Exclusive: An enduring mystery about Mitt Romney is why he lies so persistently and with so little shame. Some people blame his business experience or cite the basic dishonesty of politics, but there is also the curious foundation of his Mormon religion which was started by a proven conman, notes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
If some recent polls are correct, a plurality of Americans are planning to vote for Mitt Romney even though he may be the most persistent and professional liar to run for the U.S. presidency in recent memory, which is saying something. But what has attracted very little media attention is the question: why does Romney lie?
There have been some suggestions that Romney’s mendacity is an outgrowth of his business experience as a corporate takeover artist who tells investors and other stakeholders pretty much anything to close a deal. But that misses the reality of the business world where a reputation as a chronic liar can be lethal to long-term success.
No, Romney’s lying – most recently revealed in his false claim about General Motors and Chrysler shifting U.S. auto jobs to China – appears connected to something deeper in his personality, psyche or life experience.
One theory is that Romney is consumed by a blind ambition, obsessed with claiming the office of President that was denied his father because he was too honest while his Republican rival, Richard Nixon, was anything but. Another possibility is that Romney has surrendered whatever ethics he had to the longstanding Republican political strategy of winning at all cost, ironically a playbook inherited from Nixon. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
A third possible explanation is tied to Romney’s Mormon religion which was founded in the 19th Century by a notorious conman, Joseph Smith Jr., who as a youth used a “seer stone” to advise people where to hunt for buried treasure. He later expanded on his supposed visions to start his own religion, Mormonism.
Smith, aided by a few collaborators, created the Book of Mormon which Smith claimed was delivered to him in 1827 by an angel Moroni via golden plates buried in upstate New York. Smith supposedly translated the plates, which told a truly unbelievable tale about ancient Israelites coming to the Americas. Smith’s golden plates, which supposedly contained a form of Egyptian writing that he alone could translate, then conveniently disappeared, making it impossible to verify Smith’s fantastical story, at least from the alleged text on the plates.
Archaeologists and scientists have since noted that the Book of Mormon is full of assertions about animals, plants, architecture and technologies that didn’t exist in the Americas prior to the European arrival. Scholars note, too, that there are no linguistic or DNA links between Native Americans and people of the ancient Near East.
Still, after the Book of Mormon was published, Smith was on a roll, drawing converts from a U.S. population caught up in the religious fervor of the so-called Second Great Awakening. Smith then went a step further, pretending to translate some actual Egyptian hieroglyphics from old papyri. Smith claimed the papyri represented the writings of Israelite patriarch Abraham himself. The “translation” became the Book of Abraham.
Decades later, however, that bogus claim collapsed when scholars became more proficient at translating hieroglyphics and revealed Smith’s papyri to be nothing more than routine Egyptian funeral instructions.
Despite the traditional Mormon narrative portraying Smith and the early Mormons as victims of religious bigotry, many of the controversies that followed Smith to his death in 1844 – at the hands of an angry mob in Illinois – related to his scamming local residents out of money and his insistence on an intolerant theocracy with him in charge.
Today some of the quirky practices of Smith and his early male followers – such as their desire to have sex with multiple women “sealed” to them as wives – have been disavowed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but important remnants of Smith’s theocratic con game are still in place, such as the claim that the church’s top leader receives regular instructions directly from God.
Romney also is not just some rank-and-file Mormon following the faith of his parents and enjoying the church’s rituals. Rather, he is a former church bishop who comes from Mormon “royalty” with ancestors dating back to the earliest followers of Joseph Smith, including Parley Pratt and Miles Romney, the church’s first architect.
As a member of that “royalty,” Romney has benefited both in his business and political life from the concentration of Mormon wealth under the control of church leaders in Salt Lake City, Utah. While average Mormons often tithe to the church and get few non-religious benefits in return, the “royalty” are well-placed for the church’s powerful support derived from holdings worth tens of billions of dollars.
So, Romney’s fealty to the church and its insistence that Joseph Smith be viewed as a holy prophet, not a mendacious conman, is not simply a matter of true faith, but one of financial and political advantage. Of course, as with anyone, it’s impossible to know where Romney’s religious convictions end and his career aggrandizement begins.
From the U.S. tradition of freedom of religion, Americans also are hesitant to make judgments about the religious beliefs of others, though many on the Right have tried to exploit bigotry toward Islam by insisting that President Barack Obama is not a Christian, but rather a Muslim. By contrast, the Obama campaign and Democrats have steered clear of any criticism of Romney’s Mormonism.
It’s also true that most religions have fantastical or supernatural elements, such as Jesus’s virgin birth and his walking on water. However, Judaism, Christianity and Islam rely on ancient texts that date back millennia and often merged oral histories with self-serving myths designed to impress primitive societies.
The difference with Mormonism and other newer religions is that the origins of their holy writings and the motives of their founders can be more fully researched and explained. Mormon scholars have accessed the church’s archives and some have led the way in exposing the early deceptions used by Smith and other church founders.
For instance, Joseph Smith’s “Book of Abraham” – supposedly “translated” by Smith in 1835 – was debunked by both Mormon and secular scholars after remnants of Smith’s papyri were discovered and could be actually translated due to the improved understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics that evolved through the 19th Century.
Virtually everything that Smith claimed about the papyri was false. The documents make no reference to Abraham and were dated some 1,500 years after Abraham’s supposed life. According to scholars, the papyri recounted funeral practices of Egypt in the period of about the First Century BC.
Smith’s apologists have been left to defend his fraudulent depiction of the papyri by claiming that Smith’s translation was by revelation, not by determining what the hieroglyphics literally said – or that he possibly saw meanings embedded in the text that would be invisible to everyone else.
Yet, for a religion dependent on Smith’s honesty, such as when he claimed to have discovered the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon and other items that subsequently went magically missing, the empirical debunking of the one set of Smith’s documents that have survived, the papyri used for the “Book of Abraham,” is devastating as clear proof of Smith’s fraudulent practices.[For a moving personal account of a Mormon woman facing up to the truth about her religion, see Kay Burningham’s An American Fraud.]
Relevance of a Religion
So, as sensitive as religious beliefs can be, Romney’s Mormon faith has relevance to the American electorate in several ways. First, does he really believe the discredited and ludicrous claims by Mormon founder Joseph Smith?
It’s true that people can separate some of the tenets of their religions from their day-to-day lives, like fundamentalist Christians who embrace a literal reading of the Bible but work successfully in scientific fields. However, gullibility or magical thinking in a U.S. President can be dangerous, either in his dealings with foreign leaders or in his control of the devastating American military arsenal, including nuclear weapons.
Before entrusting the nuclear codes to one person, the American people might want to know whether the person is grounded in the real world.
Secondly, if Romney is not a true-believer and is not someone who accepts Smith’s absurdities as real, then is Romney simply an opportunist who follows the Mormon religion because its connections have proved advantageous to him? While viewing Romney as an opportunist might be more reassuring than thinking of him as a fantasist, it doesn’t reflect well on him either.
Thirdly, assuming again that Romney understands the true history of Joseph Smith’s successful fraud, does Romney’s appreciation of Smith as a consummate conman help explain Romney proclivity to lie with such confidence? After all, if your religion enshrines a liar of Smith’s caliber as one of history’s greatest men, a prophet whose religion allows its current leaders to literally speak with God, then your view of lying might well be skewed.
Thus, it makes sense that Romney would experience little or no shame when he makes claims that are patently untrue. After all, they are no more false than Joseph Smith’s stories about disappearing golden plates and his translation of the “Book of Abraham.”
So, knowing that the ends can justify the means, Romney would have no reason to think twice when he lies, such as when he claimed not to have seen an attack ad against Republican rival Newt Gingrich and then went on to describe its contents. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was so impressed by the coolness of Romney’s lying that he devoted a column to praising Romney’s skill.
“Among the attributes I most envy in a public man (or woman) is the ability to lie,” Cohen wrote. “If that ability is coupled with no sense of humor, you have the sort of man who can be a successful football coach, a CEO or, when you come right down to it, a presidential candidate. Such a man is Mitt Romney.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Mitt Romney: Professional Liar.”]
Romney showed off those skills again and again as the campaign progressed, including when he framed his nominating convention around a gross misrepresentation of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” quote and a false claim that Obama had gutted the work requirement for welfare. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Finally, Fact-Checking Romney’s Lie.”]
Then, in the pivotal first debate, Romney claimed that his health-care plan would cover people with preexisting conditions – when his own campaign later acknowledged that it wouldn’t – and that his proposed tax cuts would be revenue neutral as he refused to explain how such magical math might work. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Did Romney Win the Debate?”]
Ironically, even as Romney lied about substantial issues, Obama took the brunt of the damage from the first debate when Democrats and progressives joined in denouncing Obama for not denouncing Romney’s lies more aggressively.
Now, in the campaign’s final days, Romney has come up with a new lie about Obama and the bailed-out automakers, Chrysler and General Motors, as betrayers of American workers because of alleged plans to move manufacturing plants to China.
Romney’s comments were followed by an ad, which claimed “Barack Obama says he saved the auto industry, but for who, Ohio or China?” The attack strategy prompted extraordinary denials from Chrysler and GM, deeming the charge that they were planning to shift U.S. jobs abroad as false.
“The ad is cynical campaign politics at its worse,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said. “We think creating jobs in the U.S. and repatriating profits back in this country should be a source of bipartisan pride.”
However, for whatever reason, Mitt Romney has learned that lying works – and that it is no cause for shame. Indeed, lying has become one of his defining characteristics, which American voters might want to consider as they cast their ballots on Nov. 6.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).