Lying for the Lord: The Mormon Missionary Rides High
In case you need to hear it again. Mitt Romney will not raise taxes on the middle class, will not increase the deficit, will create 12,000,000 new jobs in the first three months, will protect small businesses, and will save Medicare and Social Security as we know it, while giving future “seniors” more choice about health care options. Everything’s comin’ up roses, and you heard it from his milk-drinking, alcohol-free, tobacco-eschewing lips.
A lot has been made about Romney’s lies, and his commitment to post-truth politics. But they are not really lies–at least not the sort of whoppers that Ben Franklin alluded to in Poor Richard’s when he said the truth stands on two legs, a lie on one.
In the image-is-everything world we live in, propagating your version of the reality you want the world to see is the real goal. Mitt Romney is good at it. But he is not good at it because he a a good lawyer, or a good businessman, or a good guy.
He is a good at is because he is a Mormon–and not just a Mormon but a really good Mormon. And really good Mormons are the best liars in the world.
In the recent debate, Mr Obama, a man still occasionally in touch with this weird and rare thing called truth, had a hard time understanding the scene unfolding adjacent to him.
He seemed to be a man reading for a part in the wrong play, using the wrong script–one that corresponded to a different plotline. If at times he seemed to be thinking, “I can’t believe this guy” what he was hoping is that no one else would believe this guy. But many did and many will. Meanwhile, Romney basked in the artificial light of the artificial scene with the artifical trees and shrubs and buildings that the President stumbled into. All that was missing was Jim Reeves singing “Welcome to My World” in the background. Obama was a guest in Mitt Romney’s head for an hour and a half.
Contrary to what the media said, this was not a weak performance by a man—the President–who needed to get in there and throw a few punches and challenge Romney’s “facts”. It was a scene out of Mars Attacks. It was the devil messing with Eve’s head, Satan in jeering voice taunting Job. In fact,Obama looked more Job- than Solomon-like, a man afflicted and confused.
No one expected the enemy to take this form. At one point, in reply to Romney’s third asseveration that he was not advocatng a three trillion dollar tax break and that the President’s statements were “simply inaccurate,” (“I don’t know where you’re getting this stuff”) Mr Obama simply looked disappointed and mildly shook his graying head. How many at that point wanted someone to say pointedly “I’m getting it from you, Governor–it’s what you’ve been saying for eighteen months.” Except we all know what Romney would have said, in that Jon Lovitz/Tommy Flannagan style he had adopted: “No I didn’t. You’re making that up, too.” Post-truthfulness, to be effective, must be pathologically coherent.
Accordingly it was Mitt Romney’s reality that won, and there was no room in that reality for challenge. In the myth Romney cunningly spun, lies became pillars in an unassailable argument. The response to that myth–the only appropriate one, and hence one this President could not make–would be “You’re full of shit, and everything you have said is shit. If people want to vote for shit, they will vote for you.” Short of that, nothing would have worked. But something tells me, that might have.
Do we know any other area of life where factual challenges do not prevail over evidence and eyesight?
Of course we do. Religion. This debate was won by theological sleight of hand—by “the evidence of things not seen,” otherwise known as faith. The old Yiddish joke about a jewel thief caught in the act by a cop (“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”) also works if you change the culprit to a philandering husband. And it works if you make the perpetrator a contemporary Mormon politician. The Mormon tradition of “Lying for the Lord” has received a little attention (though not enough) recently, especially in an interview with Brigham Young’s descendant, Sue Emmet, in The Daily Beast. Mitt Romney may be the best of the breed in knowing how the game ius played and when to play it.
Although Christanity has had two thousand years to get its duplicitous act together and has more or less accepted standard distinctions between truth and falsehood, except in doctrinal matters, religion scholars know that religious minorities often have to survive by practicing duplicity in the interest of the higher cause: propagating their version of the truth.
They do this to make their converts (think: voters) believe that what they are signing onto is better than what they’ve got, if necessary by telling them that while their brief and mortal lives stink, their eternal one will be a bed of roses–a little like the lives of the 1% here on earth.
Celsus, an early critic of Christanity, sneers at the way Christians prey on unsuspecting “yokels,” then fade, hide or deny when their preachers are confronted by skeptical onlookers. In Islam, various sectarians, including the Druze of Lebanon and Syria, were famous liars—a reputation that put their militias at the service of the highest bidder during the long Lebanese civil war. The Alawites of Syria, like the ancient gnostics before them and other heterodox cults, spread in just the same way. Once upon a time, it variously benefited and hurt Christians to be confused with Jews. When it benefited them to be different and join ranks with pagan anti-Semitism, they joined ranks and took over the Empire and began acting like pagans. That’s the way religious lying works. You just have to have a cool head, a few zingers in your quiver, and know whom to appease and whom oppose.
Being sneaky and learning to lie has benefited every endangered sect since the Reformation, ranging from the Dunkards to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Moonies. The point is to get your foot in the door. Once you do that, you can get your ideas into your victim’s head.
But Mormons are the champions of all champion liars. Lying has made them not just survivors but rich and prosperous survivors.
Unlike some less mendacious groups, the Mormons were founded by a renowned snake oil salesman and accomplished untruth teller. Joseph Smith is the prototype, though with less carnage to his direct credit, for such successors as David Koresh and Jim Jones, of (respectively) Waco and Jonestown fame—religious leaders who begin on the tracks and then derail their congregants with promises of beachfront property in the Kingdom and a divine bank account that never goes overdraft.
Mormons are not just used car salesmen: they may have invented used car salesmen. If you don’t believe me, just replay any speech Mitt Romney has made in the last ten years, and you will see in his healthy glow the snake oil that his religion has been selling for 175 years. It takes us right back to the famous father of fork-tongued evangelists who once boasted that he had “become all things to all all men so that [he] could save all.” Translated from the Greek it means, Do what it takes.
Lying comes naturally to Romney, the young Mormon missionary to France, the young Mormon draft-averter, the Mormon bishop, the Mormon philanthropist. It has been a feature of his religion since its deranged founder set the Guinness record for religious lies.
Beginning in 1846, after their violent expulsion from Nauvoo, Illinois Mormon missionaries attempted to depict themselves in England as victims of persecution. The tales were engineered by Brigham Young himself and his closest associates, who then tried to win converts for the Utah trek by depicting the Salt Lake Valley as a veritable paradise. After the British Mormon John Edward Taylor became chief propagandist for the cult around 1852, and after failing to attract large numbers of takers with a “land grant” Ponzi-scheme that was designed to take the “saints” all the way to California, he lured them with this:
The way is now prepared; the roads, bridges, and
ferry-boats made; there are stopping places also on the way where they can rest, obtain vegetables and corn, and, when they arrive at the far end, instead
of finding a wild waste, they will meet with friends, provisions and a home, so that all that will be requisite for them to do will be to find sufficient teams
to draw their families, and to take along with them a few woollen or cotton goods, or other articles of merchandise which will be light, and which the
brethren will require until they can manufacture for themselves.
“How many a poor Englishman,” worried the Millennial Star Newspaper of the day, “ toiling over the plains in the next succeeding years, and, arriving in arid Utah to find himself in the clutches of an organization from which he could not escape, had reason to curse the man who drew this picture!”
One of the constant themes of women and men who have left the Mormon church has been the noble tradition of “lying for the Lord,” a habit that goes back to Joseph Smith himself and the peculiarities of his “discovery”
of the golden tablets (“being composed of thin metallic pages engraved on both sides and bound with three D-shaped rings”) that constituted the latterday revelation of the saints.
“The LDS church” says Ken Clark, a former Mormon bishop, “consistently describes in sermons and paintings, the visitation of an angel named Moroni to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823. Moroni is pictured floating above Joseph or next to his bed, alone in his bedroom. The pictures do not portray Joseph’s five brothers who slept in the same room with him. A restored Smith house is used for LDS tours showing the small room and only two beds for six brothers. Nothing resembling the actual sleeping arrangement is hinted at in the church’s official literature and pictorial recreations of the scene.”
Following this initial deception, Mormonism entered into a long history of post-truthfulness—the sort of thing that runs deep in Romney DNA. The Kinderhook Plates Hoax (fake metal plates that Smith pronounced ancient Egyptian); the lie that Joseph Smith wrote the History of the Church, when it was not recorded until decades after his death; the great Rocky Mountain Prophecy, invented to convince believers that the Salt Lake Valley was the place ordained for them by God as a promised land; even the “name change” of the angel responsible for the revelation to Smith—from Nephi to Moroni, a change which would be analogous to saying that, on second thought, Jesus’ name was really Schlomo.
Some Mormon historians have labeled the phenomenon of Mormon lying and duplicity “theocratic ethics.” According to D. Michael Quinn, Smith lied to “protect himself or the church, which was an extension of himself. ” And Dan Vogel (Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet) describes Smith’s viewpoint even more succinctly: he was a pious deceiver.
Smith used deception if in his mind it resulted in a good outcome. Smith had Moroni, an ancient American prophet and custodian of the gold plates declare, “And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of
me. ( Moroni 4:11-12). Translation: if deception was necessary to do good, or bring a soul to Christ, then it was worth it, as long as God approves. Smith
believed he knew when God approved of lying.
It’s odd to me that none of the political commentators have chosen—as far as I can tell—to dwell on the “Lying for the Lord” aspect of Mormon culture: its disregard for telling the truth in stressful situations, and its penchant for making up new truths as circumstances warrant. No wonder Paul Ryan, with his rather different Catholic approach to reality, looks bewildered and confused as Romney plows on, unhampered by the constraints of fact and detail. He is just doing his religious duty, surreptitiously as his religion requires him to do it.
Is this because the candidate himself, as a true Mormon, has succeeded in keeping the reverence for deceit below the radar–doing in effect what every good Mormon leader since Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Joseph Taylor has been doing for 175 years?
When Mitt Romney says he is not calling for 3 trillion dollars in tax cuts, not asking for austerity, not aiming to curtail entitlement programs, are we really just looking at a twenty-first century cultist’s version of the promises made by nineteenth century Mormon propagandists to reluctant converts who—when they arrived in Utah—discovered not the garden of Eden but a desert?
Mormonsim has been called the “uniquely American religion.” Mitt Romney, if he is elected, will be the first uniquely American Mormon president. As voters consider their choices, they need to know that Mormonism is and always has been a duplicitous, deceitful and lying cult whose movers and shakers were accustomed to living in a post-truth era long before there was a postmodern justification for it. Whenever things got tough–as they were for Mitt Romney before his debate with Barack Obama–there was always the fallback position: a new truth, a new reality, a new made-to-order revelation. People who like truth may regard Mormon ethics as a little slippery.
But if you like that kind of thing, as the President might say, Mitt is your man.