Can a Mormon Be a Loyal American?

A few critics of Mitt Romney and Mormonism have tried to raise the issue — very much in the way anti-Catholics did regarding John F. Kennedy and the Vatican — of whether Mr. Romney’s first loyalty would be to the U.S. Constitution, his country, and its people, or to the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The insinuation that, in principle at least, he can’t be trusted to be a loyal American hasn’t gotten much traction, as far as I can see.  For one thing, many Americans know one or more Latter-day Saints, and it’s difficult, I suspect, for them to picture us as dangerous fifth-columnists.  For another, we have too long and significant history of service not only in the private sector of the American economy and in academia and the professions but in the military, various government agencies, the judiciary, the president’s cabinet, and elected political office (including the current majority leader of the U.S. Senate) for such a suggestion to be plausible.

There is no historical justification for expecting the Church to try to control an American president.  Church leadership has a long track record, and it seems to me that the citizens of the Republic can surely rest safely in their beds at night, unconcerned about the prospect of an imminent Mormon theocracy.

In other words, the question of whether Mormons are and can be loyal citizens of the United States has already been answered, and can easily be answered:  Yes.  Obviously.

That said, though, a more fundamental question remains:  Is a Mormon’s most fundamental loyalty to his or her government, or to his or her God?

From my point of view, the answer is clear:  My most fundamental loyalty is to God.

Now, I know that this will be seen by some as inflammatory and dangerous.  Let me briefly suggest — a lengthy treatise could be written on this topic, but I don’t have the time for it right now — why I think it should not be seen that way, and, indeed, why I would see the opposite answer as being explosive and highly dangerous.

“Our Country!” the American naval hero Stephen Decatur said in an 1820 toast, “In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but right or wrong, our country!”

This sentiment is often shortened simply to “My country, right or wrong!”

And it makes me profoundly uncomfortable.  If there is, even in principle, no higher standard of justice or goodness to which one’s country should be held to account, then anything one’s country demands or ordains must be accepted — even if it be the enslaving of millions or their deportation to extermination camps.

This, from my point of view, would be an immoral position, and tantamount to idolatry.

I don’t suggest rebellion against one’s nation over every policy difference.  Not even over most very serious policy differences.  And I don’t believe that even soldiers should subject each order from a superior officer to debate and deliberation.

Quite the contrary.

Insubordination, refusal to obey military orders from a legitimately appointed superior officer, should be an absolutely last resort.

But it should, in principle, be a resort, an option:

If you somehow awakened in 1944, for example, and found yourself a member of the Waffen SS in the mountainous area south of Bologna, you would, in my view, be morally obligated to rebel against SS-Sturmbannführer Walter Reder’s order to systematically murder citizens in and around the village of Marzabotto as a reprisal for recent partisan activity.

But if you recognized no moral authority higher than your government, what basis would you have even for criticizing Reder’s order?  He was legitimately appointed.

(Somewhere between 800 and 1900 civilians were ultimately murdered at Reder’s command, many of them children.)

If you don’t recognize a moral authority higher than your government, on what grounds could you object to the tyranny of Pol Pot, or Fascism, or the Bolsheviks?  On what basis, really, can you object on moral grounds to any law, once it’s been legitimately passed?

You might respond that you would choose your country over your government, the will of the people over the diktat of an authoritarian dictator.

But what if the will of a popular majority supports evil?  On what basis could you object?  On what basis, lacking a moral standard or a moral loyalty external to and superior to the will of the majority, could you even call it “evil”?

It’s not absolutely clear to me that Hitler lacked majority popular support, at least at certain points during his reign.  Slavery seems to have had substantial popular support within the borders of the Confederacy.  Mussolini was, at least at first, a very popular fellow.

So, yes, I regard my religious faith — or, another way of describing it, my fundamental worldview and moral principles, my most deeply-rooted commitments — as more basic, even, than my loyalty to my nation.

In this, I believe that I’m in harmony with the earliest Christians, who would not, because they could not, offer sacrifices to Caesar as a to a god.  They could pray for him, and, mostly, obey him.  But they could not grant him ultimate loyalty.   When the chief priests, according to John 19:15, in their zeal to accomplish the death of Jesus, tell Pontius Pilate “We have no king but Caesar,” they are in flagrant apostasy (which, in Greek, means “rebellion”) against their true and ultimate king.

Indeed, it’s because of my fundamental worldview and moral principles, far more than mere accident of birth (which could just as easily have placed me in ancient Assyria or among the Vikings or the Golden Horde) that I am loyal to the United States, which, among historical nation-states, I believe to have a uniquely (though far from perfectly) moral claim on my loyalty.

Still, though I don’t expect it, I can conceive of situations in which my moral principles and my commitment to my nation would diverge and would oblige me to choose between them.

I much prefer Carl Schurz’s reformulation of the Stephen Decatur toast:  “My country, right or wrong.  If right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”

However, at some imaginable though enormously unlikely point, even Schurz’s revision, in my view, could become inadequate.

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