Are Mormon beliefs a legitimate cause for concern for those who might otherwise vote for Mitt Romney? Are there particular beliefs that might hinder a Mormon President in the execution of his duties? Or are Mormon beliefs in general so bizarre, so irrational, that they indicate a kind of untrustworthiness in the individual who believes them?
This is the third in a three-part series responding to Warren Cole Smith’s “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church.” The first part argued that – in the abstract – it is not necessarily bigoted or even unreasonable to vote against a candidate on the basis of his or her faith. Yet I do believe that voting against Mitt Romney on the basis of his Mormonism is mistaken. So the second part made the case that Christians need not reject the Romney candidacy out of fear that a Mormon Presidency would provide a public relations victory to the LDS Church and thus a boost to its efforts at evangelization. This was one of Smith’s major arguments, that electing a Mormon to the White House would have consequences that should be unacceptable to all Christians. The second major argument was that a Mormon, due to the beliefs Mormons hold, is likely to make a poor President, or at least an unreliable representative of conservative values. It’s this second argument we’ll address now.
As the questions posed at the beginning of this entry imply, there are (at least) two ways in which religious beliefs might cast doubt on a candidate for the Presidency. On the one hand, specific beliefs could interfere with the tasks and the processes that make for good Presidents. On the other hand, the beliefs in general or as a whole might cast doubt on the candidates’ rationality. That is, the beliefs themselves might be faulty, and the faulty beliefs might point to a faulty belief-making capacity.
To give an example of the first: if a candidate believed that the world was predestined to come to an end in a nuclear Armageddon in 2014, or that the best way to halt the spread of AIDS was to pray the evil spirit out, or that black-skinned people are inferior to those of other colors, then one could plausibly argue that those beliefs would interfere with the candidate’s ability to execute the duties of the office of the Presidency. To give an example of the second: if a Presidential candidate believed that Elmo were God’s representative on earth, or that the world was supported on the back of a cosmic turtle, then we might reasonably question whether this candidate were rational enough to be a successful President.
So, to begin with the first: Would the teachings of the LDS Church make a Mormon a poor President?
In Smith’s view, a good President will, among other things, faithfully represent conservative values. He mentions two specific beliefs that ought to give us pause: belief in a historical narrative that is “in many particulars completely unsubstantiated and in others demonstrably false,” and belief in the doctrine of continuous revelation.
I too find the historical narratives of Mormonism – both the ancient narratives in which some Israelites make their way to the New World and Jesus Christ appears to them there, and the more modern narratives of Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden tablets – highly implausible. This is not to insult Mormons. Many people find my own beliefs implausible, and I freely confess that I am not an expert in Mormonism and have not thoroughly investigated these claims. Yet the point is: even for someone like myself, who finds these beliefs implausible, it’s hard to imagine that they would actually interfere with Romney’s ability to manage our affairs foreign and domestic.
Why should they? Would Romney bungle the Middle East peace process because he believes the descendants of the ancient Israelites did battle with a tribe of Native Americans? Is he going to invade Missouri because he believes it was the site of the Garden of Eden? The notion strains credulity.
What Smith actually claims is that these beliefs demonstrate an insufficient concern for historical factuality. Because he believes in a historical narrative that is manifestly false, Smith believes, Romney (and other Mormons like him) must believe that history is not bound to facts and evidence but is susceptible to reinvention. I found this to be the least persuasive of all Smith’s claims. Mormons do not believe we’re free to fabricate history. Some Mormons may not believe in these historical narratives at all, in the same way that some Christians do not consider some of the New Testament stories historical. But when Mormons do believe those narratives, they believe they’re actually true, they actually happened – and it’s because they feel themselves accountable to facts and evidence that they engage in apologetics and look for archeological verification. Mormon apologetics are more sophisticated than the common evangelical caricature gives them credit for, because Mormons – like evangelicals – believe that there are metaphysical and historical facts of the matter. We do not disagree that there are facts; we just disagree on what those facts are.
What about the second belief Smith cites, the belief in continuous revelation? The LDS Church teaches that God reveals the Truth not only in the scriptures but through the prophets of the church. It was through the teachings of the prophets that Mormons recast their views on polygamy (that it was only intended by God for a certain time) and on race (that blacks should be capable of ordination). The concern here, according to Smith, is that the LDS Church might change its mind on, say, the sacredness of life in the womb. As a Mormon, wouldn’t Romney be compelled to change his views as well.
Of course not. For one thing, all Mormons do not all fall in line with the teachings of their authorities any more than all Catholics do. A President who was elected on one platform could hardly abandon his promises and principles just because the LDS Church changed its teaching on something. For another, it would be something like ecclesial suicide for the LDS Church to reverse itself in this way. The LDS Church for the most part, in its own self-interest, keeps out of partisan political issues. If it suddenly reversed its position on something like abortion or gay marriage (issues that transcend the political, where the church has taken definite stances), it would lose all credibility and would take a massive PR hit with those most likely to be receptive to their message: values conservatives. Finally, the ways in which the LDS Church has reshaped its teachings over the years have been, to my knowledge, uniformly in one direction – toward and not away from orthodox Christian beliefs. In other words, it’s highly unlikely the LDS Church would change its teachings on one of these matters, any change is far more likely to one Christian conservatives would welcome than one they would reject, and a Mormon President would not be bound to honor such a change even if it were not.
Now to the second question: Do their beliefs cast such doubt on the very rationality of Mormons that a conscientious voter should reject a Mormon candidate?
Smith comes closest to this claim when he says that Mormon historical teachings are so obviously false that they represent an abandonment of historical method, and when he suggests that there are “many other” peculiar beliefs that should cause concern for voters. To be clear, Smith never says that Mormons are foolish, or dishonest, or unethical. He, Smith, only says that they may not care enough for historical fact. And others might have this concern over rationality in mind when they say (what Warren does not say) that Mormonism is a cult or etc.
In my view, some Mormon beliefs are false, but not so obviously or outrageously false that I cannot respect the rationality of a person who believes them. I’ve known many Mormons who are not only good and decent people, but abundantly rational people. The ways in which religious beliefs take shape are complex. The influences of experience and upbringing, of relationship and desire, are profound and pervasive.
Evangelicals are to some extent the victims of — and of course to some extent responsible for — years and years of Mormon caricatures. It’s easy for evangelicals to joke about the special underwear or the planet Kolob. Yet many Christian beliefs also sound silly when they’re presented in caricature, and much more reasonable when they’re presented by a skilled teacher or theologian. The same goes for Mormon beliefs.
To be clear, I think that historic, orthodox Christianity has the better of the argument. But I’ll give a couple examples, in a post next week, of Mormon beliefs that seem outrageous to non-Mormon Christians but are less outrageous when understood in context. I think this is important. We need to be able to disagree with one another without falling into caricature. We need to be able to say that a certain belief is false, even that a certain belief system as a whole is fatally flawed, without saying that everyone who ascribes to those beliefs is irrational. If we can’t do so with Mormons, how can we ask atheists to treat us with the same consideration?