Resist the J.F.K. itch

JFKinHoustonWhat is most helpful about Nancy Gibbs’ article on Mitt Romney in the latest issue of Time is her detailed explanation of why Romney faces doubts — not just from some evangelicals, but also from the cultural left:

Many Evangelicals have been taught that Mormonism is a cult with a heretical understanding of Scripture and doctrine. Mormons reject the unified Trinity and teach that God has a body of flesh and blood. Though Mormons revere Christ as Saviour and certainly call themselves Christians, the church is rooted in a rebuke to traditional Christianity. Joseph Smith presented himself as a prophet whom God had instructed to restore his true church, since “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight.”

… Twelve years later, Smith explained to a Chicago newspaper that “ignorant translators, careless transcribers or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” in the Bible, which he revised according to God’s revelations.

… [Slate's Jacob] Weisberg observes that modern political discourse seems to permit the exploration of candidates’ every secret except their most basic philosophical beliefs: “The crucial distinction is between someone’s background and heritage, which they don’t choose, and their views, which they do choose and which are central to the question of whether someone has the capacity to serve in the highest office in the country.” He would raise the same concerns, he notes, about a Jew or a Methodist who believed the earth is less than 6,000 years old. Weisberg’s characterization of Mormonism as “Scientology plus 125 years” did not stop Romney from naming L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth a favorite novel. “Someone who believes, seriously believes, in a modern hoax is someone we should think hard about,” Weisberg argues, “whether they have the skepticism and intellectual seriousness to take on this job.”

… The fact that Romney personally emphasizes family, service and sobriety and opposes abortion and gay marriage has led some evangelical leaders to adopt a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to details of his faith. Romney has held quiet meetings around the country, and they have come away, by and large, impressed. “Southern Baptists understand they are voting for a Commander in Chief, not a Theologian in Chief,” says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm. “But he’s gotta close the deal. Only Romney can make voters comfortable with his Mormonism. Others cannot do it for him.”

I have two quibbles with Gibbs’ essay. It’s worth noting that the remark about Utah being a “stronghold of Satan” came from one Southern Baptist, a pastor who is based in Salt Lake City. Here is the fuller context of what he said in 1997 as Southern Baptists prepared for holding their annual convention, which met in Salt Lake City for the first time the next year:

Summit speakers pointed out that the Salt Lake City area includes hundreds of thousands of unchurched non-Mormons.

They also said it is imperative that Southern Baptists act in a spirit of love toward Mormons and not come across to the public — in Salt Lake City and the rest of the United States — as angry or hurtful toward Mormon people.

“I’m concerned that we not have a bunch of Dennis Rodmans coming in,” said Mike Gray, pastor of Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He was referring to the controversial Chicago Bulls’ basketball star who slurred Mormons publicly during championship games of the National Basketball Association this spring.

… “Mormon country is God’s country. God is the same in Salt Lake City as he is in Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville and elsewhere. Even though that state (Utah) is a stronghold of Satan, remember that God is doing great things there, and we are expecting great things (of this convention).”

The other quibble is a matter for Time‘s copy desk: The meeting shown in a photograph is taking place inside the Tabernacle, not the Sale Lake City Temple.

Like other reporters before her, Gibbs asks whether Romney should attempt to defuse opposition to his candidacy with a 21st-century version of John Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. It’s a legitimate question, but I think J.F.K. in Houston is the wrong model. Because of lingering anti-Vatican fears among certain Protestants of the time, Kennedy ended up promising never to fulfill their worst expectations by taking political orders from the Pope. Taken as a whole, Kennedy’s speech represents “the separation of faith and self,” to use Stephen Carter’s phrase.

That Kennedy felt forced to make such promises in 1960 did not speak well of his critics’ understanding of the presidency, of the Vatican or of how a savvy politician strikes a balance between the demands of faith and the demands of guarding the Constitution.

Politically aware believers would not expect a president to find direct answers to questions of governance in the Scriptures and doctrines of a church. Likewise, spiritually aware political advisers would not expect a candidate to keep religious belief in deep freeze, as if a candidate’s beliefs about God, sin and salvation should in no way affect a candidate’s thinking about social issues.

Should anyone expect that Romney’s stance on abortion would not be shaped by his understanding of when human life begins? (Granted, Romney’s pro-life views seem to have emerged only in recent years, which Time‘s Karen Tumulty describes as “not the only place where he seems to have retrofitted his views to the tastes of the voters he is trying to win.”)

Does anyone seriously expect, by contrast, that the LDS rite of proxy baptisms would affect any policy in a Mitt Romney administration?

What Romney may need more than another J.F.K speech is a Sister Souljah moment. Just as Bill Clinton once challenged the rap singer’s combative remarks on race relations, perhaps Romney will take some unpredictable stands.

Here are three possibilities:

• Romney pledges federal prosecution of any polygamous sect that celebrates marriage between adult grooms and child brides. The point would not be to prove that Romney rejects polygamy — the LDS repudiated polygamy in 1890 — but to convict child abusers.

• Romney criticizes the Mormon-owned Marriott International Inc. for making pornography available in its hotels.

• Romney calls for respecting the rights of groups in Salt Lake City and Nauvoo, Illinois, to distribute literature critical (even tactlessly critical) of the LDS.

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  • Joseph Fox

    “Here are three possibilities:”
    I resent the way you list your possiblities as if Romney has accepted your suggestions.
    If I were Romney I would be asking for your apology.

  • Steve

    Your article is a veiled attack on the Mormons. I am not a Mormon but have met many and in every case I find these individuals to have a high degree of integrity. Quoting Weisberg whose bigoted remarks on Scientology, which he’s obviously never looked into other than read the papers, is another dangerous sign that people like you don’t really adhere to principles of religious tolerance and love, but rather stir the undercurrent of hate. Too bad for this country.

  • Str1977


    tolerance is not the same as turning a blind eye, in fact it is tolerating those with which you firmly disagree.

    While I somewhat agree with your point about Mormonism, Scientology is a whole different matter, a group espousing blackmail, forced labour, brainwashing (for high prices, that is) and a mythology that makes the Book of Mormon seem realistic. Tolerance means that they can do what they like as long as they don’t violate the laws.

    Romney’s Mormonism wouldn’t keep me from voting for him (if I had a vote in this) but no Scientologist should be elected to such a high post ever. Or is that intolerant?

  • C. Wingate

    There are lots of interesting unfollowed religion leads in the article, the most conspicuous being that of M. Romney’s father. I’m old enough to remember George Romney’s abortive attempt at the White House, and it wasn’t until I read the Time article that I was aware that he was also Mormon. There is an obvious message there: that religion has become important in politics (modulo the fear mongering about the nominally Catholic JFK).

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Mr. Fox & Steve,

    I am happy to discuss what I actually wrote, but you both have read meaning into the post that is not there. I did not suggest any personal contact with the Romney campaign, much less that Mr. Romney has accepted my suggestions.

  • tmatt

    I guess this is for MZ’s post, but also for Daniel’s yesterday.

    This is from a column I did a few years ago on the traditional Christian view of Mormonism:

    … (The) Southern Baptist Convention’s web site on “Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements” includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: “A cult … is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.”

    Hardly anyone still calls the Latter-day Saints a “cult” in terms of a “psychological or sociological definition” of that term, stressed the Rev. Tal Davis, of the SBC’s North American Mission Board. But traditional Christians must insist that they can use a “theological definition” of the word “cult.”

    “This may not be the best word and we admit that,” said Davis. “We’re using it in a technical way, trying to make it clear that we’re describing a faith that is — according to its own teachings — far outside the borders of traditional Christianity. …

    “We’re not trying to be mean-spirited. We want to be very precise. We take doctrine very seriously and we know that the Mormons do, too.”

    The doctrinal conflicts are many and sincere, stressed scholar Jan Shipps, a United Methodist who is author of “Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons.” Traditional Christians and the Latter-day Saints are not just arguing about issues of interpretation. These disputes are about pivotal additions to the earlier stream of faith.

    The clashes start at the very beginning, with the nature of God. Christians worship one God, yet known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Saints have a radically different approach, said Shipps, believing God and Jesus to be separate beings — each with a literal body and parts. They say Jesus was sired by God, with a divine Mother in Heaven.

    “The Trinity, the Trinity, the Trinity, there is no way around the Trinity,” said Shipps. “But you know, it would also help if Christians — if they are going to use the word ‘cult’ — would admit that Christianity changed the very nature of the Jewish God. Christianity then grew up to become a new religious tradition.

    “Mormonism is a new religious tradition that has grown out of Christianity. It is an entity unto itself. It is what it is.”

  • Eric G.

    Mr. LeBlanc –

    There’s at least one inaccuracy in your article: Romney, as far as I have been able to find out with considerable research, has never supported gay marriage. He has, in the past, supported civil rights in areas such as employment for homosexuals. But he has stated that he has never supported same-sex marriage, and I have never been able to find anything to contradict that. Also, as far as I’ve been able to tell, he continues to hold a moderate position on gay rights issues other than marriage.

    While Romney has reversed his position on abortion as a political issue, I have yet to see evidence that he has done that on the gay issues. It’s the gay rights organizations that have changed — a decade ago, they didn’t want anything to do with marriage, and the battleground was over areas such as employment discrimination. Romney has certainly changed his tone over the gay rights issues but not so much on the specifics. The gay activists have all but won the political battle over issues other than marriage and perhaps some family issues such as adoption, and I haven’t heard Romney call for turning the clock back on that.

    I must also say that the three possibilities listed at the end of the article seem a bit bizarre: The church (as far as I’ve been able to find out) hasn’t opposed prosecution of polygamy for decades. The church doesn’t own the Marriott hotel chain. And while the church does protect its right to restrict speech on its property and does protect its own intellectual property rights, I’m not aware of any attempt by the church to challenge the validity of the First Amendment. There are plenty of anti-LDS groups that operate freely and openly under the law exercising their First Amendment rights, and neither the church nor Romney could do anything about it even if they chose to do so.

  • Jettboy

    I like what Mitt Romney is doing RIGHT NOW, and from the start. He has stated basically that he is a religious person (Mormon) who has different theological beliefs from others, but the same values as large number of Americans. He has stated that he in no way will take orders from LDS Church authorities in matters of politics and the presidency, pointing out that Reid has taken stances that have been against the requests of same without consiquences.

    In other words, he already has given a JFK with a Conservative twist many times over. However, everyone is covering their ears and going “La, La, La . . . ” as loud as they can. The list that was given not only goes much farther than JFK, as he didn’t express any specific actions of what he would do to show where his “loyalties”, but Eric G. has it exactly right.

    What people really seem to want is for Romney to give a Sunday School lesson on Mormonism. When he was asked about something religious that had nothing to do with the presidency, Romney said it just right. He said,”Go ask the leadership of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City.” And, has been stated more than once by himself and his supporters, he is trying to become Commander in Chief and not Pastor in Chief. You want to learn about Mormonism and have a religious, rather than political, discussion? Go ask an LDS missionary or member.

  • MJ

    What is it with journalism today? Why is Time quoting Weisberg of all people? While I don’t expect time to do a rose-colored article, I do expect them to try to be fair. Why are they only quoting critics of Romney in Mass? Where’s the other side?

    Also, your suggestions for Romney to address his religion are hardly going to make a difference. While Romney has made significant inroads within the Evangelical community and its leadership, the membership that has been brainwashed into thinking Mormons are the devil are still of the same opinion. Romney knows he has to go out and meet with as many people as he can to change minds. What boggles my mind is that everyone is concentrating on what seperates Mormons from other denominations, when there is suprisingly many things that are common. That is what Romney should be saying, and concentrating on those things that unite our country. He alluded to this in the last debates that its our enemies that want us divided, etc.

    Even if Romney took your suggestions, the MSM would just say he’s pandering to get your vote anyways.

  • HiveRadical

    The cited article by Gibbs has a slight error in it. It states that LDS/Mormon doctrine believes God has a body of “flesh and blood” which isn’t entirely accurate. We believe he has a body of flesh and bone. The only instance in which we believe God has a body of flesh and blood is in the instance in which he, as Jesus was, is mortal.

    We’re not certain what it is that flows through divine and immortal veins, but it’s not blood–at least according to our doctrine it’s not blood.

  • Peggy

    The issue of polygamy and the Mormans makes me wonder how the multiculturalists will respond to the Muslim tradition of polygamy. We have not seen any public cases of Muslim polygamy in the US. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, however. If we conditioned Utah’s statehood on the cessation of polygamy, what will we ask of Muslims who seek citizenship (or who are citizens)?

    I suspect that the same folks who want to nail Romney on the Mormon past of polygamy would want to allow for this “cultural difference” for Muslims.

    Where does this leave us?

  • HiveRadical

    “• Romney calls for respecting the rights of groups in Salt Lake City and Nauvoo, Illinois, to distribute literature critical (even tactlessly critical) of the LDS.”

    Groups have never been blocked from distributing literature in public domains. The issue is respecting the perogative of private property owners. When an organization owns land it should have the right to control what literature is disseminated there. Or do we want to force WalMart to allow it’s critics free reign for litterature distribution on their premises.

  • Frank Lockwood

    On my blog, I asked readers
    Will evangelicals support presidential candidate Mittt Romney? If not, why?

    Of the 270 votes cast, only 14.8 percent predict evangelicals will support the Mormon Massachusetts ex-governor. Overwhemingly, my readers say Romney won’t be acceptable, but they’re split about what makes him unelectable. 38.1 percent say Romney’s Mormon faith makes him an unacceptable choice. The remaining 47 percent say Romney’s perceived flip-flops on abortion and gay rights make him unpalatable. Based on these numbers, I’m guessing a Mormon with Mitt Romney’s bank account and Orren Hatch’s voting record would be acceptable to most evangelicals.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I appreciate Chris G’s correction on the gay marriage detail. I was careless in that sentence, and I will remove it.

    In calling the Marriott “Mormon-owned,” I referred to its ownership by the Marriott family, not by the church.

    I appreciate Jettboy’s vigorous defense of the approach that Mitt Romney is taking now. Coming up with three examples of Sister Souljah moments was, for me, an exercise in contrarianism.

    I now wish I had left those three ideas off, and I ask our readers’ forgiveness for including them.

  • Stephen A.

    Point one, it’s entirely legitimate for pastors and people of faith to question Mormonism. Everyone has that right, and no religion is above being questioned. From what I’ve seen, Mormons welcome questions, though certainly not mindless attacks based on ignorance. Who does, really?

    But clearly, baptism for the dead, eternal marriage, secret (i.e. private and sacred) ceremonies, Godhood, pre-existing spirit children, etc are outside of the Christian mainstream, and there’s no way around that, and it makes for an interesting theological discussion, I suppose. The Mormons think they are exclusively right. So do Catholics, Protestant Fundamentalists and many, many others. This is not a news flash, or a suitable point for attack, though for secularists, exclusivity is the only sin left. Reporters need to avoid slipping into this all-too-easy secular snarkiness towards exclusivity statements made by people of Faith.

    My second point is: So what if they differ from other Christians? In a political sense, that is. If Republicans don’t reach out to conservative-thinking Mormons, not to mention conservative Muslims, Hindus, Jews, or even “unChurched” and non-traditional religious people, they are giving them over to the opposition (or, more likely, they will remain politically inactive.) That is utterly stupid and for Christians to be so short-sighted as to not know the value of allies of other faiths when it comes to the “secular” realm boggles the mind, though it’s not surprising. Political reporters need to interview Hindus and ask them why they aren’t Republicans. I bet many haven’t been asked to become one.

    Thirdly, I came across this speech online a few weeks ago online and think it’s an interesting confluence of this JFK and LDS Church discussion. Obviously, Kennedy had no problems with Mormons. Why would today’s Republicans, then?

    Speech at the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
    President John F. Kennedy
    Sept. 29, 1963

    Senator Moss, my old colleague in the United States Senate, your distinguished Senator Moss, [LDS] President [David O.] McKay, Mr. Brown, Secretary Udall, Governor, Mr. Rawlings, ladies and gentlemen:

    I appreciate your welcome, and I am very proud to be back in this historic building and have an opportunity to say a few words on some matters which concern me as President, and I hope concern you as citizens. The fact is, I take strength and hope in seeing this monument, hearing its story retold by Ted Moss, and recalling how this State was built, and what it started with, and what it has now.

    Of all the stories of American pioneers and settlers, none is more inspiring than the Mormon trail. The qualities of the founders of this community are the qualities that we seek in America, the qualities which we like to feel this country has, courage, patience, faith, self-reliance, perseverance, and, above all, an unflagging determination to see the right prevail. … If our task on occasion seems hopeless, if we despair of ever working our will on the other 94 percent of the world population, then let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country.

    As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back.”

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  • Charles

    Nancy Gibbs’ article in Time has another error in it, more important than confusing the Mormon Tabernacle for a temple.

    Quote: “Mormons reject the unified Trinity and teach that God has a body of flesh and blood.” Has Ms. Gibbs heard of the Incarnation? “God from God.. One in being with the Father.. born of the Virgin Mary, became man?” Basic, essential theology, check Nicea. All orthodox Christians believe this. All Christians believe that God has a body of flesh and blood.

    What makes Mormons heretics from an orthodox Christian perspective is not only their rejection of the Trinity, but their assertion that God the *Father* has a body.

    The last paragraph of the article struck me as well-

    Quote: “Romney has a bigger problem and a smaller problem than Kennedy,” argues Richard N. Ostling, co-author of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. “Bigger because the distance between the Mormon faith and conventional Judeo-Christian faith is wider..”

    This is typical evangelical anti-Catholic soft bigotry, here. Probably guileless, but Gibbs could have used a better quote. One that doesn’t imply that Catholic Christianity is somehow divergent from “conventional Judeo-Christian faith” – as if Catholicism weren’t the largest religious community in the country, the largest Christian Church in the world (by far) as well as the historical antecedent of all nearly all other Christian communities (other than the other Apostolic Churches, such as the Orthodox, Armenians, Copts, etc., of course..)

  • Stephen A.

    Was Roman Catholicism the largest religious community in the nation in 1960, too? If not, then his comment has some merit.

    People of that generation were far more separated from one another, religiously, than we are today from people of other faiths – even within Christianity or even between some denominations.