The darker side of Mormonism
Just as the Mormon Republican Mitt Romney emerges as a major contender for the US presidency, a blood-soaked new film and a high-profile trial are exposing the dark side of his religion. And suddenly, the biggest obstacle on his road to the White House is the faith he holds so dear.
 
 
It was 11 September, a crystal-clear morning with the first hint of autumn crispness, as though a cynical, mocking God had set the stage for what would be the worst act of religiously inspired terrorism in US history.

But we are not talking about New York or Washington, DC in 2001. The setting was the uplands of remote south-eastern Utah, exactly 150 years ago, in a corner of an American West that was still a violent work-in-progress. Within minutes, some 140 pioneers - a wagon-train of men, women and children headed for California - lay dead in a massacre that would not be surpassed until the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

For decades, the Mountain Meadows Massacre has lain relatively undisturbed at the margins of the national consciousness. But it is about to be projected centre-stage. Next month, September Dawn, a new film by the writer and director Christopher Cain that purports to recount at last the true story of that dreadful day, is released in the US. And America will be revisiting this most shameful act in the annals of the Mormon Church as, for the first time, a candidate from a faith still best known for its long-abandoned cult of polygamy has a serious shot at the Presidency.

Mitt Romney is not the first Mormon to have made a bid for the White House. Mo Udall, a quixotic Arizona congressman, tried in 1976, and eight years earlier, a promising campaign by the former Michigan governor George Romney - Mitt's father - self-destructed when he let slip that he had been "brainwashed" by the military into supporting Vietnam. Right now, however, Romney Jr would appear to have a better chance than either.

Along with Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain, he is a "top-tier" candidate with a potent fund-raising machine; strong organisations in the key early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and a glittering résumé as businessman, saviour of the scandal-threatened 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and, most lately, a generally successful governor of Democratic Massachusetts.

But, just as this fierce and unprecedentedly early campaign for the presidential nomination goes into overdrive, all Romney's carefully crafted positions on immigration, abortion and the rest, risk being overwhelmed by this revisiting of his religion's past.

For those concerned with the image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the past 12 months have been trying. Last August, Warren Jeffs, the leader of a fundamentalist polygamist sect that long ago broke from mainstream Mormonism, was arrested on charges of coercing young girls to marry older men - supporting FBI estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 Americans still indulge in polygamy, even though the practice is both illegal and was banned by the Mormon Church in 1890.

On a lighter note, cable-TV viewers have been treated to a hit sitcom Big Love, about a stressed-out husband-of-three from Salt Lake City, owner of a chain of DIY stores, who juggles three homes, three mortgages and three sets of children. It is returning for a new series this summer, just as September Dawn hits the screens.

Those with an interest in the facts, and in the cultural and social background of Mitt Romney, have just been treated to a two-part, four-hour documentary on public television called The Mormons. The programmes on PBS were scrupulously even-handed, intended, in the words of their producer, to "blow away" old prejudices. Whether they did so is unclear. But whatever stereotypes were destroyed on the small screen, they are likely to be revived on the large one by September Dawn.

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"I am the voice of God: anyone who does not like it will be hewn down," thunders the sonorous voiceover, which cinema buffs will quickly recognise as belonging to Terence Stamp, as the murderous story unfolds. Stamp plays Brigham Young, the second president of the Mormon Church, and among the most riveting and controversial figures in American religion.

Forget polygamy (though Young was no slouch in that department). Not to put too fine a point on it, the film portrays the man hailed as an " American Moses", and revered by his people as "The Lion of the Lord", as a bigoted, bloodthirsty maniac who maintained that non-believers deserved death. In short, an Osama bin Laden of his age, breathing fire and brimstone against the US government of the day from within his country's own borders.

By any standards Young was an epic figure - a pioneer, a coloniser and a prophet to his people. Born in Vermont and trained as a carpenter, he converted to Mormonism when he was 31. Quickly, he rose to become an influential missionary, a member of the Mormons' governing Quorum of 12 Apostles, and finally the Church's second president. In 1847 and 1848, he led his followers to the virgin lands of Utah, and proclaimed himself the territory's first governor. He supervised the building of Salt Lake City and founded universities.

He also found time to have 20 wives, by whom he sired more than 50 children. With a piercing gaze and prodigious force of personality, his authority was unchallenged.

Thanks, in good measure, to the foundations laid by Young, the modern Mormons are thriving, the most successful of the indigenous sects that emerged in the US in the 19th century. The Church's 5.8 million US members are mainly concentrated in Utah and its neighbouring states. Their number includes not just Romney, but Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and one of the two most powerful Democrats in the land, as well as the influential Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

But for Mormonism's first half- century of life, the Church was a persecuted minority. It was harried by the populace in the North-east and the Midwest where it originated, and threatened by the federal government even after it had migrated to Utah. The Mormons are Christians who believe in the Old and New Testaments. But their adherence to the Book of Mormon, a sacred text of debated origin, and their recognition of modern prophets as well as ancient ones - not to mention the practice of polygamy - had many Americans of the day regard them as an immoral cult. To some, they remain precisely that today, and September Dawn is unlikely to ease such misgivings.

The Mountain Meadow Massacre has long been a source of controversy. The diaries and personal papers of victims and perpetrators alike are lost. But thanks to court evidence, and the memories of the children who survived it, the basic facts are not in dispute. The pioneers had set out from Arkansas on their way to California when their wagon-train was attacked on 8 September 1857. Their assailants were either local Paiute Indians, who had been mobilised by the Mormons, or Mormons disguised as Paiute. The pioneers initially managed to repel the attack. But after four days of resistance, they were so short of ammunition and water that they had no option but to sue for a truce. A Mormon representative negotiated a deal for them to hand over their possessions in return for their safety. The men were separated and escorted away in single file, each with a Mormon militiaman guard. Suddenly, a cry rang out: "Do your duty!" Each Mormon shot the prisoner next to him. The women and children travelling ahead were butchered in their turn; only the youngest, those under 10, were spared and sent to live with Mormon families before they were finally returned to relatives in Arkansas.

In the end, the only person punished was John Lee, the adopted son of Brigham Young, who, in 1877, was executed for the crime. Cain says that his film is based on Lee's confession. But before his death, Lee insisted that he was merely a scapegoat, sacrificed to save his master. And, to this day, direct descendants of those who survived contend that Young knew about and even ordered the massacre.

September Dawn is unequivocal: Young was behind the whole thing. Cain wrote the script and, he told The New York Times in 2006, based Young's role in the massacre on his own court depositions. "I sat watching and thought, 'Maybe I made that up, I don't think he would have said that.' And I went back and pulled it up - and man, he did!"

Then there is Young's threat to outsiders seeking to supplant him, reportedly discovered in church archives: "I will loose the Indians on them, and I will slit their throats from ear to ear." In another sermon, he declared: "If any miserable scoundrels come here, cut their throats."

At this point, a remote 19th- century atrocity becomes a parable for 9/11 - and the actor Jon Voight, who plays a Mormon bishop in September Dawn, makes no bones about it. Voight is an unabashed conservative in mostly liberal Hollywood. But, he insists, the film "is a true documented event of a group of fanatic religious believers who received one man's evil permission to massacre another religion". The US and the West are now facing a comparable problem, he argues, "with Islamic fanatics calling for the destruction of America and all of democracy. There's always a face of evil putting on a mask of godlike beliefs to destroy true believers in innocence and good."

Last year, Cain drew a similar comparison. "You start asking yourself the question: what makes a young kid - of any faith, in any part of the world - strap a bomb on his back and walk into a school, or a mosque, or ... a bus full of innocent people and blow himself and them all up? You start looking around and, all of a sudden, it's what religious fanaticism can turn into."

But was the Mountain Meadows Massacre really an instance of vengeful religious fanaticism? Could it not have been a dreadful overreaction to a perceived political threat, or a brutal cover-up of an act of looting - or, just possibly, a mistake? This last is the official Mormon version. Young, the church insists, did try to stop the massacre, and sent a rider to order his followers to allow the wagon-train to continue. But, by the time the messenger arrived, the slaughter had taken place.

At a memorial service, when the new monument was dedicated at the Utah site eight years ago, Gordon B Hinckley, the Mormons' current leader, said that there was "no question in my mind" that Young was opposed to what happened. Had there been a faster means of communication, it "never would have happened".

The truth will never be known. Young's religious convictions were certainly of a rare intensity, but the massacre must be set in the circumstances of the time. The US Civil War was still four years away, and, in 1857, the Mormons had every reason to feel threatened by the federal government. James Buchanan had entered the White House earlier that year, vowing to stamp out the "barbaric relic" of polygamy. That spring, he sent out a new governor to Utah, to break Young's theocratic rule.

The Mormons feared attack; and may have suspected that the wagon-train pioneers were invaders sent by the government. Indeed, the following year, Buchanan sent 2,500 troops to bring Utah to order.

The third theory has it that the real prize in those hard-pressed times, was the $300,000-worth of possessions and goods that the settlers were carrying with them to California. Cain's film suggests that the Paiute were duped by the Mormons, only to realise that they had been deceived and decide to take no further part in the crime about to unfold.

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So, what will be the impact on Romney's campaign? On the face of it, very little. After all, the evils of segregation and slavery didn't stop Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton from winning the White House. Even more preposterous is the notion that the film seeks to suggest a link between the Mormon faith and 9/11, in order to smear Romney. The film was conceived and filmed long before he entered the presidential race, late last year.

Moreover, whatever the stereotypes of Mormonism that the PBS programme sought to dispel, Romney conforms to none of them. Despite his telegenic looks and executive style, he is a pedestrian speaker. The suspicions about him have nothing to do with polygamy: unlike Giuliani and McCain, on their third and second wives respectively, the 60-year-old Romney married his high-school sweetheart Ann in 1968, and remains happily married to her today.

Rather, they surround his belated switch to conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage, in contrast to his relatively liberal line when he was governor of Massachusetts. And Romney also yields to no one in his hawkishness on terrorism in its modern guise.

"Some have said we ought to close Guantanamo Bay," he said during the second Republican candidates' debate last week. "My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo." It was his most applauded line of the night - although he did not do as well as in the first debate in April, which he was widely reckoned to have won.

But public doubts about Mormonism persist. John Kennedy overcame similar doubts 47 years ago, when America's first Catholic President had to convince voters that he was not an agent of the papacy - and, in a recent Boston Globe poll that showed Romney ahead in New Hampshire, 86 per cent of respondents said that his religion made no difference. But New Hampshire voters are a quirky bunch, who pride themselves on their objectivity. Elsewhere, it may not be so straightforward, especially given many voters' reluctance to admit prejudices to pollsters.

A Washington Post/ABC poll in February found that only 29 per cent of people would be less likely to vote for a candidate because he or she was a Mormon, down from 35 per cent a few months before. But white evangelical Protestants are cooler: 38 per cent of them indicated they would not vote for a Mormon. This reluctance could matter in important early primary states such as South Carolina, where Christian conservatives play a prominent role. Romney's good fortune is that, for different reasons, both McCain and Giuliani are also regarded warily by the religious right.

Thus far, it has taken not a Republican, but a Democratic gadfly to air such doubts in public. Don't worry, the Rev Al Sharpton, the civil-rights campaigner (and erstwhile Presidential candidate himself) reassured Americans this month: "Those who really believe in God will defeat Romney." Right now, a majority of voters probably have no idea that Romney even is a Mormon. But pleading ignorance will be that much harder when September Dawn hits the screens next month, with its tale of a September 11 massacre a century-and-a-half ago, that may have been ordered by a mighty Mormon leader - and evokes the modern trauma of 9/11 that has moulded American politics for the past six years.

Keeping the faith: famous Mormons

* BUTCH CASSIDY

Robert LeRoy Parker was born in Beaver, Utah in 1866. His English parents had emigrated to the US and were early converts to Mormonism, but Cassidy spent most of his life in jail or on the run. He misspent his youth shoplifting, before graduating to cattle rustling, bank robbing and holding up trains with the notorious Wild Bunch gang.

* RYAN GOSLING

The Oscar-nominated star of the feature films The Notebook and Half Nelson was born and raised in Ontario, Canada. Educated at home by his mother, he decided, at 17, to head west to try his luck in Hollywood . His parents are both devout Mormons, although Gosling, now 26, has described himself as being "religious but non-denominational".

* NEIL LABUTE

A Detroit-born filmmaker and playwright, LaBute, 44, joined the Mormon Church while he was studying drama alongside a fellow-Mormon, Aaron Eckhart. He does admit to being a somewhat unlikely believer. "When Mormons ask me if I'm practising, I say, 'Yeah', but I think a lot of them would say that I need more practice," he says.

* GLADYS KNIGHT

After a hugely successful singing career with the Pips in the 1960s and 1970s, Knight, 62, joined the Mormon Church 10 years ago. Appealing for an injection of "pep" into Mormon music, she created and still directs the Saints Unified Voices choir. The Grammy-winning 100-voice ensemble now tours Mormon churches across the United States.

* DONNY OSMOND

The former teen idol and pop star is the Mormon Church's most famous son. Osmond, 49, discusses his faith on the "My Beliefs" page of his website: "It's the pattern that gives me direction in life."

* ROSEANNE BARR

Born to Jewish parents in Utah, the troubled comedian flirted with both religions, but no longer practises. Last year, she said of her confused upbringing: "It was a tough time... but it opened me up to being able to have peace between two different sides."

Simon Usborne

No booze, no drugs, no illicit sex - and one wife only. The creeds and culture of the Mormons
  • Founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church is now lead by 96-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley, the 15th serving president, who is regarded by members as God's prophet on Earth. Fourteen other apostles make up the leadership. Members trace this organisational structure to the New Testament.

  • The Church uses four holy books, including the Bible and The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Members must be baptised, usually at the age of eight, by total immersion in water.

  • Members believe the Church is a restoration of the Church as conceived by Jesus and that other Christian churches have gone astray.

  • Mormons believe God has a physical body, is married, and can have children. Humans can become gods in the afterlife. Members follow the "Word of Wisdom", a health code drawn up by Smith. It requires abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and recreational drugs. The Church also opposes abortion, homosexuality, extramarital sex, pornography and gambling.

  • Polygamy was renounced in 1890 and the Church excommunicates anyone who practices it.

  • Members fast on the first Sunday of the month by going without food and drink for two consecutive meals.

  • Good Mormons give 10 per cent of their income to the church in tithes.
 
news.independent.co.uk
Originally published May 24, 2007
 
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