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.
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.