Media, Mormonism and meaning

I think it's fair to say that while Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy has forced the media to do more and better coverage of Mormonism, the religion is still treated as a cultural and theological oddity. Much of the coverage is still sensational -- as I type this, The Daily Beast is hyping an interview with "a direct descendant of Brigham Young, Sue Emmett [who] left the church because of the very values she says would make Romney a frightening president." I hate to break it to The Daily Beast, but Brigham Young had 55 wives and 57 children. A gathering of his third generation descendents would look like Calcutta on Free Malaria Shot Day. Finding one of them who would disavow Mitt Romney and their great-great grandfather's legacy is a matter of simple probability, and it's neither novel or illuminating. Tabloids aside, I wish I could say that the coverage from respectable outlets was automatically better. But it was with dread that I learned that The New Yorker had published a sweeping essay about "Mormonism and its meanings." While The New Yorker is largely an outlet for criticism and opinion, the magazine carries with it a totemic status among my fellow reporters -- even those I know who largely disagree with its center-left politics -- and often sets the tone for any future coverage by the rest of the media establishment once it's weighed in on a given issue.

Making matters worse, the essay in question is written by Adam Gopnik. Gopnik is a very witty and perceptive writer; however, if anyone on the masthead perfectly embodies cocooned Manhattan liberalism, it's Gopnik. I suppose the fact that Gopnik's fellow Manhattan literary stereotypes feel comfortable inveighing against him as "tone-poet of post-9/11 Manhattan, drizzling pixie dust across a cityscape that no longer bears the hearty flavor of 'smoked mozzarella,' as he notoriously described the downtown death smell," that should tell you something. Indeed, take a gander at this nugget from Gopnik's essay on Mormons. I think it is supposed to deemed amusing:

Walk by the Latter-day Saints church on the Upper East Side of New York, and you will see only images of Jesus and scenes from the Gospels, even if the Mormon Jesus looks more corn-fed and burly than the gaunt, ascetic one in the Protestant church around the corner. The continuing Mormon suspicion of Evangelicals, and the Evangelical hostility toward Mormons, could be politically significant only if the guy on the other side is a credible Evangelical, at least in emotional style. When the other guy is at best an intellectual and at worst an Arab, political solidarity is bound to trump inter-sectarian mistrust.

So, uh, that's what we're dealing with -- a guy who's personal experience with Mormonism doesn't involve going below 59th street and who otherwise thinks huge swaths of religious America mistrust intellectuals. The fact this latter assertion is simultaneously condescending and grossly simplistic would seem to belie the soundness of Gopnik's judgement here, let alone his status as an intellectual. To paraphrase an apocryphal Martin Luther line, I'm sure a lot of evangelicals and Mormons would gladly vote for a wise Turk who can get unemployment below 8 percent.

Now having said all that, I can't easily dismiss Gopnik's essay. That's because Gopnik understands some nuances about Mormonism that I've seen repeatedly trip up other reporters. Here's how he handles some of the church's more controversial doctrines:

Mormonism had other assets. Smith held (especially in the sermons he preached toward the end of his life) that God and angels and men were all members of the same species. “God that sits enthroned is a man like one of you” and “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man” were two of his most emphatic aphorisms on the subject. ...

This doctrine led in turn to various theological niceties, which seem to have risen and receded in the faith’s theology over the years: one is that the birth of Jesus had to have been the consequence of a “natural action”—i.e., that God the Father knew Mary in a carnal way, in order to produce the Messiah. (This doctrine is currently in disfavor, but it had a long life.) Another is that God, being an exalted man, must have a wife, or several wives, as men do; she is known as the Heavenly Mother, and is a being distinct from Mary. (Smith’s belief in exaltation evolved into the belief that other planets were inhabited by men even more exalted than we are; Smith taught that the truly exalted will get not just entry into Heaven but a planet of their own to run. This is now taken, or taught, metaphorically, the way conventional Christians often think of Hell, but it was part of the story.)

Again, LDS members might disagree with the tone here -- but Gopnik at least grasps that there's some tension here between the logical extension of some of the church's doctrines and whether or not Mormons believe these things to literally be true. I've seen many writers just assume that Mormons believe a great many "rococo cosmologies" -- as Gopnik calls them -- said to be implied by Smith's teachings without doing much to factor in the metaphorical and the mystical.

Gopnik also picks up on some odd cultural details that I found fascinating.  I didn't know that artist Arnold Friberg, who did many of the iconic Book of Mormon illustrations, was the set designer for "The Ten Commandments." And I'll be darned, Gopnik's right that Friberg's depiction of Nephi -- see the picture above -- does look a lot like Romney. But Gopnik's impressive powers of observation are constantly undercut by a breezy tone that's entirely unwarranted. He treats weighty subjects so glibly that it borders on infuriating:

One could presumably make a case that beleaguered faiths always shy from admitting errancy in public. Dominant faiths can afford tales of failure and redemption, with sinners becoming saints and saints dropping in and out of the calendar like blue-plate specials; beleaguered ones have to put on a good face in public and never lose it. Donny Osmond talks about the anxieties that arose from a need to appear perfect, and the impossibility of admitting in public to flaws or errors. Better to have a new revelation about, say, health-care mandates that renders the previous one instantly inoperable than spend time apologizing for the old ways. When, in 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the rule prohibiting blacks from serving as priests, one church leader, Bruce McConkie, explained, “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978.” You could find, or think you’ve found, a similar logic behind Romney’s blithe amnesia when it comes to the things he used to think and say.

Yet class surely tells more than creed when it comes to American manners, and Romney is better understood as a late-twentieth-century American tycoon than as any kind of believer. Most of what is distinct about him seems specific to the rich managerial class of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and is best explained so—just as you would grasp more about Jack Kennedy from F. Scott Fitzgerald (an Irish and a Catholic ascending to Wasp manners) than from St. Augustine. In another way, though, this is precisely where faith really does walk in, since commerce and belief seem complementary in Romney’s tradition. It’s just that this tradition is not merely Mormon. Joseph Smith’s strange faith has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce. It’s unfair to say, as some might, that Mitt Romney believes in nothing except his own ambition. He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.

There's actually much about these two paragraphs I think is very perceptive. But Gopnik whistles past so many issues here from sin to politics to commercialism that it's hard to see where Mormonism is the common thread running through them. Gopnik may observe that Mormons believing in God as Man creates some problematic theological niceties, but he doesn't seem bothered by the fact his unearned authorial omniscience on complex theological matters raises more questions than it answers.  I give Gopnik a lot of credit for devising an elegant launching pad for discussing "Mormonism and its meanings," but ultimately he's unable elevate the subject matter to a place of real understanding.

Having said all that, I can heartily recommend another piece that covers some similar territory -- Jesse Walker has a primer on Mormonism and its accompanying political tensions in the latest Reason magazine. Reason is a political magazine, but its libertarian bent often assures that it doesn't view culture and politics in a predictable fashion. Walker's piece is a straightforward tour through some esoteric political history. It manages to be remarkably evenhanded -- no easy feat -- by noting the widespread and irrational anti-Mormon prejudice and less flattering aspects of the early church. For instance, here's Walker explaining an interesting historical tidbit:

In 1884 the Idaho territory made it illegal for Latter-day Saints to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury. Legislators invoked the standard anti-Mormon conspiracy theories, but lurking behind those exotic charges were more ordinary resentments: opposition to plural marriage, jealousy of the Mormon co-ops’ economic clout, and, above all, Republicans’ eagerness to disenfranchise a group that in Idaho voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats.

Walker's piece is mostly historical, but his goal is to flesh out your understanding of some of the contemporary religious friction surrounding Romney's candidacy. He succeeds admirably, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Please respect our Commenting Policy