Reading this edition of "The Big Question" at Hitfix.com got me thinking about the first R-rated movie I ever saw. The film itselfa Michael Douglas thriller called The Star Chamberwas not so memorable, but the circumstances around my viewing of it are, in retrospect, amusing.
When I was growing up, the LDS Church strongly cautioned parents not to let their children see R-rated movies, so that was exactly the rule my parents established for us. I followed it, too, though not always happily.
I don't remember what it was about The Star Chamber that made me willing to break that rule. Since I was close to turning sixteen, it was probably just time for it to happen. My friend David, who was a little younger than I was, kind of wanted to see it too, so he asked his parents to take us. So, it was time plus opportunity, I suppose.
(I had seen R-rated movies already, but on video at friends' houses, not in an actual movie theater.)
We had to drive about ten miles north from Kaysville to Ogden to catch the movie. "I have only one condition for this," David's mother told me en route. She was an elementary school teacher, and in fact had already taught two of my sisters and was about to have a third start her class. She was a good Mormon woman, and my parents thought the world of her. "You can never, ever tell your parents I took you to an R-rated movie. Okay?"
I agreed, and getting away with something like that with the help of my sisters' grade-school teacher probably made the movie seem way cooler than it really was. Thank goodness for teachers.
This all happened thirty years ago, in August 1983. Interestingly, it was 1985 before my (sort of) hometown of Kaysville, Utah, ever saw an R-rated movie of its own. Kaysville had only one movie theater, the policy of which was to show nothing with a rating over PG (or maybe PG-13 by then).
It was huge news, then, when the theater decided to change its policy and show Beverly Hills Cop. The local Mormon congregations organized moms to come out and picket against the corruption of its child-safe, down-home entertainment venue.
Is it any wonder everyone seemed so fucked up at my 20-year high school reunion? I say that with all good humor.
The following story is an outtake from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist. The names of most of the other participants, including relatives, have been changed to offer some small measure of concealment.
When I was eighteen, my father and I drove from northern Utah to Los Angeles for my cousin Delia's wedding. I had recently put in my application to become a Mormon missionary, and I had yet to learn where I'd be spending the next two years of my life. It wasn't for the sake of one last road trip with my father, though, that I agreed to tag along. I was hoping to meet Danny Elfman.
After the weddinga brief affair in a tiny chapel like a sugar-frosted cakethe entire gathering moved down the road to the Arcadia Women's Club, a large banquet hall for rent, where a shaggy trio played jazz on a spare proscenium. A dozen long tables were set up in ranks across the room, and we enjoyed an abundant feast of cold cuts, casseroles, and cakes as the music played. "Hey," I said to my aunt Deborah, who sat across from my father and me, "I thought Oingo Boingo was supposed to play."
"All Delia and Sammy's friends are musicians," she said, "so lots of different people are playing. I don't think they're on until later."
"Oh, okay." I glanced at my father, deep in conversation with Uncle Carl, and hoped he wouldn't make me leave too early.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, is that my number-one cousin?" said a rasping voice.
I turned to encounter a beaming apparition in a powder-blue leisure suit. (This was 1986, and even then the look was smarmy.) "Markie?"
"That's me," said Markie, arms spread. He might have been taking the stage for a Vegas-style lounge act. "Didn't recognize me with the haircut, did you, Billy?"
The last time I'd seen my cousin Markie, a thicket of curly, light-brown hair had nearly concealed his face. Someone had taken a hacksaw to the tangle in the meantime, chopping it short and (mostly) squaring it off. "It took me a minute," I said. "You look ... great."
"Thanks. Figured my sister's wedding, I should clean up a little."
He grabbed my arm. "Well hey, Billy, come on. I gotta introduce you to the gang."
He dragged me first to a knot of shady characters clustered in a dim corner of the room. They had each made a stab at cleaning up for the wedding, but none had gone quite to Markie's extreme. "Hey, guys," he said, "I want you all to meet my number-one cousin Billy."
His friends transferred their beers to their left hands so we could shake, and I tried not to look too uncomfortable. I liked Markie, but his several arrests for drug-dealing were no secret in the family, and I figured I was rubbing shoulders here with a regular underworld convocation of scofflaws.
I glowed bright pink, ducking my head, as Markie gushed on. "He's the genius in the family. He used to say the alphabet backwards when he was just a little guy, wearing these great big, thick glasses. He plays the piano, and he skipped all these grades, too."
"Just one," I said. "First grade."
"And he's modest, too!" said Markie, slapping me on the back.
We worked our way around the hall, Markie and I, until finally we ended up in the kitchen among the fragments of turkeys and fruit pies, chatting with a huge dark fellow with a thick black beard, a leather vest, and arms sleeved in colorful tattoos. Markie dragooned him into helping us clean up the kitchen.
A half-dozen plastic garbage bags later, Markie's friend had made himself scarce. Markie leaned on his broom, lit a cigarette, and asked, "So what's new in your life, Billy? Girlfriend, anything like that?"
Markie's attention and his willingness to help with the scutwork behind the scenes at the reception had put me at ease. As we cleaned, he had regaled me with stories of close brushes with the law and of his drunken exploits at parties with Quiet Riot, and I laughed until my sides ached. His friends were nice guys, not at all the way I had pictured drug dealers. My horizons were expanding and I was feeling good. "No girlfriend," I said, "at least not at the moment."
"Bummer, man," he said.
"Well, it's no big deal. I'm leaving on my mission soon anyway."
Markie raised his eyebrows, dragging on his cigarette. "Mission? That's like what Uncle Doug's kid did. Lauren, right? Where'd she go?"
"Yeah, Iowa. Where are you going?"
"I don't know yet."
"Hey, you're smart. They'll send you someplace like, I don't know, China or something. Not Iowa."
A broad open window above the counter in the kitchen looked out at the banquet hall. Markie puffed his cigarette, staring at the crowd. A new band played discordant rock from the stage, almost submerging the murmur of conversation.
"Hey," I said, "is it true that Boingo's supposed to play here?"
He nodded. "Yup."
"I don't know," said Markie, distracted. "Party's supposed to go all night. Midnight they're on, I think."
"No way," I said, my heart sinking. It was only two in the afternoon.
Markie stubbed out his cigarette in the sink, still looking out at the crowd. "Hey, Billy, I see my friend Daisy out there." He motioned. "C'mon, you gotta meet her."
He led me through the door back into the banquet hall. "Who's Daisy?" I asked.
With a little backward glance, he headed down the row between two tables. He leaned toward me so he could speak quietly. "She used to be one of my girls back when I was pimping. She quit all that to get married, but I think I could still get her to do my number-one cousin for free."
All the breath left my lungs, like a giant rock had crushed my chest.
And suddenly there was Daisy.
She stood up from the table to greet Markie with a warm hug and a kiss, then sat down again. An empty chair waited to either side of her. Markie took the one closer to the stage. I took the other.
"Daize, this is my number-one cousin Billy," said Markie.
The woman dutifully turned to shake my hand, but without really noticing me. She was thin, around Markie's age, with skin tanned nearly to the texture of leather. Her hair was short and brown, and she wore a sleeveless pink denim dress so brief that it barely covered her crotch. The dress buttoned up the front, but she had it unbuttoned to the middle of her fairly flat chest. She wasn't wearing anything underneath. After her perfunctory greeting, she turned back to Markie, and I was forgotten in the minutiae of their small talk.
After several minutes, I grew uncomfortable and restless enough that I decided it was time to excuse myself. But just as I was making my move, Markie leaned past Daisy and said, in a complete non sequitur, "Hey, Billyare you still a virgin?"
Swallowing, I settled back into my chair. "Yes," I said, feeling my limbs grow cold.
Daisy's head swiveled around like a radar dish, locking into place as its target was acquired. Her green eyes fastened hungrily on me, sparkling. "Ree-ally," she said.
"Look at that," said Markie. "He's a real Shunn. He can say that without even blushing." He stood up and patted both Daisy and me on the shoulder. "Hey, I've got someone I need to go talk to. I'll catch both of you later."
Then Markie was gone. My lifeboat fled, I bobbed helpless and seasick on an unknown ocean.
Daisy's shoulders shimmied a little. I could see the play of muscles beneath her skin as she squirmed in her chair. She hunched forward like a confessor or a confidant in her flimsy metal folding chair. Her bare knees nearly touched mine.
"So, you're a virgin, Billy," she said.
I did not find her attractive, but still she exuded confidence and sexuality like a musk. I swallowed. Her eyes held me fast.
"That's right," I said.
"So, Goody Two-Shoes, what do you do? Do you mess around a little?" She shifted on her chair, smiling mischievously. "Do you eat pussy?"
My mouth was so dry I nearly choked. The giddy thought went through my brain that if Mormonism were a graduate program, then this was my real oral exam. It took me a moment to find my voice. "Uh, nono, I don't."
Her brow furrowed in question. Her teeth were small and even. "Well, why not?"
The scents of meat and cigarette smoke seemed to thicken in my throat. "Because of my religion," I said, somewhat stiffly.
Daisy burst out laughing. My cheeks blazed.
"Sorry, sorry," she said, waving her hand as she tried to get herself under control. "Religion, I'm sorry, I can respect that, I can respect it. You must take it very seriously."
I nodded, trying to keep the tremor from my hands. I felt humiliated.
"What religion is it?" she asked.
"Mormon," I said. "I'm going to be missionary pretty soon. I have to ... adhere to standards."
She leaned in close. I could smell the soap she had washed with, and I could see down her dress to her navel. "Look, I didn't mean to laugh. That's a great thing, really." Her voice dropped to a husky, conspiratorial whisper. "But tell me, Billyhave you ever seen the inside of a cathouse?"
"Would you like to? I could give you a personal tour."
"Well, I'm not sure I ... I..."
"Here, I'll give you a card." She felt the breast pocket of her dress. "Shit, they're in the truck. And I can't go get one or my husband will see me." She compressed her lips in thought. "Here, do you have a pen?"
I patted my breast pockets. "Sorry, I'm fresh out."
"Damn," she said. "I'd give you my number and you could call, but" She shrugged. "Well, that's life."
"C'est la vie," I agreed.
She rested her chin in her hand, scrutinizing me through quizzical eyes. "Tell me one thing, Billy. Let's say you wandered into a cathouse somehow, and a woman there tied you up and started to rape you. What would you do?"
I sighed, brows raised. "I don't suppose there'd be much I could do. As long as I was helpless, I guess I'd have to just relax and try to enjoy it."
Daisy smiled. She patted my knee and stood up. "You know something, Billy? You're okay."
She slung her purse over her brown, brown shoulder and strolled away into the crowd: some wicked, postmodern Mary Poppins hunting children more corruptible to nursemaid. Her image in my mind's eye didn't fade so quickly as she did, nor did her touch on my knee.
If only she knew how corruptible I wished I were.
Dazed, I wandered back to where my father was sitting with Aunt Deborah and Uncle Carl. Almost as soon as I sat down, my father wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Well, I think it's time for us to be leaving," he said to the relatives. "We'll see you back at the house."
I looked at my watch. "But ... Boingo..."
"You don't want to be here until midnight," said my father.
And that was that. I never did get to meet Danny Elfman. But years later, that's not the missed opportunity I can't stop thinking about.
Back in September, I took advantage of the chance to support a very worthy-seeming Kickstarter projecthelping to fund the completion of a documentary called Mormon Movie.
The director, Xan Aranda, also made festival favorite Andrew Bird: Fever Year, but this new project is something more personal. Check out this preview reel to see what I mean:
The Kickstarter campaign is long done, but you can still help support Mormon Movie at The Hideout this weekend in Chicago. Just buy a ticket to their third "They Shoot Indies, Don't They? Dance Derby Fundraiser Spectacular" and show up to dance and win prizes. It all gets started Saturday, February 2, at 7:00 pm at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. Tickets are just $10 in advance, $12 at the door.
We talked about my Mormon upbringing, how I tried to avoid writing a novel, what not to do when you're learning to write, and of course the strangest thing that ever happened to me. If could go back and do it over again, I'd tell myself to slow down and take a breath, but you can listen to my exhausting rush of words here:
There is no worse feeling than, five minutes after some unpleasant confrontation has left you tongue-tied, humiliated and confused, smacking yourself on the forehead and exclaiming, "Oh, my God! That's what I should have said!"
This is not that kind of a story. This is the story of how I once delivered the perfect rejoinder, in the moment, when it counted. I tell it not to demonstrate how smart, suave, or clever I am, but because it so rarely happens that way with me. In fact, this may be the only story of its kind I have.
This happened in December 2003, at a Christmas party my wife Laura and I threw at our apartment in Queens, New York. Our parties, if I do say so, were legendary, always with an interesting mix of people, and always with good booze, and plenty of it.
Among the many invitees were my old, old friend Katrina and her new husband Bernard. Katrina and I had gone to high school together in Utah, dated seriously for a while afterward, and stayed in touch over the intervening years. Bernard was Dutch, and nine years her junior. They met in graduate school at the University of Fairbanks, where Katrina finished a master's degree in microbiology. They had just moved to Connecticut and taken jobs with a big pharmaceutical company. Our Christmas party was my first time meeting Bernard. He struck me as a nice enough fellow when I took his coat and hat at the door, if a little reticent. I put it down to the nerves you get at a party where you don't know anyone.
But an hour of sampling our beverage offerings loosened Bernard's tongue considerably. Did I say "sampling" our offerings? A better word might have been "plundering."
I was talking with a small group of friends in a corner of the kitchen when the young Dutchmana newly minted doctor of chemical engineeringcame sauntering over and inserted himself in the conversation. In a slurred accent, he said, "You know what I just found out that I did not know before? I found out in the car on the way down here. This guy here"he indicated me with the wineglass in his hand"he used to be engaged to my wife."
I looked around the small group I'd been chatting with. It included my long-time friend Bob, and also my friend Elizabeth, who is blind.
"Well, this is awkward," I said.
"Yeah," Bernard went on, "he like got engaged to her at some airport."
This was true. It was the Salt Lake International Airport, seventeen years earlier. I was about to get on a plane and leave for two years as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsthe Mormons. Katrina and I had only been dating for a few weeks at the time, but we had fallen desperately in loveas people often do when an attraction manifests and the time to act on it is short. I wanted her to wait for me while I was away saving souls in the wilds of . . . Canada, and she had been dropping big hints that a certain question might serve to seal that deal.
I didn't like the intent look on Bernard's face, nor his belligerent tone. I hadn't been in a fight since junior high (Jason Peterson), but I really didn't want Elizabeth caught in the middle if things were about to turn violent. I tried to play it casual.
"That was a really long time ago," I said. "We were kids. I was nineteen."
"Yeah," said Bernard, "and my wife was twenty."
"Time to change the subject, Bill," said Bob, who among other jobs had worked as a merchant seaman. "You're only digging a deeper hole."
"Can you believe this?" Bernard said to the group at large, spreading his arms and sloshing some of his wine on the floor. "I only just found out. That's a pretty big thing."
I suffer, I'm afraid, from the delusion that reason and calm words can actually make a difference in the world. "Not really, it's not," I said in an offhand tone. "It didn't mean anything. To Mormons, getting engaged is like a pastime. It's a sport, it's just what you do. It's not the same as for other people."
This, also, was true. Mormons so heavily stress finding a mate and getting married that women are considered old maids at 21. But by the same token, engagements made under that intense pressure can also be rather fragile. I myself was engaged no less than five more times before it finally took, which didn't even match my father's record of seven engagements, one marriage.
Of course, by the time I did get married, I had long abandoned the LDS faith, as you might have deduced from the copious alcohol at our Christmas party. Which had somehow gotten me into this tense and uncomfortable conversation.
Bernard was undaunted by my footnotes to his pronouncements. Unfazed, he addressed the group at large, unsteady on his feet. "You know what else I found out? There was something about a ring, this ringmade out of wrapping paper?"
I looked around the group again. "Foil," I said. "It was the foil wrapper from a stick of chewing gum."
I was nineteen, had never lived away from home, and was about to embark on a two-year experiment in poverty. No way I could afford a real ring. So when I got down on one knee in front of Katrina in that airport departure lounge, I pulled out a foil gum wrapper folded twice lengthwise, wrapped it around her ring finger to size it, tore off the excess length, and fastened the ends together with a piece of Scotch tape I had stuck to the ATM card in my wallet. Voila! Instant engagement ring.
Of course, it was worth about as much as I'd paid for the gum. I came home two years later only to have Katrina tell me that she'd met someone else while I was away. (That ended up being her first husband, whom I'll call . . . Jerkface.)
"Yeah, yeah, that was it," said Bernard, wagging a finger at me. "A gum wrapper. And you know what else?" He leaned in close enough for me to gag on his breath, but without lowering his voice any. "She still has it. She still has that ring."
I was stunned, completely stunned, but I tried not to let it show as I delivered my verbal judo flip, my coup de grâce.
"That's nothing, Bernard," I said, patting him on the shoulder. "I still have the gum."
For a second there, Bernard looked like he believed me. Then everyone laughed good-naturedly, and he did too. The situation was defused. Bernard wandered peacefully away in search of other entertainment.
"You really dodged a bullet there, pal," Bob told me.
As I watched poor Bernard drift around the party showing people his stomach tattoo, I realized that I probably had. Back in 1988, that is, when Katrina broke up with me.
To follow up on my post from Friday, the latest issue of Rolling Stone features an article by Mikal Gilmore called "Mitt Romney and the Ghosts of Mormon History." It provides an excellent overview of how the Mormon Church has drifted away and distanced itself from its founding philosophical ideals, and how Romney has done the same with his own family's legacy. Here's a great passage:
When Romney veers from liberal to conservative to moderate stands, what he makes plain is that the world he is in, but not truly part of, is the political world. The shifting is a sleight of hand, like Joseph Smith's magic, a means to an end. That end is higher attainment in the big payoff, the eternal world. As a result, expecting Romney to be accountable to a secular morality is to misunderstand him. That's part of the Mormon hubris, and it's what grants him the right to withhold specifics about both his political vision and his deeper beliefs. But if you hold yourself apart from the world, how can you understand those who do not? And how can they ever understand you?
Gilmore was born into a troubled Mormon famly, and his grasp of the church's history is incisive. I'll link to the article if it ever appears online, which I hope it will in the next couple of weeks.
Mikal Gilmore also wrote the excellent memoir Shot in the Heart, about his relationship with his brother Gary, the executed murderer, and their relationship with the church and its murky doctrine of blood atonement. Dark, dark, dark, but highly recommended.
Referring to his fluid political positions, a number of commentators of late have been making statements to the effect that the only thing Mitt Romney seems to believe in is that he should be president. That got me thinking about how such a belief might have arisen, and how it might explain all the shifty flip-flopping we've seen over the course of the presidential campaignand, in fact, the whole of Romney's political career.
Mormons believe that God has an individual plan for every one of us. This is not to say that they believe in predestination, an idea that would play havoc with their crucial belief in free will. Mormons instead believe in the doctrine of foreordination, in which God has specific tasks in mind for each of us to accomplish in this life, but with the actual accomplishment of them being dependent upon our own faith and diligence.
Another thing Mormons believe in is personal revelation. This means that if we have a problem or a question or a goal, we can turn to God in prayer after sincere consideration and ask for direction. God, we are told, will answer either by causing a confusion to come upon us that makes us forget the thing that is wrong or by affirming through a burning in the bosom that the thing is right. (See Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-9.) No good Latter-day Saint should undertake any major pursuit without having gone through this process of spiritual confirmation.
But this is a tricky doctrine. When I was growing up, I myself was able to convince myself that God approved of many different courses of action that probably weren't so good for me, simply by praying about them persistently and feverishly enough. And this is where Romney's belief that he should be president comes in. I have no doubt that, being a faithful Mormon and in fact a Mormon leader, he prayed long and hard about whether or not to pursue this office. The fact that he threw his hat so firmly into the ring is proof that he received his spiritual confirmation.
In other words, Romney must believe that running for president is what God wants him to do, that it is in fact God's plan for him. This belief could trump any need to have a detailed and specific policy plan. He'll say whatever it takes to get into office because that is where God needs him to be.
One of the great heroes of Mormonism is the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi (either a fictional character or a real human being, depending on your point of view on these things), who was charged by God with obtaining certain scriptural records from the keeping of a bad old fellow named Laban. God needed Nephi to get those records, and anything Nephi had to do to accomplish this was fineup to an including lying and murder. (See The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 3 & 4, and specifically this passage.) (By the way, the same sort of anything-is-okay-because-I'm-righteous philosophy justifies every horrible action committed by another fictional character created by a prominent MormonEnder Wiggin of Ender's Game.)
Mormonism is steeped in this idea. What I really worry about, to get right down to it, is that Romney believes not only that God wants him to be president, but that there is some specific crisis coming which he is the only leader capable of meeting. It doesn't matter what this crisis may be. Mitt himself probably has no inkling yet of that. But when the time comes he will recognize it, or will think he does, and he will do what he thinks God wills.
That's what really scares methat where Mitt Romney himself may have no plan, his God surely does. And there's no way for us as voters to know what that may turn out to be.
Mitt Romney's comment about "binders full of women" during the debate the other night could not have been more unfortunate, especially considering his family's history of polygamy. Anything that inadvertently conjures up images of the young women in Roman Grant's "joy books" on Big Love is probably not a place Mittens wanted to go...
As the Republican National Convention gets into full swing today, one of the topics that probably won't be talked about very much is Mitt Romney's religion. It's odd that this has become such a non-issue during the campaign, given that a) Romney is the first Mormon ever to receive a major-party presidential nomination, and b) the Mormon Church is the fourth largest church in America.
Wait, what? The fourth largest?
Yes, I too was startled by that statistic, which I've been hearing time and again from various outletsfor instance, in an "On the Media" story from late last year about the LDS Church's "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign. I was catching up on that episode via podcast when this statement from LDS Internet and Advertising Senior Manager Ron Wilson caught my ear:
"Even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth largest church, fifty percent of the population didn't really know who we were."
The fourth largest church. I was raised Mormon, which means I was raised with the Mormon inferiority complex. Somehow that assertion didn't strike me as quite right. It sounded like a small man reporting his height in inches, not feet. I decided to do some digging.
In the strictest sense, I discovered, the statistic turns out to be absolutely true. The Mormon Church is the fourth largest church in America. Thing is, that number on its own doesn't mean quite what it seems to imply. Calling something the fourth largest of anything is a good way to make it sound significant, but of course its significance depends entirely on a) the sizes of the larger somethings, and b) the method you use for counting.
By contrast, the largest church in the country, the Catholic Church, reported 68,202,492 members. That's nearly 22% of the population, and more than 11 times the American membership of the Mormon Church. Running a distant second is the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16,136,044 members (5.2%), followed by the United Methodist Church at 7,679,850 members (2.5%).
But this begs the question of how a "church" is defined. In the case of the 2012 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, what we're talking about is organized religions. This means that the Southern Baptist Convention is counted separately from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (5,197,512), which is itself counted separately from the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. (3,500,000), and from the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (2,500,000).
In all, there are six different Baptist denominations listed in the Yearbook's top 25, with a combined membership of 29,651,610 (over 9.5% of U.S. population). Similarly, the three Methodist denominations listed in the top 25 total 11,579,850 members (3.7%).
Moving on down the list, we realize that when we ask which has the larger membership, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (4,274,855), the answer is the LDS Church. But if we ask whether there are more Mormons or Lutherans (6,553,441) in the country, the answer is Lutherans. And mind you, I'm only looking at the top 25 denominations, which account for a little under half the population of the country!
So far, our analysis has dropped Mormons down to fifth place, if we're talking about broad families of denominations. But what about the Evangelical movement? According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 26.3% of Americans, or more than a quarter of the population, identified themselves as Evangelical. Though countless small churches make up that number, taken as a whole the Evangelicals form the largest religious movement in the country, larger even than Catholicism. This drops Mormons to an ever more distant sixth place in the national standings.
The point is, simply saying that the Mormon Church is the fourth largest in the country, while technically true, implies that it's far more significant a player than it actually is. Out of every 100 people in the United States, 26 are Evangelical, 22 are Catholic, nearly 10 are Baptist, almost 4 are Methodist, more than 2 are Lutheran, and a bit fewer than 2 are Mormon.
By pointing this out, I'm not saying there aren't a lot of Mormons in America. Six million is clearly a large number. It's just not nearly as large as you might expect from the oft-repeated statistic. In fact, the figure of one Mormon in every 50 Americans pretty much implies that, out of 50 states, we have exactly one state's worth of Mormons in the country. Which we all pretty much knew anyway.
So let the Mormon Church continue to aggrandize itself with a misleading statistic. We've had a Quaker president in the past, and Quakers don't even come close to making the top 25. The truth is, maybe Mitt Romney's religion isn't all that big a story after all.
UPDATE: Thanks to Eleanor Lang for pointing out that Herbert Hoover was also a Quaker. That's two past U.S. presidents from a denomination that's about 18 times smaller than Mormonism.
Mitt Romney is used to being called "President Romney." From 1986 until 1994, he served as what's called a stake president in the LDS Church. A stake president is the lay ecclesiastical leader who oversees a local group of Mormon congregations (wards) and their bishops. Mitt led the Boston Stake, comprising about 4,000 Mormons at the time, all of whom would properly have referred to him as "President Romney" and addressed him as "President." Not only that, but once released from the calling he would still have been called "President" by his flock, as a courtesy, in recognition of his past service. Once a president, always a president.
(One wonders whether, once Mitt became governor of Massachusetts, church members started addressing him as "Governor" or continued addressing him as "President." Hmm. I could see it going either way.)
I don't want to sound prejudiced, but that past as part of the LDS hierarchy is one of the reasons I instinctively dislike Mitt Romney. I don't know if it's chicken or egg, but there's a certain demeanor that men at the level of stake president and above seem to bring to the calling. Not all of them, but certainly a majority of them. There's a bland kind of handsomeness. There's an aura of being not quite present, of being above everything and everyone around them. There's a core of certainty to everything they say, backed up as it is by the full weight of a highly centralized doctrinal structure. Their delivery is usually grave, as if they're delivering difficult news straight from the mouth of God himself, except when there's a forced, cheesy jokiness that seems calculated to soften the rest of this authoritarian, patriarchal baggage. And there is never, ever a sense of the real person underneath. The role inhabits the man, not vice versa.
The best way to get a look at the parade of blandness that is the LDS leadership is to tune in to a televised General Conference in early April or October. If you don't see a marked similarity between the way Mitt Romney comes across and the way most of the church leaders present themselves as they address the worldwide membership of the Churchwell, let's just say I'll be surprised. There's a good reason Mitt comes off as such a robot to so many people. The Sanctibot-1850 is a proud Mormon tradition.
Like I say, not all Mormon leaders come across that way. I've known many of them, particularly down at the lowly level of ward bishop, who were warm and understanding and humanand also obviously not destined to rise far in the Church ranks. But on those occasions that I've met one-on-one, behind closed doors, with the Mitt-style leaders, I've always come away intimidated and not a little terrified by way they seem to channel the cold, wrathful, unshakable judgment of God in the counsel and censure they calmly and coolly offer. These are not men you negotiate with. These are men who tell you how it is, and how it's going to be.
Now that Mitt has won the Michigan primary and is that much closer to capturing the Republican nomination, I'm that much more terrified of a masked man like that, already accustomed to the title of president and with full confidence in the correctness of his calling, occupying the Oval Office.