10/02/2012 01:09 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Is Romney a Muslim?!

In the last presidential election, some Republicans tried to imply that Obama was a Muslim, in addition to being foreign born. Now it seems that the joke has turned against them. Their current candidate belongs to an even smaller religious group here -- the Mormons -- who have intriguing historical connections to Islam including a taste for polygamy. Romney's own religion is curbing the innuendo about Obama this time around.

The connection between Mormons and Muslims
One does not have to venture too far to draw a connection between Mormonism and Islam. Founder Joseph Smith drew the connection himself. According to atheist writer the late Christopher Hitchens:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- hereafter known as the Mormons -- was founded by a gifted opportunist who, despite couching his text in openly-plagiarized Christian terms, announced that "I shall be to this generation a new Muhammad " ...

This parallel does not have to be taken too literally. It is fairly clear that Smith meant merely that he could be considered a successor to Jesus Christ in the same way that Muhammad thought of himself as building upon Christianity. Despite their political friction, all of these religions have much more in common than they have differences.

In this spirit, most Americans now accept that contemporary Mormonism may be considered a "mainstream" Christian religion. Yet, it has a very dark past tainted by criminal convictions of founder Joseph Smith for fraud and polygamy and his death at the hands of a lynch mob while in jail. He also espoused a virulent racism in his writings.

The dark shadow of Joseph Smith
Smith's criminality is sketched by Hitchens:

In March, 1826, a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being a "disorderly person and an impostor." That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or "necromantic" powers.

Hitchens provides a scathing account of how the Book of Mormon was produced noting that, "The actual story of the imposture is almost embarrassing to read and almost
embarrassingly easy to uncover." His account draws on the work of professional historian Fawn Brodie and her book No Man Knows My History (1945/1973).

Hitchens concludes: "Quite recent scholarship has exposed every single other Mormon "document" as at best a scrawny compromise and at worst a pitiful fake" ...

If Smith's texts were embarrassing fakes, the motivation underlying his prophecy is just as spurious. According to Hitchens:

Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself (especially, and like Muhammad, when he wanted a new girl and wished to take her as another wife). As a result he overreached himself and came to a violent end. ... Still, this story raises some very absorbing questions, concerning what happens when a plain racket turns into a serious religion before our eyes.

Cleaning up Smith's act
Smith's legacy was cleaned up via subsequent "divine revelations" that rejected first polygamy and then racism at convenient historical turning points. According to Hitchens:
If anything proves the human manufacture of religion, it is the way that the Mormon elders resolved this difficulty. Confronted by the plain words of one of their holy books and the increasing contempt and isolation that it imposed upon them, they did as they had done when their fondness for polygamy would have brought federal retribution upon God's own Utah. They had still another "revelation" and, more or less on time for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, had it divinely disclosed to them that black people were human after all.

On the polygamy issue it should be noted that Obama's African ancestors were members of the polygamous Luo tribe. Romney's paternal great-grandfathers moved to Mexico with a polygamous Mormon colony. Americans have always hated polygamy but the practice likely contributed to the very high fertility rates of early Mormons.

Despite the cleanup, Smith's historical shadow persists. For many, doubt about the Mormon church is kept alive by the controversy over posthumous baptisms in which holocaust records are used to enroll Jewish people into the Mormon religion without their consent. This recalls the hocus pocus of Smith's career in "celestial revelations." It would be a pathetic farce were it not for the fact that many Jewish people are deeply offended by it.

That troubling history is one reason that Romney is reluctant to talk about his religion despite the fact that he served as a Mormon "bishop" (i.e., a lay preacher) and appears to be very religious. He is not a Muslim. Yet his religion is a major political handicap.