Last week I posted a reflection on Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”: his sophisticated theological allusion in the second presidential debate to Hildegard of Bingen’s theology of the book. The post has received nearly 10,000 hits in the last week, due in large part, I believe, to the American public’s thirst (in this age of tweets and likes and shares) for more subtle and complex understandings of our political discourse and its historical roots.
The final presidential debate on Monday seemed to yield little in the way of such theological niceties. The exchange was testy at times, fraught with the tensions and personal dislike that have defined the relationship between these two men. There was little in the way of spiritual reflection to distract viewers from the high-stakes rhetorical battle over American foreign policy and international relations.
Perhaps. Yet if we scratch the smooth surface of this portentous exchange, we can discern a compelling counter-narrative that will surely emerge as an urgent topic of post-debate discourse in the coming days. While the theological references are a bit arcane, their implications are profound indeed. For in his deft invocation of “horses and bayonets,” Barack Obama was signaling his covert affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. To put it bluntly, Mitt Romney is no Latter Day original. We already have our first Mormon president.
The exchange in question took place approximately midway through the debate, during a fairly tense discussion of military readiness. Romney was aiming to put Obama on the defensive by lambasting the extent of potential defense cuts due to sequestration and budgeting. One of his talking points was the observation that the U.S. military has the same number of ships at sea as we did in the 1910s. For the president this was a big fat golf ball, teed up for a devastating drive down the political fairway. “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” Obama told Romney in response. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.” Clearly a rehearsed laugh line, intended as a ‘zinger’ of the You’re-no-Jack-Kennedy, There-you-go-again variety. Like Romney’s “binders full of women,” Obama’s “horses and bayonets” went insta-meme.
As in that earlier case, though, there is much more here than meets the eye. First let’s step back from the heat of the moment. If you glance at the screen shot to the right, you can see how rattled Romney became as an effect of the “horses and bayonets” line. Well sure, it was a great dig, intended to make Romney look childish–and it worked! Take a closer look, though, and you’ll observe that the expression on Romney’s face is one of stunned horror, as if the former Massachusetts governor has just stared into the abyss. This is not the puerile pathos of boyish humiliation, but the sublime shock of epiphany. As Romney understood on the spot, and as millions of faithful around the world understood as well, the President had just outed himself as a fellow Mormon.
Those familiar with the Book of Mormon and the finer points of Latter Day historiography will already be nodding their heads. With the phrase “horses and bayonets,” Obama was invoking an iconic line from the Book of Ether, which relates the migration of the Chosen following the fall of the Tower of Babel across the Asian steppes to China, from which the Mormons subsequently navigated across the Pacific to present-day California. The narrator of the Book of Ether is one Moroni, who transcribed the book from the “four and twenty plates found by the people of Limhi.”
Crucially, one of the central preoccupations of the Book of Ether is the building of the Mormon navy, the eight extraordinary vessels (actually air-filled submersibles, Englished as “barges” by Joseph Smith in his translation from the Reformed Egyptian) constructed by the migrants in order to cross the Pacific Ocean: “And it came to pass that when they were buried in the deep there was no water that could hurt them, their vessels being tight like unto a dish” (Ether 6:7). The ninth chapter of Ether narrates an era of relative peace and prosperity during the reign of Emer, which followed a difficult period of internecine struggle between the rival sons of Akish. Now in the promised land, Emer’s people enjoy myriad signs of God’s bounty. Here, at last, is the relevant passage:
16 And the Lord began again to take the curse from off the land, and the house of Emer did prosper exceedingly under the reign of Emer; and in the space of sixty and two years they had become exceedingly strong, insomuch that they became exceedingly rich.
17 Having all manner of fruit, and of grain, and of silks, and of fine linen, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things;
18 And also manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man.
19 And they also had horses and bayonets, and elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.
20 And thus the Lord did pour out his blessings upon this land, which was choice above all other lands; and he commanded that whoso should possess the land should possess it unto the Lord, or they should be destroyed when they were ripened in iniquity; for upon such, saith the Lord: I will pour out the fulness of my wrath.
“Horses and bayonets, and elephants and cureloms and cumoms”: here we have the source of Obama’s chilling evocation of his Mormon faith.
There are two historical dimensions of Mormon teaching necessary for a fuller understanding of Obama’s scriptural reference, the first trivial, the second far-reaching. First, what are cureloms and cumoms? While the existence of elephants in the ancient Americas is hardly in dispute, these other creatures mentioned in Ether 9 are of more mysterious origin and affiliation. Detractors have labeled the cureloms and cumoms as mythical beasts, with no more claim on historical verity than the Mormon migration itself. We will likely never know the truth, though a generous interpretation of the passage suggests a less literal-minded solution proposed by more than one Latter Day exegete. Mentioned only in the Book of Ether, cureloms and cumoms might well be transliterated euphemisms for the mastadon or wooly mammoth. (For the curious, The Real Book of Mormon Geography contains an excellent article on the curelom and cumom, including plates of reconstructed skeletons.)
Second, whatever the case with the scientific evidence, there can be no doubting the theological import of Obama’s allusion, particularly in the context of an exchange on naval power. Indeed, the phrase “horses and bayonets” was taken up enthusiastically in the Latter Day exegetical tradition of the nineteenth century as a kind of symbolic shorthand for the might of the Mormon Navy.
We might take as an example the writings of Elder Orson Pratt, who, in a sermon delivered in the Old Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in December of 1868, brings the Book of Ether’s “horses and bayonets” to bear in a moving panegyric to the maritime labors of the early colonists. Pratt’s subject here is the American aborigines: that company of the faithful making the arduous trip across the Pacific after the fall of the Tower of Babel. In Pratt’s view, the divine gift of horses, bayonets, elephants, cureloms, and cumoms was directly responsible for the efficient construction of the eight vessels that would bring the early settlers to America.
After they with horses and bayonets had come down into this valley by the command of the Lord they collected seeds and grain of every kind, and animals of almost every description, among which, no doubt, were the elephant and the curelom and the cumom, very huge animals that existed in those days, and after travelling and crossing, we suppose, the sea that was east of where the Tower of Babel stood, and travelling through the wilderness many days, with their flocks and herds, their grain and substance, they eventually came to the great Pacific ocean, on the eastern borders of China or somewhere in that region. They were commanded of the Lord to build vessels. They went to work and constructed eight barges.
What follows is a justly famous discussion of the crossing of the Pacific, which Elder Pratt interprets as a triumph simultaneously of will and technology: “I have crossed the ocean twelve times, but I never saw a ship yet that did not have a hole in the bottom for the convenience of passengers, and it is one of the simplest things in the world to have holes in the bottom of a ship if you only have tubes running up sufficiently high above the general water mark. These were so constructed that when the waves were not running too high, air could be admitted through unstopping the holes which happened to be uppermost.”
The navigation of the Pacific Ocean in these eight submarines is a staple of the Latter Day religious epic, on a par with Odysseus’s journeys around the Mediterranean following the Trojan War. And none of it would have been possible without the providential gift of arms, mounts, and beasts of burden, these “horses and bayonets, and elephants and cureloms and cumoms” that provided the aboriginal community with one of its earliest signs of God’s grace.
President Obama, then, knew exactly what he was up to when he invoked these “horses and bayonets” in the midst of a discussion of American naval power. The Mormon Navy was also the first American navy, its God-given might one of the earliest signs of a providential American exceptionalism that both candidates claim to embrace. It is no surprise that the allusion so horrified Mitt Romney, who spent the rest of the debate largely agreeing with the policy statements of his former rival–now proved, happily, his brother.
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