09/25/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Mitt, Mormonism and the Problem of History


The religious world was rocked this past week by a tiny piece of ancient papyrus which suggests that Jesus had a wife. Well, really... who among us thought that a nice Jewish boy who went into his father's business was going to stay single forever??!!

The controversy that this scholarly discovery is already causing and will continue to cause isn't simply about the specifics -- did Jesus marry? did he have a female disciple? -- but rather about the role historical research plays in confirming or refuting traditional religious verities. For well over a century, science hasn't been the only threat to religious literalism; history has too.

For example, when the epic of Gilgamesh was discovered and translated in the mid-19th century, many Christians and Jews were perturbed that it presents an almost identical version of Noah's flood and the garden of Eden as the one found in the Bible. Only Gilgamesh pre-dates that text. Genesis seems to be an act of plagiarism rather than divine inspiration.

The threat the historical research poses for religious truth is even greater for religious traditions of more recent vintage. Which means history has always been an existential threat to Mormonism, since so much of the Mormon theology is founded upon events that are historically verifiable -- or more to the point, refutable.

Forget the Mormon magic underwear -- after all, I'm not sure that believing in divine boxers requires any more credulity than believing in transubstantiation. A leap of faith is just that, and for the leapers it matters. But the Mormon story is predicated on a history that we know to be demonstrably, categorically wrong.

For starters, Joseph Smith claimed that the golden plates which were revealed to him were written in a "reformed" Egyptian hieroglyphic, and we know that there is no such language.

The actors in the Bible all belong to societies evident in the historical and archaeological record. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Jews all left written and other records. No one can doubt that they actually existed.

The book of Mormon, on the other hand, describes civilizations of "Nephites" and "Lamanites" living in North America, both groups having migrated -- who knows how -- from the Near East. When asked where the remains of those Nephite cities were, Mormons have pointed to the great Indian mounds found in the Ohio River valley and elsewhere. We know that those mounds were built by a variety of indigenous people including the Adena and Hopewell cultures, but archaeologists have yet to turn up any Nephites.

Worse, Mormon history posits that the Lamanites, an evil race which destroyed the Nephites, are the ancestors of Native Americans, though there is no linguistic or genetic connection between Native Americans and the peoples of the Near East. Never mind that in the Mormon world Indians are cast as cosmological villains.

Contemporaries of Joseph Smith in the 1830s and '40s accused him and his church of a variety of frauds and deceptions. From the very beginning, therefore, the institutional Mormon church has guarded its history very jealously and regarded historians with a great deal of suspicion. That hasn't changed much over the years. Elder Boyd Packer, for example, attacked any Mormon who might, "write history as they were taught in graduate school rather than as Mormons." A police investigation into a controversy involving historical documents "revealed the church's hierarchy to be obsessed with stopping any tampering with the church's official accounting of the past."

Article VI of our Constitution declares that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States," and it seems un-American to challenge a candidate's religious beliefs, or to insist that he or she worship one god rather than another.

But in the case of Mitt Romney and his Mormonism, do we have a right to know what he believes about the past, about the history of North American settlement, the creation of the nation and the founding of his church?

Romney, of course, is no desultory Mormon. His is one of the founding families of the religion, he has been one of its bishops and he has contributed enormous sums to the church (though until we see all those tax returns we won't know just how much). What would we think about a president whose understanding of history is contradicted by history itself?

Steven Conn is professor of history at Ohio State University where he edits the on-line magazine "Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective." He is also the editor of To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government just out with Oxford University Press.