A God-obsessed mother gone mad. A once-devout father turned cynical. The only thing as challenging as growing up in a faith-fractured home is carrying your devotion into adulthood. Especially if you happen to be Mormon.
Some of our converts turned away, too. One day they would stop answering their doors. We'd see them sneaking out the back, peeking from behind the blinds. Embarrassed and disappointed, I would sulk for hours as I tried to understand what had gone wrong. I would return time after time to knock on their doors, hoping for some reassurance that the feeling had been mutual, that I hadn't imagined what we'd shared.
Tonight in the Denver suburbs, the women welcome us with smiles. On the kitchen table is a copy of the Book of Mormon. During a previous visit, I told them I considered the book to be exactly what it claims to be—a record of ancient Christian prophets on the American continent, the story of Christ's visit to the Americas after his crucifixion in Jerusalem. I was serious, and they took me seriously. During another visit, Nunes and Littlewood had explained how Joseph Smith first kneeled and prayed in a small forest outside Palmyra, New York, in 1820. He looked up to see one celestial being pointing to another, saying, "This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!" Ten years later, Smith and five acquaintances founded the Church of Jesus Christ (the words "of Latter-day Saints" were added later). He claimed it was a restoration of the institution Christ founded during his mortal ministry. Today Mormonism is one of the newest world faiths, with over 11 million members. In the United States, it is the fifth-largest church, behind the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of God in Christ. In Colorado, LDS membership has jumped from 82,000 in 1985 to 128,000 in 2005.
Despite the statistics—and my own acceptance—I'm awed by the women's decision to believe. Frankly, I have always known how fundamentally unlikely religion is. Soon after Mom's disappearance, Dad took pains to dredge some of the dimmer corners of Mormondom. He would cite the Saints' practice of polygamy before the Church banned it in 1890, or Joseph Smith's early days as a reputed small-town swindler. Dad wanted me to know that he had "serious, serious doubts." I knew that some of those doubts were legitimate. I was aware that Mormonism's founding stories and doctrine appear, as a renowned Catholic theologian recently put it, "a bizarre phantasmagoria of fevered religious imagination not untouched by perverse genius." Of course, the same could be said about Moses parting the Red Sea, the Immaculate Conception, or the Resurrection, three founding stories Mormons happen to share with Catholics. But to critics of religion, a millennium or two makes the difference between an interesting myth and a manipulation of religious impulses. Anyway, to believe that God still works in mysterious ways is apparently naïve. For many nonmembers, the Church will almost surely appear, for at least the next several centuries, to be little more than a remarkably successful con job.
It's a view I was once tempted by, the result of the agnostic impulse I inherited from my father. The impulse works in direct conflict with the spiritual side I inherited from my mother, the part of me that believes in God as surely as he believes in oxygen. The "Dad" side led me to journalism—a professional preference for fact over fiction. The "Mom" side steered me to religious devotion—a constant search for true north. At some point—perhaps by the medicine cabinet back in 1985—I decided that the Mom-side should take precedent.
Sitting with the new converts, however, I can't help wondering how they'll maintain momentum. Their relationship with the Church is subject, like all relationships, to a honeymoon phase. Sooner or later certain realities intrude, chief among them the fact that a Mormon remains, by common consensus, a remarkably strange thing to be.
It is a stigma that has existed since Joseph Smith founded the Church, but one that has been strongly renewed over the last few years.
The journalist in me keeps track of how the devout Mormon in me is viewed. For some time now I have kept 3x5 cards on the subject. For example, one card notes that just before these two suburban Denver women were baptized, a national poll showed that two-thirds of Americans feel that the United States is not ready for a Mormon president. Next card: 37 percent said they would never vote for a Mormon, a number surpassed only by those who won't vote for that other highly suspicious religious devotee, a Muslim. Another card contains a quote fragment from the early 20th century: "...irreconcilable antagonism of the American nationality with the pseudo-Christian, polygamists, deceitful, rapacious, and rebellious Mormonism." The stack of cards is thick and growing, fed by a recent and remarkably vehement round of Mormon bashing. In December the Internet publication Slate called Joseph Smith an "obvious con-man." By believing in him, the article stated, "someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is." A New Republic article stated that, "as it is currently constituted, Mormonism lacks the intellectual or spiritual resources" necessary for its practitioners to make morally informed decisions. The sentiment received a resounding echo a few weeks later, when the comedian David Cross finished a routine with the following punch line: "Mormons are f___ing idiots."
It is difficult to say exactly where well-founded criticism ends and bigotry begins. It is equally difficult, however, to imagine any publication or comic of similar repute daring to express such opinions about other well-established religions. Substitute "Jews" for "Mormons" in David Cross' punch line and it spells career suicide. Sitting with the suburban Denver sisters and discussing their new faith, I quietly hope that they aren't aware of the public scrutiny Mormons are up against. Perhaps the Los Angeles Times, noting the Mormon-trashing trend, said it best: "It's been nearly half a century since our political journalism has witnessed anything quite as breathtakingly noxious and offensive." Of course, things could be much worse.
Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum spotted the mob of angry men on the afternoon of June 27, 1844. The brothers were inside the Carthage jail, not far from Nauvoo, Illinois, headquarters of the early Mormon Church. From a window in their cell, they could see the 100-man posse, their faces painted black with mud and gunpowder. The Smiths wedged themselves against the door, but the mob fired through it. One bullet caught Hyrum Smith in the face; he fell to the floor saying, "I am a dead man." Joseph Smith happened to have a six-shooter handy. He drew his gun, reached around the door, and fired into the mob.
Smith and his fellow Saints had founded Nauvoo after being chased at gunpoint from Missouri, where 17 Saints, including children, had recently been massacred by a mob. There were other hate crimes, too. In 1832, in Hiram, Ohio, some 30 men broke into Joseph Smith's home and dragged him into the street, where they tarred and feathered him. During the incident, a man tried to force a vial of acid into Smith's mouth. In the meantime, other Saints were pouring into Missouri, a place they considered "Zion"—a biblical promised land. But In 1833, a mob in Jackson County, Missouri, proclaimed that every Mormon man, woman, and child would be whipped unless they left the county. A few months later, the mobs tore the roofs off 13 Mormon homes before almost whipping to death several Saints.
Despite the fearsome price they'd paid for their religion, the Saints had remained loyal to Joseph Smith, and in Illinois, they nursed a backwater swamp into the second-largest city in the state. While theories differ on the origins of Smith's vitality, they all must depart from the fact that he somehow managed, either through a divine endorsement or a crippling charisma, to convince a stunning number of otherwise intelligent people that he was an authentic prophet of God. The early Saints' unshakable allegiance to their leader was surely one reason for the constant onslaught from outsiders. With every attack, however, with every forced evacuation and unplanned migration, that faith only seemed to strengthen.