On books about Mormonism and Mitt
Adam Gopnik reviews four new books about Mormonism that are very thought provoking:
All four authors retell Mormonism’s origin stories. In the eighteen-twenties, in Palmyra, New York, a man named Joseph Smith—who had already been arrested for “glass looking,” the phony detection of underground treasures—said that an angel named Moroni had directed him to a set of buried golden plates, inscribed with an ancient script, which, after various stops and starts, Smith and a friend had translated into a Biblical-sounding English. The plates contained the Book of Mormon, the secret history of a native people of America, who turned out to be lost tribes of Israel. They had long ago emigrated to America, and were the ancestors of the contemporary Indians. These American Hebrews had divided, after long internecine warfare, into two groups, the Lamanites (mostly bad) and the Nephites (mostly good), and—during a trip somehow overlooked by the Gospels—had been visited by Jesus, after the Resurrection and before the Ascension.
Scholarly opinion on Smith now tends to divide between those who think that he knew he was making it up and those who think that he sincerely believed in his own visions—though the truth is that, as Melville’s “Confidence Man” reminds us, the line between the seer and the scamster wasn’t clearly marked in early-nineteenth-century America.
This is where the atheist in me tends to get rude and make enemies, so I'll Mark Twain speak for me:
Mark Twain read the Book of Mormon and, knowing what Smith would have read, not to mention knowing about frontier fakery, came to conclusions about both the sources of its prose and the sequence of its composition:I realize that it's wrong to harshly judge people for their religious beliefs --- and let's face facts, most of them feature some pretty far-fetched tales. But this one, like Scientology, is easily traced to its bullshit origins since it wasn't that long ago. So, I find it a little bit hard to take that someone who wishes to lead the most powerful country on earth is not just a follower, but a leader and true believer of such a religion.
The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel—half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.
Granted, the lessons of any religion are arguably more important than the specious origins of the sacred books. And in that respect, these days Mormonism carries most of the same moral doctrine as most other Western religions. But considering how those moral lessons are broadly applied, that's not exactly comforting.
On the other hand, Gopnik is surely right that Mitt's real creed is American capitalism (which he shows has also become Mormonism's) and in that he truly is a Real American:
He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.Again, the atheist in me rises up to complain. But as with all such complaints, it's just screaming into the void.
Then again, almost every American religion sooner or later becomes a Gospel of Wealth. Forced into a corner by the Feds, Young’s followers put down their guns and got busy making money—just as the Oneida devotees who made silverware for a living ended up merely making silverware. (The moneymaking activities of the major churches hardly need outlining.) Christmas morning is the American Sabbath, and it runs, ideally, all year round. The astonishing thing, and it would have brought a smile to Nephi’s face as he and his tribe sailed to the New World, is that this gospel of prosperity is the one American faith that will never fail, even when its promises seem ruined. Elsewhere among the Western democracies, the bursting of the last bubble has led to doubts about the system that blows them. Here the people who seem likely to inherit power are those who want to blow still bigger ones, who believe in the bubble even after it has burst, and who hold its perfection as a faith so gleaming and secure and unbreakable that it might once have been written down somewhere by angels, on solid-gold plates.
Update: Via Spocko, this humorous video sums up my beliefs about much of it: