Beliefs Culture

Evangelical author sees a “Mormonizing of America”

RNS photo by Isaac Darnall

(RNS) Stephen Mansfield, an evangelical author who has written widely about the faith of politicians, turns his attention to Mormons in his latest book, “The Mormonizing of America.”

Stephen Mansfield, an evangelical author on the faith of politicians, has turned his attention to Mormons in his latest book, “The Mormonizing of America.”

Stephen Mansfield, an evangelical author on the faith of politicians, has turned his attention to Mormons in his latest book, “The Mormonizing of America.”

He talked with Religion News Service about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — including GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney — has progressed from persecution to prominence.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve written “The Faith of George W. Bush” and “The Faith of Barack Obama.” Why did you write “The Mormonizing of America” instead of “The Faith of Mitt Romney”?

A: I thought that the story of Bush at the time was bigger than the story of evangelicals and the religious right at that time. I thought the story of Obama personally was bigger then the story of the religious left that he was sort of the champion of. But in this case I think that the story of the Mormon moment or this Mormon ascent is a bigger story than Mitt Romney. There’s something broader going on and he’s not so much the champion of the movement, maybe just at the vanguard of it.

Q: How much will a win or a loss by Romney in this year’s election affect the image of Mormons?

A: A loss will not hurt the church because the fact that a group that was a despised cult around 80 years ago is running a serious candidate for president this year is an amazing accomplishment.

And if he wins, I think you’ll have, on the one hand, him as the poster child of Mormon sort of secular success as a product of their values. And, on the other hand, the fact that the LDS will come into even greater prominence means that even more people will begin to examine the life and character of (founder) Joseph Smith, the life and character of Brigham Young, the season of polygamy, Mountain Meadows, all those things that are not very happy to Mormon memory.

Q: You write of the “Mormon Machine,” traits that help LDS church members have influence. What makes that machine run?

A: The success of Mormonism is it has a very mystical, spiritual vision that has a very earthly practical benefit. That’s why I call it the Mormon machine. I certainly don’t mean anything political. If you are a Mormon, you understand that you are in this world to pass obstacles to “show yourself worthy” and you’re doing that before the Heavenly Father but it comes down to not smoking, not drinking, not ingesting caffeine, having a large family or a number of children.

Q: And what, if anything, might cause that machine to sputter?

A: What might cause it to sputter — and there’s already some fraying — is a lack of commitment on the part of people who consider themselves faithful Mormons to some of those distinctives.

Q: Why do you consider Mormonism to be like the McDonald’s of American religion?

A: Joseph Smith thought that the overheated revivals, on the one hand, in Upstate New York, and the traditional dead church, as he would have called it, both kept spiritual experience from the average guy. And Mormonism essentially turned every man into a priest of God and gave him supernatural power.

Q: You cite numerous of Joseph Smith’s “convenient revelations.” Which one stands out the most for you?

A: The one that was most troubling to me is the one that he receives from Heavenly Father supposedly when his wife is not happy about polygamy. The idea that this man would in a sense literally beat his wife into submission with a revelation from God and literally threatens to destroy her if she doesn’t comply is one of the things that makes me see him as false.

Q: Are you now more or less likely to defend Mormonism when evangelicals call it a cult?

A: My basic approach is to get people to work with Mormons for social good today and to be informed about their history, which in my case leads me not to accept the supernatural side of their history that they claim but still embrace them and have friends among them. That’s what I urge evangelicals to do.

Q: Your research included visiting Brigham Young University. Why does it have an especially large candy store?

A: Mormons do not drink alcohol. They don’t do drugs. They don’t even drink caffeine but they love them some candy. So there is a big ol’ candy store in the Brigham Young bookstore. When I saw it, my guide, said, “We don’t drink. We don’t do drugs. So M&Ms are my drug of choice.’’ He was laughing, of course, but that’s the deal. It looked like something that would be at Disneyland.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

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  • If Mr. Mansfield were more familiar with the body of the revelations received by Joseph Smith, he would have recognized that God had also condemned Joseph Smith for his failings, as he did in Doctrine & Covenants Section 3:

    4 For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.

    5 Behold, you have been entrusted with these things, but how strict were your commandments; and remember also the promises which were made to you, if you did not transgress them.

    6 And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men.

    7 For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.

    The fact that Emma Smith on one occasion might also be warned (Doctrine & Covenants Section 132) of the strictness of God’s commandments and expectations simply places her in the same company as Joseph, as one to whom much has been entrusted and much is therefore expected. On another occasion, when Joseph has been suffering unjustly from imprisonment and under threat of summary execution by the Missouri militia, his suffering is placed into perspective by God (Doctrine & Covenants 122):

    5 If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea;

    6 If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb;

    7 And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to chedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee eexperience, and shall be for thy good.

    8 The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

    The Lord has also admonished ordinary members of the Church to repent of their sins, under threat of dire suffering if they refuse (Doctrine & Covenants 19):

    15 Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.

    16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

    17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

    18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

    Note here that Christ is recounting that he has already suffered excruciating pain on behalf of each of us, so nothing he proposes to condemn a person for is something he has not already fully suffered with and for them,.