Politics USA

Mitt Romney's Weird Religion

It's not just the Mormon Church's strange theology, but also its racism, sexism and harsh attitude to the poor.

Mitt Romney is getting too easy a ride over his Mormonism. The New Republic offered on its cover last month 'a personal history of America's most misunderstood religion', praising its ideals of community living. Michael Kinsley, a political columnist, urged the Republican candidate to 'play the Mormon card', pointing to the creed of hard work, family (indeed, very big families), no drink, drugs, or premarital sex.

After months of keeping quiet, Mr Romney appears convinced; his team is set to make his Mormonism a central theme of the Republican Convention that opens in Tampa, Florida, on Monday. There are three sorts of questions that should be put forcefully to this would-be president. After all, Mr Romney is not just a Mormon: he was a bishop of the Church and its highest-ranking leader in Boston; he gives at least a tenth of his income to the Church, including stock from Bain Capital.

The first is about the sheer weirdness of the founding beliefs and the sense in which he really embraces them. The second is the Church's long history of racism and sexism, as well as its censorious ideas about the terms on which poor people qualify for community help. The third, with the most immediate implications, is whether the Church's conviction that its members are direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and are now 'members of the House of Israel' - as well as its belief that when a Mormon saviour one day arrives it may be in Washington - would make him more likely to attack Iran over its nuclear programme.

Start with the weirdness. There's still plenty of it. For all the Church's attempts to move to the mainstream in recent decades, partly by more forcefully disowning the polygamy of its founders, its defining culture is still that of 'a peculiar people', in the Biblical sense of having a separate covenant with God, with a separate set of practices from the culture around it.

That is reinforced by the isolation of its Utah heartland; the high, scorching plateaus, ripped through by red canyons, give anyone a sense that they must be special to live in a place so unearthly - and empty. Even in tiny, dusty towns, the Church is evident, as is its wealth. In Monticello (population 1,980) the temple of the Latter Day Saints is thirty times the size of any other building, its statue of the Angel Moroni gleaming gold against the blue-black afternoon thunderclouds.

The weirdness goes to the heart of the assertions of the Book of Mormon (written in a style that Mark Twain described as "chloroform in print"). Mr Romney should be pressed on whether, for instance, he really believes that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri. That after the Resurrection Christ visited America to lecture its inhabitants. That the throne of God is near the (unidentified) Planet Kolob. And even the basic narrative: that the Book of Mormon was conveyed to Joseph Smith on gold plates, whose hieroglyphics he translated by putting a "seeing stone" he had dug up into a deep hat, burying his face in it, and claiming thus to discern the English words.

You might say that religious myths are just that, myths, and should not be held to be literally true. But Mormonism locates its versions less than 200 years ago, not 2,000 or more. Its accounts should be no more resistant to verification than other 19th-century history, yet no evidence whatsoever for them exists.

Second, Mr Romney should be pressed on Mormon attitudes to race and women. One of the religion's assertions is that before Europeans arrived on the American continent the land was occupied by two tribes, both directly descended from the tribes of Israel. One wiped out the other; in punishment, God turned their skins dark. Brigham Young, founder of Salt Lake City, also said that black skin was a curse for being a descendant of Cain, and the Church refused to let black men be priests or qualify for the highest level of salvation until 1978. Will Mr Romney repudiate Young and the Church's historic doctrine?

As for sexism, women are still not allowed to take the most senior positions. Vanity Fair performed the public service of finding several accounts of Mr Romney's clashes, when a church leader, with women members, including unmarried women who said that he had pressed them to have their babies adopted (Mr Romney says he does not recall the incidents).

As part of this, Mr Romney should be pressed harder on his welfare policies. Mormonism is certainly not against a sense of community - to the contrary - but it also celebrates individualism, hard work and success in business, and encourages a view that government should have only a small role, and that not everyone deserves to receive charity. You could hear that kind of reproof in Mr Romney's ill-judged chastisement of Britain for not having prepared adequately for the Olympics and in his widely condemned suggestion that Palestinians were culturally indisposed to economic success.

That brings us to the Middle East. Mormon dogma claims an intimate (again, unverified) connection with Israel, past and future. Mr Romney should be pressed on the lengths he would go to defend Israel, and whether he regards Iran's actions to date as sufficient cause for attack.

The Church's teachings chime with a view of American exceptionalism in the world - and the president's role in upholding that. It cherishes the belief that, one day, there will come one who is "mighty and strong" to lead Mormons to God's side. A version is the 'White Horse' prophecy, in which Joseph Smith foresaw a time when the US Constitution would "hang by a thread" and would be saved only by some Mormon leader (the 'White Horse') in Washington. Many Mormons (including Brigham Young) have flirted with the idea that they might be the One. Mr Romney, who has called the prophecy "a matter of speculation and discussion" should be asked whether he is now a candidate for that role - if not in his own eyes, then in those of the church leaders.

That he hasn't been pressed hard seems to stem, on the Right, from a respect for 'Mormon values' (and now, a desire to support the Republican candidate), and on the Left, from a reluctance to attack a religious minority and a reverence for communitarian ideals. But if Mr Romney wins without his Mormon faith having been questioned, it will legitimise in the US leader a set of beliefs that deserves challenge. It is entirely appropriate to ask him, until he answers: "You believe exactly what?"