The Story Behind Lawrence O’Donnell’s Apology to Mormons

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Mormon faithful make their way to the Conference Center for the first session of the 182nd Annual General Conference of the Mormon Church on March 31, 2012 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell apologized Wednesday night for inaccurate comments he made a week earlier about the origins of the Mormon church. “I am truly sorry if I said something inaccurate about Joseph Smith, and I am happy to provide time on this show to a Church of Latter Day Saints spokesman to correct any inaccuracy,” he said on The Last Word, before adding “I just wish I could take those words back.”

The words in question were spoken on April 3, in the middle of a monologue about Mitt Romney’s claim that President Barack Obama was trying to “establish a religion in America known as secularism.” O’Donnell brought up the Mormon religion’s origins to make the point that Romney, while attacking the beliefs of Obama, was vulnerable on the same score. “Religiously, Mitt Romney lives in the glass house of American politics,” he said. O’Donnell also said the following:

Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith’s lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it, which Mitt Romney says he believes.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is traditionally averse to litigating its history and beliefs in the national media, so it is unlikely to take O’Donnell up on his offer. But the history of Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism are well documented. And there is little doubt that O’Donnell misrepresented them, by repeating a claim that has long been used by Mormon opponents to tar its followers as a sort of cult created to justify the sexual license of its founders.

“O’Donnell has got the causation reversed,” says Richard Lyman Bushman, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University who wrote a recent biography of Smith called Rough Stone Rolling.

Here is what is known to have happened: Smith was first married in 1827, and over the next three years he set about dictating the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830, when the church was officially founded. Years later there was a scandal concerning a maid who had worked in his home.

The maid in question was a woman named Fanny Alger, whose family had converted to Mormonism in 1830, after the religion was established. She did not know Smith when he lived in New York, but met him after he relocated to Kirtland, Ohio in February of 1831. At some point later—the dates are hard to locate in the historical record—two other things happened. Smith, perhaps as early as 1831, had a revelation that told him God permitted a return to the plural marriages of Abraham. And he began a relationship with Alger. There is no first hand record of this relationship, but second and third hand sources suggest it was either an extramarital affair or a secret marriage. (A fine summary of the historic evidence by Todd Compton can be found here.) Either way, Smith’s revelation is likely to have preceded his relationship with Alger, says Bushman. “There is a scholarly consensus that the revelation came earlier,” he says.

Either way, the relationship did not last. By November of 1836, Alger had moved on. She married another man, Levi Eastridge, before a judge in Wayne County, Ind., and went on to live her life outside the church Smith founded. There is no evidence that she ever spoke of her relationship with Smith. Secondhand sources suggest that Smith denied committing adultery with Alger, but did not deny a relationship.

Smith did go on to have other wives, and a remarkably colorful, and controversial, life. But the historical record does not suggest that Smith founded Mormonism to justify his multiple marriages or affairs, as O’Donnell originally stated. In fact, the original Book of Mormon, written down before 1830, took a rather dim view of polygamy. “And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son,” reads one passage. In another passage, God commands “For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.”

So O’Donnell was factually incorrect. But that is not the sum of what happened on his April 3 program. In mentioning Smith’s polygamy, and then connecting it to “what Mitt Romney says he believes,” O’Donnell seemed to be doing what he has condemned in other contexts. He was raising a question about Romney’s own judgement and values based upon his religious beliefs, which would be out of bounds in the context of other religions. I am Jewish, for instance, and I have been a guest on O’Donnell’s show. O’Donnell would certainly never suggest that Abraham’s apparent willingness to murder his own son, Isaac, reflect on my own judgement and values. Bill O’Reilly shot back at O’Donnell’s argument with another example. “That’s like saying no Episcopalian or Anglican could run for president because of Henry VII,” O’Reilly quipped.

In his apology Wednesday, O’Donnell admitted this mistake as well, saying he regretted that his description of Mormonism detracted from his underlying point. “Religious intolerance is wrong,” he said Wednesday. “Refusing to vote for a Mormon is wrong.”

The irony here is that Romney’s own life shows a remarkable fidelity to monogamy, especially in comparison to many of the other men who try to run for president. Present day Mormons, for that matter, mirror evangelical Christians in their public advocacy of marriage as an institution limited to lifetime bonds of heterosexual monogamy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially came out against polygamy in 1890, and in 1904 church leaders threatened excommunication for any members who entered into polygamous relationships. Romney, whose great grandfather had multiple wives before the 1904 ban, has called polygamy “abhorrent” and “awful.”

At a recent rally in Wisconsin, Romney was faced with a voter quoting from Mormon texts that suggested dark skin was a divine punishment. “Do you believe it’s a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?” the person asked. “No. Next question,” Romney responded. In the past, Romney has said he wept with relief in 1978 when the Mormon church decided to end a longstanding prohibition against people of African descent in the priesthood. “My faith has also always told me that in the eyes of God, every individual was merited the fullest degree of happiness in the hereafter and I had no question that African Americans and blacks generally would have every right and every benefit in the hereafter that anyone else had,” Romney said in 2007 on Meet The Press.

No doubt questions about Romney’s religion will continue to arise. O’Donnell has raised them in other contexts. But perhaps the best response to them comes in words Romney spoke in 2008, echoing a 1960 speech by John F. Kennedy on the role of Catholicism in his life. Said Romney:

Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

That is a good place to start this conversation about religion and Mitt Romney. Without evidence contradicting Romney’s contention that he will govern independent of religious authority, he should not be held responsible for the entire history of his faith.