MATTERS OF FAITH

Posted in Rants on January 31st, 2012 by Ed

I spend my days at work looking through vast quantities of public opinion data. Nothing I see is surprising anymore, and most of it is, if not predictable, easily explainable. A throwaway poll from the South Carolina primary, however, left me scratching my head. Among voters who stated that religion matters "a great deal", 46% voted for thrice-married serial adulterer and pretend Catholic Newt Gingrich compared to only 10% for Mitt the Mormon.

Not being a practitioner of any organized religion, I understand the factionalism and various interdenominational rivalries adequately but not completely. I get it that evangelical Christians (let's safely assume they made up the vast majority of religiously inclined South Carolina GOP primary voters) have extremely negative views of Mormonism. It was clear that this would be an issue with his candidacy from the outset, but I never really processed it or attempted to understand it.

All religion is based on faith, and specifically the belief in miraculous events. Don't flip out here. What I mean is, Christians believe that Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead. As people cannot rise from the dead (or, in the case of lucky Lazarus, be risen) one can only base a belief that such things occurred on considerable faith in a higher power. I'm not making fun of anyone. This is simply the reality of believing in something that can't be empirically validated. As such every religion, logically speaking, is equally plausible. The only reason Mormonism gets more crap is because the miraculous events upon which it is based occurred more recently and thus are treated with a greater degree of skepticism. Mohammed and the Buddha and Jesus and the gang were lucky to exist before photography, the telegram, and newspapers. Not so for ol' Joseph Smith.

My point here is that while the core beliefs of Mormonism may appear silly to the non-religious or merely the non-Mormon, they're no sillier (or less plausible) than the stories of the Old Testament or the Bhagavad Gita. It all requires the willing suspension of the laws of physical reality and a belief in a supernatural power. Fine. So why do born-again Christians have such fanatical hostility toward Mormonism? While Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants, and other major religious groups in the U.S. may not be Bestest Buddies with the LDS church, they seem to be tolerant and not openly hostile.

Recently it hit me that the issue is not based in religious dogma (Mormons do not, as Evangelicals often claim, reject the divinity of Jesus) or in codes of conduct (Mormons reject most of the same behaviors rejected by Christians, including polygamy, gay marriage, and other hot-button political issues). It's about competition. The megachurch dwellers hate Mormons because Mormonsism is a proselytizing religion, one that has been phenomenally successful in the past few decades. When George Romney ran for president or governor in the 1950s and 1960s nobody cared that he was a Mormon because Mormons were as common as Zoroastrians. Now there are over 14 million Mormons and LDS missionaries (Sound familiar?) in 167 countries according to the church.

In competing for the same customer, if you will, Mormons have the distinct advantage of being almost absurdly friendly and outwardly tolerant of other belief systems, whereas the average ultraconservative Christian Bible-banger has a mouth like a puckered asshole and uses Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards as a blueprint for spreading the word. Mormonism has slick ad campaigns (they have billboards all over Atlanta, commercials on every TV network, and a sponsored YouTube channel that pops up at least once daily for yours truly) and they distance themselves from the anti-intellectualism of the Christian right. It's the kind of thing that middle class people – particularly Hispanics – appear to find appealing, based on the number of new recruits. And like other parts of the Republican base, the Christian right is terrified at the prospect of losing the Hispanics as a potential recruiting pool.

This isn't Ed's Ringing Endorsement of Mormonism. To me it is no better or worse than any other religion. The point is that the Pat Robertson crowd is scared shitless of the success and polished appeal of the LDS church, not any particular aspect of its dogma. Since so many religions differ wildly from evangelical Protestantism, I can't think of a more plausible explanation for why Mormonism is singled out for such intense hatred. Why not Gingrich's Catholicism, with its blasphemous Roman popery? Why not Judaism? Why not Islam? Oh wait, I guess they do hate that last one. Different reason, though.

I am not the world's most open minded person. I detest Scientologists, Juggalos, and the Irish. OK, just the first two. But my reasons are rooted in their beliefs and practices. I'm becoming convinced that the anti-Mormon sentiment on the right is based on something entirely different. Megachurches are in constant competition with each other and with other religions to put more butts in seats. And they're getting very worried that this new kid on the block, Mormonism, is to Evangelical Christianity what digital photography was to Kodak film.