Harold Bloom, Mormons and spleen-venting

Harold Bloom, America's Greatest Living Literary Scholar™, wrote an essay for the New York Times over the weekend titled "Will This Election Be the Mormon Breakthrough?" The title doesn't seem terribly ominous, Bloom has famously written a book on American religion, and he's known for having a fascination with Mormons. What could go wrong? Well, in this case, just about everything. This kind of essay isn't typical GetReligion fodder, but I think it merits discussion in that I can scarcely believe the Times published it. I am going to venture that they did so only because Bloom is seen as an influential figure, and because I fear that Bloom is so influential, other journalists and commentators will take their cues about Mormonism and politics from this piece.

As it is, it's not so much an essay as a series of unsupported and derisive generalizations strung together by a filament of purple prose. To wit, we're only in the second paragraph before we hit this brick wall at 60 miles an hour:

Mr. Romney, earnest and staid, who is deep within the labyrinthine Mormon hierarchy, is directly descended from an early follower of the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.

Bloom's hardly the first person to make the Mormonism-is-like-Islam comparison. But that's a pretty loaded comparison to toss out there without fleshing it out some. And to say, "most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States" are as radical departures from historical Christianity as Islam without in any way explaining it? You could try and make sense of this, or you could just accept, like the editors at the Times apparently have, that you are reading Harold Freaking Bloom and as such, you are lucky he deigns to deposit his Solomonic nacre at your porcine trough. Moving on:

The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy.

The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage.

Is the Mormon church run by "plutocratic oligarchs" consumed with "corporate greed"? This is profoundly unfair, and he's not going to provide any facts or arguments suggesting that it is. But hey, this Occupy Wall Street thing is hot right now, so why not riff on that for a bit? Sounds relevant. And I think we all know the recent proletarian unpleasantness really cries out for more commentary from ivy-league professors:

Joseph Smith continues to be regarded by many Mormons as a final authority on issues of belief, though so much of his legacy, including plural marriage, had to be compromised in the grand bargain by which the moguls of Salt Lake City became plutocrats defining the Republican party. The hierarchy’s vast economic power is founded upon the tithing of the faithful, who yield 10 percent of their income to the church. I am moved by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations but remain skeptical that you can achieve a lessening of money’s influence upon our politics, since money is politics. That dark insight has animated the Mormon hierarchy all through the later 20th and early 21st century. The patriotism of Mormons for some time now has been legendary: they help stock the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military. Though the powers of the presidency are at this moment somewhat diminished by the Republican House and the atavistic Supreme Court, they remain latent. A Mormon presidency is not quite the same as an ostensibly Catholic or Protestant one, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insists on a religious sanction for its moralistic platitudes.

So aside from Mormonism's supposedly corrupting wealth, at least they're patriotic right? Wrong! Mormon cosmology suggests this is actually a sinister, corrupting patriotism or something:

The 19th-century Mormon theologian Orson Pratt, who was close both to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, stated a principle the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never repudiated: “Any people attempting to govern themselves by laws of their own making, and by officers of their own appointment, are in direct rebellion against the kingdom of God.”

Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts, hoping to join the plurality of gods, even as they insist they are not polytheists. No Mormon need fall into the fundamentalist denial of evolution, because the Mormon God is not a creator. Imaginatively liberating as this may be, its political implications are troublesome. The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

Now one of the Mormon church's 13 articles or faith is: "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." Further, if Bloom begins the essay by asserting Mormonism and American Christian religions are the result of radical evolution, why does he insist that the church still reflects the political attitudes of single statement by one Mormon leader from over a century ago offered wholly without context? Even if Orson Pratt's statement did definitively speak for the church at the time, he died in 1881. The church renounced polygamy and Utah became a state in 1896. To suggest that Mormons are somehow suspicious of the democratic process or that the church's relationship with American politics is stuck in the 19th century is pretty slipshod and obvious sophistry.

As for the time Bloom spends on Mormon cosmology (and there's a lot more in the essay than I am excerpting), I'm just kind of gobsmacked. Bloom is basically insinuating that Mormons teach taking care of each other and are biding time until they all get their own planet, so in a political context they might exhibit little desire to look out for their fellow, non-Mormon citizens. This is insulting. As for the actual details of Mormon cosmology, planets and all of that --  it is tricky stuff. One would hope that it would be treated with more care, but Bloom seems to be wielding it cavalierly to paint Mormons as The Other.

But take heart, Latter-Day Saints! In the final paragraph, he does offer you a backhanded compliment at the expense of unfair swipe at another religion:

Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.

Ah yes, we need to end on a high note, so hit 'em with the bit about slouching toward the inevitable American theocracy. The faculty lounge in the Yale comparative literature department is in complete agreement that one more election under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women and Americans and we'll be trying on the yoke of a Tea Party Charlemagne.

I think I'm still only scratching the surface here, but as a matter of journalistic practice I would hope that even essays and opinion pieces be far less redolent of obvious biases and dubious interpretations of the facts. Because Bloom wrote a book about American religion almost two decades ago, I do not think that makes him qualified for all time to weigh in on these matters. But I worry that the biases might, in fact, be the point. One New Republic writer has already praised the piece as "bluntest warning against electing a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that I have seen this season." (If that's the case, I look forward to the New Republic's inevitable hand wringing about how Harry Reid is marching us to theocracy any day now.)

Bloom is entitled to vent his spleen. But giving him a prestigious journalistic platform to tar-and-feather an entire religion when he can't tell where his political opinions end and someone else's faith begins does a disservice to the political dialogue.

Please respect our Commenting Policy