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Writers ponder Mormonism's 'theological weirdness'

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 6 2011 3:47 p.m. MST

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In the midst of all of the attention lavished on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during what has been called "the Mormon moment," one of the most intriguing — and disturbing — elements of media coverage has focused on what one writer calls the "supposed theological weirdness" of LDS doctrine.

Writing on the Religion Dispatches magazine website, Max Perry Mueller, the Eccles Foundation Mormon Studies Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah, references the pithy, prosaic musings of "celebrated pundits and public intellectuals" like Harold Bloom, Michael Ruse and Maureen Dowd as he observes that "casual assertions of knowledge about Mormon theology have dismayed longtime scholars of Mormonism."

"Critics like Dowd, Bloom and Ruse would not reduce Catholicism to Popery, Hinduism to the worship of cows, or Islam to the promise of seventy virgins for jihadist martyrs," writes Mueller, a PhD candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University. "Why is Mormonism different?"

Mueller believes there are two answers to the question. First, he said, what the pundits don't seem to understand is that although the "audacity of the truth claims" made by LDS theology "requires that Mormon believers occupy a rich and imaginatively demanding spiritual world," members of the LDS Church "don't think on a daily basis about the theology behind their sacred underwear. They don't pine for their own planets. Such obsession with what Mormons believe, even among America's literati, belies the fact that Mormonism is foremost a belief system in action."

The second answer to the question "why is Mormonism different?" is, in Mueller's view, political. "Mormons are the last (or at least the latest) religious 'other' to confront the heart of American politics, to deem themselves American enough to ascend to the presidency," he writes, drawing a parallel with the debate over John F. Kennedy's Catholicism during the presidential campaign of 1960.

"Romney has tried to answer skeptics of his church, but without Kennedy's success," Mueller observes. "Mormons are still on the outs with key segments of the electorate he will need to win both the nomination and the general election."

Along these lines, Sasha Issenberg of Slate suggests that the critical question facing the Mitt Romney campaign in Iowa is this: "Can Romney's team distinguish which Iowans have withheld their support because they're not sure he's the best candidate from those who refuse to vote for him because he's a Mormon?"

Issenberg suggests that there is no point in the Romney campaign spending time and money on voters whose attitudes are manifest in "a firm, unyielding bigotry." Since those attitudes are not likely to change prior to the Iowa caucuses, the writer believes the Romney campaign is using a variety of polling techniques to "pinpoint anti-Mormon voters and remove them one by one from (Romney's) list of Iowa targets."

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is citing the Mormonism of Romney's fellow candidate, Jon Huntsman, as the reason he should tell the truth about his decision not to participate in the GOP presidential debate that Trump is hosting on Dec. 27.

"Mr. Huntsman called my office a number of times trying to set up a meeting," Trump said on MSNBC Monday morning. "I didn't have a meeting with him. And then he went on the (most recent) debate and he said, 'I didn't meet with Mr. Trump like everyone else in the room.'

"I'm sure he'll tell the truth about that," Trump continued, "because he's a Mormon."

Huntsman's response: "I'm not going to kiss (Trump's) ring," he told Fox News Monday morning, "and I'm not going to kiss any other part of his anatomy."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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