By Maureen Dowd, New York Times, October 18, 2011
At an appearance at George Washington University here Saturday night, Bill Maher bounded into territory that the news media have been gingerly tiptoeing around.
Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy.
“By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” asserted the famously nonbelieving comic who skewered the “fairy tales” of several faiths in his documentary “Religulous.” “It’s a religion founded on the idea of polygamy. They call it The Principle. That sounds like The Prime Directive in ‘Star Trek.’ ”
He said he expects the Romney crowd — fighting back after Robert Jeffress, a Texas Baptist pastor supporting Rick Perry, labeled Mormonism a non-Christian “cult” — to once more “gloss over the differences between Christians and Mormons.”
Maher was not easy on the religion he was raised in either. He referred to the Roman Catholic Church as “an international child sex ring.”
But atheists, like Catholics and evangelical Christians, seem especially wary of Mormons, dubbed the “ultimate shape-shifters” by Maher.
In a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll released on Tuesday, people were asked what single word came to mind for Republican candidates. For Herman Cain it was 9-9-9; for Rick Perry, Texas; and for Mitt Romney, Mormon. In the debate Tuesday night, Romney said it was repugnant that “we should choose people based on their religion.”
In The Times on Sunday, Sheryl Gay Stolberg chronicled Romney’s role as a bishop in Boston often giving imperious pastoral guidance on everything from divorce to abortion.
Stolberg reported that Romney, who would later run for Senate as a supporter of abortion rights against Teddy Kennedy and then flip to oppose those rights in Republican presidential primaries, showed up unannounced at a hospital in his role as bishop. He “sternly” warned a married mother of four, who was considering terminating a pregnancy because of a potentially dangerous blood clot, not to go forward.
Another famous nonbeliever, Christopher Hitchens, wrote in Slate on Monday about “the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Aside from Joseph Smith, whom Hitchens calls “a fraud and conjurer well known to the authorities in upstate New York,” the writer also wonders about the Mormon practice of amassing archives of the dead and “praying them in” as a way to “retrospectively ‘baptize’ everybody as a convert.”
Hitchens noted that they “got hold of a list of those put to death by the Nazis’ Final Solution” and “began making these massacred Jews into honorary LDS members as well.” He called it “a crass attempt at mass identity theft from the deceased.”
The Mormons even baptized Anne Frank.
It took Ernest Michel, then chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, three years to get Mormons to agree to stop proxy-baptizing Holocaust victims.
Mormons desisted in 1995 after Michel, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported, “discovered that his own mother, father, grandmother and best childhood friend, all from Mannheim, Germany, had been posthumously baptized.”
Michel told the news agency that “I was hurt that my parents, who were killed as Jews in Auschwitz, were being listed as members of the Mormon faith.”
Richard Bushman, a Mormon who is a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, said that after “the Jewish dust-up,” Mormons “backed away” from “going to extravagant lengths to collect the names of every last person who ever lived and baptize them — even George Washington.” Now they will do it for Mormons who bring a relative or ancestor’s name into the temple, he said.
Bushman said that “Mormons believe that Christ is the divine son of God who atoned for our sins, but we don’t believe in the Trinity in the sense that there are three in one. We believe the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are three distinct persons.”
Kent Jackson, the associate dean of religion at Brigham Young University, says that while Mormons are Christians, “Mormonism is not part of the Christian family tree.”
It probably won’t comfort skeptical evangelicals and Catholics to know that Mormons think that while other Christians merely “have a portion of the truth, what God revealed to Joseph Smith is the fullness of the truth,” as Jackson says. “We have no qualms about saying evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants can go to heaven, including Pastor Jeffress. We just believe that the highest blessings of heaven come” to Mormons.
As for those planets that devout Mormon couples might get after death, Jackson says that’s a canard. But Bushman says it’s part of “Mormon lore,” and that it’s based on the belief that if humans can become like God, and God has the whole universe, then maybe Mormons will get to run a bit of that universe.
As for the special garment that Mitt wears, “we wouldn’t say ‘magic underwear,’ ” Bushman explains.
It is meant to denote “moral protection,” a sign that they are “a consecrated people like the priests of ancient Israel.”
And it’s not only a one-piece any more. “There’s a two-piece now,” he said.
Republicans are the ones who have made faith part of the presidential test. Now we’ll see if Mitt can pass it.