's social events. “Any time my wife invites me to a Mormon thing, and I see a visitor there, she knows that visitor is fair game for me,” he explains. “I do everything I can to rescue them from their Mormon hosts, and I'll risk anything.”

Libit recalled an incident at a church Christmas party some year sago: She and Tom ran into another woman whose husband is not a Mormon. He asked Tom why he wasn't a member. “He didn't know what he was getting into," says Libit. Tom lurked quietly until the man left to use the bathroom, then followed him inside. “Tom knows how to behave himself, but others don't realize that what they say, he might perceive as a question,” she says. “So I just don't take him.”

Despite their religious divide, Tom and Libit have made their marriage work for over two decades—by loving unconditionally and compartmentalizing when need be. Occasionally, when a reporter calls with questions about his work, Tom takes the phone call in his car, so that his wife won't hear. Life is made simpler by their decision not to have children. There was a time, early in their marriage, when they discussed the possibility, and “everything was tiki-boo until the subject of religion came up,” Tom recalls. “Obviously, she wanted to raise the child in the Mormon church, and I said, 'Over my dead body.””

Libit stopped reading Tom's tracts long ago. Her approach is not unlike that of her church, which prefers to ignore its critics and put its energy into evangelizing and expanding. The Mormon church stages spectacular and popular pageants in Nauvoo and at temples in California, Arizona, and Utah, although Hill Cumorah is the biggest. “You've got to admit, it's a fantastic performance,” says Larry Craft, a Rochester evangelist who attended this year's Hill Cumorah Pageant. “I give them credit for that. They're very professional.”

 

IT IS PRECISELY the church's professionalism and skillful image-management that worry many conservative Christians. In contrast to HBO's polygamist family drama “Big Love" and Jon Krakauer's searing portrait of Mormon fundamentalists in Under the Banner of Heaven, the Mormon church has tried to position itself in the mainstream by conducting a careful marketing campaign. In 1982,the church added the official subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” to the Book of Mormon in order to emphasize that it was a Christian faith. In 1995, the LDS Church logo was redesigned so that the words “Jesus Christ” appear three times larger than the rest of the text. The current prophet and president of the LDS Church, Gordon Hinckley, has made high-profile statements that seem to downplay the radical elements of Mormon theology. “It is in part a p.r. campaign,” says Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus. “But there are also serious Mormon thinkers who are engaged in along-term theological project aimed at something like a rapprochement between LDS doctrine and the mainstream of the Christian tradition.”

Some hopeful evangelical scholars think that, within a few generations, Mormons will shed their radical doctrines for mainstream Protestantism and Mormonism will have more meaning as a cultural identity than as a distinct religion. BYU history professor Robert Millet hopes the interfaith dialogue will correct misunderstandings about Mormonism, but he says it is a question of emphasis, not change. “I have seen a kind of refinement, a greater focus now on Christ and the atonement—not for p.r. reasons, but because it was there in our documents all along,” he says.

But, for conservative Christians, this rebranding of Mormonism as a mainstream Christian faith is a threatening and duplicitous move,especially considering the church's high conversion and birthrates. They have continued their efforts to marginalize the LDS Church: In 2004, Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, refused the Mormons' request to be included in the annual National Day of Prayer. In October of this year, Dobson himself—considered by some observers the most influential figure on the Christian right—said on national radio that he doubted a Mormon could earn evangelical votes. Some view Mitt Romney's candidacy as the latest—and most aggressive—step in the Mormon p.r. campaign to convince Americans that Mormonism is just another denomination of Christianity. “There is the perception that, if Mormonism is legitimized at that level, many American Protestants will become Mormon,” says Greg Johnson, an ex-Mormon who now leads efforts in Mormon-evangelical dialogue.

Romney, who has balanced the Massachusetts budget, reformed healthcare, and stuck to his conservative social beliefs, is aware of this perception. Over the last few months, he has made several efforts to meet with conservative Christians and convince them that he shares their most sacred moral and social positions—such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage—no matter his theology. As a result, one can detect a mild surge of support on sites like evangelicalsformitt.com.

But many more conservative Christians blanch at the idea of any cooperation with Mormons, let alone the endorsement of a Mormon for the nation's highest office. The protesters at the Hill Cumorah Pageant insist that Christianity is incompatible with Mormonism. Talk of a Mormon president brings shudders, gasps, and predictions of a return to the theocracy of the Mormons' nineteenth-century Great Basin Kingdom. Asked why he would not vote for Romney, Jim Robertson, who runs an anti-Mormon ministry in Arizona, puts evangelical fears in stark terms. “The Mormon goal,” he says, “is to take over the world.”

Yet the case of Tom and Libit Jones suggests that, even under the most strenuous circumstances, a Mormon-evangelical relationship can work—although each will always compete for the other's soul. “We share the same politics, the same morals, and we both try to live a Christ-like life,” Libit says. “Still, I'm always praying for him, for us, and waiting.”

Molly Worthen is a graduate student in religious history at Yale University and the author of The Man On Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill. This article appeared in the November 20, 2006, issue of the magazine. Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons.

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posted in: politics, ask, grand rapids, moroni, nauvoo, new york, palmyra, rochester, st. petersburg, clarion, mormons, united states, angel moroni, cal thomas, calvin arnt, charles hill, george allen, jerry falwell, jesus christ, joseph smith, libit, mitt romney, orrin hatch, tom jones, baptist church, brigham young university, lds, mormon church, white house, yale university, florida, illinois, massachusetts, michigan, mississippi, new york, utah

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