Freddy Gray’s American Diary
Catholics and Mormons are hardly natural bedfellows. While religious people should always tread carefully when criticising the peculiar aspects of another faith, even the most broad-minded Christian might recoil at the zanier claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The trouble is not necessarily that Mormons disbelieve Christian teaching on the Holy Trinity, rather it is that the Book of Mormon claims, among other things, that the Israelites settled in the Americas in 600 BC, that Jesus Christ visited the New World and that God punished some Americans by giving them a “skin of blackness” as punishment for their sins.
Yet for all their disparities, Christians and Mormons have grown increasingly fond of each other in recent years. In today’s America, they are political allies in the struggle to protect traditional values. In November a joint effort by Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons led to the passing of Proposition 8, a ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in California. Catholic and Evangelical activists acknowledged that Mormon support was the key factor in their legislative success. The Latter-day Saints contributed over half of the $28 million used in the multifaith campaign and Jeff Flint, a strategist for the Protect Marriage Coalition, estimated that Mormons did up to 90 per cent of his group’s door-to-door volunteering.
Though Mormon numbers are comparatively small – America’s 5.5 million Latter-day Saints make up just 1.6 per cent of the US population – they represent something of a crack force in the culture wars. They are well-funded, energetic and their numbers are fast growing. They are also surprisingly influential in Washington: Mormons hold over five per cent of congressional seats. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a Latter-day Saint, so too is last year’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
Yet Mormon politicians invariably play down their religious roots, and the LDS hierarchy almost never engages directly in politics. It’s not hard to see why. Mormonism’s front-line involvement in the Prop 8 row prompted a fierce secular backlash. A pro-gay marriage television advertisement portrayed Mormons as sinister infringers of civil liberties; actor Tom Hanks labelled them “un-American”.
Such attacks only further endear Mormons to other conservatives, however. As Justin Hart, a member of the LDS, put it: “When we get beat up in the press, it is a badge of honour.” Some Christian activists, endeavouring to assimilate Mormons further into their camp, have compared the Mormonism of today with the American Catholic Church of 50 years ago – both treated with great suspicion by the establishment.
But that parallel only goes so far. The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant leaders of yesteryear at least had the Nicene Creed in common with their Catholic inferiors. Mormons, by contrast, rely on a continuing revelation, which has enabled them to adapt to the social norms of a predominately Christian society. In 1896, for example, LDS leaders suspended polygamy in exchange for Utah statehood, and in 1978 they allowed black men to enter the priesthood after an outcry against Mormon racism.
Though the vast majority of Christians would approve of those reforms Mormonism’s doctrinal flexibility gives some Catholics pause. Can a faith that has such profound, credal differences with the Church, and which has shown a willingness to change its teaching to suit the political climate, really be a valuable ally in the struggle against moral relativism? Perhaps, one day, the Vatican will need to enforce its own position against the political marriage of Mormons and Catholics.