Harold Bloom on the Mormon Breakthrough

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Harold Bloom, the celebrated Yale literary critic, has offered a recent opinion piece with the New York Times. The topic: Mitt Romney, 19th century vs. 21st century Mormonism, and the “crucial precedent” that has been set by Romney’s progress thus far in the upcoming presidential election. As he usually is with his writings, Bloom is very thoughtful and captivatingly eloquent with this article. This is a refreshing relief, considering the questionable remarks of other recent popular social commentators.

By way of introduction, Harold Bloom has previously written on Mormonism, to which he gives the crowning title “the American religion”.[1] Bloom is positively enamored with Joseph Smith, whom he cordially refers to as an “authentic religious genius”, and is amazed at the power of Joseph Smith’s revelations. Granted, it appears that Bloom’s admiration for Joseph Smith and his revelations is on a sort of quasi-literary level; I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that Bloom would place Joseph’s revelations on the same level as great poetry or literature, but nothing more. Notwithstanding, Bloom is a first-rate intellectual who has given us some probing, albeit somewhat flawed, writings to explore.[2]

That is why Bloom’s most recent piece in the New York Time was simultaneously rewarding and disappointing. On the one hand, Bloom offers sagacious insights on the importance of a Mormon participating in the upcoming presidential election, yet he also makes several blunders in both fact and interpretation. Given the nature of this blog, I will defer from offering an analysis or response to Bloom’s political forecasts. Instead, I wish to clear up a few mischaracterizations in Bloom’s piece that detract from the quality of his article.

For starters, I am not convinced that President Thomas S. Monson is “indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy”. Nor am I in agreement that the Church is an “empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith”. Although this charge has been leveled at the current Church administration by others,[3] I find it to be little more than a meaningless caricature.[4] Furthermore, I take exception to Bloom characterizing the Church as an “empire of corporate greed”. For one thing, Church enterprises are not designed to make anyone rich but rather to ensure the long term financial viability of the Church and pay for current programs that benefit many people. Furthermore, except for a few exceptions at the top of Church hierarchy, and those with careers in Church education facilities and programs, the people on the ground who actually run the Church are unpaid volunteers.

What Professor Bloom likewise fails to report is that the “empire of corporate greed”  has provided over 1 billion dollars in humanitarian aid to 167 different countries and untold thousands of individuals since 1985, regardless of religious, political, or cultural identity. I say this not to brag, though the Church’s humanitarian services are indeed praiseworthy, but rather to point out a flaw in Bloom’s characterization. Contrary to what Bloom portrays, the Church leadership is not amassing personal wealth from tithing and other donations. Instead, tithing money and other charitable donations go towards maintaining Church programs and property as well as the Church’s humanitarian efforts.

Ultimately, however, this discussion is highly subjective, as there is no empirical means by which to objectively prove or disprove Bloom’s characterization of President Monson or the modern Church leadership. (Although, as previously indicated, I believe that a strong case can be made against such a characterization.)

“The accurate critique of Mormonism,” continues Bloom, “is that Smith’s religion is not even monotheistic, let alone democratic. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer openly describes their innermost beliefs, they clearly hold on to the notion of a plurality of gods. Indeed, they themselves expect to become gods, following the path of Joseph Smith.” I have a few problems with this characterization. First, I find it difficult to accept that the modern Church “no longer openly describes” the doctrine of exaltation or human deification when the subject is included in official Church magazines, manuals, and study guides.[5] Indeed, a search of the word “exaltation” in the search engine on LDS.org yields an impressive 2,040 results. Joseph Smith’s famed King Follett Discourse, wherein the Prophet elucidated the doctrine of human divinization, has been reprinted in the April and May 1971 editions of the Ensign. But perhaps the most disappointing mistake made by Bloom is his statement that “Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts, hoping to join the plurality of gods, even as they insist they are not polytheists”. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the LDS doctrine of exaltation. By no means do Latter-day Saints expect to earn exaltation “through their own efforts”. Rather, they insist that only through the Atonement of Jesus Christ by obedience to His Gospel and His commandments can they hope for eternal life and exaltation (Articles of Faith 1:3-4). As President David O. McKay once said:

I am not unmindful of the scripture that declares: ‘by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.’ (Ephesians 2:8.) That is absolutely true, for man in his taking upon himself mortality was impotent to save himself. When left to grope in a natural state, he would have become, and did become, so we are told in modern scripture, ‘carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature.’ (Alma 42:10.) But the Lord, through his grace, appeared to man, gave him the gospel or eternal plan whereby he might rise above the carnal and selfish things of life and obtain spiritual perfection. But he must rise by his own efforts and he must walk by faith. ‘He who would ascend the stairway leading upward to eternal life must tread it step by step from the base stone to the summit of its flight. Not a single stair can be missed, not one duty neglected, if the climber would avoid danger and delay and arrive with all safety and expedition at the topmost landing of the celestial exaltation.’ The responsibility is upon each individual to choose the path of righteousness, of faithfulness and duty to fellow men. If he choose otherwise and as a result meets failure, misery, and death, he alone is to blame.[6]

Thus, although obedience to the Gospel is indeed an essential element to achieving salvation and exaltation, the Latter-day Saints do not believe that they can earn such through their own efforts or on their own terms.[7]

Finally, a brief note on the following comment by Professor Bloom:

There are other secrets also, not tellable by the Mormon Church to those it calls “Gentiles,” oddly including Jews. That aspects of the religion of a devout president of the United States should be concealed from all but 2 percent of us may be a legitimate question that merits pondering. When I wandered about the South and Southwest from 1989 to 1991, researching American religion, I was heartened by the warmth that greeted me in Pentecostal and Baptist churches, some of them independent indeed. But Gentiles are not allowed in Mormon temples.

I can sympathize somewhat with Bloom here. On my mission in New England and through various correspondences with non-Mormon friends and acquaintances, I encountered many individuals who felt uneasy with the secrecy surrounding the ordinances of the temple. It also doesn’t help that Mormons can, at times, be unnecessarily reticent in relaying the details of the temple ordinances. However, I hope that Professor Bloom will appreciate the fact that for Latter-day Saints the ordinances of the temple are of the utmost sanctity. As such, in harmony with ancient biblical precedent, only those worthy of the Lord’s presence, either ritually in the temple or literally in theophany, are allowed to enter the most sacred confines of the Lord’s sanctuary (e.g. Psalms 15, 24:3-4).

As an aside, if Professor Bloom feels especially eager to learn what goes on in the temple, nothing is stopping him from simply consulting the omniscient information caches Google and/or Wikipedia. Plenty of exposés of the temple ceremonies have been publicized by dissenters. (Although, one would expect Professor Bloom to have good enough taste to not consult the profane renderings of the temple ceremonies as found in anti-Mormon tabloids.) Notwithstanding, the Latter-day Saints will continue to be circumspect when it comes to relaying the details of the ceremonies of the temple. In spite of those who profane the temple ceremonies, Professor Hugh Nibley explained the importance of keeping the temple sacred:

Why are these temple ordinances guarded with such secrecy when anyone who really wants to can find out what goes on? Even though everyone may discover what goes on in the temple, and many have already revealed it, the important thing is that I do not reveal these things; they must remain sacred to me. I must preserve a zone of sanctity which cannot be violated whether or not anyone else in the room has the remotest idea what the situation really is. For my covenants are all between me and my Heavenly Father.[8]

Again, I do not wish to devolve into a discussion of Bloom’s political arguments. In summary, despite its flaws I welcome Bloom’s analysis over the frothy polemics offered by other self-certified “experts” of Mormonism. If nothing else, I got a chuckle out of this apt observation:

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?[9]

[P.S. Joanna Brooks has written a few words on this topic, which can be read here. So too has Michael De Groote, which can be read here.]

Notes:

[1] Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

[2]: For a consideration of Bloom’s work, see Alan Goff, “Reduction and Enlargement: Harold Bloom’s Mormons,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5/1 (1993): 96-108, found online here.

[3]: Daymon M. Smith, The Book of Mammon: A Book About the Corporation that Owns the Mormons (Seattle, WA: CreateSpace, 2010).

[4]: A reading of the recent biography of President Monson will reveal a complex individual who is, above all else, genuinely concerned for the welfare of others and is sincerely dedicated to serving the Church. See Heidi S. Swinton, To The Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010).

[5]: See, for example, “Exaltation,” in Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 275-280.

[6]: David O. McKay, Conference Report (April 1957), 7, quoted in The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978), 350-351.

[7]: For an excellent exploration into the LDS view of deification, see  Jordan Vajda, “Partakers of the Divine Nature”: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), located online here.

[8]: Hugh Nibley, “Return to the Temple,” in Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, ed. Don E. Norton (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992), 64.

[9]: It may just be a bit of Schadenfreude within me, but I am not at all disappointed to hear a Yale scholar refer to the folks who gave us such gems as The Mormon Puzzle: Understanding and Witnessing to Latter-day Saints as “semi-literate” and “proudly stupid”. But, as demonstrated at length by Professor Daniel C. Peterson, “What Certain Baptists think They Know about the Restored Gospel,” FARMS Review of Books, 10/1 (1998): 12-96, online here, this description by Professor Bloom is rather charitable.

11 thoughts on “Harold Bloom on the Mormon Breakthrough

  1. Theodore Brandley

    Stephen,

    You are much to kind to Harold Bloom. What about his characterization of Joseph Smith in the following:

    Though I read Christopher Hitchens with pleasure, his characterization of Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjuror” is inadequate…

    Bloom then refers to the Prophet as a “superb trickster and protean personality.” And his characterization of the Church:

    …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. The hierarchy’s vast economic power is founded upon the tithing of the faithful, who yield 10 percent of their income to the church….money is politics. That dark insight has animated the Mormon hierarchy all through the later 20th and early 21st century.

    This sounds exactly like much of the basis of Jew hating because of their financial control.

    His article is primarily a sophisticated hit piece on the Church disguised as a political commentary. It would appear that your admiration for his literary skills has softened your analysis.

  2. Stephen Smoot Post author

    Theodore,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    You are probably right that I was too kind to Bloom. I don’t know why, but for some reason I just wasn’t as outraged at his piece as I was with Hitchens. Maybe because Bloom does not come across as smug or arrogant as Hitchens does. I don’t know.

    “It would appear that your admiration for his literary skills has softened your analysis.”

    There is probably some truth to that. Bloom’s literary grace is somewhat disarming, at least for me.

    As for his characterization of Joseph Smith, I would welcome Bloom’s characterization over the vile portrayal given by Hitchens. It seems to me that Bloom’s characterization of Joseph Smith is something of a back-handed compliment. If I recall correctly, Bloom is an atheist/agnostic and so he could have said a lot worse. But the fact that he didn’t says to me that Bloom at least holds some respect for the Prophet.

    Again, you are probably right that I was too soft. But I guess I am just in a cheery mood right now so I am not as upset as I should be.

    Thanks again for your contribution.

  3. John Pack Lambert

    I am shocked by this assesment of Bloom. He was not thoughtful. He engaged in falacies, like claiming Mormons believe they are saved by their own works, when in fact they clearly teach salvation comes through Jesus Christ. He also claimed that Mormons believe Joseph Smith has been deified, this is just plain wrong.

    His quote from Orson Pratt on government is just not the Church position. The Church has many times endorsed participation in elections.

    His attack on Thomas S. Monson as a plutocrat is just ludicrous. His implied claim that “people in Salt Lake City” and apparently in context the leaders of the Church are behind Mitt’s candidacy is just wrong.

    His attack on the Catholic-majority supreme court as “attavistic” and his attack on Southern Baptists as “semi literate” were just gratuitous throw aways.

    His claim that the Church has become just another protestant religion at some point since 1988 or so begs at least an explantion of what policy change caused this, which he entirely lacks.

    This peace was full of big words, but there is little evidence Bloom thought much in writing it.

  4. John Pack Lambert

    Bloom may sound enamored of Joseph Smith, but he does not understand his teaching, especially not the fact that it was presented as a return to biblical Christianity.

    Some of his boldness in attacking the percieved failures of Thomas S. Monson in not following Joseph Smith should cause us to ask whether Bloom understands Mormonism even as it existed in Nauvoo. I think it was Joanna Brooks who said that Bloom does not know Mormonism after 1840, and his attack on the Church for having a centralized structure would say that that might be too recent a year for him to have understood the church.

    His comparing open Penecostal Church meetings to closed Mormon temple ceremonies is just disturbing. Either he is just too lazy to learn that Mormon sacrament meetings are open to all, or he is deliberately trying to poison people against the church.

  5. John Pack Lambert

    I also have to agree with Hugh Nibley in being suspect of those calling the Church “the American religion”. M0ormonism had its mot spectacular 19th century success in Britain, Mormons in Britain outnumbered those in the US in 1850.

    Calling the Church an American religion obscures 19th century reality and makes 21st century progress too tied to a particular nation.

  6. John Pack Lambert

    I would also question the bringing up of the Humantarian Services number, while not mentioning welfare services, the PEF and the like. These later program show caring for the poor as much as Humantarian services, while focus on just that one has allowed many enemies of the Church to do funky things with numbers on Mormon charitable giving.

  7. John Pack Lambert

    Blooms claim that the Mormon Church calls non-members Gentiles is just false. A search of the corpus of general conference talks reveals the last time the term was used their with that meaning was in 1981, and then it was in quoting an older source. Before that you have to go back to 1944 for another general conference use of the term in contracst to Mormon, and there Jew is also a listed term undermining Bloom’s claim the term is used for Jews.

  8. John Pack Lambert

    Bloom actually has a long history of baseless attacks on the LDS Church. In his earlier work he was claiming the Church was seeking to takeover the FBI and CIA and the bastion of what he saw as the evils of the Reagan-Bush administration, even though at the time 40% of Utah’s congressional delegation was Democrats. Alan Goff gave a good review of this in FARMS which you can find at this link. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=5&num=1&id=114

  9. Michael Hoggan

    I think Harold Bloom is a good example of the fact that even well-educated, articulate people can subscribe to stereotypes and conspiracy theories when dealing with the Church. We need to keep in mind that being agnostic greatly inhibits someone when studying religions. If they were to really get it, they would cease to be agnostic.

    I also don’t feel comfortable with the assertion that the Church is somehow tailor-made for the US. Joseph Smith always said that the message of the Restoration was meant for all of Heavenly Father’s children. There are many Pacific island nations with a higher concentration of Mormons than in the eastern United States, for example.

    Likewise, Hugh Nibley is correct that large numbers of convert immigrants from Europe were instrumental to the Church’s survival and growth in the nineteenth century.

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