Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney

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WASHINGTON -- Defiantly blaring his golden horn right at a hurricane, the angel named Moroni -- the Mormon Gabriel -- gleamed against a glowering sky. We were a few hours short of Sandy's landfall, and barely a week from the election that might place one of the angel's servants onto the highest throne on dry land.

This was Washington's Mormon Temple on the eve of one Latter-Day Saint's elevation or rejection by the American electorate: licence plates and Mitt Romney stickers from the distant bastions of Utah and Idaho; a Spanish-speaking wedding party preening and posing beneath six gilded spires; and, emerging from the pure-white sanctuary in hand-holding pairs and in perfect, fecund families, dozens of the people who -- whether we want them to or not -- will baptize you and me when we are dead.

I sat on a bench in the garden and watched the passing parade. The Mormons carried satchels that contained their holy books and ceremonial caps and robes, having received, in the words of Brigham Young, "all those ordinances in the House of the Lord which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell."

So the work that went on inside the Holy Temple was nothing less than the enabling of immortality. It was closeted labour; admittance to the consecrated mills of Mormonism is denied to non-members, and even to duly baptized Mormons who are unable to convince their local stake-president or bishop they have earned his "recommend."

This is a licence, to be renewed every two years, that is granted after members testify to their tithing, their adherence to the doctrines and covenants, their good works and pure marriages, and other tenets of the faith. One such stake-president, for many years -- a man presumed unsullied enough by sin to judge the probity of others -- was Willard Mitt Romney.

On election eve, Mitt Romney is the public face of a faith whose founder was murdered by a mob in Illinois in 1844. (The polygamist Joseph Smith, to whom Moroni had revealed a new and wondrous ladder to Christ's celestial kingdom, was a candidate in that year's presidential election.) With one week to go and the wrath of the heavens being loosed on the Eastern Seaboard, Mr. Romney stood within an Ohio or two of winning the Oval Office. If he succeeds, it will mark a reversal of American bigotry as momentous, in its own way, as the election of a black man had been four years before.

(It was just two weeks ago that the Reverend Billy Graham, after meeting with Bishop Romney, finally removed Mormonism from his foundation's list of cults that teach "doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith," leaving "Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spritualists, Scientologists, and others" still on the roster.)

"How will you feel if Romney wins?" I asked a woman I met on a bench outside the Holy Temple, a 35-year-old communicant named Erica Eastley, who had come on a bus from Virginia.

"I'd be disappointed," Eastley replied, "because I'm voting for Obama."

"Well, there goes the monolith!" I quipped in my surprise.

"There are more Mormon Democrats than you think," Sister Eastly explained. "But there are a whole lot of Mormon Republicans. But whether they're voting for Romney or Obama, there is a lot of trepidation about the mistakes that could happen during a Romney presidency. Being president is a very difficult job. People don't want whatever happens during a Romney presidency to reflect on our church. We're just ultra-paranoid about our religion being seen negatively."

Is that why you're voting against him? I asked.

"I disagree strongly with his foreign policy," she answered. "It just sounds exactly like the foreign policy we had under Bush."

We talked for a while and I learned that Eastley had attended Brigham Young University, that she is fluent in Arabic, and that her husband has a fine command of Uzbek. The couple had spent three fascinating years in Muslim Kyrgyzstan, affording them a worldliness that is ubiquitous among American Saints, and shamefully absent in most of their geographically ignorant countrymen.

Sister Erica admitted some of the goings-on within the Mormon-only Mecca with the hornblower on the roof might seem a trifle weird to the un-admitted.

"Then why don't you open the doors and let us in?" I asked.

"I do think it helps to make a sacred space, just like I don't let people come into my home," she replied. "Personally, I would love to go and see the Haj, but I understand that it is something that Muslims want to keep sacred, and that's OK with me."

Meanwhile, the nation was on the verge of knowing whether the trumpeter on inauguration day in January will be Wynton Marsalis or the angel Moroni.

Are you amazed that it looks like, in the final analysis, Romney's Mormonism is not going to matter? I asked Eastley.

"If you had asked me in 2008 if it would matter, I would have said it would matter very much," she answered. "But after Barack Obama got elected, with his Muslim middle name, with his clear ties to Islam through his father, I don't think it matters anymore."

"Is Barack Obama a Muslim?" I asked the Arabic-speaker with the Holy Temple recommend.

"I wish," the Saint replied.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 A16

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