Mormons and witchcraft

Wiccan pentacleAs the most sacred holiday for witches is upon us, I thought I would write a little of what I know about the intersection between Mormonism and witchcraft. First, let me state the obvious, that Mormons are not witches, and most Mormons probably don’t think much about witchcraft. In fact, most Mormons would probably be horrified to see me comparing Mormonism with witchcraft. Like Mormonism, witchcraft is a much maligned religion, but one that I greatly respect and admire for their nature-based and environmental theology. Comparing Mormonism to witchcraft is not as preposterous as it might at first seem, given that I understand that in predominantly-Mormon Utah, the majority of witches are former or sometimes even current Mormons. Evidently, there is something within witchcraft that appeals to a certain rare segment of Mormons or former Mormons.

The diverse pagan traditions we call witchcraft have been around for a very long time. It mostly had died-out by the 19th century, but in the early 20th century it experienced a rebirth in the form of Wicca and various related denominations, who tried to reconstruct the pagan faiths based on old traditions and records. At the time Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in 1830, the witchcraft theology had basically disappeared. But some of the magical elements of these traditions were carried forward in the form of folk religion practiced by believing Christians. Joseph Smith was part of that magical culture, though he was by no means a witch. He was, really, no different than countless of other rural Christians who practiced folk magic.

Though he did not think of it as witchcraft, Joseph Smith was not unfamiliar with things like spells, talismans, curses, and magic divining stones. For example, Smith used a “seer stone” to translate the Book of Mormon. Smith referred to this stone, and similar stones, by the biblical phrase “Urim and Thummim.” Smith taught that in the far future, residents of the glorified crystal earth would each receive such a stone whereby they will be able to know “things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms” (D&C 130:10). Smith, like countless others of his era who lived close to the earth and relied in part upon the cycles of nature for their survival, also evidently believed in astrology. One of Smith’s early revelations indicates that he also believed in dowsing. Smith’s connection to the magical practices of his era are fully explored in the groundbreaking but controversial work Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, by D. Michael Quinn (1998, Signature Books, ISBN 1560850892). These magical practices were still part of Christianity, not withcraft, but they represent a common folk tradition between the two faiths.

In addition to the magical elements of early Mormonism, there are superficial similarities between Mormonism and witchcraft on a theological level. Most practitioners of witchcraft recognize at least two gods, the Moon Goddess and the Horned God. Mormons, in addition to recognizing the male Christian Father, also recognize a Heavenly Mother. Thus, both traditions recognize male and female deities. But the theological similarities between Mormonism and witchcraft are rather superficial. Though heterodox in relation to traditional Christianity, Mormons came from that tradition, are still part of it, and have been working hard to find common ground with it. Though not trinitarian, Mormons still believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christianity. Some Mormons believe that the Heavenly Mother is the Holy Spirit, but beliefs are varied. (See this 1980 Sunstone Magazine article for an overview of the Mormon Heavenly Mother doctrine.)

None of this is to say that Mormonism, especially modern Mormonism, is anything at all like witchcraft. But there are enough superficial similarities that Mormons ought to be sympathetic to witches. As much as I favor Mormon dialogue with traditional Christianity, I would also be on board for some sort of Mormon-witch dialogue.

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Is Romney the “face of Mormonism”?

In-fighting among Mormon politicians has erupted over an article by Gregory A. Prince, a well-known Mormon biographer. In the article, Prince claimed that Romney was “not the face of Mormonism.” Prince had been a Romney supporter prior to 2007, when Romney was a moderate. However, Prince became dismayed when Romney lurched to the right in his 2008 presidential campaign. and was baffled by Romney’s infamous “47% video.”

Prince argued that Romney’s dismissal of the “47%” was a betrayal of everything that Romney stood for as a Mormon lay pastor. A pastor who is a “good shepherd” goes after the lost sheep: even if one sheep in a hundred is in jeopardy, the pastor is to leave the fold and recover it. Also, Mormons were early champions of reaching out to the disadvantaged and providing social safety nets such as the Latter-day Saint Welfare Program. According to Prince, writing off 47% of the American population as a moocher class does not seem consistent with Mormon leadership principles or compassion.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has entered the fray, stating that he agrees with Prince. Reid and Romney have been at odds with each other before, but this time, it is about Mormonism itself.

To be honest, Romney probably is the face of a certain class of well-known Mormon industrialists, among them J.W. Marriott, Jon Huntsman, and the late Larry H. Miller. Perhaps these are some of the more visible faces of Mormonism. And men who walk, talk, dress, and look like Romney inhabit the upper echelons of the LDS Church hierarchy. But I could not imagine any of these church leaders writing off the needs of what the far right views as the “moocher class,” as Romney appears to have done in the video.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Mormons on average have become increasingly conservative. But Mormon leaders have periodically reined-in that conservatism to counter dismissiveness or lack of respect and empathy towards the poor, immigrants, and the disadvantaged. Mormons by and large have not adopted the most belligerent postures of the far right. Therefore from a Mormon perspective, Romney’s dismissive attitude might seem surprising and out of character for a Mormon who has been a lay pastor devoting years to serving the neediest under his care. Perhaps that is what Prince and Reid are reacting to.

There is another possibility: that Romney’s “face” is merely a mask, and that in dismissing the 47%, he is telling his wealthy conservative donors exactly what they want to hear, rather than what he truly believes. But that, too, is decidedly un-Mormon. A Mormon article of faith is that “we believe in being honest.” A current LDS Church manual quotes Brigham Young in stating, “If we accept salvation on the terms it is offered to us, we have got to be honest in every thought, in our reflections, in our meditations, in our private circles, in our deals, in our declarations, and in every act of our lives.” I wonder what Young would have thought about a candidate misrepresenting himself to a private group of donors—if that is what Romney did—in order to get campaign money.

A better face of Mormon honesty might actually be Jon Huntsman, who was ridiculed during the 2012 Republican Primaries for his consistently moderate views. He refused to lurch to the right as a political expediency, the way that Romney seems to have done. Like Romney, Huntsman was also born into a wealthy family, and therefore he is also probably a bit removed from the concerns of average struggling Mormons, but based on his views and consistency, he might have a little better claim for representing Mormon idealism than does Romney.

But perhaps it is incorrect to think that anyone could be the “face of Mormonism.” Mormons are more diverse than most non-Mormons think. There are single parents, undocumented immigrants, liberals, gays and lesbians, libertarians, and out-of-touch industrialists, all happily sitting next to each other on the pews of many Mormon congregations. Sometimes each of them is not completely honest, or compassionate, or tolerant, but they are all Mormon. Thus, ultimately I agree with Greg Prince’s observation that Romney’s video was not a good representation of Mormon ideals; however, I think that Romney has as good a claim to be the face of a flawed Mormon as any other Mormon does.

Romney vs. Obama on religion: will we see it?

A pro-Romney Super PAC has reportedly floated, and then sank, the option of attacking Barrack Obama over his former membership in a church pastored by Jeremiah Wright. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, ABC News investigators discovered that Wright had once implied that the September 11 attacks were an avoidable consequence of U.S. foreign policy mistakes, and in another instance had uttered the shocking words “God damn America!” after a discussion of the country’s racial history. Obama and his family resigned from the church during the 2008 campaign, citing disagreement with their their former pastor’s inflammatory statements.

Obama has one other religious liability, which is the fact that despite his lifelong Protestant background and church attendance, 16% of voters believe he is a Muslim or crypto-Muslim. Romney is smart enough, politically, not to overtly associate himself with such conspiracy theories. So at least for now, the issue of Obama’s religious background is off the table.

Obama, as well, has taken the possibility of attacking Romney’s Mormon religion off the table. Most commentators seem to agree that a backlash is likely to ensue should Obama ever be seen to attack Romney’s religion. The criticism for such a move would be directed back at Obama.

But does anybody really believe that religion will not be an issue in this election cycle? Like it or not, as a result of the Citizens United case, this will be the first modern presidential election in which there will be unlimited and unregulated money from corporations, opinionated tycoons, labor unions, and maybe even foreign countries. This money and the resulting explosion of TV ads cannot, at least in theory, be controlled by the candidates themselves. Citizens United aside, neither of the candidates can control the actions of the press.

If such a religious fight breaks out over the TV airwaves, Romney has a distinct disadvantage. Obama’s religious issues were well-aired by the press four years ago, and it is hard to imagine what new damage they could cause now, four years later. By contrast, only a slim majority of voters are currently even aware that Romney is Mormon. Romney has far more potential to be hurt when his religious views are placed open to criticism.

If Romney were to become President, he would be the first nontrinitarian to hold that office since the 19th century, and he would be only the second non-Protestant. Thus, the issue of his religion is newsworthy and important. But will the media and Super PACs treat the subject of Romney’s Mormonism with a level of serious and accuracy that it deserves? And will care be taken to note that there is diversity within Mormon thought?