Christopher Hitchens, the belligerent and loquacious atheist author and social commentator, doesn’t like Mormonism very much. Granted, he doesn’t care much for religion at all, as is evidenced by his exceptionally distasteful book god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But Mr. Hitchens seems to have a special place in his heart for disliking Mormonism. In his aforementioned 2007 screed, Hitchens devoted several error-riddled pages towards exposing Joseph Smith as a con man and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a racist, sexist, anti-intellectualist Orwellian hell of a cult. Shortly thereafter, Hitchens turned his aim towards Mitt Romney, the Mormon presidential candidate who has faced considerable opposition on account of his faith. Unsurprisingly, Hitchens had next to nothing complimentary to say about Mormonism. And most recently in his 2011 anthology of essays, Hitchens further makes several gratuitous cheap-shots at Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. It seems as though it is impossible for Mr. Hitchens to say or write the words “Mormon” or “Joseph Smith” without adding a plethora of pithy insults and disdainful remarks. His efforts are entertaining to observe, as Hitchens presses on in his anti-religious crusade and rails against the poor, benighted Mormons with a Quixotic gusto and indomitable zeal.
Ever faithful to Hugh Nibley’s 17th rule of anti-Mormonism, Hitchens’s comments on Mormonism are bereft of facts but saturated with rhetoric and sarcasm. While some anti-Mormon writers prefer the graceful rapier to dice Mormonism into little cubes, Hitchens goes after the Church of Jesus Christ with a meat cleaver. Although he has rightfully been lauded for his literary prowess, Hitchens does not deliver the elegant subtleties of, say, Fawn Brodie (whom Hitchens erroneously refers to as “Dr.”) and her 1945 biography/novel hybrid No Man Knows My History. This lamentable state of affairs has been dutifully noted by Professors Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin in their reviews of Hitchens’s anti-religious propaganda. What Hitchens lacks in fact, he more than makes up for with blunt sarcasm, empty rhetoric, and demonstrably false claims.
Mr. Hitchens’s most recent offering on Slate.com unsurprisingly attacks Mitt Romney for holding “weird and sinister beliefs.” What, pray, is so “weird and sinister” about Mormonism? Hitchens offers us an answer in eight paragraphs. Let us explore Mr. Hitchens’s reasoning and see if his assertions can withstand the inscrutible gaze of the facts.
Hitchens begins his piece by pondering “whether Pastor Robert Jeffress is correct in referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more colloquially known as the Mormons, as ‘a cult.’” (Hitchens himself has already answered this question, as in the opening chapter on Mormonism in god is Not Great he referred to the Church as a “ridiculous cult”.) According to Hitchens, Mormonism does exhibit cult-like behavior:
The Mormons have a supreme leader, known as the prophet or the president, whose word is allegedly supreme. They can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding. They have distinctive little practices, such as the famous underwear, to mark them off from other mortals, and they are said to be highly disciplined and continent when it comes to sex, booze, nicotine, and coffee. Word is that the church can be harder to leave than it was to join. Hefty donations and tithes are apparently appreciated from the membership.
Two things. First, the President of the Church, (who, incidentally, is never referred to as the “supreme leader” within the Church), while venerated as a prophet, seer, and revelator, is hardly “supreme” in Mormonism. That right belongs solely to the Godhead: God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. In May 2007, the Church released the following:
Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.
So much for Hitchens’s assertion that the sole word of the prophet is “supreme”. But what of Hitchens’s claim that Mormons “can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding”? Has President Thomas S. Monson been known as an austere autocrat who has compelled his peons to shun the unbeliever? Far from it! Here is President Monson’s recent words of counsel for how members of the Church should interact with less-active or struggling members:
My dear brothers and sisters, ours is the responsibility, even the solemn duty, to reach out to all of those whose lives we have been called to touch. Our duty is to guide them to the celestial kingdom of God. May we ever remember that the mantle of leadership is not the cloak of comfort but rather the robe of responsibility. May we reach out to rescue those who need our help and our love.
This has been a common refrain throughout President Monson’s administration in the Church: reach out in love to those who have, to borrow Hitchens phrase, shown “any signs of backsliding”.
Secondly, how does living a morally clean life qualify one as belonging to a cult? So what if Mormons are counseled by their leaders to abstain from pre or extra-marital sex, alcohol, tobacco, etc.? How on earth does Hitchens convert that into behavior that resembles cultishness?
Moving on, we get to the meat of Hitchens’ concerns. “What interests me more,” says Hitchens, “is the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS, discussion of which it is currently hoping to inhibit by crying that criticism of Mormonism amounts to bigotry.” Right out of the gates Hitchens attacks Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjurer well known to the authorities of upstate New York.” Presumably Hitchens has in mind the 1826 Bainbridge, New York trial, wherein a young Joseph Smith was brought before a court hearing on the grounds that he was a “disorderly person” for engaging in “glass looking”. However, what Hitchens doesn’t seem to be aware of is that Joseph Smith was not found guilty at this court proceeding. I am no legal expert, but I am sure that being brought before a judge does not automatically make one guilty of an offense.
Perhaps we can forgive Hitchens for this and other mistakes he commits throughout his article. After all, his only exposure to Mormon history seems to come from the work of Fawn Brodie, who wrote over half a century ago. Had he bothered to take time to read up on more current literature, he might have stumbled across Richard L. Bushman’s magnificent award-winning biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, which has replaced Brodie’s antique as the definitive biography of Joseph Smith. He may also have avoided making preposterous claims such as this:
Smith also announced that he wanted to be known as the Prophet Muhammad of North America, with the fearsome slogan: “Either al- Koran or the Sword.” He levied war against his fellow citizens, and against the federal government.
Undeterred by the facts, Hitchens presses on:
Saddling itself with some pro-slavery views at the time of the Civil War, and also with a “bible” of its own that referred to black people as a special but inferior creation, the Mormon Church did not admit black Americans to the priesthood until 1978, which is late enough—in point of the sincerity of the “revelation” they had to undergo—to cast serious doubt on the sincerity of their change of heart.
Unfortunately for Hitchens’s credibility, the Church never actually “saddl[ed] itself” with pro-slavery views, and the Book of Mormon never speaks of black people as “a special but inferior creation”. Hitchens is simply repeating (with some embellishment) a common trope that blurs the more nuanced and complex nature of the Church’s past views on race. Why is he doing so? I suspect it is to score polemical points, not to engage in serious scholarship.
Besides historical errors, Hitchens also egregiously misunderstands LDS theology. Consider his description of the LDS practice of baptism for the dead:
More recently, and very weirdly, the Mormons have been caught amassing great archives of the dead, and regularly “praying them in” as adherents of the LDS, so as to retrospectively “baptize” everybody as a convert.
Hitchens bemoans this practice as “a crass attempt at mass identity theft from the deceased.” Notwithstanding this degenerate slur, when we turn to LDS.org to give a succinct explanation of this practice, we read the following:
Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5). Many people, however, have died without being baptized. Others were baptized without proper authority. Because God is merciful, He has prepared a way for all people to receive the blessings of baptism. By performing proxy baptisms in behalf of those who have died, Church members offer these blessings to deceased ancestors. Individuals can then choose to accept or reject what has been done in their behalf.
Lest there be any lingering confusion, the article goes on to explain:
Some people have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed, deceased persons are baptized into the Church against their will. This is not the case. Each individual has agency, or the right to choose. The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world. The names of deceased persons are not added to the membership records of the Church.
But Hitchens need not rely only on the explanation given by the Church. Given his penchant for deep scholarly investigation, I am sure Hitchens would be more than willing to pursue the voluminous writings of Latter-day Saint doctrinal authors and historians on this subject. Or, if he is feeling especially bold, he could even go right to the primary sources themselves that clarify this practice and the attending LDS belief of preaching the Gospel to the dead in the spirit world (Doctrine and Covenants 127, 128, 138). Hitchens might even discover that this practice is not recent (it has been around since 1840) and is not, as he profanely puts it, “a crass attempt at mass identity theft from the deceased.”
More could be said concerning this dreadfully uninformed article by Christopher Hitchens. However, whenever I am confronted with the unenviable task of reading and responding to the highly suspect opinions of Christopher Hitchens, I am reminded of the wise words of the Preacher:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?… The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 9-10).
Indeed, nothing has changed with regard to Christopher Hitchens’s self-assured bigotry. He continues to spout the same nonsense under the same self-assumed, holier-than-thou authority that is a hallmark of his career as a commentator on religious topics. What Professor William J. Hamblin has said with regards to Hitchens’s knowledge of the Bible is also true with regard to his knowledge of Mormonism:
Hitchens’s understanding of [Mormonism] is at the level of a confused undergraduate. His musings on such matters should not be taken seriously, and should certainly not be seen as reasonable grounds for rejecting belief in God.
: Christopher Hitchens, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (New York, NY: Twelve, 2011), 41, 415, 502, 694-695.
: See Hugh Nibley, “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book (A Handbook for Beginners)”, in Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, ed. David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 495-499.
: Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: God and Mr. Hitchens”, FARMS Review19/2 (2007), xi-xlvi; William J. Hamblin, “The Most Misunderstood Book: christopher hitchens on the Bible”, FARMS Review 21/2 (2009), 47-95.
: A cursory glance through President Monson’s recent biography should show how, contrary to what Hitchens would like us to believe, the “supreme leader” of Mormonism has long been emphasizing the importance of reaching out to struggling members in charity, patience, and understanding. See Heidi S. Swinton, To The Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), passim.
: On this matter, see Gordon A. Madsen, “Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting”, BYU Studies 30/2 (1990), 91-108. See also the handy FAIR Wiki article on this subject.
: Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
: Hitchens is fond of putting words in Joseph Smith’s mouth, including the infamous “al-Koran or the sword” quote. For more on this, pursue the following link.
: In fact, Joseph Smith ran for the presidency of the United States on an explicate anti-slavery platform. See Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 515-517.
: For starters, consult the following link.
: Hitchens’s detailing of Ezra Taft Benson’s involvement with the John Birch Society and the Church’s attitude towards such is highly garbled. On this subject, consult Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2005), 279-357.
: For a mere sampling of such, see H. David Burton, “Baptism for the Dead”, in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1992), 1:95-97; Susan Easton Black, “‘A Voice of Gladness for the Living and the Dead’ (D&C 128:19),” in The Religious Educator 3/2 (2002), 137–149; Leland Gentry, “Redemption for the Dead (D&C 2),” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Craig K. Manscill (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 92–102; Matthew McBride, A House for the Most High: The Story of the Original Nauvoo Temple (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 28-34, 112-114; Kendal J. Christensen, David L. Paulsen, and Martin Pulido, “Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority”, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20/1 (2011), 27-51. Many more examples of LDS scholarly writings on the subject of baptism for the dead could be furnished, but the above should suffice for our present purpose.
: Hamblin, “The Most Misunderstood Book”, 95.