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Harold Bloom's Anxiety of (Mormon) Influence

One odd feature of this bizarre Republican primary season is what we haven't seen yet: a full-bore re-litigation of Mitt Romney's Mormonism. There was a one-day tizzy last month over the anti-Mormon comments by Southern Baptist Convention leader Rev. Robert Jeffers, a Rick Perry supporter, but that's pretty much been it, which is all the more notable given that Romney's not the only Mormon in the race.

Instead, the only ones to really contend with the implications of Romney's Mormonism have been a few voices about as far from GOP circles as one can get. First, there was Chris Lehmann's recent cover story in Harper's, which did not address Romney's candidacy directly but which posed an intriguing theory for why the country may be more open to Mormons these days: because the country has increasingly embraced a Mormon-style form of prosperity theology fusing morality, materialism and financial success, with a strong helping of gold fetishism. Mormons, Lehmann suggests, need not worry about making themselves acceptable to other Americans because Americans are becoming them.

Yesterday came a more surprising entrant in the small camp of 2011 Mormon skeptics: Harold Bloom, the legendary Shakespeare scholar at Yale best known for "Anxiety of Influence," (1973), which argued that poets and writers are engaged above all in a struggle with their great precursors. I knew that Bloom had strong side interests in the mystic traditions of Gnosticism and the Kabbalah but I would not have expected him to be weighing in as heavily on the matter of Romney's Mormonism as he did in the Times' Sunday Review. In his characteristically ornate prose, Bloom delivers the bluntest warning against electing a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that I have seen this season. He does so by contrasting Mormon founder Joseph Smith, whom Bloom finds quite compelling, with the current leaders of the church, whom he views as hardly distinguishable from the more self-interested members of the 1 percent now being targeted by the Occupy Movement:

...Should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor. The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy. The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage.
Though I read Christopher Hitchens with pleasure, his characterization of Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjuror” is inadequate. A superb trickster and protean personality, Smith was a religious genius, uniquely able to craft a story capable of turning a self-invented faith into a people now as numerous as the Jews, in America and abroad...Joseph Smith continues to be regarded by many Mormons as a final authority on issues of belief, though so much of his legacy, including plural marriage, had to be compromised in the grand bargain by which the moguls of Salt Lake City became plutocrats defining the Republican party.

At the same time as he sees today's Mormonism as having become indistinguishable from the rest of the plutocracy, Bloom directly challenges the notion that the faith must be accepted on the same terms as other religions.

A Mormon presidency is not quite the same as an ostensibly Catholic or Protestant one, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insists on a religious sanction for its moralistic platitudes. The 19th-century Mormon theologian Orson Pratt, who was close both to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, stated a principle the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never repudiated: “Any people attempting to govern themselves by laws of their own making, and by officers of their own appointment, are in direct rebellion against the kingdom of God.”
Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts, hoping to join the plurality of gods, even as they insist they are not polytheists. ... The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

Bloom concludes on an ominous note.

Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.

Granted, Harold Bloom's ruminations on Mormonism deep in the Sunday Times are likely not to register much in the South Carolina GOP primary. But the piece is worth reading in full.