Do Jews Have a Mormon Problem?

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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?

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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