In any discussion of Mormons, it’s worth getting the gags out of the way first. There’s the chafing underwear they must wear to deter them from temptation, which looks like a cilice by Fruit of the Loom. There’s polygamy, which though rejected by the Mormon church in 1890, is still practised by a few perverted loons in remote corners of Utah and Colorado, who construct architecturally fascinating networks of trailers to house their multiple families. There’s Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon Church after experiencing a vision in western New York State. The notion that God would choose to appear here seems hilarious to many who happily accept He would show himself in south-west France or the Levant. Smith spent his life in constant battle with his creditors, his neighbours and the government as he led his followers across America in search of a place where they could build their new Jerusalem. Remarkably, he still had time to marry some 30 or so women.
And then there is the culture of contemporary Mormonism, which seems so at odds with all that surrounds it. Devout Mormons are prim, hard-working, ascetic and reproductive. When they aren’t attending their temples or singing in their choirs, they are busy knocking out the next generation, oblivious to Malthusian population fears or the usual bourgeois fretting about extra bedrooms and school fees.
During the idle days between Christmas and New Year, I like to go through my stack of Christmas cards and play a game called Rich or Mormon. It goes like this. There are only two kinds of American families I know who have more than three children and they are either rich or Mormon. Since Americans like to send out Christmas cards showing pictures of their families, you can lay out the candidates and ask visitors to guess which they are. There are usually a few giveaways. The rich families tend to send out photographs taken during expensive holidays in the Caribbean or Nantucket, while the Mormons wear white shirts and jeans and sit on hay bales. The rich children have names like India and Dylan, while the Mormons are called Dale or Caius.
The reason I receive Christmas cards from Mormons is because when I went to Harvard Business School, I had a young family. This put me right in a Mormon sweet spot. If there is anything Mormons love as much as marrying young and having children, it is graduate business studies. So while the unmarried MBA students were off doing keg stands and organising the China Business Trek, my wife and I were dandling two young children surrounded by large plastic toys and beaming Latter-day Saints.
While for us, raising children felt like a state of permanent siege, the Mormons seemed to breeze through the experience, cooking each other casseroles, spending every Sunday at temple, the men acing their academic work, the women in an ever-renewing state of glowing pregnancy. They drove modest cars and lived in spartan homes. And my God, they were nice. So nice, in fact, that when we met one Mormon wife who was just one tick short of improbably warm and friendly, we called her the ‘mean Mormon’. But even she lost her epithet after a couple of weeks.
Despite their outward conformity, they were often more worldly and empathetic their peers. The reason was the gruelling mission most of them had undertaken. Between the ages of 18 and 21, they had spent two years in some foreign slum, dressed in a white shirt and tie, knocking on doors and being told to get lost. It makes your average gap-year experience look like a Saga cruise. The Mormons emerge from the experience fluent in a foreign language, fearless of rejection and empathetic to human suffering.
Which brings us to the question of whether a Mormon might ever be President of the United States. Two likely Republican candidates for 2012, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, will force Americans to reconsider their political prejudice against Mormons, just as they did their prejudice against Catholics, with John Kennedy, and blacks, with President Obama. Were they not Mormons, Romney and Huntsman would have Republicans in raptures. They are successful, telegenic, intelligent, have good bipartisan records and by the standards of their party are mainstream. But still, they give voters the heebie-jeebies. As if the moment either of them enters the White House, the phone in the Oval Office will ring, the newly elected President will rise to take the call and the Quorum of Apostles who run the Mormon Church will implement their long-dreamt-of plan for world domination.
That plan, incidentally, is going perfectly well without control of the White House. There will soon be more Mormons than there are Jews in the United States. The church’s assets are estimated at roughly £20 billion, four times those of the Church of England. Mormons are now a formidable presence on Wall Street, where they are known as hard-working, scrupulous and uncomplaining. When natural disasters strike, like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Mormons are the first in with help.
Through a century and a half of adversity and ridicule, the Mormons have proved themselves highly adaptable. Of course, like any religion, Mormonism has faults. The Church was slow to accept blacks as priests. Its official views on the rights of women and gays are highly discriminatory. But the Church has not reprimanded those like Huntsman who have taken more liberal positions. There appears to be much more intellectual flexibility in Mormonism than there used to be.
It is an absurd prejudice which holds that Mormons cannot be President. Given all I’ve seen of them, the question should no longer be, can a Mormon be President, but why isn’t one?