Sitting around the Shabbat table, a friend posed a question: “Now that it looks like Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee, how should we respond as Jews to the fact that he’s a Mormon?”
My first thought was that as members of a minority religion in America, we Jews should be especially supportive of the rights of other minorities. Of course that doesn’t mean we should feel obligated to vote for Romney as a sign of solidarity, but rather that he should be judged on the merits of his qualifications, not his religion. Same as we wanted for Sen. Joe Lieberman when he ran for vice president, or any other candidate for that matter.
The issue is a bit more complicated, though, in part because Romney served as a missionary in France in his youth, as is common among Mormon young adults, and in his church as bishop and stake president, which are lay and volunteer roles.
That profile makes some Jews queasy, but then the Mormon religion is a bit more exotic than mainstream Christian faiths, and some have called it heretical or a “cult.” But those disputes seem to involve Christians more than Jews, who tend to lump Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and other believers in Jesus as simply “Christian.”
There are said to be six million Mormons in America and 13 million worldwide — about the same number as Jews here and around the world — and the church is growing rapidly, by some 250,000 people a year.
One reason for that growth is that Mormons have a proselytizing religion. Indeed, there was much concern in the 1980s here and in Israel when they planned to build a branch of Brigham Young University on Mount Scopus, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. A showdown was averted when the church agreed not to proselytize to Jews in Israel.
A deeper controversy that seriously threatened Mormon-Jewish relations began a few years later when it was learned that the controversial church practice of performing a “baptism for the dead” on all non-Mormon souls who ever lived included Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Jewish survivors were deeply offended, noting that the millions of Shoah victims had been murdered by the Nazis because they were Jews.
Difficult negotiations took place between Mormon leaders and Jewish Holocaust survivor groups and others to resolve the dispute. But the issue dragged on for many years, with the Jewish groups insisting that despite an agreement to stop the proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims, the Mormons were continuing the practice.
Only last year (as first reported in The Jewish Week), did the two sides repair their ruptured relations by announcing “a breakthrough.” The church statement said the Mormons would allow Jewish Holocaust victims to be the only category exempt from their doctrine calling for the symbolic baptism of the dead. (The exemption doesn’t apply to other Jewish souls.)
Beside their numbers, Mormons and Jews have a good deal in common. Though they have very different theologies, both place an emphasis on family life, charitable giving, performing good deeds and education. And both are strongly supportive of Israel.
Mitt Romney is an attractive candidate for Jewish Republicans for reasons that include his outspoken backing of Jerusalem, relatively moderate positions, past business success and his having served as governor of Massachusetts.
The fact that Tea Party activists and Evangelical Christians distrust him is another plus for many American Jews particularly wary of those groups.
One of the intriguing aspects of the Romney candidacy is how the Mormon Church has handled the glare of attention with two Republican candidates who are members of the faith — John Huntsman, though fading, being the other one.
For the most part, the church takes a decidedly, and admirably low-key approach to negativity in the media and elsewhere, focusing on its mission. And in that, and other ways, there is much the American Jewish establishment can learn from the Mormons.
Consider for a moment how our community and organizations might have responded to the hottest ticket on Broadway being a show called “The Five Books of Moses,” best known for its foul, bawdy, irreverent portrait of religious Jews.
I can picture angry pickets and calls for boycotts, charges of anti-Semitism and worse, with the attendant splash of national media coverage.
Yet in response to “The Book of Mormon,” here’s what the church had to say: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
That’s it. Brilliant, with a restraint we seem incapable of.
What’s more, the Mormons have had great success in engaging their young people in service to the church and to others. Teenagers 14-18 participate before and after school in courses in private homes or meeting houses, taught by volunteer teachers, supplemented by an online course for those far from community. And 19-25-year-old men who meet standards of “worthiness” are encouraged to devote two years to full-time missionizing, usually abroad. About 50,000 young men a year take on the commitment, described as a rite of passage for church members, and do so as volunteers, receiving no pay for their work.
Specifics aside, Jewish leaders who bemoan how difficult it is to attract young Jews to participate in Jewish life should take note of this success and explore how that sense of commitment and devotion can be applied in our community.
Just last week the New York Times published a front-page story on how the Mormon leadership is tackling what it calls “a perception problem,” with the church seen as “secretive,” “cultish,” “sexist” and “controlling” by many Americans.
Four years ago, 40 percent of voters said they would not choose a Mormon for president. Those numbers have gone down somewhat, but the church hired two top ad agencies and has launched a national campaign depicting Mormons as normal and reflecting the diversity of the country.
Ads in the “I am a Mormon” campaign depict white, black, Asian and Hispanic people from the U.S. and around the world, and include single parents, working women and an interracial couple.
“We’re not scared of what people think of us,” said the church official leading the campaign. “If you don’t recognize the problem, you can’t solve the problem.”
Pride. Confidence. Direct action. Reaching out to others.
Like I said, there’s a lot we can learn from the Mormons. And whether or not Mitt Romney becomes the Republican candidate or our next president, our Jewish leaders would do well to think about why the Mormons are the fastest-growing religion in the world while what most unifies us is our ongoing obsession with our decreasing numbers.
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