Should Christians reject a Mormon Presidential candidate for fear that a Mormon presidency would help Mormons evangelize?
When I received Warren Cole Smith’s contribution to our discussion on Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism, I gave it the title, “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church.” (Believe it or not, I had no idea that this was an echo to a much more incendiary essay that made the rounds in 2007, “A Vote for Romney is a Vote For Satan.”) The title seemed like a fair summation of what appeared to be Warren’s main concern: that electing a Mormon would strengthen the LDS Church and fuel its further growth.
I already addressed the fundamental question: Is it bigoted or unreasonable to oppose a candidate on the basis of his or her religious beliefs? My answer was: Not necessarily. Religious beliefs speak profoundly to the character, the values, and the worldview that would shape the decisions a candidate would make were he or she elected to the White House. Yet there are right and wrong, reasonable and unreasonable ways of taking those religious beliefs into account. In this second part, I’ll ask whether Christians (and I’ll use “Christian” here to refer to adherents of the three great streams of historic Christianity: Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism) should be concerned that electing Mitt Romney could put “souls at stake.”
First let’s reconstruct Warren’s argument as charitably as possible. Warren is not the only evangelical who feels this way, and it’s a powerful argument if you grant its premises. There are several presuppositions here, but presuppositions which most Christians will grant. (1) There are true religions (or there is at least one) and false religions, true religious beliefs and false religious beliefs (how many false beliefs add up to a “false religion” is a question for another time). (2) False religions and false religious beliefs are spiritually dangerous, and detrimental to a person’s present spiritual life and eternal destiny. (3) Voters should consider not only the political, but even the spiritual, consequences of their votes.
In certain quarters, the belief that some religions and religious beliefs are false already amounts to bigotry. While I was a doctoral student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, I frequently confronted this attitude at the Divinity School: believing that you are right and others are wrong is arrogant, intolerant, possibly imperialistic and and quite probably hateful. If you are male and white, it’s misogynist and racist to boot. Yet this only worked one way. The reigning presumption was that religious liberalism was right, and religious conservatives were wrong, both morally and metaphysically. Some of the most negative commenters on Warren’s article were responding to the “arrogance” of believing that his beliefs about God and salvation are true while Mormon beliefs are false.
Yet Christians historically have attested that their beliefs are not merely therapeutic, but true in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and Christians have wrestled and argued and sometimes fought over the finer points of their doctrine because they believe it’s so utterly important to understand aright who God is and how God has made provision for reconciliation. Humbled though we ought to be in the face of our ignorance, our sin, our limitation, there are nonetheless metaphysical facts of the matter, and it is terribly, terribly important that we understand those facts. While salvation is not a product of intellectual assent to the right propositions, true beliefs are exceedingly helpful, and in some cases necessary, to a right relationship with God. This does not (or should not) make Christians arrogant, because the truth in which they believe is an unmerited gift of God, not an achievement of the believer but a gracious self-revelation of the One in whom the believer believes. “Our beliefs are true” is neither a boast in ourselves nor a denigration of others; it is spoken with the earnestness of a rescued man, with the gratitude of someone who received the undeserved but absolutely inestimable gift of Truth in the form of a person, a life, and with the compassion of someone who wants to share the bounty of Truth with others.
The third presupposition seems straightforward. Shouldn’t Christians care about the spiritual consequences of their actions? Isn’t the spiritual health of the nation even more important than its political or economic health? I can imagine some possible objections to the third presupposition, but let’s leave those for the comments, if anyone wants to challenge it.
With these presuppositions, then, the argument looks like this. (1) Christians should not fuel the growth of a false religion. (2) Mormonism is a false religion. (3) Electing a Mormon to the Presidency would fuel the growth of Mormonism. (4) Therefore (2 and 3): Electing a Mormon to the Presidency would fuel the growth of a false religion. (5) Therefore (1 and 4): Christians should not elect a Mormon to the Presidency.
The logic appears valid. If you grant the premises 1, 2 and 3, then 4 and 5 do seem to follow. It’s always possible to undermine the logic by questioning definitions of terms, but I think it’s most important to question the premises rather than the logic. I’ll assume that most Christians would grant the premise 1, and I’ll address premise 2 at greater length in the next part in this series. Many Christians do view Mormonism as a false religion, so: Is there some way to convince people like my friend Warren Cole Smith that electing a Mormon to the presidency would not fuel the growth of Mormonism (i.e., a false religion)?
Here are four reasons why I think not:
- The historical argument is perhaps the weakest, but it’s nonetheless important. Looking back at American Presidents, at least in recent memory, there’s no evidence that Presidents have served to advance the public relations interests of the faiths to which they belong. Did Carter and Bush make more people look kindly at evangelicalism? Did JFK swell the ranks of the Catholic church? Has Barack Obama made more people want to be a liberal, liberation-theology Protestant? It doesn’t seem so — but there are two reasons why this is a weak part of the argument. First, we don’t know, and there’s really no way we could know, the answer to that question. Barack Obama might actually have led more people to explore liberal Protestantism, but it would be almost impossible to ferret out that one influence (a positive impression of liberal Protestantism coming from Barack Obama) from the million-and-one other influences that cause people to attend or to leave churches. Second, a person like Warren Cole Smith could easily retort that evangelicalism, Catholicism and liberal Protestantism are not marginal traditions in the same way that Mormonism presently is — so placing a Mormon in the presidency could serve (in his words) to “legitimate” Mormonism, moving it from the margin to the center, in a way that would cause many more people here and abroad to give Mormonism a serious hearing. We could also point to the elections of Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid, and question whether they were PR coups for the Mormon Church, but Warren could respond that electing a Senator has nothing like the legitimating power of electing a President. So I consider this the weakest of the arguments, but it does not have a certain tacit plausibility. It may well be the case that Carter’s and Bush’s elections did more harm than good to the general public perception of evangelicalism.
- The theological argument would state, as David French does in a column published today at the Evangelical Portal, that God is in control over the salvation of souls and God’s purposes will not be frustrated by a vote for a Mormon candidate. To Christians of a particular theological stripe, this is a pretty powerful response. To others, less so. Some will point to free will. Others will say that even though God is sovereign over the spread of faith, it is our responsibility to profess the gospel and to consider the spiritual consequences of our actions. I think the theological argument is more powerful when it’s tied to the historical argument. We cannot know in advance whether the election of Mitt Romney to the Presidency would help or hinder the cause of the LDS Church, but ultimately many Christians will believe that God is in control.
- The sociological argument overlaps with the historical argument by giving actual data. Studies have shown, for instance, that Romney’s first run for the White House did not change the public perception of Mormonism. The obvious retort here is that the consequences of a campaign with a Mormon candidate and a Mormon presidency could be quite different. Yet we don’t really have any evidence to suggest that it would be different. While Mormons are the most conservative of American religious groups, the LDS Church is meticulously non-political except in basic moral matters like abortion and family — areas where their commitments are the same as those of most evangelicals. And Romney would not be speaking out as a representative of the Mormon faith. Recently, for instance, he refused to spell out the LDS stance on homosexuality. Americans are getting beyond thinking of Mitt as “the Mormon candidate,” and presumably it would not take long before Americans look at President Mitt without thinking of Mormonism. This makes sense, because the Presidency is not a position of religious leadership. People will assess Mormonism on the basis of its beliefs and its deeds, not on whether or not a Mormon sits in the White House.
- Finally, there is a psychological argument to be made. A Romney presidency could make some slice of Americans more likely to want to learn more about Mormonism. It could also make some Americans (particularly those who opposed Romney, or who come to believe that he’s a terrible President) more likely to disdain Mormonism. But evangelicals should not be afraid of people learning more about Mormonism. They should also not be afraid, I think, of the “mainstreaming” of what has been, to now, a mostly marginal religious group. If fewer people think that Mormons are kooks, that’s perfectly fine with me, because I don’t think that Mormons are kooks. Their beliefs are certainly different from mine, and those differences are important, but Mormons by and large are loving, good and reasonable people. Given the ways in which Mormonism has evolved over the past century, I don’t think that Mormonism deserves to be marginalized. Also, Mormonism has brought some beneficent influences into American culture. Mormonism supplies evangelicals with co-belligerents on important matters of morality, law and culture. And faith is such a momentous movement of the soul that it will not be made, in my view, or even slightly influenced, by the fact that a Mormon achieved the Presidency.
When Warren argues that electing a Mormon would strengthen the hand of the LDS Church — well, I don’t find that to be an unreasonable point of view. I just don’t think it’s correct. Perhaps the most important distinction is this: Would the election of a Mormon candidate to the Presidency lead more people to educate themselves about Mormonism? Yes. Would it lead to more people converting to Mormonism? I think the answer is no. I’m not afraid that more people should better understand Mormonism. In fact, I think that would be a good thing. Then the task falls to evangelicals to represent their faith well in word and deed, and to explain — if they feel this way — why Mormonism is wrong on significant matters. It’s not their task to exclude Mormons from the Presidency for fear that this would lead Americans to take Mormonism more seriously. Conversion is between the Spirit of God and the most inward heart of the individual, and it’s hard to imagine the faith of the President will be a significant influence. God is ultimately the author of salvation history.
Rather than basing my vote on something that seems, to me, so highly speculative, I prefer to base my vote on the merits of the candidate. So in the final installment of this series, I’ll turn to Mormon beliefs themselves. Are Mormon beliefs likely to make a Mormon a poor President, or do they point to faults that should concern the American voter? I’ll answer NO, and you can tune in tomorrow to find out why.