Before comedian Bill Maher called Mormonism a "cult" for the thousandth time and accused Mitt Romney of having spent his two year-long mission abroad "trying to brow-beat Frenchmen" into joining the church, it was a member of Romney's own party - a Baptist minister now hosting his own Fox News show - who, in 2007, struck a nerve with a far-out "question."
Mike Huckabee was talking to a New York Times reporter for a magazine piece during that year's primary season when, after conceding he didn't know much about the religion, reportedly asked: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
The answer is no; Mormons do not believe that, nor does Mormonism teach it. There is no such thing written in any of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) doctrine. Huckabee would later apologize to Romney, insisting it was an honest question he never thought would be published.
Maher, per his schtick, puts it in your face with each tweet and Friday night stunt. Huckabee, cynically or not, poked at the issue from a more obtuse angle. But 50 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center last year admitted to knowing "not very much or nothing" about Mormonism. The same percentage of respondents said they "don't know" any Mormons.
Ignorance creates a vacuum and vacuums, especially in politics, sometimes get filled with nonsense. So, in the interest of adding some factual bits to the nonsensical debates sure to follow, here is the least you should know about Mormonism:
- Are Mormons Christians? Or put it this way: "Do they worship Jesus Christ?" Answer: Yes. Mormon doctrine goes in lockstep with the Christian creation myth, including and especially Christ's crucifixion and subsequent rising (it veers away later, in the Book of Mormon, where it is written that Jesus took a trip to America, post-Resurrection).
Just six days before the Huckabee story was published, Romney had delivered a speech aides promised would be the candidate's defining statement on his religion.
"I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," he said, with the caveat that "My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history."
Of the 2,546 words in Romney's prepared speech, "Mormon" appears just once.
Gordon B. Hinckley, the late former president of the church, is more direct. He's quoted on the official LDS website saying, "We do not worship [Joseph Smith] the Prophet. We worship God our Eternal Father and the risen Lord Jesus Christ."
- "Big Love" died in 1890. Polygamy was banned by then-church president Wilford Woodruff in his "Manifesto." Any plural marriage that takes place now does so against the laws of the LDS Church.
- Tithing is the duty of all able Mormons, who are asked to donate 10 percent of their annual income to the church. That money is then pooled and used for a variety of things, from the mundane (funding missionary programs) to more controversial endeavors (the Mormon Church, according to a 2008 report in the Los Angeles Times, spent more than $8 million trying to boost California's Prop 8, which eventually passed, banning same-sex marriage in California).
- Drinking alcohol, coffee, tea, and smoking (anything that can be smoked) are official no-no's for church members. But, as with all the other religions, the faithful are not shunned for slipping up or customizing parts of their routine. Mitt and Ann Romney, in case you were wondering, both drink diet coke, chocolate milk, water, and coke zero. They stay away from coffee or tea, sticking to hot chocolate during the winter. (The laws, which stem from Joseph Smith's "Word of Wisdom," are a bit murky. "Hot drink" consumption is restricted, which is why so few Mormons drink coffee or tea. Caffeine, though, is not specifically banned, even if that's the more common understanding.)
- Ah yes, The Magic Underwear, so easy to make fun of until you consider their actual meaning, which is really kind of boring. Little more than purposefully designed cotton shirts and knickers, they're meant to be worn day and night (by those who choose to wear them) and symbolize a holy covenant with the church, along with protection from evil spirits. Most major religions have some form of equivalent dress; Mormons, in this case and with lots of other "weird" traditions, are only mocked because they started do it more recently.
- The church's history with Race is a chronicle of contradictions. The earliest believers were persecuted for a number of things, one of which was their opposition to slavery. LDS founder Joseph Smith was an abolitionist, but when he died and the church came under the control of Brigham Young, things changed. From the beginning of Young's time in charge (1849) until 1978, people of black African ancestry were banned from the priesthood. They were also excluded from taking part in a number of important sacraments. The church, though, has never prohibited black men and women from joining its rank-and-file.
- Mexico, what was that I heard about the Romney family in Mexico? The story goes like this: Romney's great-grandfather, Miles, moved his family to Colonia Dublan in 1885, five years before the church would officially ban plural marriage. He had four wives and, eventually, 30 children. Among them was Gaskell Romney, who married just once and fathered George Romney, who would go on to become governor of Michigan, a high-powered auto executive, and secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the first Nixon administration. George also had two daughters and two sons, one of them named Willard "Mitt" Romney. The colonies - Colonia Dublan and Colonia Juarez, which Miles helped build just across the border from El Paso - would be uprooted in 1912 by the Mexican Revolution, sweeping parts of the Romney clan north to Michigan, where Mitt grew up and went to school before heading out west, to BYU in Utah, where he got his undergrad degree in 1971.
For more resources on the history of Mormonism (violent and dangerous at times, like the rest), the details of its doctrine (often-debated and constantly evolving, like the rest), and how it might or might not effect a President Romney (like any other politician), check out the user-friendly mormon.org. Or go the library or a bookstore. Open a book. Talk to a person. Just don't believe everything you read on the Internet.