From Saturday’s Daily Telegraph (

Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is private, his supporters tell us. Nine times out of 10, when a politician’s religious beliefs are “private”, that’s shorthand for “virtually non-existent”. Barack Obama is “privately” religious in that sense, one suspects: his attendance at the Rev Jeremiah Wright’s loopy black power services in Chicago was a vote-gathering exercise, not a soul-saving one. But Romney? Every time the M-word is mentioned, his camp tells us to move along now, there’s nothing to see. The more they tell us that his Mormonism isn’t an issue, however, the more curious I am to ask the former governor of Massachusetts: “How much of this stuff do you actually believe?”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has a habit of crying “Not fair!” when the media draw attention to its exotic beliefs. I sympathise – up to a point. If Mormons believe that the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and showed him a new Christian testament written on gold plates, that’s up to them. Seen from a secular perspective, the episode isn’t any stranger than angelic visitations in the Bible or Koran. Likewise, the Mormon claims that God lives near a planet called Kolob and that humans can become gods of their own universes aren’t intrinsically odder than transubstantiation. And why keep raising the topic of polygamy more than a century after the LDS abandoned it?
But we’re entitled to keep prodding when a religion goes out of its way to rewrite what scientists and historians have discovered about the world – as fundamentalist Christianity does when it offers us the nonsense of “scientific Creationism”. And the truth is that Mormonism, uniquely among large-scale religions, is built around an elaborate counter-historical fantasy.

The Mormon Church tells us that America was colonised by Israelites who sailed to the New World in 600 BC. This is a matter of record, says the LDS. Indeed, it’s a “fact” that the young Mitt Romney spent two and a half years spreading when he was a missionary in France. Also integral to the Church’s teaching is the claim that Native Americans are descended from the “unrighteous” remnant of those Israelites, the Lamanites, whose sinfulness left them with dark skin but who will one day be saved.

During the 20th century, some Mormons became increasingly embarrassed by this Lost Tribes hokum. But it didn’t turn into an intellectual crisis for the Church until the discovery of DNA, which established beyond doubt that today’s American Indians have no Hebrew ancestry. Cue something approaching panic at Brigham Young University, Utah, whose anthropologists now claim that only some Indians were descended from Israelites and that the Hebrew DNA got swallowed up over time. This revisionism has shocked many ordinary Mormons – not least American Indian LDS members who converted after being told about their thrilling heritage.

Call me nosey, but I want to know if Mitt Romney – a major donor to Brigham Young University – stands by the Lost Tribes theory. It’s not a doctrine: it’s a detailed hypothesis that seeks to overturn the orthodox narrative of pre-Columbian history. So far, Romney has refused to go anywhere near this territory. But, if he’s as serious about his faith as he says he is, then he ought to tell us what he believes. Here’s an idea. During the election campaign, why doesn’t a Native American ask him: “Mr Romney, do you believe I’m descended from Old Testament Jews?” Mitt the young missionary would have said yes. Let’s see what Mitt the presidential candidate has to say.