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Do Jews Have a Mormon Problem?

The religious values of presidents seldom satisfactorily explain their attitudes toward the Jews.  Franklin Roosevelt's Episcopalian faith could not have foretold his hard-hearted policies during the Holocaust.  Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter, both Baptists, went in opposite directions, with Truman quick to grant Israel diplomatic recognition and Carter conspicuous in his anti-Israelism.  Who knows to what extent Barack Obama's affiliation with the United Church of Christ provides any insight into his administration's erratic, often disquieting policies toward Jerusalem?

Relevant Links
On Israel  Mitt Romney, Republican Jewish Coalition. The Republican presidential candidate says President Obama chastises Israel, wants to force indefensible borders on it, and won’t even visit.
How and Why Do Mormons Baptize the Dead?  Dan Gilgoff, CNN. Proxy baptism for the dead is a proud Mormon tradition, though the LDS church vowed to stop baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims in 1995.
Can I Get on the “Do Not Baptize” List?  Forrest Wickman, Slate. LDS church leaders apologized after Simon Wiesenthal‘s parents were baptized by proxy last month. Elie Wiesel said that Romney should call for a stop to the practice. In the meantime, can one personally avoid a post-mortem baptism?
Mitt's Mission  Jonathan Darman, Lisa Miller, Newsweek. For this 2007 article, Romney was asked if he had done baptisms for the dead. His answer? “I have in my life, but I haven’t recently.”
Defining Mormonism  Tom Foreman, CNN. Mormons insist that they’re Christians—but some Christians aren’t so sure. (Video)
First Jewish President?  Timothy Stanley, Atlantic. Romney is said to think Mormons have a great deal in common Jews. So did David Ben-Gurion.
The Enemy of My Enemy . . .  Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish Week. The fact that evangelical Christians distrust Romney may actually be a plus for him with Jews.

Still, it is hard to disregard completely the religious and moral values of the leading presidential candidates.  The narrowing of the Republican nomination field to Mitt Romney and Someone Else has made barely a ripple in Israel to date.  Israel's media dutifully covered Romney's complaint that Obama has been too quick to chasten the Jewish state and his pledge to make Israel his first foreign destination if elected.  However, should Romney capture the nomination, Israelis, as Americans have done, will probably find themselves getting a crash course on his Mormon faith.

They might begin at the strikingly handsome campus of the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University, run by the Mormons (more properly, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and situated on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.  On the campus, Sunday evening classical concerts and Thursday night jazz divertimentos take place in a congenial auditorium offering panoramic Jerusalem views.  But the well-bred Mormon students and staff do not draw much attention—and that is the way everyone likes it.

It was in 1841, within a few decades of its founding by Joseph Smith in New York State, that the Church dispatched Apostle Orson Hyde to Jerusalem on a fact-finding tour.  But only with the city's liberation in 1967 did the Church begin routinely sending believers to the Holy Land for religious studies.  Mormonism was last spotlighted in Israel in 1985, when Brigham Young University first sought to establish a presence there.  It drew vociferous hostility from the ultra-Orthodox because of the Mormons' earlier missionary activities in Israel.  But the facility had the support of the late mayor Teddy Kollek and then-prime minister Shimon Peres; and after Church authorities pledged in writing not to engage in missionary activities in Israel, the campus opened in 1988. 

Nowadays, 160 students can be accommodated at the Jerusalem campus (it closed for six years during the second intifada because of safety concerns).  There is every reason to believe the Mormons have honored their commitment to "show Israeli Jews what the Church is about by example rather than by proselytizing."

Mormons see themselves as Christians, although to the consternation of Christian fundamentalists, some of them identify Jesus with the God of the Hebrew Bible and hold a schismatic view of the Trinity in which God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct deities.  Like Christian Zionists, Mormons believe that the Jewish return to the Land of Israel is a precursor to the second coming of the Christian messiah.

Mormon theology is particularly philo-Semitic.  The faithful consider their Church part of the House of Israel.  They deem themselves spiritual descendants of the Israelite tribe of Ephraim—which escaped Babylonian captivity by migrating to North America around 586 B.C.E., though their civilization disappeared around 400 C.E.  (The Book of Mormon has the tribe fleeing Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian conquest.)  Mormons believe their scripture, revealed to Smith by an angel, contains writings by ancient prophets including Lehi, whom God commanded to lead those Israelites to America.

Mormons attribute significance to the Jewish calendar.  Many of their spiritual milestones parallel Jewish festivals.  There are also dietary laws: Eating meat is restricted, while alcohol, tobacco, and coffee are prohibited.    The cross does not commonly adorn Mormon houses of worship.

But in some ways, Mormons are unique.  Polygamy has been forbidden since 1890; but unlike either Christians or Jews, Mormons believe that the canon remains open and God still communicates directly with the righteous.

And Mormonism is emphatically a missionary faith.  Romney was almost killed while a missionary in France, in a bizarre traffic accident involving a head-on collision with a vehicle driven by a Catholic priest.  To this day, Mormons take what will strike some Israelis as an unnerving delight in converting American Jews.  Moreover, in a rite that drew Jewish ire, the Church once engaged in virtual baptisms of Jews murdered in the Shoah in order to allow their souls salvation.  Once Mormons learned of the depth of Jewish objections to this practice, they agreed to stop it (and they generally have, with some recent controversial aberrations).   

None of this should present a problem for Jews comfortable with their Judaism.  Theologically, Jews tend to be libertarian about other faiths; politically, by September 2011, a third of Jewish voters were disposed to vote for Romney over Obama.

What might this mean for the pragmatic Romney?  Utah State University historian Philip Barlow argues that Romney's faith might inform but would not determine his Mideast policies: "His character was in part shaped by Mormonism, but one only needs to compare Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to note that Mormons are not made from cookie cutters."  Regarding Romney's profession of friendship to Israel, Barlow points out that "Mormons' history, popular culture, and theology really do give them a sense of regard for Israel's role in history and world affairs, and a sense"—from the Mormons' perspective—"of shared identity."

As a former governor, Romney has no real foreign policy track record.  How does he understand the Islamist threat to Western values?   What are his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approach to a two-state solution?  Does he back President George Bush's 1967-plus approach to Israel's boundaries?  Much remains to be revealed.

Other presidents have entered the White House with an innate sympathy for Israel only to see their policies towed in the opposite direction.  But in the course of the unfolding presidential campaign, Americans—and, from afar, Israelis—will learn something of the Mormon Romney's politics, values, and understanding of the world.

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Alan Vanneman on February 22, 2012 at 7:13 am (Reply)
The job of American presidents is to take care of the United States, not Israel. This subtle point seems to elude Jewish Ideas Daily on a daily basis.
Cynic on February 22, 2012 at 7:29 am (Reply)
The statement that "Franklin Roosevelt's Episcopalian faith could not have foretold his hard-hearted policies during the Holocaust" displays a lack of knowledge of the Anglican Church, of which the Episcopal church in America is a part, and its replacement theology. Even today, one finds its hard-hearted tenets in the behaviour of Desmond Tutu and company.
TXJEW on February 22, 2012 at 10:25 am (Reply)
Once again a writer is responding to the fantasy Obama in his head rather than the actual Obama. Policy-wise, Israel and the United States are co-operating as closely as ever-- certainly better than under Eisenhower, Nixon, or Bush senior. It just bugs some people that Obama doesn't personally think Bibi is the archangel of all that is good or genuflect every time a pronouncement comes out of Jerusalem. Bibi is a pompous twit, and he's poisoned any chance of having a congenial relationship with this president. Luckily, the United States-Israel relationship is stronger than one prime minister.
James on February 22, 2012 at 10:50 am (Reply)
If Episcopalians/Anglicans are so antagonistic toward Jews, why hasn't Jonathan Sacks been vocal about this?
Faye stiller Sued on February 22, 2012 at 11:13 am (Reply)
I sure do. I also watched the PBS documentary "The Mormons:"
Independent Patriot on February 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm (Reply)
There is less of a problem with Mormons than there is with the followers of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Jewish-Americans better get a grip on reality. If you don't think all Christians consider Jews behind the times as far as religion is concerned, you are delusional. The issue is whether the candidate is good for the United States and, by extension, the Jewish-American community and Israel. Whether Obama supporters like it or not, all these issues are intrinsically linked.
Gary Clarke on February 22, 2012 at 12:27 pm (Reply)
The bigger question is why the Jewish community generally supports Democrats (and, in Canada, Liberals) when these political parties are generally the least supportive of Israel--and so slow to support Conservatives like our Canadian Prime Minister, who is unapologetic in his outright support for Israel.
Arthur K on February 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm (Reply)
If anyone is interested in the religious response by public Jews and Presidents in the 1940s and 1950s to Zionism, the Holocaust, and the creation of the Jewish State, a place to look is Martin Marty's Modern American Religion, vol. 3, 1941-1960, "Under God Indivisible." He writes cogently and with strong support from his sources on these topics, among many others. Truman was pushed first one way and then another by a Kansas City business associate and close friend, Edward Jacobson.

None of these stories are simple, and simplistic statements such as "hard-hearted policies" cloud the issue more than clarify it.
Cynic on February 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Reply)
British literature has plenty of examples of this attitude toward Jews, of which America seems devoid.
David on February 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm (Reply)
Gary, I'm Canadian, Jewish, and a card-carrying Tory for long enough to own a "Kim Campell for PM" T-shirt autographed by Jean Charest (and to wish it had been the other way 'round). So, I remember a time when Canadian Jews voted Liberal. But things have changed. Today, Canadian Jews vote Conservative--in droves, or as close to droves as a less-than-one-percent minority can manage. Look at a map of the Toronto-area ridings: Thornhill, Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre, Willowdale--all Conservative, with strong Jewish support. Thornhill is the only riding even close to a Jewish plurality, and before the last election it was the only Tory seat in the GTA.
Lang on February 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm (Reply)
Regarding the Church's sending Aspostle Orson Hyde to Jerusalem on a fact-finding tour, Joseph Smith Jr.'s genealogy, on, shows that Smith married Hyde's wife while Orson was on his Jerusalem mission.
D. Chazan on February 23, 2012 at 5:49 am (Reply)
The Mormon church "once" engaged in virtual baptisms of Jews murdered in the Shoah? How about just the other day, when they virtually baptized Anne Frank?
Grantman on February 23, 2012 at 7:19 am (Reply)
Regarding the influence on President Obama's foreign policy by the United Church of Christ, it's more Barack Obama's affiliation with Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ and its black liberation theology than the UCC itself. Anyone who looks at the President's actions over these three years will see this answer staring them--if their eyes are open, that is.
interested on February 23, 2012 at 4:46 pm (Reply)
If you don't believe Mormons have the ability to convert deceased Jews, Catholics, Baptists, etc. through Mormon baptisms, then forget it. Let the Mormons believe what they want to believe and let the Jews believe what they want to believe.
LenMinNJ on February 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm (Reply)
Most Christians do not consider Mormons to be Christians, as they believe in a god who is not the creator of the world, and in a universe that is eternal. From a Jewish perspective, that makes them non-Noachides. Is it a problem for Jews to vote for a candidate who is not at least a Noachide?
michael burns on February 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm (Reply)
Perhaps Jews shouldn't fear Mormons, but they do have some pretty strange beliefs. Also, their initial and sole prophet was quite the character, with 39 wives (three in their early teens), a heavy drinker,with no archaeological or historical support for his claims. A YouTube cartoon they tried to ban lets people see what the next American president believes. It is quite a stretch. Search for banned mormon cartoon on YouTube. It's six minutes long and will open your eyes. Polygamy is still widely practised.
ken Reed on February 28, 2012 at 9:03 am (Reply)
Michael Burns is wrong about Mormons and polygamy. It was banned in 1890 and has not been practiced since. Polygamy is grounds for excommunication. Fundamentalist Mormon offshoots can be found. Their members are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the church referred to as Mormons in the article. Smith did institute secret polygamy in the 1840s. But, apparently, he never consummated his marriages with his "spiritual" wives. There are no known descendants of Smith by his "spiritual" wives. Brigham Young, Smith's successor, did practice polygamy, having 27 wives. About 10 percent of Mormons actually practiced polygamy before 1890. Mormon doctrine is very vague about polygamy. In fact, the Book of Mormon strongly forbids it. There is no record of Smith's being a "heavy drinker." I recommend the book Rough Stone Rolling by Lyman Bushman, a former Columbia University professor of history. Mormons reject the Nicene Creed and other creeds defining God as the non-biblical Trinity. According to the Nicene litmus test, Mormons are not Christian. But under any rational classification, Mormons are decidedly Christian. Other than Evangelicals who are vociferous Mormon-haters, most Christian churches work well with Mormons, especially the Catholic Church.

Science has clearly demonstrated that the Universe is not eternal, and no Mormon belief contradicts that. In fact, science, even evolution, fits well into Mormon doctrine, though many Mormons believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis. Romney and Huntsman were on record as the only Republican candidates who actually believe in evolution and global warming. Go figure. Mormon attitudes toward Jews are at least friendly. Officially, Mormons believe they are or will be adopted into the House of Israel and claim to worship the God of Israel, since they interpret Christ as the same Jehovah referred to in the Bible, who is and will be the Messiah. Mormons certainly do not hate Jews or Judaism. As for baptisms of Jewish dead, from a Mormon perspective, they are given a choice as to whether to accept the baptism or not; apparently, there is choice even in the afterlife. While Mormons did wholesale baptisms in the past, now the emphasis is on one's own ancestors. But the records are not as clean as they need to be. Countless people have been baptized more than once. New database technology hopefully will clean this up in the future. A significant parallel between Mormons and Jews is the fact of over-representation of Mormons in business leadership and national politics. Pew research shows them to be more educated, wealthier, and healthier than the US population as a whole. Kind of like Jews.
DF on February 28, 2012 at 10:26 am (Reply)
So it has come to this: If Obama loses the Jewish vote, it will be (as some bloggers have already claimed) because Jews secretly hate blacks. If Romney loses it (assuming he gets the nomination; I dont think he will), it will be because they secretly hate Mormons. The supposedly color-blind society we were told would be ushered in by Title VII has led to more divisiveness than ever before. Obama, the suposed great bringer of unity, has been a complete failure. Apparently, no longer does anyone make a decision on the basis of what he actually believes to be right. No, every decision must be attributed to anti-something. This is the bitter fruit of racial politics (and gender politics, and religion politics, and all the other sordid cousins). Somehere Barry Goldwater and the others who fought Title VII on principle are enjoying a bitter laugh and saying, "I told you so."
Mark Stoddard on February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm (Reply)
Mormons have more affinity, sympathy, and concrete support for Israel and Jews in general than anyone else. They consider the Tribe of Judah to be a chosen people. They believe in the God of the Torah. Mormons believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but not in any condemnation of Jews, ever. Jesus was a Jew and Mormons consider the Holy Land sacred, not as a gathering place for Mormons but as the gathering place of the Jews to the house of Israel. Mitt Romney will be the best friend Israel will ever have, and he will protect American Jews (believers and non-believers), as he will protect all Americans by providing the freedom to worship as they choose and not placing government on top of religion.
RAN on February 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm (Reply)
The Mormon church "once" engaged in virtual baptisms of Jews murdered in the Shoah? How about just the other day, when they virtually baptized Anne Frank? The LDS Church has disallowed the submission of Jewish names. However, almost anyone can submit names for proxy baptism. It is interesting that only a few high profile Jewish names were submitted in this latest case. It's a convenient way to give Mormons a black eye. Now, the Mormon church has stated that anyone submitting these names can face disciplinary action, including excommunication.
Christopher on February 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm (Reply)
Some fairly outlandish and wildly inaccurate statements about Mormons have been posted here. Let's set the record straight. Mormons are Christians, meaning that they do their best to follow Christ's teachings as they understand them. They do NOT practice polygamy. Many are deeply interested in and sympathetic toward Israel. Most identify with the Republican Party, but many are Democrats or even Libertarians. They are taught to be law-abiding citizens of whatever country they inhabit. Mormons are doctors, lawyers, policemen, artists, soldiers--you'll find them in all reputable professions. They emphasize service and integrity. If you'd like to know what they're like and what they really believe, I suggest you meet a few of them or visit their website. In any event, I think Mr. Romney will take a forthright and respectful approach in his dealings with Israel.
Arthur Kaye on February 28, 2012 at 5:49 pm (Reply)
It is funny to see people here--fellow Jews--start describing how odd someone else's rites and rituals are. It probably looks equally strange to those others when they see a Jew wrapping tefillin or holding a torah up, and our dietary rules appear positively bizarre to some folks. And what about what we did in Temple days? Solomon had how many wives? How many bulls were sacrificed daily? In other words, don't assume anyone else's religion is weird or wrong because it isn't what you do.
Noah David Simon on February 28, 2012 at 9:39 pm (Reply)
But there is the issue of replacement theology. Mormonism has a very strong view that their church is the "new" Israel.
Angry on June 6, 2012 at 8:53 pm (Reply)
No, the Mormon church is not the New Israel. It is written: an Angel (Moroni) comes and brings a different gospel than what we preach and brings a different Christ, anathema is he. The New Israel, is in heaven. It is written that the city of God is in heaven and will come down from heaven. That's it. Do not deceive yourself for these things brings the wrath of God. For God gives men a strong delusion that did not believe the word of God, that is the truth of God.

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