Harry Reid, senior Democrat in Congress and the most powerful Mormon politician in the country, made the charge Tuesday that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not the face of Mormonism, and, in fact, has “sullied” the religion of which both Reid and Romney are adherents. Reid may be wrong about Romney, but not in the way one would think.
For the past year, Romney has been the touchstone for everything Mormon while Mormonism has become the oddball celebrity of reality television. In the past month, reporters have been going to church with Romney, to learn from other Mormons such as J. W. Marriott, who said from the pulpit, that Romney lives “an exemplary life.” The numbers support Marriott’s claim. According to a Gallup poll, 84 percent of Mormons who are registered to vote in the United States plan to vote for Romney. As the icon of today’s Republican ideals, Mitt Romney does seem to be the face of the overwhelming majority of Mormons in this country.
However, while Romney is the face of 84 percent of Mormons in the United States, it may be that 84 percent of Mormons in the United States are not the face of Mormonism.
Mormons may be renowned for a legendary culture of self-reliance, but a distinctly collectivist philosophy is at the core of Mormonism. Joseph Smith experimented with collectivism in early Mormon communities. The great Mormon exodus of some 16,000 Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley between 1846 and 1850 was an exercise in the able giving to the unable without an expectation of a return in kind. The ongoing migration to Utah of thousands until 1886 was facilitated by a take-and-replenish program that floated financial assistance to migrants all along the route from Europe to New York to St. Louis to Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young established several settlements in the American West that practiced varying degrees of communal living. Some communities in Young’s Utah were designed specifically to accommodate the arrival of destitute immigrants from the East and from Europe—to house and feed them until Young could issue the immigrants a labor assignment in another community, suited to the trade skills they brought from their homelands. From the outset of the Mormon presence in Salt Lake City, Young prohibited settlers from subdividing or selling the carefully uniform plots of land that were distributed by lottery. Nineteenth-century Mormon Utah may have been the biggest, most successful implementation of socialism in American history.
Even polygamy, the stigma of which is still attached to Latter-day Saints, had its collectivist premise. Young’s first “second wife” and her three children had been abused and abandoned by her husband. For awhile, then, well more than 47 percent of Young’s own household was made up of “victims” in need of “governmental” support.
Since Utah gained statehood just prior to 1900, Mormons have had a bewildering preference for the Republican Party. Now, one of their own leads the party that was formed in 1856 and among its goals was to obliterate Mormon collectivism. But in the previous century, Mormonism fought against what it regarded as Republican tyranny. In the coming century, perhaps, 80 percent of Mormons will be the foundation of the Occupy movement.
What the “Mormon Moment” has ignored is that there are many Mormonisms in America, today. Perhaps eighty percent of Mormons, themselves, misunderstand how heterogeneous contemporary Mormonism is. Between the Romney-ites and the Democrats, between the community of Christ and the polygamists clinging to a culture of yesteryear, between the socially conservative and the socially progressive, between the ultra-patriots and the cosmopolitans, Mormonism is not monolithic, but divided and fractured into a host of widely divergent and equally legitimate Mormonisms.
Romney really is the face of one Mormonism. Harry Reid is the face of another. For good reason, Reid doesn’t want people to confuse his Mormonism with Romney’s, and, I suppose, vice-versa.
As the Mormon Moment comes, thankfully, to a close in November, perhaps we’ll finally have arrived at the point at which we speak not of Mormonism, but of Mormonisms.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.” Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor .