Mitt’s Mormonism Matters: Considering a Candidate’s Faith

Bishop Mitt Romney, 1984

Editor’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

This week’s question in Patheos’s run up to the election is, Does a candidate’s faith really matter?

I say, yes, of course it matters.

I have once again been removed from the Evangelical Channel at Patheos, even though from the time I started blogging here, I asked to be cross-listed on both the Evangelical and Progressive Christian channels. I don’t know why that is. But I think this post is another case of where I break with most of my progressive colleagues and side with my evangelical friends.

Although, to be honest, I may be to the “right” of many evangelicals on this. It seems that after years of decrying the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a cult, everyone from Billy Graham to Robert Jeffress is willing to put that aside in order to vote for a candidate who shares their ideology, if not their theology.

That’s fine. I do not think that religion should necessarily be a deciding factor in choosing a candidate. But of course it should be significant factor. If, for instance, you think that a presidential candidate is a long-time member of a cult, then that could very well lead you to vote for the other candidate. What it should probably not do, however, is lead you to reconsider whether that candidate’s religion is a cult — that determination should be made independently of the current election cycle.

What if you found out that a candidate lived in the compound of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s or or David Koresh in the 1990s? That would likely lead you to wonder about that candidate’s judgment. Or how about if a candidate for the vice presidency had someone pray over her against witchcraft? What about a candidate for the U.S. Senate who “dabbled in witchcraft“?

Of course these things matter, for they tell us something about a candidate’s judgment. Does dabbling in witchcraft in high school or college disqualify a candidate? Not for me, but it might for you.

Does currently belonging to a cult disqualify someone from the presidency? It probably should. And in this way, I think that Warren Smith is more honest than Billy Graham. The former says that a Romney presidency would be “dangerous;” the latter removed all mentions of Mormonism being a cult from his website.

I personally do not think that the LDS Church is a cult. Neither do I think it’s Christian. I think it is a distinct religion, birthed out of Christianity. As I’ve written before about Mormonism, I think that the LDS Church demands a higher level of irrational beliefs and bizarre practices than orthodox Christianity. All religions demand a certain level of irrationality and odd practice; some more than others. It’s a subjective judgment, indeed, but one that I’m willing to make. To me, these aspects of a candidate’s faith and practice (or non-faith and lack of practice) matter. It doesn’t disqualify Romney or any other Mormon from elected office, but it does play a role in my decision-making process as we approach election day.

  • maggie

    good stuff! thanks, Tony!

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks, Tony.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    As an ex-Mormon, I am more concerned with the nature and character of Mormon priesthood leadership culture, of which Mitt is a clear product, than I am with any specific doctrines or practices.

    The degree to which a Mormon president will be beholden to the church’s leadership is also a concern–Mitt Romney could not and would not give the same answer that Kennedy did if asked the ame question.

    • Simon

      That’s really interesting Kullervo. Could you explain why that would be the case?

      • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

        About being beholden to the Church leadership?

        Because Romney has made sacred and eternally binding oaths in the temple to dedicate all of his time, talents and possessions to the Church. The Church’s leadership expects, and is given, obedience. There is no way that a faithful Mormon could say “no” to Thomas S. Monson, and we have every reason to believe that Mitt Romney is a faithful Mormon.

        Maybe Monson would never abuse that. Maybe Monson would never try to influence Romney (Senator Reid is a Mormon too, after all!). But the risks are so high and the culture of obedience is so strong within Mormonism that there is no way I would vote for a Mormon for president unless he actually came out and clearly and unambiguously said he would never take orders from the Church, even if given them.

        Kennedy was able to say that about his Catholicism. Why has Romney not been made to?

        • Anonymous

          Even if what you suggest is true. There are so many lobbyists in Washington that everybody is beholden to somebody. How about big oil, military interests, wall street? Do those scare you too?

        • Rachel

          This is exactly why Mitt as a Mormon makes me nervous. Not because I don’t know Mormons (and the ones I know are generally good people), but because of his position in the LDS church and its requirements as a matter of faith. If you can separate your faith from your leadership, that’s one thing, but to be unable to… In any case, that’s not the MAIN reason I wouldn’t vote for Mitt. It’s the reason I would choose if all else was equal.

          • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

            This is why I think that Romney should be made to go on record clearly and unambiguously–like Kennedy did–about where his loyalties will be as President.

    • Curtis

      Has capitulation to Mormon church leadership been a problem for Harry Reid during his political career?

      • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

        More is at stake.

        Do you really think that President Romney would not take a phone call from a living prophet of God? Do you really think that faithful, devoted Brother Romney would not give serious–eternal, even–weight to whatever the prophet said?

        The Church has definitely shown its willingness to bring pressure on political affairs over the last decade (Proposition 8 in California, anyone?). Again, maybe it wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe Romney could keep his loyalty to the American people and his loyalty to God’s One True and Living Church separate. But because of what is at stake, he needs to come out and say so, clearly and unambiguously.

        • Curtis

          I actually think Romney’s political and business record shows he is a much more reasonable person than his rhetoric during the primaries indicate. I don’t think the Romney of the past would pick up that phone, any more than Kennedy would have picked up a call from the Pope. Unfortunately, we don’t really know which Romney will show up the first day in office. I might consider voting for Romney if there were an extra line where I could indicate which Romney I was voting for. Unfortunately, our ballots don’t have that feature!

          • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

            I keep telling people that I wish Mitt-Romney-the-governor-of-Massachusetts would have run for president, instead of whoever this guy is.

  • http://www.holinessreeducation.com Greg Arthur

    The interesting counterpoint to much of this comes from those on the Right who use Obama’s faith, or what they view as a lack there of, against him but willingly embrace Romney as an alternative. For many of us evangelicals we need to be honest and say that we are choosing ideology, or more likely economic concerns, over a candidate’s faith. This is just an uncomfortable situation for all of those who are still longing for the days of Bush where this seemed so clear cut for them.

    • Terry

      I totally understand what you’re saying (longing for a simplistic religious candidate option), but the phrase “those who are still longing for the days of Bush” makes me cringe.

  • A Medrano

    How is Mitt’s faith dangerous for our secular, and ever progressing, pluralist nation?

  • Terry

    I agree that theologically, Romney’s Mormonism has some wacky beliefs (sacred undergarments, inheriting planets, etc.), however, I’m not sure that its much crazier than most Evangelicals that I know in the American south.

    For me, the scariest part of Mitt’s Mormonism is that it is a faith built contextually on the idea of American exceptionalism. The last debate was proof of his opinions of China and he has continually demonstrated his inability to discuss global issues without being condescending to which ever nation he is referencing.

    • Curtis

      I agree that further questioning Romney on the ideology behind his foreign policy could be very revealing. I haven’t heard Romney held accountable to his foreign policy views to the same extent that even Sarah Palin was when she was V.P. candidate.

    • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

      Have you read what the Book of Mormon says about America?

      • Mike

        No, can you summarize it for us?

  • Frank

    Lets see…

    Obama has jettisoned God perfect plan for marriage and ignores Gods sanctity of life by supporting abortion on demand.

    So yes faith matters which is why Obama needs to be a one term president.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      hahahahahahahahahahahaha
      - Joe Biden

      • Frank

        I know! What an embarrassing performance by our soon to ex-VP.

        • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

          No.

  • Curtis

    I don’t think “irrational beliefs and bizarre practices” could disqualify one from office. If it did, then no Christian could hold office either. Christians are pretty numb to their irrational beliefs and bizarre practices because they have become so routine. But many non-Christians can easily see them. I could make a long list to prove my point, but we can start with the obvious, like using a torture device as the center of our worship and the main symbol for our faith. Sure, I can give you rational reasons why we use the cross as a symbol. But to a non-believer, it is pretty obvious how that would be both extremely irrational and bizarre.

    Rather than focusing on irrational beliefs and bizarre practices, which I think all religions have, I would focus on other aspects of Mormonism that trouble me, like its extreme secrecy and strong central control. I guess those are the same reasons Protestants have been historically skeptical of Catholics, and why there has been only one Catholic President elected by popular vote in U. S. history, even though the Supreme Court is now 2/3 Catholic.

    On the other hand, many Mormon politicians seem quite reasonable and capable of being good leaders and representing all constituents, including George Romney, Jon Huntsman, Harry Reid, and even, at times, Mitt Romney (more so in his governor days, not so much during his primary run).

    So while I feel Mormonism is clearly non-Christian, I don’t see how that fact, in itself, disqualifies a Mormon from office. After all, in this post-Christian age, we are going to see more and more non-Christians run for higher office, including one of my favorite Representatives from Minneapolis. And I think that is a good thing. I don’t think the fact that a candidate’s religion seems extremely irrational and bizarre to an outsider should be used against that candidate when running for public office.

    • aford

      I appreciate your honesty regarding the religious beliefs of a candidate.. I am a Christian and take my religion seriously. Torture device is not quite the phrase I would use when describing the center of Christianity. The center is Jesus. Yes, He died on the cross…but for the forgiveness of sins. It may seem strange to you, but to me it is the greatest showing of love there has ever been. Just an explanation, not a “non-believer bash.” In fact, I am truly happy to see that a non-Christian can express an opinion without slamming Christians – or any religious group – in their entirety.

      • Curtis

        Yes, but a non-believer does not know that. Many churches have crosses front and center in the church, right above the alter. And many Christians wear crosses around their neck and on their clothing every day as a practice of devotion. If you landed on another planet and saw people’s worship and daily religious practice apparently centered around a torture device, I think you would agree that would seem quite odd.

    • Pax

      Why is the cross as a symbol irrational? I could grant bizarre, but why irrational?

      • Curtis

        For a complete outsider, who has no concept, understanding or knowledge of the role the cross plays in Christian theology, the idea that people would choose a torture device as a symbol for their religion would be quite irrational. Do you not think so?

        If we discovered a new religion that used a gallows as a symbol, I think that would clearly strike most people as irrational choice for a religious symbol, at least until we understood the theology of that religion better.

  • Tony M

    Great read Tony. Candidates’ stances on faith give me useful insights to their hidden natures. A bigger concern for me is the flip flopping of Christians on candidates’ theologies. I find both progressive & evangelical channels to be in flux. Especially on issues regarding ‘Statements of Faith’ for themselves and others. I’m open to all of Gods’ channels and what they have to offer. Please define cult from a secular & spiritual stance, when time allows. -Blessings

  • Craig

    Maybe the standard should be this: how effectively is the candidate able to separate his/her decision-making from the irrational and unreasonable aspects of his/her professed religion?

    But now just imagine the public outcry if a news agency launched a serious investigation of this question (or imagine if a public figure put the question directly to the candidate!). Maybe something’s amiss?

    • Curtis

      I’m not sure a person’s irrational beliefs should be divorced from their decision making. It is quite possible that some aspects of good leadership and decision-making are quite irrational.

      Of course, there should be some test of rationality. But I’m not sure complete separation between decision-making and irrationality lead to the best outcomes.

      • Craig

        “It is quite possible that some aspects of good leadership and decision-making are quite irrational.” Can you give a plausible illustration?

        • Curtis

          Pick up any popular business management book, and you fill likely find a chapter addressing the irrational “human” aspects of good management. The popular book “Emotional Intelligence” comes to mind. Or do a quick google search. “The irrational side of change management” http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Governance/Leadership/The_irrational_side_of_change_management_2335 might interest you.

          Just this morning, I wanted my son to clean his room, but I could sense he was in a bad mood. The rational thing to do would be to tell him to clean his room, but I could sense that would result in irrational push-back on his part. Rather than try to reason with him, I asked him to vacuum the livingroom carpet, even though it didn’t need to be vacuumed. Vacuuming the carpet was irrational, but it is something I know he likes to do and wouldn’t fight. Once the cleaning was underway, the transition to cleaning his room was much easier, and he didn’t fight it.

          We all are persuaded by others to do irrational things every day, like eating unhealthy food. I could go on and on, but there are many aspects of working with humans that are quite irrational, yet quite necessary to have a successful outcome. You could probably ask my wife for more!

          • Craig

            Curtis, I think you are using “irrational” in a controversial and unclear sense here. Your strategic way of dealing with your son strikes me as a paradigm of rationality. If commanding your son to clean his room would have been self-defeating, then that action (the very action you call “rational”) would be irrational in a clearer sense.

          • Curtis

            Well, I guess the management gurus are guilty of the same unclear use of the word.

            My understanding, is that at least part of the emergent movement, is an effort to try to move away from Kant’s clear line between rational and irrational. To understand that God, even religion, are at work in both the rational and irrational, and that our daily lives can be more fully lived when we allow clear line between rational and irrational to be blurred a bit. I think that is the same vein the popular management gurus are writing in too.

            I don’t think all of the actions Kennedy took during the Cuban Missile Crisis were considered rational at the moment. But we are all glad he took them; we wouldn’t be here typing if he didn’t. That is what I am trying to get at.

          • Craig

            If that characterization of the movement is accurate, then it seems all the more important to clarify what we mean by that line between the rational and irrational. Surely the emergent folks don’t want to engage in self-defeating attitudes and behavior (which is one prominent sense of “irrational”). If emergent folks are simply instead trying to withdraw from an over-reliance on consciously articulated discursive reasoning in their practice of the faith, then let’s not describe them as irrational.

          • Curtis

            I think the problem with defining irrational vs. rational has to do that the final determination can not made until we know the final outcome. Asking my son to vacuum a carpet which is perfectly clean is, in the moment and out of context, irrational. Once we see that it resulted in the desired outcome, his cleaning his room, we say it was fully rational, and I might even say, brilliant!

            With no awareness of the context, the cross is an irrational religious symbol. With no awareness of the context, wearing sacred underpants or thinking that we will inherit other planets, are irrational practices and beliefs.

            Requiring that every decision or action be scrutinized for its rationality, without knowing the context or final outcome of that decision or action, seems short-sighted, and often prevents us from making the decision with the best outcome.

          • Craig

            So you might simply distinguish between subjective and objective (ir)rationality. For your last point, notice how it helps to clarify what we mean by irrationality: it clearly isn’t necessarily self-undermining to decide not to consciously subject ever action you take to the question of whether or not that action would be self-undermining. In that sense, then, it is not irrational to decide against consciously deliberating, for every action you take, whether that very action is irrational. Indeed, since, you might face a sort of regress that would defeat your other aims, such scrutiny might itself be irrational in the given sense.

            But we’re clearly getting off track.

  • Craig

    If it’s any consolation, Tony, the Evangelical Channel seems to have restricted my ability to post comments. In the market of ideas, the conservatives over there favor regulation.

  • Pax

    Tony, can you give some examples of irrational beliefs of LDS and orthodox Christianity?

    • Craig

      It might be better to run this discussion in terms of their unreasonable beliefs/commitments, as opposed to their irrational beliefs.

      • Pax

        Agreed. Irrationality is a word I’d use to describe actions whereas unreasonable would be a better word for beliefs.

    • Scot Miller

      This blogger does a pretty good job of pointing out the, um, somewhat unreasonable features of Mormon belief (as parodied in Broadway’s The Book of Mormon): http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2011/06/mormon-just-believes.html

      • Curtis

        Well, if Jesus can walk on water, who is to say he can’t build some boats and cross the ocean?

        And is the LDS church changing its mind about blacks in 1978 much different than the Catholic church prohibiting the teaching that the Earth is round until 1835, or the fact that more than 15% of white, evangelical Christians today think that interracial marriage is bad for society, and some Christian churches still prohibit it?

        I’m not saying any of those positions are reasonable or defensible. I just don’t see where Mormon beliefs are much more unreasonable than Christian beliefs have been, throughout history.

  • A Medrano

    Faith matters? If a Muslim ever runs for office on a R ticket, I’d be the first to champion in. Ideology over faith in politics.

    • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

      Its disingenious to pretend that human beings can compartmentalize themselves that much.

  • Sean

    So, Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple in helping set up the World Council of Churches used the measuring stick of belief in the Trinity (Nicea), and the two natures of Christ (fully human and fully divine, distinct and inseparable), and use of the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as primary indicators of whether or not a tradition is Christian (in a post Chalcedonian sort of way, I suppose). By this measure, Mormons are not Christian, but as Tony said, another religion. Why? Because they do not believe in the Trinity, for them God is an evolved human and Jesus is an archangel, and the Book of Mormon is used in addition to the Old and New Testaments. The measuring stick can also be applied to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to The Way International with similar result. I think another measuring stick might be added: something regarding the goodness of creation (matter). I would not frame these as orthodox or heterodox, but a part of the main stream of what the universal church has believed vs. those who have believed something else and creates sub-traditions or new traditions altogether. Does it matter in the election? It should, because for Christians, believing means “giving our hearts to” something. This is altogether different than rational ascent to something or understanding or comprehending something fully. Tripp Fuller’s latest Homebrewed Christianity podcast with Diana Butler Bass is a good primer on belief as “giving my heart to” something. I recommend it highly. She addresses this way to understand the creeds.

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  • Shelley

    I have been torturing myself over this….you see I attended Montreat back in the 80s when it was still Montreat-Anderson college. I considered the Rev. My spiritual guide. I learned at Montreat that Mormonism was a cult not a religion. It was compared to Scientology and Jehovah’s witnesses. As a liberal leaning Christian I feel guilty for judging Romney’s faith. But I can’t seem to shake my feelings of unease over their beliefs. I guess I feel guilty for judging him as it is wrong for me to pass judgement on anyone. If anyone can help me find peace with this less than stellar confession of what I almost feel is bigotry..I would appreciate it.

    • Curtis

      The concept of “cult” as applied to religious groups was started by sociologist Howard Becker in 1932 when he was trying to classify religious behavior. He defined four types of religious groups: “ecclesia” “denomination” “sect” and “cult”. The last category, cult, was used to for relatively new, small religious groups that lacked strong organizational structure and had very ardent followers. Of course, all the religious groups interested in discrediting each other tried to pigeon-hole each other into the cult category. But, according to Becker’s definition, all religions would be considered cults for the first couple hundred years of their existence.

      I would say both the Christian church and the LDS church have been around long enough now, and have sufficient organizational structure, that Becker would call neither one of them a cult at this point. Although he probably would have called both of them cults for the first couple hundred years of their existence. Remember, the LDS church was only one hundred years old when Becker did his research.

      So, to put it simply, all religions are cults for the first couple hundred years of their existence. There, feel better?

  • Vision_From_Afar

    I promise, I genuinely want an answer to this, seeing as you’ve posted it on Patheos, where everyone cross-pollinates the commboxes.

    What if they didn’t just “dabble”? Would you have reservations against voting for, say, Dan Halloran from NYC because he’s Pagan (Heathen, specifically)? Or if a Wiccan from Paganistan (Minneapolis, MN) ran for a federal position?

  • http://www.religious-diplomacy.org/node/35 John W. Morehead

    This is an interesting perspective, and I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. It’s good to see that you don’t think Mormonism is a cult. I am part of a movement among Evangelicals that have called for the shift away from the concept and pejorative label of “cult” as demeaning, limiting in understanding, and stifling to communication. We argued this in our Christianity Today award winning book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic, 2004), and in our Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization Issue Group paper which is available online for free download.

    Two additional thoughts come to mind. First, on the idea of religion as irrational, I would argue that this is very subjective, and that in a post-Christendom and postmodern context traditional Christian belief and practices are just as irrational as Heaven’s Gate or Mormonism. So a level of humility is needed here. We might remember that in the first century Christianity was a cult of Judaism accused of bizarre beliefs like the resurrection of its founder, an executive criminal, and in things like cannibalism with the Eucharist.

    Second, Romney’s candidacy now forces us to consider the place of non-Christian religions in the public square and our political processes. They will no longer sit quietly on the sidelines while Christianity seeks to marginalize them or refer to religious pluralism as a dangerous seeping gas as one Evangelical radio personality stated. We address this challenge in a new documentary film, Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth produced by the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. A description, endorsements, and sample video clips are available at the films website: http://www.unresolvablemovie.com/About_the_Film.html.

    Thanks again for your perspective on this issue.

  • KD

    As a Mormon, its a pleasure to see reasonable christians don’t see us a cult. However it still seems disingenuous to label us as non-christian. I understand the point that we aren’t orthodox, which isn’t my objection. However, I feel that simply stating us as unorthodox is a better approach. It isn’t uncommon for a mormon to relate the story of inviting a guest into a house and being surprise to hear the question “why do you have a picture of Jesus? I thought you didn’t believe in Him?” The point is by using the term non-christian, it causes to people to think we don’t believe in Christ of the New Testament. We do, we most emphatically do. The term is simply not accurate for the kind of distinction that is trying to be created. Using non-christian does not bring to ones mind the question of orthodoxy, but the lack of a belief in Christ.

    • Curtis

      If the LDS church does not adhere to central orthodox Christian creeds, like the Nicene Creed, then why does LDS want to be associated with the Christian church?

      Islam also believes in the historic Jesus, described in the New Testament, although they believe, like Mormons, that the orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus, as expressed in the Nicene Creed, is corrupt and non-Biblical. If we are going to use this standard, that anyone who believes in the teachings of Jesus is Christian, to justify calling Mormons “Christian”, then wouldn’t we call Muslims “Christan” as well?

      Why does the LDS want to use the name “Christian” in such a loose way, as to indistinguish itself from other, clearly different religions?

      • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

        PR.

  • Mike

    Not sure i understand what you are trying to convey? You indicate that some think Mormonism is a cult, but you don’t, yet you view an adherent of this practice as perhaps irrational? And thus, this makes you question their decision making skills as potentially not sound enough to become POTUS? So Romney may not be the best choice according to you because his belief system requires more irrational thought than other belief systems? Yet, if we look at Obama, we have someone who professes Christianity, but who interprets many of its central tenents outside of how many other adherents would do so. To a certain extent, one could even categorize his belief system as a moral relativist. Our choice fr POTUS comes down to a candidate who appears to follow his irrationally based faith well and the other who molds his more rationally based faith to suit his own personal philosophy.


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