June 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz reported this month that officials on Mitt Romney’s campaign don’t care much for journalistic explorations of their candidate’s religious beliefs.
One spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, has been throwing brushback pitches at reporters who write about Romney’s faith, asking if they would write similar stories about Jews.
According to Horowitz, Saul objected to sentences in an earlier Washington Post piece describing how Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, is said to have discovered the golden plates that provided the theological underpinnings of his new faith.
“Would you write this sentence in describing the Jewish faith?” she asked, providing an example: “‘Jews believe their prophet Moses was delivered tablets on a mountain top directly from G-d after he appeared to him in a burning bush.’ Of course not, yet you reference a similar story in Mormonism.”
There’s nothing wrong with Saul’s compressed description of the moment Jews received God’s law, nor is there anything wrong with the Post’s description of Mormonism’s founding in upstate New York. But because I love Mad Libs as much as anyone, I thought I would try a small experiment, substituting Jewish concepts where appropriate in a recent New York Times article about Romney’s faith, to see if Saul’s argument makes sense.
Here’s one sentence: “Outside the spotlight, Mr. Romney can be demonstrative about his faith: belting out hymns (‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’) while horseback riding, fasting on designated days and finding a Mormon congregation to slip into on Sundays, no matter where he is.”
And here’s a Mad Libs version: “Outside the spotlight, Mr. Romney can be demonstrative about his faith: belting out hymns (‘The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Such a Friend!’) while playing mahjong, fasting on Yom Kippur (except for possibly some nuts around 4 p.m.) and finding a shul to slip into on Saturdays.”
Innocuous, right? (Please, horse-riding Jews, hold your letters.) Saul’s complaint is also incorrect on the historical merits: The only Jew to ever get close to the White House was Senator Joseph Lieberman, who isn’t merely Jew-ish (as the saying goes), but a full-blown Orthodox Jew. When he was picked to be Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, the newspapers were filled with tales of his religious practices.
A New York Times reporter, Laurie Goodstein, detailed Lieberman’s exotic rites at length, in the manner of an anthropologist explaining a previously unknown Amazon tribe: “Many of Mr. Lieberman’s most basic religious rituals are intimate acts,” the article said. At morning prayer, “the senator lays on tefillin, the small leather boxes that contain four biblical passages written on parchment, binding the boxes to one arm and his forehead with leather straps.”
So what does the Romney camp find so frightening? In talking to my Mormon friends (some of my best friends are Mormons), the answer is clear. The practices and origin stories of most religions, when viewed by outsiders, all seem fairly strange. But Mormonism seems just a bit stranger than the rest. The great fear is not that Americans will see a Mormon politician as too sinister to lead the country (the way that some Baptist leaders once saw the Catholic John F. Kennedy) but that Americans will see a Mormon as too bizarre to be president.
They point to the issue of “sacred underwear,” the derisive term for undergarments worn by some Mormons to remind themselves of their religious responsibilities. Many find the concept odd, but should they? Is Mormonism really that much stranger than other religions?
I vividly remember learning from a Catholic friend that, each Sunday, his family would attend church to drink the blood of Jesus and eat his body. Freaky. But is it any freakier than the sight of a bunch of Jews gathering around an 8-day-old boy to watch a man with a beard snip off the tip of the baby’s penis, and then to eat blintzes afterward? Religious Jews, of course, also wear a variation of “sacred underwear” -- zizit and tallitot, traditional garments that date back thousands of years, to the ancient Middle East.
The Mormon tradition dates back less than 200 years, to Palmyra, New York. What Mormons suffer from more than any other major religion is proximity. The foundation stories of Mormonism took place in the age of skeptical journalism, and they took place in the U.S. Most Christians believe in a Second Coming. Mormons believe the Second Coming will be in Missouri. Many Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from Jerusalem on a winged animal, which has the ring of something mystical and transcendent. If Muhammad had departed for heaven from Tenafly, New Jersey, well, that would open up Islam to some level of derision.
Check that: It wouldn’t open up Islam to derision, because some Muslims -- in particular a set of ill-tempered fundamentalists among them -- have made it quite dangerous for anyone to mock their religion. Not so with Mormons. This is something else that causes suffering for the Latter-day Saints: their ineffable niceness. If radical Mormons had initiated acts of terrorism in Manhattan, do you think their religion would be held up for mockery each night on Broadway?
Mormons’ equanimity in the face of derision is refreshing, and speaks to the confidence they have in their religion. The Romney camp should also have confidence, and understand that not every reporter asking questions about their man’s religious practices is trying to subvert Romney’s candidacy or his church.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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