Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bloom, Romney and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I’m into religion. I’m not talking about, faith, revelation or ritual, I’m talking about the way religion plays out in that essential question: who am I? So when I read Harold Bloom’s piece in The Times early this month—“Will This Election Be the Mormon Breakthrough?—I was intrigued.

Bloom, a literary critic and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, is one of our brilliant American minds, a man with whom I have not always agreed, but a man who’s argument I have always respected. I read carefully. In his opening sentence Bloom asks us to pay attention. Look, he says, but not in those words, look at what’s happening now right now. Pay attention to these candidates. What you see now foreshadows what you’ll see later—darker. Intensified.

Mitt Romney, if he gets the nomination, will be the first Mormon to secure a major party nomination. Bloom a scholar of American literature describes Romney’s church as “that very American Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints.” So what’s the big deal? I’ve heard news pundits deplore the fact that Romney’s religion may become a factor in the Presidential election. We should be beyond that, they say. I agree. We should, but we aren’t. Religion plays a huge part in American politics.

Full disclosure. I’m Jewish. I don’t go to synagogue. I’m ambivalent about God. I love the ritual of Sabbath candles, of Passover. I love the scholarship of my people. I love learning my people's history. I love my people. But not exclusively.

What strikes me is Bloom’s definition Mormonism as a particularly American religion. Bloom knows American literature. He knows the American character, that rugged individualism that we mythologize in our cowboy movies, our gangster movies, our literary heroes, Thoreau, sitting alone beside a pond or canoeing alone in the Maine wilderness, Emerson teaching us “Self-Reliance” and Willa Cather writing of Antonia in My Antonia and Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark, stories with huge western landscapes and independent thinking women.

Ah, yes, individual freedom, a fabulous idea, but when it runs amuck, that same idea produces mean-spirited, selfish individuals who refuse to see their responsibility to the whole—ie the rest of us. And this refusal, if I’m understanding Bloom, is what he calls: “American spiritualized greed.”

Americans, we worship money. I’ve often thought it strange that candidates who want to see this nation declared a Christian nation are so enslaved and enthralled by money that they allow themselves to be carried away from their own Christian values of helping the poor and the less fortunate among us, which translates to me as an unwillingness to make health care available to all and an unwillingness to make education affordable. Bloom says, “obsessed by a freedom we identity with money, we tolerate plutocracy as if it could someday be our own ecstatic solitude.”

And this, I think, is the connection to Romney. The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints is an economic power house and I agree with Bloom when he says, “money is politics.” To take this argument a step further, Bloom says, “A Mormon presidency is not quite the same as an ostensibly Catholic or Protestant one, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints insists on a religious sanction for its moralistic platitudes.”

So this argument translates to values. What are Romney’s values as an individual? as a candidate for the Presidency? He’s a devout Mormon, and his faith tells him that the rest of us are infidels, a word which suggests faithlessness and disloyalty. As a devout Mormon, Romney keeps his Church’s secrets, aspects of his religion that cannot be revealed to the rest of us. I agree with Bloom, that this concealment “may be a legitimate question that merits pondering.” In other words, Bloom wants us to ask questions. To consider. When we asked John F, Kennedy how his religion would affect his decision making as President, he responded with his religion speech in which he pleaded for religious tolerance and reiterated his unconditional support for separation of church and state. We, the electorate, and the news media need to ask Romney that same question.

That said, another danger of a Romney candidacy and perhaps a Romney Presidency is the continuation of governance that has evolved into both a plutocracy and an oligarchy where money and power continue to be consolidated into the hands of the few, leaving the rest of us behind. How is this related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? It is the model of their organization.