Mitt’s thorny threesome

By ADAM REILLY  |  August 22, 2007

Everyone agrees that the Mountain Meadows bloodbath occurred: an article in the September 2007 issue of Ensign, a magazine published by the LDS Church, calls it a “horrific crime” that has “burdened the perpetrators’ descendants and Church members generally with sorrow and feelings of collective guilt.” What is debated is whether it took place with the tacit or explicit approval of Brigham Young, then the president of the LDS Church and the governor of the Utah Territory.

But why should any of this matter to Mitt? Because Mormonism is far less familiar to the national electorate than other major faiths, and because, fair or not, Candidate Romney will be a de facto spokesperson for his church. (His assiduous courtship of Christian conservatives, who tend to be especially distrustful of Mormons, makes Romney’s situation particularly tricky.)

According to the film’s director, Christopher Cain (Dean’s dad), September Dawn is a case study in the perils of violent zealotry. “It’s really not about Mormons or about Muslims,” Cain tells the Phoenix. “It’s about religious fanaticism, wherever it’s born.” The film certainly makes the consequences of fanaticism clear. The carnage, when it comes, is a startlingly gory affair filled with slow-motion shots: a bullet exploding in flesh, a hatchet buried in a victim’s back, a perpetrator drunk with bloodlust, a strand of saliva dangling from his mouth.

Unfortunately, the caricatured set-up makes the killings seem inevitable: the Mormons as a group are straight out of a horror movie, while the settlers are a preposterously wholesome, enlightened bunch. In reality, things were a bit more complicated. The Mormon flight to Utah, for example, followed the 1844 murder of their prophet and LDS Church founder Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois. And a large contingent of US troops was heading toward Utah around the time the settlers arrived — intending, some Mormons feared, to exterminate the LDS Church once and for all.

If this history had been fleshed out a bit more, Cain might have produced a worthwhile meditation on how normal people come to do abnormal, horrific things. Instead, September Dawn gives us a simple conflict between Good and Evil — which, if you’re seeking to understand how fanaticism operates, isn’t much of a conflict at all.

And what of Romney? Earlier this year, conservative columnist Robert Novak urged Romney to weigh in on September Dawn and the Mountain Meadows massacre. Romney “surely is not responsible for Brigham Young,” Novak said (great point, Bob!), but “questions about what kind of man Young was hurt his campaign.” Then, earlier this month, conservative commentator Michael Medved panned September Dawn, ruefully predicting that it would “powerfully reinforc[e]” existing anti-Mormon bias.

Allow me to propose another possibility: September Dawn is exactly the hook Romney needs to give that big speech on the Mormon Question that he keeps talking about. It’s a softball, really — a chance to condemn religious violence while simultaneously condemning pernicious representations of Mormons themselves. If Romney’s speechwriters aren’t working on this already, they should be.

Second-time charms
Item Three on Romney’s media radar is A Mormon President, a documentary produced and directed by filmmaker Adam Christing. The film focuses on Smith, whose own 1844 presidential run ended when he was murdered by enemies of the church he had started. Early PR suggests a pro-Romney, pro-Mormon apologia: the press release I received cites Romney’s presidential bid and promises that A Mormon President “will shed light on the deep undercurrent of anti-Mormon feeling in some parts of the country.”

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Related: The passion of the candidate, The Mormonator, Feeding the rabid right, More more >
  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Deval Patrick, John Kerry, Robert Novak,  More more >
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