Massachusetts’s population is 47% Catholic and 31% Protestant. Despite this, current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, served as the state’s governor for two terms.
While in office, Romney downplayed his ties with Mormonism. It’s not really a faith you can wear proudly without criticism. Maybe it’s the religion’s reputation for polygamous marriages or the wildly bizarre stories found in its main text, The Book of Mormon. 2002’s kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart by deluded Mormon fundamentalists didn’t exactly help the faith’s public image, either.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormon Church’s official name, is the fastest growing religion in the country. I’m not really sure if that means anything. NASCAR is the fastest growing sport in our country but that doesn’t make it any less stupid.
Still, my skepticism was called into question after I had the chance to talk to a regular Mormon guy about his faith.
I’m reading John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven on the train. The book details the cruel and violent nature of the Fundamental Church of Latter Day Saints, a group that has no official ties with any Mormon institution. A co-worker I’m riding with asks me, “What exactly is Mormonism?”
I begin chronicling, to the best of my ability, all the things I know about the origins of Mormonism–post-resurrection Jesus, warring Nephites and Lamanites in the Americas, golden tablets. A well-dressed man gets up from the other side of the car and plants himself in the seat in front of us.
“Sorry to intrude on your conversation, but I heard you say ‘Lamanite.’ Are you guys talking about Mormonism?”
“Oh, well, I’m a Mormon,” he says.
Now, I’m not really sure what to expect here. I’ve met Mormons before, but I’ve never been approached by a Mormon, especially not on the subject of Mormonism. He never introduces himself by name, and he looks just like everybody else commuting home from work—white dress shirt, solid color tie, black dress pants, spiky gel-tipped hair. Anyone between the age of 18 and 35 in Boston has this look. He probably works in the finance sector.
I ask him to explain The Book of Mormon, and his eyes light up. The man begins expanding on the story with the same enthusiasm you might see me talk about the iPhone.
He says that most of my descriptions so far are accurate, although I’ve skipped over a few details.
The Book of Mormon, he says, is not a replacement for The Bible, but an additional text to be followed in conjunction with the Old and New Testaments. He emphasized the idea that “people forget [Mormons are] Christian too.” The Book of Mormon takes place after the Jesus’ resurrection, covering roughly a thousand-year period from 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. Originally the Americas were inhabited by descendents of two men, Nephi and Laman, called the Nephites and Lamanites respectively. The Nephites were a good people to whom Jesus promised success if they remained righteous. Unfortunately, they dropped the ball and were wiped out by the nefarious Lamanites.
Midway through his story, the man’s phone rings. “Oh, I have to answer this. It’s my wife.”
I refrain from asking him which one.
“Anyway, where was I?”
He continues. The Nephite leader, a prophet named Mormon, engraved all of what would become The Book of Mormon onto a set of golden plates. After being crushed by the Lamanites, the golden plates were buried until a fellow named Joseph Smith uncovered them in the early 1800s. And so began the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
I mention that there aren’t very many Mormons around this part of the country.
“I guess not, only a few around here. Mormons are really concentrated out in Utah, Idaho… y’know, out west.”
I ask my Mormon friend if he’s ever faced people intolerant of his faith.
“Not very often,” he replies. “People around here are pretty open-minded, but it used to be more difficult. I mean, people associate us with those guys who have many wives, which hasn’t been the case for years. Those are fundamentalists giving everyone else a bad reputation.”
My co-worker asks if it’s been easier since we had a Mormon governor.
“Oh, absolutely. I mean, people used to think we were a cult.”
I get off at my stop, where my brother picks me up. I recount my encounter with the Mormon and try retelling the tales from The Book of Mormon. My brother seems a bit confused.
“Isn’t Joseph Smith the guy who married Pocahontas?” he asks.
And what about those Mormons taking and raping multiple wives? Well, they’re isolated individuals warping the text to support their own selfish and violent beliefs. If there’s something that every major religion has in common, it’s that they all have a small population of fundamentalists tarnishing an otherwise reasonable faith. Mormonism is no exception.
Still, I think the hardest thing to get past is just how weird the Mormon doctrine sounds to us. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer claims:
The Book of Mormon is riddled with egregious anachronisms and irreconcilable inconsistencies. For instance, it makes many references to horses and wheeled carts, neither of which existed in the Western Hemisphere during the pre-Columbian era. It inserts such inventions as steel and the seven-day week into ancient history long before such things were in fact invented.
Similarly, The Bible is riddled with inconsistencies, but we don’t really have a problem with those. They might not be as peculiar as pre-Columbian horses, but is anyone reading either text for factual and historical accuracy? What makes The Book of Mormon any stranger? Simply put, we’re just more used to the stories in Genesis.
Comparing the two texts is hazy territory. For me at least, it’s all starting to run together.