My friends don’t want a Mormon president. They have non-religious reasons for disliking Gov. Romney, of course, but even if he were a decent guy who liked social safety nets and gays, they’d still take a look at his religion and say: That’s some crazy shit! And it is. Mormonism is bonkers. But my problem with Mitt Romney is the same as that of the execrable Bryan Fischer, of the Family Research Institute: I don’t think Mitt Romney’s Mormon enough.
Say what you will about Mormons’ support for Prop 8, their bizarre history, their creepy insistence that the head of their church is an honest-to-goodness prophet. It’s meaningless. Mormons, actual individual Mormons, are awesome.
I’m thinking in particular of the young Mormon missionaries who’ve inhabited Brooklyn for the last two years. I’ve met a good cross-section of them. There was Elder A, Elder F, Elder so-and-so, and the rest. (I’m not giving their names because I don’t want to frighten their parents by publicly associating them with a radical atheist queer.) These missionaries first came to my home to proselytize, as Mormon missionaries tend to do. My roommates and I invited them inside because we wanted to do the same thing. We’re evangelical atheists, and we believed few non-souls were so in need of saving as Mormon non-souls. We thought it was our moral duty to convince them of the sanctity of beer, coffee, science and sodomy before it was too late. We failed.
You know how Mormons believe that Native Americans sailed from the Levant? We asked them their opinion of the Human Genome Project, which used DNA evidence to prove that Native Americans actually descend from ancient Russians. They just smiled and said they were sure someone in Salt Lake City had figured it out. And you know how the Bible is full of God-sanctioned violence and genocide and slavery, and the Book of Mormon is even worse? We asked them about that, too, and they said something to the effect of: “What happened thousands of years ago is between those people and God. God wants us to love one another, in the here and now.”
Clearly, our Mormons were not theologians or apologeticists. (Mormons don’t really have apologetics, but give ‘em a couple thousand years and they’ll have Aquinases.) Our Mormons were, however, terrifically sweet human beings with shockingly good manners and easy laughs, who never said a bad word about anybody and generally acted like they loved people, no matter how many doors were slammed in their earnest missionary faces, and no matter how many angry New Yorkers chased them off the porch with guns. (This happens. Being a missionary is scary.) And – and I think this speaks well of the Mormon character – they believed fervently in a just afterlife, in which nobody goes to the really bad hell unless they ask for it. (Mormons have several hells.) The deal is this: You die, you go to “spirit prison,” you meet up with some missionaries (possibly the same ones who visited you in life), and they say: “Hey! Nice to see you. We were right, you were wrong. Here’s why. Wanna change your mind?” And if you say yes, you get to go off with them to an awesome eternity. Say no, and you still have a pretty awesome eternity. It’s only if you say no and also totally, unrepentantly suck as a person that you wind up in the “Outer Darkness.”
“But you’d have to be so horrible,” said one of our missionaries, “I don’t think hardly anybody goes there. Maybe Hitler. But probably not.”
I asked our Mormons about the afterlife of fundie Christianity – the Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God, fire-and-brimstone-and-the-
Their God is so not mean, in fact, that He didn’t even want our missionaries disassociating from us when it became clear that we weren’t going to convert to Mormonism ever ever ever. (Until spirit prison, I mean. If I wind up there, I’ll consider reconsidering.) And while He may take a dim view of my sexual preference, He still wanted his missionaries hanging out with us. They came by every week or so for a month. They talked about God, but also about architecture, art, and fashion. (One of our missionaries was an artist; another wanted to design shoes.) Eventually they asked: “Do you guys need some help with your garden? Want us to help with dishes? Anything like that?”
Turns out, Mormon missionaries are supposed to help people. So they showed up one day in jeans and tees – it was the first time I’d seen them without ties – and planted our garden. We helped, too, but the missionaries were workhorses. They covered themselves in dirt and removed hundreds of pounds of shattered concrete and weird bits of wire from beneath the sorry topsoil in back of our old apartment in Bushwick. I made burgers, and we spent the day digging and eating and singing along to rock and roll on a boombox. We thanked our Mormons profusely. “Well,” said one, “to be honest, we’re always happy to do this, because it means we can wear normal clothes and listen to secular music.” He turned a little red at the admission, and then said, “but we love the work, too!” And I think he did.
Mormon missionaries always travel in pairs, which is creepy (because it’s a control mechanism; they keep each other from “sinning”), but also cute (because they very quickly develop the habits of married couples). To keep from developing too many worldly attachments while on their two-year mission, missionaries change partners and jurisdictions every six or twelve weeks. When Elder F left Elder A, I treated them both out to lunch at famous and fabulous Roberta’s, which was just down the street from our house. (The missionaries had to clear this outing with the upper mission management.) I learned they’d never been there before, which offended me. Then I learned why. Listen to this: Mormon missionaries are forced to eat on $40 per week. I raged: “How is that fucking possible! How can you eat on forty dollars per fucking week and be smiling all the fucking time?” (I myself am a glutton, and would have difficulty subsisting on $40 per day.)
They looked at each other. “Because …” said Elder A, “… we’re happy? Meeting interesting people?”
“And doing God’s work,” said Elder F, very solemnly. Elder A giggled, and Elder F looked pissed. Then he laughed, too.
Not that they weren’t serious. God’s work, to the missionaries, is a very serious business. But their God, I learned, isn’t entirely serious, and He doesn’t expect His servants to be sticks in the mud. (Except when it comes to beer-drinking.)
The next time I saw Elder A, he was with Elder H. That’s when Elder A was leaving Bushwick for Queens. As his farewell present, I treated him to dinner at an amazing little Vermontan place called Northeast Kingdom. Elder H proved one of the funniest people I’d ever met, perhaps because his very difficult life thus far had taught him humor’s value as a defense mechanism. Mormonism, I learned, had literally saved him: When he was born, his dad was just beginning something like a 100-year prison sentence, and his mom was desperately poor and drug-addled. She joined the church when Elder H was a tween, and discovered a community willing to help her straighten out her existence, and her son’s. Which it did. “So how could I not believe?” asked Elder H. Given the circumstances, I thought it would be rude to argue religion with him. He didn’t try to argue religion with me, either. He just told uproarious missionary stories, and me and my roommates, sodomites and atheists, spent the night howling in the dining room with these lovely faithful people. I suspect the other customers thought we were weird.
I met other Elders later. Some came to my New Year’s Eve party, after my partner and our roommates upgraded to a triplex in Clinton Hill. The Elders couldn’t share our champagne, but they stood on the roof with the rest of us, watching fireworks detonate over the Brooklyn Museum, the Williamsburg Savings Bank, the Empire State Building, and the ascendant World Trade Center. (My roof has a kickass view.) They toasted with orange juice at midnight and everybody hugged, even though I’d only just met one of the Elders a couple hours before. He just upped and hugged a sodomite, and everybody was smiling.
Now – maybe, once upon a time, Mitt Romney was so twitterpated by his deity and the beauty of the world and its inhabitants that he could smile while subsisting on $40 per week. Maybe he used to hug strange sodomites un-self-consciously on rooftops and enjoy an afternoon digging strangers’ back yards. He was a missionary, after all. Presumably he was called upon to do such things. But when I see the man on television, I don’t detect the faintest echo of that long-ago Mitt. The full-time Mormons here in Brooklyn could teach him a lot about the common touch; about how to laugh and smile so that it doesn’t look like laughing and smiling hurt; and what it means to live like you fully, truly, heart-mind-and-soul believe in something lovely. (Again: bonkers, but lovely.) If he learned, I might look at him and think: Well, his politics are disastrous, but at least he’s a saint. That’s the funny thing about religion. Even though there are probably no gods, believing strongly enough in one can make certain people behave in ways that even people like me feel compelled to call divinely inspired. Mitt never seems inspired at all. Which is no good for a member of any religion, but doubly awful for a religion with so many brilliant young exemplars.