Sunday, October 28, 2012

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Matters: Part Three -- The Deseret Ideal and the 47%

Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Matters:
Part Three – The Deseret Ideal and the 47%

I’ve always considered ‘Deseret’ a lovely, melodious word.  I’ve also not known what it means until recently.  A very small desert?  The name of one of Brigham Young’s wives?  A lizard that exists on salt and cactus dew?  Something vaguely connected with Utah, in any event, because it was the first name proposed for the state, and it’s frequently used as part of business and institutional names in that region.

Finally, I looked up the word.  A few stabs at the Google machine and voilà:  it means ‘honeybee.’  Its first earthly occurrence appears to be in the Book of Mormon:  “And they did also carry with them Deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honeybee, and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees” (Ether 2:3), the ‘they’ referring to an otherwise unrecorded people called the Jaredites. 

Mormon linguists have created ingenious, if not very convincing, etymologies for Deseret, tracing it to Ancient Egyptian or to Ancient Hebrew, whereas non-Mormon scholars tend to see it as a neologism coined by Joseph Smith, discoverer and translator of the Book of Mormon.  ‘Deseret’ is also the name of an unsuccessful alphabet concocted in the mid 19th-century as a hybrid product of universal phonetics schemes, LDS impulses toward ‘ancient’ mystification, and cultural exclusionism (although contemporary proponents claimed that it might help immigrants learn English).  [Note:  The glyphs surmounting the honeybee on the illustration introducing this essay are in the ‘Deseret’ writing system.]

More interesting, however, is the symbolic heft that the word has accrued in Mormon culture.  In its broader sense, ‘Deseret’ means the state of being like a honeybee.  In its happily buzzing metaphorical sense, ‘Deseret’ means being constantly industrious, obedient to the hive, and productive of good results sweet to the spiritual and material tongues.  ‘Deseret’ suggests an entire way of living that encompasses upright personal conduct, meeting family and community obligations, and garnering satisfactory rewards.  It’s quite clear that Mitt Romney, to the best of his ability, has led his life according to what we might call the ‘Deseret Ideal.”

The LDS Church is not the only faith tradition that values hard work and sees it – particularly when it pays off – as a mark of divine favor.  In the United States, we need but look at the earliest European settlers and the varieties of Calvinism they imported (the famous ‘Puritan Work Ethic’).  But whereas people like Benjamin Franklin, under the persona of ‘Poor Richard,’ produced aphorisms promoting well-ordered personal busy-ness (“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise”), both early American Puritans and contemporary Mormons make an extra connection:  success on a material level is an outward and visible sign of interior worth and, therefore, of God’s approval. 

Calvinist attitudes toward work and success, however, are complicated by the doctrine of Predestination (God has already selected the sheep and the goats, so your success is a sign of whether you have already been slated for Heaven or Hell).  Present-day Mormons, as far as I can tell, do not suffer from this anxiety-producing belief.  Living in accordance with the ‘Deseret Ideal,’ as well as faithfully following the tenets of the LDS Church, can secure salvation.  It thus also promotes the illusion of absolute self-reliance. 

Self-reliance is a key part of the Romney family mythology, as attested by the family’s pride in their ancestors’ facility in successfully reinventing themselves in Mexico and in the United States, and by the Governor’s frequent assertions that he earned every penny he possesses rather than having relied on his father’s wealth (he evidently gave his inheritance to charity, about which more later).  It is also a recurring theme in Mormon history and, if this term can be used, Mormon hagiography.

Self-reliance may seem to be a paradoxical part of the ‘Deseret Ideal,’ grounded as it is in assiduous activity that contributes to the wellbeing of the community.  The bridge, it seems to me, between the self-reliant, individually successful bee and the welfare of the hive is the Mormon emphasis on tithing.  Congregants are obligated to tithe ten percent of their income, so the more money they make, the more they can enrich the Church (and rise in its hierarchy).   Over the years, Mitt Romney has given many, many millions of dollars to the LDS Church as well as to charities and causes (such as anti-gay legislative measures in California) that it supports.  His contributions to ‘independent’ charities and institutions are vastly more modest ($1000 here, $500 there . . . and many of these to private schools that his sons attended). 

The ‘Deseret Ideal’ also can account for certain personal traits disclosed by Governor Romney’s family and friends’ reminiscences, such as his tendency to load up his sons with chores, motor straight through to a destination without stopping, and generally occupy his time with a whole lot of work.   Nothing wrong with being driven, with being a hard taskmaster on others and on yourself – most ambitious people are.  What can be problematic is expecting everyone else to be as constantly busy and productive – and thus successful – as you are.  And, in a sort of inverse reasoning, to brand those who are not materially successful as not-busy and not-productive, as not-self-reliant . . . in other words, as irresponsible deadbeats who think of themselves as victims and expect others to support them. 

That would be:  the infamous ‘non-tax-paying’ 47% about whom Candidate Romney complained during a private fundraiser a few months ago.  Everything in his life history and his religious beliefs suggest that he meant exactly what he said. 

Mitt Romney’s remarks reflect not just a general Conservative ideology but also a specific religious belief. To someone who sincerely holds this belief, people who receive government assistance (which includes social security and veteran’s benefit payments, as well as food stamps and Medicaid) are basically parasites.  Not to be rich, or at least well off, means that you are a drain on the system and that your ‘dependency’ is fundamentally your fault.  You are the antithesis of the ‘Deseret Ideal.’  Thus there appears to be every likelyiood that, if elected President, Candidate Romney will have no compunctions about gutting services to the poor as well as ‘entitlements.’  Indeed, he may even see such actions as a moral duty.

Many commentators have discussed the factual misstatements in Governor Romney’s remarks about the 47%, plus his blindness about how ‘privilege’ works in myriad ways (as in having parents wealthy enough to pay for your college education and help you with a buying your first house, not to mention well-connected enough that your patronymic alone will open important professional doors).  I’m interested here in how voters might best determine what he actually thinks about issues and how he would govern. 

The one constant position Mitt Romney has held is complete allegiance to the LDS Church.  He may not want to talk much about his religion, but he has never waivered in his belief, according to the public statements he has made as well as to his lifelong service to the Church.  Therefore, in light of his dizzying reversals on everything else, from abortion to Palestine to ‘caring about’ 100% of his fellow citizens, it seems reasonable to look to his Mormon faith – both its doctrines and its history – for insight into his genuine convictions. 

To do so is not coequal with playing a ‘religious bigotry card.’  We should be able to discuss religion fairly and accurately, as well as respectfully.  That political analysts have been too squeamish to do so is, to me, one of the press’s biggest failures during its coverage of the 2012 election.  

Selected References

[Note:  During this blogatravagaza, I’ve accessed a host of on-line sites.  Here I list ones that seem to me most reliable, in terms of actual Mormon doctrine and in terms of accurate reporting about Mitt Romney and how his religion has shaped his life.  This means I haven’t listed obviously slanted articles, such as the impassioned, interesting, yet clearly biased ones by Andrew Sullivan published in The Daily Beast or by former Mormons who have serious scores to settle, no matter how compelling (well, maybe the Matt Taibbi article has an agendum, but it’s also full of useful information).]

Allen, Bob.  “Romney Defends Mormon View of Christ’s Second Coming.”  Ethics Daily.  August 8, 2007.

Barney, Kevin L.  “On the Etymology of Deseret.”  BBC Papers 1 – 2.  November 6, 2006.

Brown, S. Kent.  “When Did Jesus Visit the Americas?”  Religious Studies Center.  Brigham Young University.  2011.

Corn, David.  “SECRET VIDEO:  Romney Tells Millionaire Voters What He REALLY Thinks of Obama.”  Mother Jones.  September 19, 2012. 

Davison, Amy.  “Mitt’s Forty-Seven-Per-Cent Problem.”  The New Yorker.  September 12, 2012.

The Doctrine and Covenants.  First published 1835.

Horowitz, Jason. “In Boston, Mitt Romney ‘evolved’ in Mormon leadership, some churchwomen say.”  The Washington Post.  November 20, 2011,

Meacham, Jon.  “The Mormon in Mitt.”  Time.  October 8, 2012.

The Mormons.  PBS.  April 30, 2007.

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.  First published 1830.

Sheiber, Noam.  “Growing Up Romney:  Mitt, Tagg, and the Romney family’s myth of self-reliance.”  The New Republic.  October 19, 2012.

Stone, Andrea.  “Mitt Romney Gives Millions to Charity, Most to Mormon Church.”  The Huffington Post.  August 11, 2011.

Swidey, Neil, Michael Paulsen, et al.  “The Making of Mitt Romney.”  In Seven Parts.  The Boston Globe.  2008.

Taibbi, Matt.  “Greed and Debt:  The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital.”  The Rolling Stone.  August 29, 2012.

Wells, Gary B.  “Adam-ondi-Ahman.”  1996.

Winer, Laurie.  “The Mormon Candidate.”  Los Angeles Review of Books.  August 26, 2012.

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