Are Mormons Too Kooky for President? No.

Are Mormons Too Kooky for President? No. May 28, 2011

A piece from our symposium on faith and the future of social conservatism — Warren Cole Smith’s explanation of why he does not believe that he, as an evangelical, can support Mitt — has upset some Mormon readers of Patheos.  And some non-Mormons too, for that matter.  My hope is always, even when people are offended, to continue the conversation and come to a better understanding of one another.  When it came to my attention that a response piece was posted at Evangelicals for Mitt, I asked for permission to repost it at Patheos and continue the conversation.  That permission was granted (by the author, I mean), but since it’s a long weekend and I wouldn’t be able to post it as an article until Tuesday or Wednesday, I thought I’d post it here at Philosophical Fragments.

So the following is from Charles Mitchell, “Are You Too Kooky to be Prez?” and I can’t help but include the tongue-in-cheek picture that he himself included (the caption for which is, “Mitt Romney is [too kooky to be President], according to Warren Cole Smith. And you know what? So am I.”):

I’m not kidding.  Check out Mr. Smith’s piece at Patheos, where David [French] also hangs out.   He writes the following:

For evangelical Christians, Romney has some additional explaining to do. On such essential doctrines as the Trinity and the role of Jesus in salvation, there are major differences between orthodox (biblical) Christianity and Mormonism. But the real problem is that Mormons believe and teach an American history that is in many particulars completely unsubstantiated and in others demonstrably false. Mormons believe that the “lost tribes” of Israel actually ended up in America, and that Jesus visited America and these tribes during his incarnation. These are just a few of Mormonism’s highly idiosyncratic views of history.

Does Mitt Romney believe these views? Why or why not? Does he believe historical facts are matters of personal opinion? More to the point, does he really believe that, if he were to become the GOP nominee, he would not have to answer these questions before the world? Romney will face a Hobson’s choice. He will either affirm certain beliefs about reality and American history that most Americans will find false or flimsy, or else he will reject them be thereby “outed” as a hypocrite or traitor to his own belief system.

Notwithstanding the fact that I don’t agree with the various oddities of LDS teaching, this is a profoundly dangerous argument.  Why?  Because there are countless things I hold dear that sound just as weird (if not offensive) to an outsider to my faith as what Mormons believe about Missouri.  Just to give you a partial list, I believe God actually created the world as described in Genesis, I believe a virgin in the Middle East actually bore God’s son as described in the gospels, I believe there actually was a flood that destroyed everything that wasn’t on an ark that a guy named Noah actually built, I believe a man named Lazarus actually died and was raised and that the same thing happened to the one who raised him, I like Jonathan “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” Edwards a whole lot, and I believe in unadulterated Calvinist predestination.  I’d be willing to bet Mr. Smith also holds to many, if not all, of those views.  I’d also be willing to vote for someone (for instance, Gov. Bobby Jindal) whose religion teaches that you can turn bread into flesh and that after you do so, you’re supposed to eat it, as well as someone (let’s call her Parah Salin) who belongs to a brand of religion that’s big on letting your tongue make noises that sound to others like a seizure but count in your mind as true worship.

So…is Mr. Smith’s argument profoundly dangerous because it would keep me from being elected president?  No.  If anything, we should have more arguments that keep me far away from the big, red nuclear button.  My point is that if you grant his premise with regard to Mormonism (it’s just so kooky that anyone who believes it has to explain it, and by the way it’s so kooky that you can’t) you will disqualify a lot of others, including probably yourself, from the presidency in the process.

Toward the end of his piece, Mr. Smith makes a related argument that I want to address, too:

I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve. Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy—whether or not this is his intent—will be to promote Mormonism. A Romney presidency would have the effect of actively promoting a false religion in the world. If you have any regard for the Gospel of Christ, you should care. A false religion should not prosper with the support of Christians. The salvation of souls is at stake….

The Mormon Church of today is, by the lights of biblical evangelical Christianity, a false religion. If Mitt Romney believes what the Mormon Church teaches about the world and how it operates, then he is unfit to serve.

There he really boils it down:  Anyone who believes a false religion is “unfit to serve.”

Here’s the problem.  If you can actually enforce this, at least if you’re as radical a right-wing reactionary nut as I am, you’re going to disqualify a whole lot more people than Mormons.  And furthermore, I defy you to enforce it, because you can’t tell on TV what someone’s deeply held theological beliefs are.

What I mean by this is simple:  Finding false religion isn’t just as simple as rooting out Mormons, Muslims, and Hindus.  The Bible I read indicates there’s a lot more false religion out there than that, much of it within what calls itself the Christian church.  The number-one manifestation of this I see is the gospel of works–the idea that you can earn your way into heaven by doing the right thing.  The God of the Bible rejects the sacrifices and despises the religious feasts of those whose hearts are far from him.  Yet most mainline Protestant churches teach this false gospel of works.  Are we, then, to refuse to vote for Episcopalians?

My guess is someone like Mr. Smith would respond that no, not all members of wandering denominations believe a false gospel.  That’s absolutely right.  But here’s the rub:  You can’t tell that much about a man’s heart on the boob tube.  You just can’t.  Unless you know a presidential candidate personally for years, you’re relying on soundbites and scripted debates, all screened by the media.  And if you do that, you open yourself up to being played for a fool by people who know how to speak Christian-ese well enough to make you think you know their hearts.

Guess what?  I don’t know what’s in Mitt Romney’s heart.  I’ve met him for less than five minutes total in my life.  I could tell you that he said some phrase to me that just made me sure, or that the Holy Spirit just reassured me…but the truth is, I don’t know and neither do you.  And you shouldn’t try.  It’s a dangerous game that leads nowhere.  Instead, look at his life–not to divine his secret theological leanings, but to see what kind of president he’ll be.

Look at his marriage and his family, which is a record of behavior lasting decades.  Look, too, at his political record.  Contra Mr. Smith, he’s never supported “gay marriage” and he fought it bravely and wisely in the most liberal state in the union.  He came around on abortion–which is the point of this whole pro-life movement, no?–and opposed embryonic stem cell research even though his wife suffers from M.S. and allegedly would have benefited from such research.  I recognize that’s not a perfect solution.  But the one Mr. Smith proposes (I’m sure with the best intentions in the world) would be disastrous.

[Note: See the piece at its original location for more information about Charles Mitchell.”]

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