Deena Bess Sherman
Updated: December 3, 2012 6:11AM
As people feared the Pope’s influence on President Kennedy, some now worry that Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, might be similarly influenced by their Church’s current prophet, seer and revelator, President Thomas Monson, having a vision concerning America’s foreign or domestic policy.
Like many Americans, I knew very little about Latter-day Saints so addressing this concern necessitated intentional study and speaking with Mormon friends. I learned far more I have space to write.
The Church was founded by Joseph Smith, considered by Mormons to be a present-day prophet. At the age of 14 they believe Smith received a vision that all Christian groups had fallen away from God’s truths. Later, the angel “Moroni” led him to some golden tablets, buried in Upstate New York, which contained the Book of Mormon. Smith, who only had three years of formal education, was also given “seer stones” to translate the tablets from Egyptian into English. He finished the translation in 1830, allowed 11 witnesses to see the tablets, then retuned them to the angel and no one has seen them since.
The tablets tell the story of a Middle Eastern family, contemporaries of the Patriarch Abraham, who came to Central America in a boat they constructed 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Mormons consider Native Americans to be a lost tribe of Israel.
I asked Dr. Gary Lippincott, member of the Naperville Stake Presidency of the Church, why the indigenous tribes of Cherokee or Aztecs did not tell the Europeans of their true identity when explorers arrived. He said it was like people today who don’t remember their heritage. Records get lost during times of upheaval and conflict.
The early relationship between Smith’s followers and the United States government was extremely violent. Was it due to their practice of polygamy? I asked Lippincott. “That was part of it,” he answered. “The fact that Joseph Smith claimed direct revelation from God — that was a problem.”
People also feared this successful new church changing the political landscape by voting as a block, he explained. Plus, they resented when Mormons would move into a town and announce their intention to take over. Lippincott admitted they handled that poorly. They formed paramilitary organizations which clashed with existing state militias in bloody battles and Smith’s followers were driven westward.
Polygamy (or more accurately, polygyny) was abandoned by all but a few splinter groups after a subsequent prophet, Wilford Woodruff, declared it was no longer God’s will.
How does this faith compare with traditional Christianity? Both recognize Jesus as the Messiah who won salvation for humanity through his life, death, and resurrection and strive to live righteously, following God’s commands. But there are pronounced differences.
First, while Christians believe the Holy Spirit continues to inspire, they do not recognize additions to their existing Scripture — whether Smith’s Book of Mormon or the Prophet Muhammad’s Quran, which ultimately founded Islam in the 6th century.
Christians believe in one heaven. Latter-day Saints believe in three degrees of glory, depending on the degree to which people accept Jesus and participate in essential rites. Latter-day Saints baptize the dead by proxy, Christians do not.
Some differences, like understandings of the Trinity, are doctrinally important, while others — like Smith’s vision of God’s throne being near the planet Kolob — are very interesting, but merely details.
In 1844 Joseph Smith began a presidential run. It was cut short by his murder that year.
He is quoted as saying he ultimately favored theocratic monarchy (a God-ordained leader having absolute authority). I asked Lippincott if this were true. He answered, “I don’t know, but that’s something he would say.”
I asked if Romney shared Smith’s political vision of theocratic monarchy. He answered: “No. Mitt Romney is far too practical a man.”
“Romney’s run for president has piqued people’s interest,” said John Gaglione of Aurora.
“It gives us the chance to clear up misconceptions . . . . every election cycle a letter from President Monson is written stating the church’s neutrality.”
So what impact does the faith of a candidate have? President Obama often tells how he strives to live out his Christian faith in public service. I’m sure Governor Romney’s faith informs his decisions as well. But so long as the separation of church and state stands, no church should be dictating policy.