An enigmatic but central figure in Halldór Laxness’s novel, Paradise Reclaimed, is the Mormon, Bishop Þjóðrekur.
He´s come to Iceland to convert the Lutheran Icelanders to Mormonism. His is a lonely and difficult task for the Icelanders have long been Lutheran. They were pagan first, then under pressure from Norway, agreed to become Christian. There was no fervour in this decision. It was, rather, a practical matter to avoid bloodshed and social disruption. It is said that in the good, practical way of getting decisions made, some silver also changed hands.
The agreement reached was that public worship would be Christian but that people could continue to worship their pagan gods as long as it was done in private. The attitude toward the change was such that rather than be baptized in the glacial river at Thingvella, the chieftains chose a warm pool.
Nothing much changed because the religious figures were the result of secular appointments. Priests owed their allegiance to the local goði.
When the last Catholic bishop (from whom I’m descended, I’ve been told) and two of his sons were beheaded, it, again, was not out of religious fervour but in a struggle over power and money.
It is into a society that was homogeneous not just in race but in religion that Bishop Þjóðrekur began his mission of conversion.
He is rebuffed, insulted, beaten, tied to a rock outside a church. He has his pamphlets taken from him. He accepts it all in the name of God.
He is persistent. He travels a great deal at a time when travel took a great deal of time, was difficult and dangerous. He goes to Denmark, returns to Utah, returns to Iceland. Always, he searches for lost souls whom he might lead to God. Unfortunately, he is also inclined to be absent minded and ineffectual. His preaching has little effect except for the family of Steinar of Steinhliðar. He saves them, in a way, but only after helping to bring about their destruction by encouraging the main character in the book, Steinar of Steinhliðar, to go to Utah and live there while Steinar´s family is destroyed and forced into servitude. He also forgets to take a message and a package of needles to Steinar´s wife, a message and gift that might have reunited the family in Utah before it was destroyed in Iceland.
When Steinar first asks about what it means to become a Mormon, Bishop Þjóðrekur says something that is apropos to today´s presidential election in the United States. Mitt Romney is a Mormon. The way now has been cleared for him to become the Republican candidate opposing Barack Obama.
Bishop Þjóðrekur says, and his answer is long, but it is worth reading in the context of Mitt Romney´s presidential bid.
“Only the man who sacrifices everything can be a Mormon,” said the bishop. “No one will bring the Promised Land to you. You must trek across the wilderness yourself. You must renounce homeland, family and possessions. That is a Mormon. And if you have nothing but the flowers that People in Iceland call weeds, you must take your leave of them. You lead your young and rosy-cheeked sweetheart out into the wilderness. That is a Mormon. She carries your baby in her arms and hugs it close. You walk and walk, day after day, night after night, for weeks and for months, with your belongings on a handcart. Do you want to be a s your baby daughter who has never learned to smile; and she looks at you with questioning eyes in the middle of this wilderness. A Mormon. But a child cannot get warm against a man’s ribs. Few can replace a father, none a mother, my friend. Now you trudge alone across the wilderness for miles and miles with your daughter in your arms; until one night you realise that the biting frost has nipped the life from these tiny limbs. That is a Mormon. You dig a grave with your hands and bury her in the sand, and you put up a cross two straws that blow away at once. That is a Mormon…”
If Romney were to become a serious contender to Barack Obama, he would need to read this speech over every morning, again before going to bed every night. He would need to reflect upon what it means and what he no longer has that would have made him a Mormon in the eyes of Bishop Þjóðrekur. At the moment, it is impossible to imagine him giving up his wife, his chldren, his fortune, his car, his hairdresser, to walk to Salt Lake City.
America, at this time, needs leaders who would make such a trek for their beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be. Given the disillusionment that is spread not just across America but across the world with the growing wealth of the one percent, with the unfairness that is now obvious in the economic system, with collapsing of economies in Europe, with a system of rewards that everyone can see if out of control, what is needed is for the American people to see that its potential leaders have a faith that will allow them to make tremendous personal sacrifices for that faith.
Mitt Romney´s wealth, no matter how gained, makes observers uncertain with regard to his belief that God is good and has replaced it with Greed is good.
People today, faced with events beyond their control, events that do harm to their lives, the lives of their children and their children´s children, need a leader like that described by Bishop Þjóðlakur, but one who can turn from narrow religious doctrine to a broad secular belief in American society.
Bishop Þjóðlakur’s speech to Steinar could have been as easily made to a king or queen, a president, a potentate. For Mormon, substitute Leader. For Mitt Romney, if he can learn the words of Bishop Þjóðrekur and demonstrate that his values are more important than his haircut, his expensive clothes, his car, his privileged lifestyle, then the American people might see in him hope for their future.
So far, the arguments,like they were with Kennedy, have been about his religion meaning he cannot be president of a secular government. That has faded, as it should. The current argument should, rather be, can he, using the example of his forefathers, sacrifice whatever is necessary for the good of the American people?
It might help, if someone were to mail him Paradise Reclaimed, by Halldór Laxness for though it comes from the past, it contains messages for the present in the words of Iceland´s genius.