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Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is an issue largely left alone by his campaign. But is it an issue at all? One poll found that 25 percent of Americans won’t vote for a Mormon, and many who are unfamiliar with the faith are intrigued by it. We talk with a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who now studies the sociological aspects of the faith, including its interplay with politics.
- Ryan Cragun Professor of Sociology, The University of Tampa; co-author, "Could I Vote for a Mormon for President?"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe separation of church and state doesn't necessarily extend to the campaign trail and voters have long been interested in candidates' personal faith's belief played up or down by advisors and politicians depending on the circumstances. Last night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee invoked his personal Catholic beliefs and hinted at the presumptive GOPs Mormon religion. We have a clip.
MR. MIKE HUCKABEEI care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country.
NNAMDIAnd later in the evening, it was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deemphasizing religion. Here's a clip.
MS. CONDOLEEZZA RICEThe essence of America, what really unites us, is not nationality or ethnicity or religion. It is an idea.
NNAMDIThat's setting the stage for Romney's address this evening because after keeping his faith close for much of the campaign Romney has recently shown signs of opening up and is expected to speak directly about his faith this evening as part of his acceptance speech. Here to help us better understand the Mormon faith and religion's role in politics is Ryan Cragun. He is a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa and coauthor of the book "Could I vote for a Mormon for President?" Ryan Cragun, thank you very much for joining us.
DR. RYAN CRAGUNMy pleasure.
NNAMDITell us about your personal connection to the Mormon faith and how that has fueled your interest in studying the sociological aspects of it.
CRAGUNSure. I am from Utah originally, not surprisingly, and I grew up Mormon. I was Mormon until about the age of 25, was a Mormon missionary. And in graduate school, I simply decided that Mormonism didn't work for me. I disagreed with some of the political stances and I just didn't find it credible anymore so I left the religion. That said, most of my family's still Mormon and I retain a strong interest in the religion. I'd like to see where the religion kind of goes into the future.
CRAGUNSo I've taken an alternative perspective on the religion and now I study it from a sociological standpoint.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation with Ryan Cragun on the issue of faith in general and Mormon faith in the election in particular, you can call us at 800-433-8850. How much does faith influence your politics? 800-433-8850. You're a sociologist, not a theologist, but talk us through the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and some of the main tenants of the faith.
CRAGUNSure. The religion was technically founded in 1830 in upstate New York by Joseph Smith, Jr. One of the key kind of founding ideas is that Joseph Smith claimed to have received some golden plates from ancient Americans, and that's kind of debated these days, but that ultimately led him to produce the Book of Mormon. And the Book of Mormon is really kind of the founding document of the religion. It presents some of the early theology of the religion.
CRAGUNJoseph Smith, of course, later modifies that substantially by claiming to receive revelations directly from God and that introduces a whole bunch of additional kind of ideas, including things like temple worship, the idea that America is kind of this chosen land that is really God's land and a whole bunch of additional beliefs that we could go into. I'm happy to kind of tackle a lot of those if you want. Polygamy comes up for a variety of reasons, various things we could address.
NNAMDIWell, I tend to go in the direction in which our listeners take us. So you can call 800-433-8850 and set the course of this conversation. If you happen to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we'd also like to hear from you at 800-433-8850. Less than 2 percent of U.S. adults are Mormon and disproportionately settled west of the Mississippi. Do the faith's demographics make it difficult for non-Mormons to learn more about it?
CRAGUNThey do. One of the easiest ways to learn about a religion or any particular world view is to meet someone who is of that particular persuasion. And given the fact that Mormons are disproportionately located in the intermountain west it does actually make it quite difficult. That said, a lot of people do know Mormons because they stand out but the fact that they're so centrally located and somewhat isolated in a sense does make it difficult for people to get to know a Mormon and then to talk about the religion with them.
NNAMDIOf course, unless you happen to have Mormon missionaries who come to your front door, and you were, at one point in your life, one such. Where?
CRAGUNCosta Rica from 1996 to 1998.
NNAMDIAnd at what point after that did you part company with the faith?
CRAGUN2001 -- 2002 technically, yeah.
NNAMDITo this point Mitt Romney has not been terribly forthcoming about his faith. But what has it that that will change with his speech tonight? Why is it important, yet perhaps a bit difficult for him to address his faith?
CRAGUNWell, it's an interesting question. I'm glad you asked it. I think Mitt Romney has made a very smart decision to not talk about his faith in terms of him trying to get elected, right, politics aside. Because there's really no easy way to bring up Mormonism without immediately turning into the discussion of how Mormonism is different from other religions and is seemingly quite weird, right. And the only way to really minimize that is the approach that I take in my book with my coauthor Rick Philips and that's to point out that all religions have weird aspects.
CRAGUNAnd we don't think that Mitt Romney really could've taken that approach without alienating much of his base, right. So you could point to say Evangelical Protestants and say well, of course they believe in the rapture and that's kind of weird, right, and that minimizes the weirdness of Mormonism. But by doing that you're going to alienate many religious people. So I think the position that he took throughout and the approach that he took throughout is simply, I'm not going to talk about it. We have lots of things in common and that's pretty much it. And that's really designed to minimize the oddness that is, you know, part of Mormonism.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ryan Cragun. He's a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa and coauthor of the book "Could I Vote for a Mormon for President?" Have you taken it upon yourself to learn more about the Mormon faith because of its prominence in the news cycle. Why or why not? Call us at 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Ryan Cragun, is it Mitt Romney's job or his campaign's job for that matter to educate us about the Mormon faith? Or should we as voters take it upon ourselves to learn about it ourselves if we're curious or if we're concerned?
CRAGUNAnother great question. My particular take on that would be to actually -- and it's kind of strange, I'm siding with Mike Huckabee on this -- why does his Mormonism ultimately matter, right? If you think it's a big deal there are books available -- again not to pitch my own book -- but there are books available that certainly can address this. There's even a Mormonism for Dummies book out there if you wanted to pick that up. I think plenty of people can find ways to education themselves about Mormonism but at the end of the day does his religion really matter as far as his ability to govern this nation?
NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is Rev in Sterling, Va. Rev, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Rev, can you hear me? Rev seems to have drifted away from the telephone. Rev, I'm going to put you on hold because I think Rev can be important to this conversation. Rev says he is a convert to Mormonism, that he was a Catholic for 40 years. So Rev, we will get back to your call. In the meantime we'll go to Mike in Annapolis, Md. Mike, your turn.
MIKEHi, Kojo. How you doing?
MIKEGood. I read a great book not too long ago about -- it's called "Under the Banner of Heaven." It was all about prophetic nature of Mormonism and, you know, how that really led to a lot of fundamentalist splits. And they talked, you know, a lot about the, you know, underground history of the Mormon Church like, you know, how Brigham Young supposedly sent people out to, you know, form these fundamentalist colonies that preserve polygamy saying that, you know, the real church -- or the LDS was going to be the (unintelligible) faiths, but you're the real true faith of Mormonism.
MIKEI'm just wondering, you know, how accurate that was and if you'd had a chance to read that book.
NNAMDIHave you had a chance to read it, Ryan Cragun?
CRAGUNYeah, that's Jon Krakauer's book.
NNAMDII take it you did.
CRAGUNYeah, I have. I mean, it's a very interesting book. It's a very provocative book. A number of Mormon historians have come out and said that there are at least small issues where he got things wrong. And I do want to kind of clarify a little bit about what Jon Krakauer's really trying to get at in that book, which is there is kind of a current within Mormonism, using that term very broadly, that is a fundamentalist kind of stripe. But that is not the mainstream of Mormonism. That's not the branch that Mitt Romney belongs to today.
CRAGUNAnd the mainstream church, the big one based in Salt Lake City really has disavowed itself of that. Now the argument that Jon Krakauer's trying to make in that book is that those two brands of Mormonism, if you will, the fundamentalist stripe and the mainstream, have a lot in common. And so he kind of raises that as a question of, you know, should we be concerned about religion -- any religion that says well, the will of God comes before anything else, including the laws of the land. And therefore we should be subject to that.
CRAGUNI don't think he's really trying to make an argument that at the end of the day polygamists are actually right, right. Most mainstream Mormons, including the Church, which I've interviewed people at the Church headquarters, have said, we have nothing to do with polygamy. We don't want anything to do with polygamy. We disavow ourselves of that and that's been out of the Church for over 100 years. And that's actually true. They really have kind of stepped away from that, at a policy level for sure, maybe not perfectly at a theological level.
NNAMDIWith the Book of Mormon on Broadway shows like "Big Love" on HBO and "Sister Wives" on TLC pop culture is full of depictions of both mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons. What are the biggest misperceptions about the faith that the system may be perpetuated by these programs?
CRAGUNCertainly the polygamy one. So I think a lot of the programs have actually done a pretty good job of distinguishing between the -- excuse me -- the fundamentalist branch of the religion and the mainstream branch. And the fundamentalist is really the branch that is where the polygamists are. the fact that that keeps getting associated with the word Mormon really irks the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the mainstream Mormon Church. They hate the fact that it keeps getting associated with them, even though of course they do have a common ancestry with these people.
CRAGUNSo that's one of the things that you just have to make sure you have clear when you're thinking about the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It no longer practices polygamy. It hasn't done it since 1905. It's really kind of separated itself out from that. So that's one of the things that you have to keep in mind is that that's an important distinction.
NNAMDIOn to Ray in Sterling, Va. Ray, who I mistakenly called Rev earlier, is on the air. Ray, go ahead, please.
RAYThis is Ray. I've been a Mormon -- I'm a convert, and I've been a Catholic for 40 years, and I just find the Mormon religion to be really great for my family. And I think in every religion there's always the dirty laundry when it comes to history. If you look at the Roman Catholic, and if you look at the Mormon, there's always an issue, but I think what the bottom line is -- what is important is the way you live your life, and I think the Mormon way gives you the path to a good life.
NNAMDIFar be it for me to question anyone's choices, Ray, but why did you leave the Catholic church?
RAYIt's actual more of a -- what do you call this, we want to expand our relationship to -- let's say to Jesus Christ, and to the Lord, and that...
NNAMDIAnd you have found that -- and you have found that Mormonism has assisted you in doing that?
RAYYes, I did.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much -- oh, please continue.
RAYThat's all I can say. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnything you'd like to add to that or comment on it, Ryan Cragun?
CRAGUNThe Mormon church is very well known for its emphasis on the family, and they do actually have a number of great programs. One of my favorites actually is the idea that they have one weeknight set aside every week called family night when families are supposed to get together and spend time -- quality time together. So there is a lot of emphasis, there's actually theological emphasis on the idea the family, that the family actually doesn't end with the death of one of the partners, that it continues on into the hereafter, which leads to a whole bunch of interesting theological kind of ideas. But there is a lot of emphasis on the family and that's one thing that the LDS actually does quite well.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue the discussion on the Mormon faith and the election in the light of Mitt Romney tonight making his key note address at the Republican National Convention and expected to touch maybe a little bit on his faith. If you have questions or comments for us, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet @kojoshow, or the phone number is 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ryan Cragun. He's a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa and co-author of the book, "Could I Vote for a Mormon For President?" We know that the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and he is going to be addressing the convention tonight. The church's members, Ryan Cragun, have a reputation for being driven and successful business persons, and the church itself is worth a lot of money. Tell me about your study on the church's finances and what you found.
CRAGUNSure. Excuse me. Working with Peter Henderson at Reuters, we came up with a calculation for the -- a rough estimate of the assets. The interesting thing about the Mormon church is it doesn't release any financial information to speak of, and it's not required to in the U.S. In other nations it is actually required to do that, and so we drew on some of that information from some of these other countries like Canada, and were able to come up with an estimate for the total assets that we could find of about $40 billion.
CRAGUNAnd the annual revenue that we believe is coming in from tithing of somewhere between $7 and $8 billion dollars a year, and that was, again, based on numbers from other countries around the world.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Brett is College Park, Md. Brett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRETTHi, Kojo. My question to ask about the recent rash suicides of LGBT students at Brigham Young University. Given as you mentioned in the earlier part of this segment, the close knit family nature of Mormonism, when Mormons outcast their own, particularly for reasons of homosexuality, there tends to be massive problems attached for some of the -- for people who this happens, and my question is how do you think that -- now that the majority of America approves the gay marriage, will this affect the election for Mitt Romney?
NNAMDIYour turn, Ryan Cragun.
CRAGUNSure. So dealing with homosexuality within the Mormon religion is actually quite a problem. They've changed their policies over the last 40 years. It used to be that they were actually quite negative and derogatory towards homosexuals. Today their position is that it's fine to have homosexual tendencies, but they see that as the equivalent of any other kind of sinful tendencies, and that they must be overcome. So it's fine to be Mormon and celibate which, of course, in our modern society runs counter to really the prevailing norms.
CRAGUNSo the caller raising the issue of the young people committing suicide as a result of this, particularly LGBTQ individuals, and that's really true. I mean Mormons do believe that there will not be -- that there are no homosexual spirits, right, and so this a challenge that people deal with in the current life, and that they have to overcome it, and that causes very serious problems for young people who have a sexual orientation that does not fall within the heterosexual kind of norm within Mormonism.
CRAGUNAs far as how this is going to affect the election, I don't know that Mitt Romney has ever really tried to cater to the LGBTQ community, or those who are trying to side with him. I mean, I think he's probably just written them off as people he cannot convince, except maybe on other issues like the debt or something like that. He has no real hope of trying to convince those people, and whether that's political or whether that's religious, I mean, they happen to align on that point, his religion and his politics, so I don't think he's going to win anybody over on that point.
NNAMDISharon in Vienna, Va. Sharon, your turn.
SHARONHi, Kojo, how are you?
SHARONGood. So my question is, isn't it true that in the 1970s, the Church of the Latter Day Saints began to include African-Americans into their congregation, and marrying into that ford -- no pun intended, but when I look at the GOP and I look at the RNC convention, I see very few people of color. So my question is, or my statement is, isn't that somewhat of a problem that you don't see a lot of Republicans and Mormons reaching out to the African-American community and being more inclusive, and even when it comes to interracial marriage. I would love to hear his take on interracial marriage, African-Americans into the congregation in the 1970s, and how this all going to play out at the end of the day.
NNAMDISharon, you should know that at this Republican National Convention, there have been several conversations about reaching out to African Americans on the part of the Republican party. What the efforts have been, how successful they have or have not been, but here is Ryan Cragun.
CRAGUNSure. So the LDS church does have not a very good history, let's put it that way, with African Americans, blacks. Up until 1979, they were not allowed full participation in the religion. So they could actually be baptized members, but they couldn't hold the priesthood, they couldn't go through the temple, and these are both actually saving ordinances in the religion. They're very important things that you must have in order to actually go to the highest degree of heaven that Mormons believe in, and that's actually been a very controversial position because in the late 1970s, the Mormon church did change their policy on that point, and they've now basically kind of repudiated any claims of a doctrine on this point though -- excuse me -- for a very long time it was taught -- again, excuse me -- that they were doctrinal justifications for why blacks could not be full members in the religion.
CRAGUNThey've since, like I said, tried to disavow any of those, but they were taught as doctrinal for a very long time. And included in those, even as late as the 1950s and 60s, they were apostles in the Mormon Church who spoke out vehemently against interracial marriage. That really doesn't happen today, and I want to be clear that Mormons today are trying to reach out to blacks and to African Americans and to Africans actually, and that's one of the places that the LDS church is growing the fastest is in Africa.
CRAGUNThey still have to wrestle with their history of race issues, but many religions in the U.S. and around the world have to wrestle with that. The Mormon Church just was pretty late to the game to actually make some of those changes, and that's a problem for them, right? If you look at the numbers today in the U.S., it's a very small percentage of Mormons who are black, one to four percent depending on the part of the country that you're talking about. They have tried to make overtures towards the black community, but, you know, many kind of knowledgeable blacks will point to their history and say, you know, why would I bother with you when you have a history of race relations that is not shining by any stretch.
NNAMDIBut I understand that the church's own structure is built around the idea of lay leadership. How does it work?
CRAGUNSo at the local level, all the leaders are basically lay, right? Meaning they don't get paid for this, so you have a bishop who runs basically the congregation, above a bishop who be a stake president, also a lay leader, and that's kind of the equivalent of a Catholic bishop, right, so over a diocese. There are several wards or congregations within a stake. All of those people -- all the positions are actually not paid, and even the upkeep of the church is largely taken care of by volunteers.
CRAGUNOnce you move above the stake presidency level, you get into area authorities and general authorities. Those people are actually paid. So if you go to kind of the highest hierarchy within the LDS church, the president of the church, the quorum of the twelve apostles, the 70s, the general authorities, those individuals are typically paid. So the church likes to emphasize the fact that it has a largely lay clergy and most of the clergy are in fact lay leaders that are local members of the religion who volunteer their time to run pretty much everything, but once you get up to the higher levels, those people are working full time, and they are actually paid.
NNAMDIFrances in Washington D.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANCESYeah. My question concerns what I believe is the practice of the Mormon faith, and I don't know if it's still current, and that is of baptizing people retroactively so to speak so that some people have been baptized after they're dead. And I know this is very offensive to many faiths. Is this still the practice of the church?
NNAMDIThe back story on the proxy baptism is that they got in a lot of hot water for doing proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims a few years ago.
CRAGUNSure. Yeah. They're still doing this. They've been doing this since the earliest days of the church in Illinois actually, when they moved to Illinois. So this is a current practice. The idea is Mormonism is a religion that requires rituals, right? So there have to be rituals. It's not kind of a confessional faith where you can just say, you know, I invite Jesus into my heart and you're saved. You have to have a baptism. You have to have several other rituals that take place in Mormon temples.
CRAGUNAnd without those, you can't actually go to the Mormon version of heaven. The tricky part in that, and this is why they practice those proxy baptisms for dead people is that they believe you have to have a body in order for this baptism to be valid, and that's why they're actually -- most people are familiar with the fact that Mormons run a lot of genealogical programs. They're big into genealogy. Most people don't realize why they're doing that. They're doing that to find dead people to baptize. I mean that's really kind of the major motivation behind this is they believe that everybody has to have a baptism.
CRAGUNAnd they did run into trouble when they were baptizing Holocaust victims. Those records were actually very kind of accessible, so they were able to get the access to those records, and then they started baptizing those individuals, and it is seen as offensive by lots of people because Mormons are basically usurping somebody's religious identity, even though the Mormon position, and I'll be very frank with the Mormon position. The Mormon position is that this is an elective thing, so they do it for you, but you can choose whether or not you want to accept it in the hereafter, right? So you're dead, you can choose whether you want to accept it. Lots of people kind of have a problem with that, right? The assumption being...
FRANCESYeah. I kind of...
CRAGUNSure. And I absolutely understand that, and I do think at some level, particularly with somebody like Holocaust victims who were killed literally in the name of their religion for being Jews, right, that is kind offensive. I mean, it's basically saying, we don't care that, you know, your religion was so important to you that you died over it, we're still going to baptize you a Mormon, and then you can choose whether or not to accept it.
NNAMDIBut apparently they do have a great deal of records, and a lot of non-Mormons go to the Mormons for research on genealogy.
CRAGUNYeah. Their genealogical practices are actually quite remarkable. Again, they're doing it probably altruistically at some level, but really for an ulterior motive. That ulterior motive is to practice these proxy baptisms, and they're literally performing them, you know, thousands of them every day in the Mormon temples. So temples are different from churches. There are tens of thousands of churches, there are about 130 temples around the world today, one based in Washington DC.
NNAMDIThere was a caller we got who talked about wanting to visit the beautiful Mormon temple that we have in the Washington area. "A friend invited me on a tour of the stunning Mormon sanctuary you can see from the beltway," says that emailer, "but I couldn't go inside. Only Mormons can. Does this kind of secrecy in addition to proxy baptisms for non-believers fuel the perception among some that Mormonism is a cult?"
CRAGUNAbsolutely. And I am always wary when we start talking about cult, it's a lengthy discussion, but there is what Mormons would call sacred, lots of people on the outside would call secret and these of rituals that take place inside the Mormon temple. And they include a variety of practices. One is the proxy baptism. That's also where they perform their marriages, so Mormon marriages are a little bit different, but they have an additional ceremony called an endowment, which includes kind of an educational process, but the interesting part that gets them kind of their culty name, which again, I'm not calling the Mormon church a cult.
CRAGUNI don't think it is a cult. Is the fact that they learn in this endowment secret handshakes, secret signs, secret symbols, secret passwords, that are all part of the ceremony for helping them learn what they need to have basically to get into the celestial kingdom when they die.
NNAMDIFinally, there is this on the issue of businesses and Mormonism. I'll let Kathleen in Granite, Md. speak to issue. Kathleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHLEENThanks, Kojo. This is a very helpful program and I really appreciate it. Many years ago I worked with a Mormon in the securities business, and he was quite vocal about the fact that he was accumulating wealth as part of his practice of Mormonism. So I was wondering if your guest could comment on the relationship if there is any between the beliefs of the Mormon religion and the accumulation of wealth as a sign that you are blessed by God or God wants you to do that.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, please.
CRAGUNSure. That's a tricky one. It's probably kind of multi-level. Mormons are kind of an end of days millennialist religion, so they do believe that there is a pending millennium that is coming when Jesus Christ is actually going to return, and they also believe that there will be a lot of calamities that come before that, and that's part of the reason why they believe in saving up food so they have food stores to basically survive for three months to a year depending on the Mormon, and they also kind of push financial independence as part of that as well.
CRAGUNBut there's also kind of a secondary level in that. If you look in the Book of Mormon, there's kind of this recurrent pattern in the Book of Mormon of people being blessed by God and then they become rich, and then of course God punishes them because they stop recognizing God.
NNAMDIRyan Cragun is a professor of sociology at the university of Tampa and co-author of the book, "Could I Vote For a Mormon for President?" Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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