“[Joseph Smith] was an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history. . . . Smith’s insight could have come only from a remarkably apt reading of the Bible, and there I would locate the secret of his religious genius. . . . So strong was this act of reading that it broke through all the orthodoxies—Protestant, Catholic, Judaic—and found its way back to elements that Smith rightly intuited had been censored out of the stories of the archaic Jewish religion.” – Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation
“All religion depends on revelation. All revelation is supernatural. If you wish to be a rock hard empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.” – Harold Bloom, “The Mormons” documentary
These past few weeks have been open season on the LDS Church. First a bigoted Baptist pastor, then a lapsed Catholic columnist, and now a gnostic Jewish professor have felt the need to publicly unburden themselves of anti-Mormon prejudices. In last week’s New York Times Sunday Review, Yale professor Harold Bloom – of all people—wrote an illiterate denunciation of the modern LDS Church in an effort to call into question Mitt Romney’s fitness for the presidency. The Peter Principle – in a hierarchy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence – is evident to anyone who has ever worked for a large organization. When it comes to analyzing Mormonism, writing to the level of one’s incompetence shall henceforth be called the Bloom Principle.
Like many Mormons, I have been quoting for years Bloom’s positive statements about Joseph Smith and LDS scriptures. Since Bloom is Jewish, I even included them in a speech on LDS-Jewish relations that I have delivered in more than a dozen countries. Tonight I deleted them. Anyone who professes to understand our faith while asserting that “[n]o Mormon need fall into the fundamentalist denial of evolution, because the Mormon God is not a creator” is delusional.
Since this is primarily a religion blog, I’d like to focus on Bloom’s statement that the 21st-century LDS Church “has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor.” Let’s leave aside the fact the church is still led by prophets, apostles, stake presidents and bishops, or that we’re still building temples and sending out missionaries. Instead, let’s consider how closely modern rabbinic Judaism resembles the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible.
To an outsider’s eye, they’re two different religions. Modern Jews worship without the benefit of prophets, priesthood, temples, revelation, sacrifices, and temples. To be sure, Bloom does mention Rabbi Akiva, who created “what we now call Judaism” in the second century CE, but he doesn’t go far enough. The rabbis responded to the spiritual needs of their people through the centuries by interpreting the Torah (both oral and written) in ways that they felt were inspired by God. Does this make their religion less authentically Jewish?
Just as it would not be appropriate for a thoughtful Mormon to criticize rabbinic Judaism for not being an exact replica of Mosaic Judaism, it is also improper for a Jew who sees Mormonism through a gnostic lens to ridicule the LDS Church for having adopted certain procedures and practices to meet the needs of 14 million members in nearly 180 countries. LDS leaders in the 19th century had different problems to deal with, and we believe that they received divine revelation to do so. In LDS Christianity, we don’t believe in a static faith. If Joseph Smith were the only prophet we needed in modern times, then we wouldn’t have a prophet on earth today. The most important prophet for us is always the current one, since he is the presiding high priest in covenant Israel as well as God’s mouthpiece to His people (think Ezra). Today’s LDS Church is no less authentic than that of Joseph Smith’s time, and it takes considerable chutzpah for a non-Mormon gnostic to assert otherwise.
Indeed, Bloom seems to think that his readers are completely unfamiliar with Jewish beliefs, especially ancient ones. What else to make of his bizarre claim that “[t]he American Religion centers upon the denial of death, literalizing an ancient Christian metaphor.” For the record, Latter-day Saints and other Christians don’t deny death, but affirm a belief in an afterlife. Just like Judaism once did. If my Orthodox Jewish friends are to be believed, it still does.
What is especially pitiful about the essay is the partisan nature of its attacks. Coming from a professor who has loudly denied politics a role in literary criticism, this is almost unforgivable. Here’s my favorite rant from the essay: “A dark truth of American politics in what is still the era of Reagan and the Bushes is that so many do not vote their own economic interests. Rather than living in reality they yield to what oddly are termed ‘cultural’ considerations: moral and spiritual, or so their leaders urge them to believe. Under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women, they march onward to their own deepening impoverishment. Much of the Tea Party fervor merely repeats this gladsome frolic.” According to Bloom, Tea Party members, supporters of Bush and Reagan, abortion opponents, and other conservative voters live in a fantasy world and are too stupid to understand what their own interests are. Thank goodness they have an 81-year-old man who has never worked outside a college campus to identify their true economic interests.
In spite of Harold Bloom’s illiterate screed, I will continue to read anything that he writes – on Shakespeare or the Romantic poets. He has certainly diminished himself as a serious writer on religion with this New York Times piece. If he doesn’t like Romney’s policies or positions, he’s free to enunciate his reasons for opposing him without slamming the candidate’s faith. Raising the specter of a “strengthening of theocracy” in this “plutocracy” and “oligarchy” is both irresponsible and unworthy of a writer and thinker of his caliber. After all, many Mormons have served as governors, senators, and cabinet members. Surely the good professor can cite an example of a Mormon in high office who has attempted to use it as a platform to promote his religion. If he can’t, then perhaps he should stick to his area of competence and leave Mormonism and politics to writers who can intelligently analyze and separate the two. Shakespeare’s Claudius said it much better: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”