|Utah diary - Going west|
How Mormon history parallels America's
Looks nice, but try crossing on foot
DRIVING across Utah, I am struck by the majestic scenery, the wide open spaces and the realisation that the early Mormons covered it all on foot. Whizzing across the semi-desert in an air-conditioned car is quite restful. With a music system that holds six CDs at a time, I don't even have to lift a finger to switch from "Carmen" to "La Bohème". Nineteenth-century Mormons had it somewhat tougher.
Back east, they were persecuted. The governor of Missouri called for them to be exterminated or driven out. After Joseph Smith, their prophet, was lynched in 1844, most of his followers went on a great Exodus westwards.
Many drove wagons over the Rocky Mountains into what is now Utah, where they founded Salt Lake City. Some who could not afford wagons loaded their possessions onto wooden handcarts and pulled them all the way from Iowa—a distance of some 1,300 miles.
Many died en route. A group of 1,000 got stuck in the Rockies and began to starve. A mule train was sent up to rescue them, but some 200 died of cold or hunger, and many survivors had to have their frostbitten toes amputated. I found the monument to these handcart trekkers outside the Temple, the most sacred building of the Mormon faith, profoundly moving.
It also reminded me how closely Mormon history mirrors America's. The early Mormons, like the early American settlers, were devout pioneers who fled religious persecution. They trekked westward in search of land and freedom. They found both, and are now thriving.
Many aspects of Mormon culture are impossible not to admire. Church charities respond quickly and generously to natural disasters. If there was an earthquake in Latin America, says one of my guides, "I could make a phone call and by 6pm there would be 10,000 volunteers here boxing up [relief supplies]." Nearly everyone agrees that Mormons make agreeable neighbours: cheerful, friendly and highly unlikely to throw drunken parties.
Yet many Americans remain suspicious of Mormonism. In a recent poll, 25% said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who was a Mormon. That dwarfs the proportion who will admit to bias against a black or female candidate. Only Muslims and atheists fare worse.
Many evangelicals consider Mormons heretics. Bill Keller, a televangelist, argues that "a vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for Satan," and that his example will lead millions to Hell. So Mr Romney has a mountain to climb if he is to win the Republican nomination. His defenders say it is unAmerican to apply a religious test to a candidate. But the awkward truth is, voters can make their choice for any reason they please, foolish or otherwise.
No wives where he's going
MANY Americans falsely assume that Mormons are polygamous. In fact, the church renounced plural marriage, as it was known, in 1890. So Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather had four wives, but Mitt himself is the only serious Republican presidential candidate this year to have contented himself with just one.
Polygamy has not vanished from Utah, however. A few splinter sects keep it up. One such is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose leader, Warren Jeffs, was arrested last year for abetting statutory rape.
This cult gives an excellent demonstration of why polygamy does not work. Or rather, why it makes for an unstable society.
Mr Jeffs ruled over a remote town on the Utah-Arizona border like a priest-king. He preached that only polygamists go to heaven. That was fine for him—he had plenty of wives. But if some men have lots of wives (and women are only allowed one husband), many men are left single.
The cult quickly found itself with a surplus of young single, sex-starved males. Mr Jeffs’s solution was to expel them. He would throw out boys as young as ten for "trouble-making". That could mean an offence as trivial as playing video games or talking back to an elder. Hundreds of these "Lost Boys" can now be found in the nearest towns, subsisting by working on building sites.
I chatted to some Lost Boys in Saint George, in southwest Utah. They admitted to finding it hard to adjust to mainstream America. Having lived so austerely for so long, some go wild, at least temporarily, drinking and chasing girls.
Girls like them because they are so buff. Many have hefted bricks for eight hours a day since they were ten or eleven. Mr Jeffs believed in hard work.
Most of the Lost Boys had harsh words for their former Prophet, whose trial was playing live on CNN when I spoke to them. One described how Mr Jeffs would split up families on a whim. If he suddenly decided that a man was unworthy, he could order that man’s wives to marry another he judged worthier. The new husband would adopt their children. The penalty for saying "No" was to burn in Hell.
Looking back on his time in the cult, one of the Lost Boys says: "If you're raised in it, you don’t realise how bad it all is. Now I see it’s all crap."
Mr Jeffs was convicted and faces a long, long time in jail.
The pride of Salt Lake City
SALT LAKE CITY is the Mecca of Mormonism. The city was founded by Mormon pioneers escaping persecution back east. It houses the church's global headquarters. The centre of town is dominated by an imposing and elegant temple. Yet the atmosphere is less straight-laced than you might expect.
You can always get a drink, though some of the rules are irritating. If you are not eating and you abhor watery beer, you need to join a private club. To do this, you must give your name and address—hardly an insurmountable obstacle.
Salt Lake City gets a special mention in a book called "50 Fabulous Gay Friendly Places to Live". The author, Gregory Kompes, visited the city expecting to find it dour and puritan, but was pleasantly shocked at the vibrancy of the gay scene.
In a way, this is not surprising. Utah may be America's reddest state, but it still has its liberals and its bohemians, who tend to cluster in cities. Practising Mormons tend to get married, have kids and move out to the suburbs in search of bigger backyards and better schools.
Mormons are now a minority in Salt Lake City itself. That is why the city has a mayor, Rocky Anderson, who is not merely a lapsed Mormon but also quite snippy towards the church.
Mr Anderson marches in gay pride parades and thinks the city should ditch all its finicky drinking laws. He has clashed often with the city council, which is dominated by Mormons.
He points with mock pride to a cartoon on his office wall of a Mormon politician showing his picture to a tough-looking seagull (a Mormon symbol) and telling the bird to "make it look like an accident".
The mayor says that relations between Mormons and non-Mormons are "quite strained". This is surely an exaggeration. No one is coming to blows over anything much in Salt Lake City.
Non-Mormons typically find their Mormon neighbours quiet and considerate. Mormons may have strict rules for themselves, but they rarely seek to impose them on others.
The drinking laws are an exception, though they are probably primarily aimed at Mormons—if your family all think alcohol is sinful, you may hesitate to give your name at a bourbon bar.
A highly effective Stephen Covey
YOUNG Mormons, especially men, are expected to go on missions. Mitt Romney went to France (where he nearly died in a car crash). Stephen Covey (a self-help guru best known for writing "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People") honed his public-speaking skills as a missionary in England.
So many Mormons go on missions at roughly the same age (just before or during college, if they are men; a bit older, if they are women) that a sudden dip in the number of 19-year olds shows up in the census figures for Utah. I went to Brigham Young University in Provo to chat to a group of ex-missionaries.
They are a pleasant and clean-cut bunch of students. All have spent a year or two spreading the word in places as far-flung as the Philippines or as close as Nevada. Most found it a formative experience. They were obliged to live frugally, rise early, put on a suit every day and tirelessly accost strangers. The endless rebuffs forced them to develop an unflinching optimism and thick skin.
Conversions are easiest, they say, in places where Christianity is already entrenched. People who already love Jesus find it easier to accept new revelations about Him. Converting, say, Taiwanese Buddhists is much tougher: they find basic Christian doctrine strange and unpalatable.
Some people find the Mormons' emphasis on wholesome family life attractive. One student recalls a Filipina whose husband habitually got drunk and beat her. She thought Mormonism's ban on alcohol a splendid idea. Her husband did not.
Ironically, one of the worst places to be sent on a mission is the American Bible belt, says another of the students: "People there have had guns pulled on them or dogs set on them."
The missionary experience means that Mormons are more likely than other Americans to speak foreign languages. The State Department is full of them. Erlend Peterson, a vice president at Brigham Young, says that whenever he visits an American embassy abroad, he nearly always bumps into alumni.
The students at Brigham Young are conservative—at least by the standards of American campuses. But some are uneasy at the notion of a Romney presidency. Ryan Decker, an economics student, worries that with a Mormon in the White House, Mormon missionaries will be seen in many countries as somehow representing American foreign policy. That will make it harder to fish for souls.
With a Mormon running for president, many people want to know: what do Mormons believe? Mitt Romney, the candidate in question, casts little light on the matter. When pressed, he lists only the uncontroversial tenets that Mormonism has in common with other Christian churches. He believes in God, in the Bible and that Jesus Christ is his saviour. But what else? I went to Utah to find out.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as it is properly known) is arguably America’s most original contribution to world religion. As many polite folk tell me, Mormons have everything that other Christians have, plus something extra. That something is the Book of Mormon.
This is a controversial scripture. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, said he discovered it a century and a half ago. An angel showed him where to dig, and he unearthed some metal plates with inscriptions on them in a language called "Reformed Egyptian". Smith translated these, he said, and then gave the plates back to the angel.
The result was the Book of Mormon. Sceptics snort that Smith must have written it himself. But 13m Latter-day Saints disagree, and the faith Smith founded is one of the fastest-growing large ones in the world.
Russell Ballard, one of the Mormon church's 12 apostles (roughly equivalent to a Catholic cardinal), invites me into his comfortable office at church headquarters in Salt Lake City. He is a gentle, thoughtful man. Like most senior Mormons, he has just had another grandchild. (Mormons have not been polygamous for over a century, but they still have a lot of children.)
The Christian church was lost, he says. With God's guidance, Joseph Smith restored it. Elder Ballard and the church’s amiable public relations man, Michael Otterson, explain how Mormonism differs from other Christian denominations. Mormons have a different view of the Trinity, seeing Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three separate entities, not three in one. They believe that a marriage performed in a Mormon temple is eternal—husband and wife remain together in the afterlife.
In a sermon only weeks before he was murdered by a lynch mob in 1844, Joseph Smith taught that God was once a man and that people, if truly devout, can become like God. Many other Christians think that is utterly heretical. A few of the more aggressive evangelicals come to Salt Lake City during Mormon conferences to shout abuse at attendees and warn them that they are all going to Hell. The Mormons ignore them.
Originally published November 9, 2007
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