Years before the South Park guys’ The Book of Mormon made a fortune by making fun of the unbelievable theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s scripture, I was in the satirizing-Mormonism business myself. “Didn’t we all come to New York to escape Mormons?” says a character in my 1999 novel Turn of the Century. In my novel Heyday, set in the 1840s, the journalist character who'd reported on the founder of Mormonism calls him a lunatic and a charlatan. In my new nonfiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, an excerpt from which was September's Atlantic cover story, I devoted an entire chapter to Mormonism and its founding. “American Christians from the start tended toward the literal and hysterical and collectively self-centered,” I wrote. “Joseph Smith met that bid and raised it a million.” And, as I argue, “Smith’s Heaven is very sci-fi.
It has three quality levels, like American Express cards—one for run-of-the-mill people who don’t deserve Hell, one for good Christians, and a superpremium level for Mormons. There you’re not just one of a mass of a billion indistinguishable souls in some ethereal netherworld, but a king or queen of your personal planetary fiefdom as a resurrected immortal physical being, continuing to produce princes and princesses. God lives near an actual celestial object called Kolob, a definite number of miles away from Earth. Plus, any dead friends or relatives can be posthumously baptized and sent along to Heaven as well. Better history, better future—and at least for men, a better present, now that sex with multiple women was no longer a sin but a holy commandment. … So much about the founding of the church seems so comic, even at the most fine-grained level.
And so on.
But like the authors of the brilliant Broadway musical, I’ve also always had a sincere soft spot for Mormons because of their sincere commitment to leading virtuous lives. In Heyday, my two Mormon characters are good and kind. In Turn of the Century, my character who ridicules Mormonism calls them “creepy and admirable.”
That admiration spiked the last few days when the quickest and most full-throated condemnation of Roy Moore and his Republican defenders came from Mormon Republicans. I wasn’t surprised. Because while I find their religious beliefs as extreme and strange as I do those of most American Protestants, Mormons seem more consistently virtuous and disciplined in the ways they live their lives.
In the Trump era, compared to the rest of the religious Republican base, they have walked that walk as citizens. Nationally, Trump’s share of the Mormon vote was 20 percent less than he got from white evangelical voters. In Utah, as The New York Times noted, more people voted against Donald Trump than for him in the general election.
Jeff Flake, one of five Republican U.S. senators who are Mormon, represents Arizona, the state with the fifth most Mormons. Right after Roy Moore won the Alabama Senate nomination in September, Flake was “the only Republican lawmaker to criticize Moore” according to The Washington Post—weeks before Flake announced he was leaving the Senate. Later he elaborated on his displeasure, focusing on Islamophobia, saying Moore’s “belief that a Muslim should not be a member of Congress because of his faith … was wrong.”
Last Thursday afternoon, immediately after the Post published its article about Moore’s apparent history of pedophilia, Flake said on Twitter that “he should step aside immediately.” In response to the variously grotesque defenses of Moore, Flake tweeted: “Come on, Republicans. Is this who we are? This cannot be who we are.”
The other well-known Republican politician to come out against Moore and his supporters immediately was Evan McMullin—former CIA agent and House policy aide, 2016 anti-Trump presidential candidate, Mormon. “Those backing Moore,” McMullin tweeted with a link to the Post article, “must now oppose him or bear responsibility for him.”
America’s most famous Mormon Republican, the one who declined to endorse Trump in 2016 because of his “trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny,” and who said in August that Trump’s “apologists strain to explain that he didn’t mean what we heard” concerning Charlottesville, remarks that had “caused racists to rejoice.” Mitt Romney stepped up first thing Friday morning, making superb use of Twitter’s new 280-character limit, advancing the logic of the case by batting away other Republicans’ main line of defense: “Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.”
And on Friday as well, another Mormon Republican senator, Mike Lee of Utah, forthrightly abandoned Moore on Twitter: “Having read the detailed description of the incidents, as well as the response from Judge Moore and his campaign, I can no longer endorse his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.”
Why are the Mormon Republicans passing this character test? I can only speculate. Unlike many of the hundreds of decentralized Protestant denominations and non-denominations, so many of which practically encourage sinning so that the sinners may be repeatedly saved, Latter-day Saints are genuinely old-fashioned, with a strong top-down hierarchical establishment that maintains a powerful communitarianism and enforces exacting norms. In addition, while so much of politicized American Christianity is driven by loathing and condemnation, conforming to the religious scholar George Marsden’s definition—“a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something”—Mormons tend to be more cheerfully, industriously focused on their own tribal self-improvement. The persecution and “othering” that Mormons suffered during their recent first century probably sensitizes them more than, say, white Alabama Baptists, to the persecution of minorities.
The instant dump-Moore Republicans weren’t only Mormons (although none, tellingly, was a southerner). John McCain tweeted right away that “the allegations against Roy Moore are … disqualifying” and that “he should immediately step aside.” But Latter-day Saints were the brave, virtuous avant garde, and as ridiculous as I find their supernatural beliefs, they are in this instance an outpost of true, real-world righteousness in a party in the grip of a terrible Faustian bargain.