On September 11, 1857, 155 years to the day before Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by angry religious zealots in Libya, a Mormon militia in southern Utah slaughtered 120 members of a wagon train en route from Arkansas to California. The perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre had a lot to be angry about themselves. They had been harried out of Missouri, their prophet had been lynched in Illinois, a U.S. Army was marching on their capital, and they were the object of some of the ugliest verbal attacks ever leveled by Americans against the religion of other Americans.
Five years ago, Mitt Romney gave a speech in which he took Americans to task for past religious intolerance.
Today's generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation's forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others. Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.
Would it be fair to accuse Romney of therefore justifying the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Not at all. To condemn intolerance is not to exonerate those who react violently against it. But of course, that's exactly what the GOP presidential candidate did yesterday in using the condemnation of intolerance issued by the American embassy in Cairo prior to the assaults to accuse the Obama administration of apologizing for the assaults.
There are many reasons to question Romney's judgment and character in making this accusation, and then doubling down on it. What's striking to me is that the perpetrator was someone who knows only too well from his own tradition how assaults on their religion can lead communities to commit unspeakable acts.