/ 12 November 2012

Deep Read: Mormons and the art of losing


Boston, Massachusetts, was a sombre place on Wednesday morning.

A bit after 1am, a muted Republican crowd watched their leader take his now familiar place on the podium. But there was none of his usual heady rhetoric awash with the promise of victory. This time Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney spoke of defeat.

Romney's speech was a strikingly heartfelt one, comprised mainly of his thanks to family and supporters, and his pledge to stand behind the president.

"You gave deeply from yourselves and performed magnificently, and you inspired us and you humbled us. You've been the very best we could have imagined," he said.

"At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work.

"I so wish – I so wish that I had been able to fulfil your hopes to lead the country in a different direction. But the nation chose another leader. And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation."

Some were surprised at the tone of a speech almost universally described as gracious. But to me, there was no surprise whatsoever. Romney's defeat held the assurance of a graceful exit. And that's not because I'm a Romney supporter – I'm not. It's not because I'm a Republican – I'm not that either. It's because Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and Mormons are some of the best losers I know. And indeed I should know, because I've been one for almost three decades.

How Mormons perfected the art of losing
Mormons have spent almost 200 years practising how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. So it goes without saying they're beginning to master Thomas Palmer's directive to try, try and try again.

It started shortly after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially known, was formed in 1830 in upstate New York. Church members soon left New York for Kirtland, Ohio, to escape persecution. From there they went to Missouri – first Jackson County, then Daviess County, then Far West. In each place, homes were raided, looted or razed to the ground by detractors of the church. The antagonists saw the large groups of Mormons as an economic and political threat. They were unsettled by their belief in additional scriptures and their claims that God and Jesus were two separate, physical beings.

Several times, Mormon leaders were tarred and feathered. Church members were robbed, raped and plundered. Each time the Mormons moved, they re-built their homes, literally – with roughly-hewn wooden boards and prairie sod. Each time they settled with the hope of prospering and finally worshipping in peace.

In May 1838 an extermination order was issued by the Missouri governor, Lilburn Boggs. Mormons were to be "treated as enemies" and "exterminated or driven from the state if necessary". In the wake of the order, dozens of Mormons were massacred on a hill in Haun's Mill.

And once again, with grieving hearts, the Mormons began afresh. They moved to Commerce, Illinois. There, hundreds in their makeshift dwellings were beset with malaria. But in time they revived and built up a new city: Nauvoo, which is to say "The Beautiful".

In a few years its 20 000 residents rivalled Chicago in size. And then, in June 1844, just as the worshippers had begun to prosper, their prophet-president Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot dead by a mob.

Brigham Young succeeded Smith as second president of the church, and steered the members through their sorrow. They continued to build up their city, but two years later, in the dead of winter, the Mormons were again expelled by mobs and pushed out into the wilderness.

This final expulsion was the catalyst for a grand-scale pioneer trek. About 3 000 people fought their way through the Rocky Mountains in snow metres deep and temperatures well below freezing. Men, women and children pushed handcarts and guided ox-wagons in the 2 000km journey. Over the next 22 years, 70 000 people were to take the same trail. Almost 1 in 10 people died along the way. Shallow graves and hurried burials became commonplace; malnutrition and exhaustion inevitable.

On July 24 1847, the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah. There, the Mormons made their new home – for some of them, their seventh since joining the church. Children had lost mothers; brothers had lost sisters; mothers had buried babies along the way. Exhausted, poverty stricken, frost-bitten, these Mormons sowed their crops too late in the season and looked to a meagre harvest: starting life in a new home where they could finally worship in peace.

Their stoic tale is echoed by others throughout the earth's history. It tells of a special brand of suffering borne of ignorance. It speaks of humankind's innate unwillingness to tolerate what we don't understand.

Ignorance and understanding
It was a quest for understanding that led to the foundation, or restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the height of the religious revival in 1820, Joseph Smith, a simple New York State farm boy, knelt to pray. His question was which church he should join. His answer came that he should join none. In time, he would be called to restore the original church of Jesus Christ – and he would be given the same authority as the prophets from yesteryear to do so. Mormons believe that this message was so important that God and Jesus Christ personally delivered it to Smith.

In time, the priesthood power was restored back to the earth – and the Church of Jesus Christ was literally formed in the "latter" days. With the priesthood authority, Smith was authorised to receive revelation from God for the world – just as Abraham, Moses and Noah. The prophet, his counsellors and today's 12 apostles testify and teach of Christ in the same ecclesiastical structure that Christ originally organised. The priesthood authority has been passed from one prophet to the next since the restoration of the church.

The nickname "Mormon" is a latitudinal reference to one of the scriptures we read. Along with the Bible, we read the Book of Mormon. While the Bible was being written in the old world, the Book of Mormon was being engraved on thin sheets of metal by prophets in Central and South America between 600BC and AD400. Mormons read the Book of Mormon along with the Bible as "another witness of Christ".

The book includes an invitation to all inquiring minds to read the book, and pray to know if it is true. This thinking, inquiring approach is one of the things I love about Mormonism. And yet, it is often purportedly thinking, inquiring people who, when broached with the topic of Mormonism, do nothing of the sort.

A while ago, I met a well-educated lady who discovered I was a Mormon. "Yes, I know you people," she said."You wear long shirts with high collars. The women are not allowed to study, are forced to marry young and not allowed to work."

All the immediate evidence spoke contrarily. When I met her, I was in my late twenties, unmarried. I had studied at the same university she did. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt at the time, and, best of all, we had met at a work function. Nonetheless, try as I might, I could not convince her otherwise. The more I argued against her assertions, the more set her face became. "I know you people," she repeated, with a small, smug smile and a shake of the head. "I know you people."

Liberal: the new conservative
Ironically, the more "liberal" the circles I move in, the more steeped the stereotypes become. As soon as a "liberal" person hears I am part of a religious minority group, the reaction is often the same. Surprise. Shock. Dismay. "You're a Mormon?"

The eyebrows raise; the look of disbelief and a thinly-veiled frown. These are the circles where, instead of calling me by name, people will often good-naturedly just call me "The Mormon".

The experience has helped me realise the hypocritical state of much of purported liberalism. In order to be liberal, you need to embrace certain political ideals. You need to dress a certain way, eat certain things, party in certain places, read certain books and of course, believe certain things. Being a Christian Mormon does not fit into that definition.

Yes, in today's world, being liberal is a far cry from its original roots of accepting all ways of life. Today, if you want to be liberal, you need to subscribe to a rather narrow way of thinking and being. When Obama won the election in 2008, the whole world joined in his victory. We rallied around the racial minority who had overcome the odds. Obama – the black man – entered the white house as America's sweetheart. And yet, there is a striking parallel between Obama and his latest contender.

Mitt Romney, although rich, although white, is also a minority — in some ways, even more than Obama. After all, 12 in 100 Americans are black, but only 4 in 100 are Mormon. Why, then, did the world rally around the racial minority, but ultimately reject the Mormon? It seems like the world is ready to support the underdog, but only the underdog we know and like because we understand him.

Unpacking the myths
While the trend alarms me, it has made me more determined to cling to something akin to real liberal thinking. Accept another's way of thinking, even if you do not agree with it. Spend less time passing value judgments and more time understanding. And I have many wonderful friends who have done just that. These are the ones who know that Mormons are not polygamists. They know that the American-based arm of my family is comprised of avid Obama (not Romney) campaigners. They know that I have had more empowering leadership opportunities at church as a female than anywhere else, despite the fact that the bishops in the church are men. They understand the personal process of inquiry I went through before embracing my beliefs, rather than the blind faith that so many assume of me. They respect, rather than denounce, my decisions to refrain from alcohol, smoking, drugs and extra-marital sex.

So Romney did not win the election, and I, for one, don't regret it. And perhaps his loss is the best thing that could have happened to Mormons. It gave those supporting Romney one more opportunity to dust themselves off and move on. And for those of us who weren't, it gave us a chance to reflect on the mettle of our past.

"This election is over, but our principles endure," said Romney. And that is the most Mormon thing he's uttered since the election campaign began.