I can’t say that some of my best friends are Mormons, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Latter-Day Saints. Their faith was founded about 50 miles to our east during the antebellum roil which gave to our region the appellation of the “Burned-Over District,” as religious and reform enthusiasms (abolition, women’s rights, spiritualism) set this land afire. I find the Book of Mormon, well, implausible, but as an indiscriminate patriot of the Burned-Over District anything or anyone hailing from these parts is okay by me, from the free-love Oneida Community to Ann Lee and her celibate Shakers. (And what a rotten perpetuation strategy that was: a no-sex sect.)
My Mormon-friendliness—and no, I never experimented with LDS—is pretty much limited to rooting for BYU football, though in 1984, when I had quit the employ of Sen. Pat Moynihan and wanted nothing more to do with politics, I rode the Hound to Salt Lake City, where I flopped for a couple of months at the New Grand Hotel, writing derivative Beat poetry and thinking on things. (I got a charge years later when I read in Wallace Stegner’s novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain that his fictive alter ego’s no-good father hung around the New Grand.)
Almost a score of years ago I published a travel book about rural New York (Country Towns of New York) in which I wrote up Palmyra, the Mormon mecca, in whose environs Joseph Smith claimed to have received a visit in 1823 from an angel named Moroni, who directed him to the west side of a glacial drumlin that the Mormons would call Cumorah. There Smith found a stone box containing a set of gold plates upon which was written, in an ancient language, the Book of Mormon.
For one week every July, tens of thousands of Mormons and gentiles alike gather at sunset at the foot of the Hill Cumorah to watch a multimedia pageant of LDS history. As a waggish merchant said of the Mormons who descend upon Palmyra each summer, “They bring the Ten Commandments and a ten-dollar bill and never break either one.”
The proselytizing at Hill Cumorah is low-key. Typically, the pageant’s actors fan out through the crowd a couple of hours before show time. A cute Mormon girl or earnest Mormon boy, dressed as a Lamanite or Nephite and soon to take the stage, will ask you where you’re from, tell you that he or she has had an “awesome” time at Palmyra, and say something like, “I want you to know that all these stories you’re going to see tonight are true, and reading the Book of Mormon has brought me more joy than I ever imagined.”
And that’s it for the evangelizing. I don’t believe these stories are true, but for the life of me I can’t understand why I’m supposed to despise these people.
Politically, alas, it’s a freefall descent from Joseph Smith to such wretched Mormon solons as the epicene Orrin Hatch or the bloodless—which is perhaps why his foreign policy is so bloodthirsty?—Mitt Romney.
Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844, at least until a mob killed him in Illinois. He was thus the first U.S. presidential candidate to be assassinated. (Those in the best position to win this toughest of all bar bets, however, are usually absent from the bar.)
Smith’s supporters held a nominating convention in the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois, on May 17, 1844. They declared themselves for “liberty and equal rights, Jeffersonian democracy, free trade, and sailor’s rights.” Hell, that beats anything that will come out of this year’s late-summer covens in Tampa and Charlotte.
Smith issued a campaign document whose proposals ranged from the good (“Break off the shackles from the poor black man”) to the bad (cut the size of Congress in half) to the ugly (grant the president “full power to send an army to suppress mobs,” a presentimental plea for self-preservation).
Far and away the most interesting plank in Smith’s platform was this: “Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries: blessing them as they go, and saying to them in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more.”
Whaddaya say, Mitt?
Joseph Smith even broke into Whitmanesque rhapsody: “Restore freedom! Break down slavery! Banish imprisonment for debt, and be in love, fellowship, and peace with all the world.”
“Love, fellowship, and peace with all the world”? For such heresies Smith would be reviled, if not maced and tasered, at Mitt’s coronation. When it comes to Mormon politicos, give me that old-time religion.