Noah Feldman: What is it about Mormonism?
[Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at Harvard University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes frequently on religion and public life.]
Our post-denominational age should be the perfect time for a Mormon to become president, or at least the Republican nominee. Mormons share nearly all the conservative commitments so beloved of the evangelicals who wield disproportionate influence in primary elections. Mormons also embody, in their efficient organizational style, the managerial competence that the party’s pro-business wing considers attractive. For the last half-century, Mormons have been so committed to the Republican Party that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once felt the need to clarify that Republican affiliation is not an actual condition of church membership.
Yet the Mormons’ political loyalty is not fully reciprocated by their fellow Republicans. Twenty-nine percent of Republicans told the Harris Poll last year that they probably or definitely would not vote for a Mormon for president. Among evangelicals, some of the discomfort is narrowly religious: Mormon theology is sometimes understood as non-Christian and heretical. Elsewhere, the reasons for the aversion to Mormons are harder to pin down — bigotry can be funny that way — but they are certainly not theological. A majority of Americans have no idea what Mormons believe.
Mormonism’s political problem arises, in large part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces. The church’s most inviting public symbols — pairs of clean-cut missionaries in well-pressed white shirts — evoke the wholesome success of an all-American denomination with an idealistic commitment to clean living. Yet at the same time, secret, sacred temple rites and garments call to mind the church’s murky past, including its embrace of polygamy, which has not been the doctrine or practice of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, for a century. Mormonism, it seems, is extreme in both respects: in its exaggerated normalcy and its exaggerated oddity. The marriage of these opposites leaves outsiders uncomfortable, wondering what Mormonism really is.
[Editor: This article extends for many pages.]
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