The TNB Self-Interview: Stephen MansfieldBy TNB Nonfiction
August 16, 2012
In researching the already strange topic of Mormons, who was your most unusual interview?
It was Rocky Anderson—former Mormon, former mayor of Salt Lake City, and gay-rights-advocating presidential candidate. Yep, in this election! Rocky stunned me by describing the kind of porn addiction, prescription drug addiction, and “behind the trees of the city park” illegal sexual activity that taints his city. He thinks it is because Mormonism demands too much, gives too little. People look for a release wherever they can get it.
How would you describe the Mormons you met?
Hospitable, well-spoken, eager, intelligent, naïve about the world, naïve about their faith’s controversial history, anxious that I should like them, a bit suspicious, preparing to lead, wary of the scrutiny Brother Mitt Romney is bringing their way.
Assuming it doesn’t keep him from getting elected, would being a Mormon make Romney a better president than he would be if he weren’t a Mormon?
Let’s say it this way. Let’s say you have a friend who believes that if he tells a lie or steals, he’ll instantly explode. Now, he really believes this. On the one hand, you’re glad for his belief system because it probably means he’ll always tell you the truth and never steal from you. On the other hand, you have a friend who thinks he could blow up any minute! It’s the old “there’s good news and then there’s bad news” scenario. So I think Romney’s Mormonism makes him a more ethical man. This is good. Yet some of what his religion requires him to believe is as odd as believing you will instantly explode if you tell a lie. You have to wonder what else is lurking at the back of his soul.
What did you use to write this book? And where did you write it?
I used a MacBook Pro docked to an LED Cinema Display screen, an infrared mouse and keyboard, and I wrote in MS Word. I took notes and photos with an iPad 2, and I called for takeout Chinese in Salt Lake City with an iPhone 3. Had I owned an iPhone 4s back then, Siri might have found me better Chinese. I always do my writing in my Nashville office. Hunter green walls, overstuffed leather furniture, busts and paintings of battles, and old maps on the walls. I may edit or research on the road, but I write only in my office—eight hours a day until I need a break, and then I make up some excuse to run around town.
What surprised you most about Mormon history?
I was really unprepared for how Pentecostal in style they were—and sometimes still are. Mormons believe Joseph Smith walked through one village healing people and that Brigham Young gave a long talk in “other tongues” at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. People often spoke of the “Holy Spirit falling” or of prophecies and miracles. Apparently, some of this still goes on behind the scenes in Mormon life today. I had read a great deal about the Latter-day Saints but hadn’t come across this fascinating feature of their history.
What’s the most troubling aspect of Mormon history in your opinion?
It isn’t polygamy. It isn’t the much-discussed Mountain Meadows massacre. It isn’t the persecution of Mormons in their early history, vile as it was. It is the character of Joseph Smith. He was a bit of a scoundrel. One Mormon historian said he was so into the black arts that he was known as the “village magician” when he was young. He promised his father-in-law he would stop these practices and then didn’t. He claimed an angel gave him golden plates, and then claimed he translated the plates using the same devices he had used to divine water for neighboring farmers—with “seer stones” supposed to possess supernatural power. He had women living in his house as guests who were actually his wives, but his first wife didn’t know it. He bought some Egyptian scrolls from a peddler in Ohio and weeks later claimed he had translated them and that they contained the lost writings of the patriarch Abraham. It just goes on and on. Smith was a mess, but to be a Mormon, you must proclaim him “the true prophet.” Very disturbing.
Describe the best and the worst of Mormonism.
The best has to be their amazing Bishop’s Storehouse and the way they serve during disasters. They were some of the most effective first responders during Katrina in New Orleans. They have saved a lot of lives, eased a lot of suffering. We’ve got to be grateful for this. However, the way they teach their people only information that is “faith promoting” in church education programs and seldom tell the full facts of their history is a weakness that has been criticized by Mormons and non-Mormons alike. A faith that teaches “God has revealed a new version of history” should be open to all inquiry, encourage all avenues of investigation that could confirm its claims. To be insecure about research into your religion is to be insecure about your religion.
What’s your next project?
I’ve just finished a book on the tortured religious life of Abraham Lincoln. It will be out later this year. And it has nothing to do with his secret life as a vampire hunter
STEPHEN MANSIFELD is the New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of Barack Obama. He is also a popular lecturer and speaker. His latest book, The Mormonizing of America, has already begun shaping the religious discussion surrounding the 2012 presidential race. For more information, log onto MansfieldGroup.com.
Leave a Reply