Would His Mormon Beliefs Make Romney a Bad President? – Mitt Romney and Evangelicals, Part 3

Would His Mormon Beliefs Make Romney a Bad President? – Mitt Romney and Evangelicals, Part 3 June 16, 2011

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?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • As a philosopher, my instinct is to look for shortcomings in arguments. But I basically agree with everything you said here. When the primaries draw closer, and especially if Romney wins the GOP vote, you might consider addressing these issues again. As we learned in 2004, Republicans need the evangelical vote. I’m not certain that Romney has my support, but I would hate to see Christians ignore him (or worse) because of his Mormonism.

  • Joel cannon

    Thank you for a level headed and rational article on a controversial subject. I see two active forces during the primary. Supporters who are anxious to trash the opposition to boost their candidate during the primaries. And the democrats who want to sabotage the republican primary by undermining the frontrunner. Ultimately, we are only wasting our time if we cannot cooperate and promote a winning platform that we all can stand behind, and will triumph in Nov.2012.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I appreciate the distinction you made between the Mormon beliefs about ancient history (reflected in the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses and Book of Abraham) and their beliefs about more recent historical events around the founding and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    First, I think anyone who is honest about the narrative of the Old Testament will acknowledge that there are all sorts of events chronicled there that have no counterpart in archeology. The presence of the Israelites in Egypt prior to the Exodus, the plagues visited on Egypt, and the miracles that occurred during the exodus, including the crossing of the Red Sea (or Reed Sea if you prefer) on “dry ground” and the destruction of the chariots of Egypt, the similar crossing of the River Jordan on dry ground, and so on, are not things that are very susceptible of leaving a record in the kinds of archeological remains we can discover now. That the Israelites occupied Palestine/Judea/Galilee is clear, but the specific events recorded in the Old Testament, such as David slaying Goliath, just don’t have any kind of counterpart in the archeological record. we are lucky even to find physical records that name particular individuals, though there is little evidence that they are specifically the same people named in the Bible.

    The Book of Mormon contains very little about geography or material culture. It concentrates on the kinds of ephemeral events–wars and religious conversion–that leave little trace in a midden. The scope of archeological scholarship about the ancient Americas is such that it is in a constant state of flux. For example, for many years a widely held belief among archeologists was that ancient Meso-America was a largely peaceful culture, despite the example of the warring tribes that were found by the Spanish in the 1500s. Only more recent later 20th Century archeology has found evidence of significant physical violence. The fact that the Book of Mormon depicts a regular cycle of wars, both external and civil, from about 2000 BC to about 400 AD, is now much more consistent with the picture accepted by archeologists, because archeology has shifted its theories.

    Mormon scholars (including people who earned their PhDs in ancient history, archeology, and ancient languages from schools like Harvard, Yale, and UC Berkeley) have also found striking coincidences between the initial part of the Book of Mormon, which describes a journey across Arabia, and modern findings of archeology and geography. For example, the Book of Mormon describes a journey parallel to the Red Sea and then burying one of the patriarchs of the traveling clan in “a place called Nahom” and afterward turning eastward, to find an oasis with trees and food plants, honey and accessible iron ore deposits, where a ship could be built for further travel. Only in the last 15 years did French archeologists find two stone altars inscribed as gifts from the “tribe of NHM” in an area marked by clusters of burial cairns, from wjhich an easterly journey takes a traveler to the single region of well-watered greenery on the southeast coast of the Arabian peninsula. That location, in Oman, stores monsoon rains in an aquifer that releases its water into constant streams that feed an oasis of flowering plants, grasses, and trees. Nearby are two outcroppings of an easily smelted iron ore, the only ones of their kind in all of Arabia. These are all facts that appeared in no geography book published in the USA in 1829. They were certainly not so well known that any of Joseph Smith’s contemporary critics (of which there were legion)could point to any extant scholarship as an alleged source of the Book of Mormon narrative.

    How many of the critics of Mormonism who ridicule the “lack of archeological confirmation” for that book have even acquainted themselves with these few facts? The unlikelihood that an uneducated Joseph Smith, a young farmer, could have guessed so accurately things that were unknown until 150 years after he published the Book of Mormon, gives reassurance to Mormons who believe the narrative to be true primarily because it teaches sweet truths about Jesus Christ and his Atonement for mankind. But anyone who tries to pass judgment on the “rationality” of Mormon beliefs needs to make an honest effort to learn what modern Mormon scholars have discovered about the cultures of the Old World and the New that are relevant to the plausibility of the narrative as an ancient record. They can do so by going to maxwellinstitute.byu.edu and reading the thousands of pages of entire books as well as journal articles that are available there, free of charge.

    Much of this information has been summarized and presented in two visual narratives on DVD, entitled “Journey of Faith”, discussing the Old World and New World corollaries to Book of Mormon statements about its source culture. There is plenty enough there for an educated Mormon to feel fully justified, from a scientific standpoint, that the story told in the Book of Mormon could have occurred. Whether the reader WANTS it to be true is based more on how well he or she embraces the teachings about Christ that permeate the Book of Mormon. They are teachings that assert that Christ is Jehovah, the Creator, who revealed to prophets before his mortal mission the nature of that mission, not only Isaiah but also other prophets, so much so that people who accepted the teachings of those prophets explicitly looked forward to the coming of the Son of God to the earth. I know this does not fit into a whole batch of evolutionary theories about the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, but it takes seriously the belief that Christ knew what he was going to accomplish on earth at the time he brought it into being. IN other words, the Book of Mormon is very serious about proclaiming that Jesus Christ is also Jehovah, the Eternal God, who manifests himself to all nations, when and where He, God, so chooses. Mormons think that Christians who resist even the concept that Christ appeared in ancient America, after His resurrection, don’t really believe He is God, and want to keep Him in a little box in time and space, where they can control His message.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    With respect to the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the most significant shcolarship on that topic has been done by the Latter-day Saints themselves. The Joseph Smith Papers have been compiled and are being copiously published online. Scholars of all faiths can inspect the originals in the climate controlled conditions of the new LDS Church History Library.

    Mormonism is unique because its miraculous founding narratives are subject to cross checking with historical documents and statements from witnesses of all sympathies. The LDS Church has been increasingly open to making the records in its posession accessible to scholarship. When I was a law student in 1975-1978, I was able to arrange access to records of hearings held by LDS Church councils in Utah that decided all sorts of legal disputes among Church members, in preference to them taking such disputes to the civil courts. My study was published in the Utah Law Review, and a later, more complete study conducted by Professors Edwin Firmage of Utah (a state, not church, university) and Richard Collin Mangrum of Creighton University (a Catholic affiliated university in Omaha) is entitled Zion in the Courts.

    Richard Bushman, a distinguished professor at Columbia University, authored Rough Stone Rolling, considered the definitive biography of Joseph Smith. Professor Terryl Givens of the University of Richmond has published a series of studies placing the Book of Mormon and Mormon culture into the wider context of American culture and history. Historians who had access into the LDS Church archives have produced a comprehensive study of the harrowing Mountain Meadows Massacre and placed it in the context of similar atrocities perpetrated by other Americans and people raised in Western culture.

    In general, studies have indicated that the more educated a Mormon is, the more loyal he or she likely becomes to Mormon beliefs. That includes many people educated in the “hard sciences”. Mormons have had distinguished careers in modern law, politics, science, medicine, the military, and academia. Many among the senior, full time leaders of the LDS Church were called out of those professions. (Mormons don’t have career clergy, so the path to senior Church leadership is a combination of personal accomplishment in a secular career, and many hours a week in unpaid service in teaching and leadership in the LDS Church. It often includes years of uncompensated service as a missionary, often in countries outside one’s homeland.)

    Mormons have lots of information about their modern history, and those who study it most are generally among its most enthusiastic adherents.

    If a critic thinks that no one could be rational and believe in Mormonism, in light of its claims about ancient and modern history, then his conclusion is obviously faulty. Not only Mitt Romney, but many other Mormons are evidence to the contrary, with serious educational and secular accomplishments in fields that require rationality and the ability to marshal the efforts of other rational people outside the Mormon faith. One does not get a joint JD/MBA degree from Harvard by being irrational, as Romney did.

    One does not become the Dean of the Harvard Business School for 10 years by being irrational, as Kim B. Clark did. Scientist Henry Eyring made pioneering discoveries in the application of quantum theory to chemistry, and worked at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton before becoming dean of the graduate school at the University of Utah. He was not irrational.

    One can find example after example of highly intelligent and accomplished Mormons. They are clearly NOT irrational, which means that one of the premises for Mr. Smith’s argument is false. To claim that the premises are true, and therefore that Romney and all other accomplished yet faithful Mormons are irrational, is itself one of the most irrational assertions I have ever seen.

  • petermarlow

    Though as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would disagree with some of your conclusions, such as the statement that we believe in “a historical narrative that is manifestly false,” (Historians cannot prove anything as manifestly true or false. Consider the many difficulties lawyers today have in convincing a jury of the events of even recent history. And the standard there is not “true” or “false,” only “beyond a reasonable doubt.”) I must commend you on your very reasonable approach to the general issue of religious differences. I really enjoyed your thoughts and the way you express them. Your gentlemanly discussion of the issues is delightful change from most anti-Mormon rhetoric. You’ve brought tears of appreciation to my eyes.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It’s very, very nice to have a charitable conversation, Peter. Sincerely.


  • Liberals fear that Romney will be able to make a strong case against re-electing President Obama!

  • scott

    As an active latter day saint, I applaud the author on an article that balances rational thought without shying away from his own “irrational” beliefs. It is rare to see someone say “While I disagree with the Mormons theologically, their dogmas are no more rational than mine are.” Essentially, let God be the judge, but render to Cesar what is his. It pains me to see Americans essentially disenfranchise Romney and justifying it by saying he is insane/untrustworthy/stupid because of his faith. How will Christians feel if they become a minority in America and the same is applied to them?
    By the same token, I do wish my LDS fellow-travelers would not take umbrage with those who differ with us theologically. Of course Dr. Darymple thinks we are in error- if he didn’t, he’d be a Mormon! We think he’s in error, or we’d be Protestant! I hope and pray we would offer him and fellow Christians the same courtesy of disagreeing agreeably as he has.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Many thanks for this comment, Scott. Sincerely.

  • Murdock

    Tim, you and a number of others seem to be totally missing something quite important: What is actually harmful about the article of Warren Cole Smith (hereinafter “WCS”) is not his opinions, which are his own business, but his serious outright factual errors and completely off-base assumptions of fact about our religion, our scripture and our church. To any Mormon, it is obvious that WCS is so ridiculously ignorant that he had no business writing his article. Mormons who read WCS’ article are likely to just shake their heads and think “what a Bozo.” The problem is that non-Mormons who are not well informed about Mormonism, about 99% of non-Mormons I would guess, are likely to assume that WCS’ “factual” (non-opinion) statements are correct and, thus, base their evaluations of WCS’ opinions upon WCS’ inaccurate statements of the facts.

    Take this statement from WCS’ article: “Mormons believe that the ‘lost tribes’ of Israel actually ended up in America.” SAY WHAT??!!! The Book of Mormon describes how a man, Lehi, his wife, Sariah, their children, and a few others left Jerusalem, traveled across the Arabian peninsula, constructed a ship, and sailed to the Western Hemisphere. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Mormon I don’t know anything about the size of the population of ancient Israel, but I assume that the “lost tribes” must have included thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people. Even the Titanic could not have carried them. If the Book of Mormon claimed any such thing, then I would not blame WCS for thinking that Mormons are nuts. Tim, did you really not know that this was a “howler” by WCS? Or, did you just think that it was not worth addressing?

    Take this statement from WCS’ article: “It [a Romney presidency] would also provide an opening to Mormon missionaries around the world, who could start every conversation: ‘Let me tell you about the American president.’ ” WCS could not make it more obvious that he knows NOTHING about the international missionary work of our church. Any missionary who was caught saying anything of the kind would be sent home immediately. The Church endeavors strenuously, and I mean strenuously, to avoid being identified with the American government. Despite the Church’s efforts in that regard, problems still crop up. Mormon missionaries have been murdered in Columbia by FARC guerillas and also in Peru by Shining Path guerillas. As both of these guerilla movements are Marxist, we can assume that their motives were somehow political rather than religious. One night in Belize, a year or two ago, the police rounded up the American Mormon missionaries, threw them in jail, and required that they leave the country immediately. We still don’t know why, except that there was politics, rather than religion, involved. For a while, the Russian government required that American Mormon missionaries, but not Mormon missionaries from other countries, leave every 90 days and re-apply for visas to re-enter, which made it prohibitively expensive to use American missionaries in Russia. The government of Venezuela barred all American Mormon missionaries, which caused considerable disruption while the Church re-staffed the missions in Venezuela entirely with missionaries from other countries. Governments and people all over the world are extremely sensitive to “American imperialism” and so missionary work must be conducted in a thoroughly humble and totally non-political manner.

    Take these statements from WCS’ article: “Mormonism is particularly troubling . . . because Mormons believe in the idea of ‘continuing revelation.’ Even if a Mormon social teaching happens to concur with orthodox Christianity at this point in time, it is unreliable and subject to alteration. They may believe one thing today, and something else tomorrow. . . . It’s tempting to say that ‘continuing revelation’ has defined Romney’s career, who has changed his positions on same-sex marriage and abortion and just about every major ‘culture war’ issue.”

    Let’s take the second part, about Romney, first. Changing positions is a legitimate POLITICAL criticism of Romney, but WCS’ assertion that Romney’s political changes are the product of religion is asinine. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both flip-flopped on abortion. There are 15 Mormon members of Congress. Are they marked by an unusual (for politicians) tendency to change positions? There is a thoroughly political explanation for Romney’s changes of position: Getting elected in ultra-liberal Massachusetts required one position and winning Republican primaries required the opposite position. No religion involved.

    Now let’s take WCS first point about continuing revelation. WCS is positing that our church will change its position on abortion and same-sex marriage, while Romney is serving is President, with some unspecified bad consequence. It appears to me likely that WCS has no idea why our church opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. Tim, do you know the Plan of Salvation? Do you know its centrality to Mormonism? Do you know how it relates to our church’s teachings about the family? Is it reasonable to suppose that those teachings are here today, but could be gone tomorrow?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Murdock, the factual points have been raised before. Believe me, I’ve discussed this article with plenty of Mormons by now (my boss among them!). It seems to me the one factual point that is clearly wrong is his statement regarding the lost tribes. The rest are speculative, and he might well respond: even if LDS missionaries do not bring up Mitt Romney in, say, socialist countries, they can bring up Romney in any number of other contexts; he did not actually claim that Romney flip-flopped due to his faith, he just inserted a little tongue-in-cheek dig at the flip-flopping; and he might say that the point with regard to continuing revelation was that one could not count on Romney to be a consistent representative of conservative values because the church could change its position on any number of things (not just abortion or same-sex marriage).

      Again, I find myself in the curious position of defending an article with which I disagree, because I think some of the criticisms are not fair. When I hear some of these criticisms, I also hear their weaknesses, and I can imagine instantly what a person like Warren would say. Pointing out the clear error is an important way to impugn Warren’s understanding of Mormonism. As for the rest…well, we need to relax a little and try to have a charitable conversation. I understand you’re offended and upset; it comes across very clearly in what you write, and that’s okay. But I’d advise waiting for the emotions to die down a little before you write.

      As editor, I didn’t catch the error regarding the lost tribes. The rest is speculation, and Warren’s free to speculate. Just as you’re free to respond and explain why you think that speculation is likely wrong. I think we have to accept a little ignorance and offense when we speak with one another about our different faiths and the points over which we disagree. That’s how we learn more and come to understand one another better.

      • scott

        While I as an American am offended by Mr Smith’s attitude, as a LDS member, I see where he his coming from as a minister: he believes we are preaching a serious deviation from Christianity. I do not agree with his assesment, but he clearly is trying to be a good Christian by doing so (while he is being a bad American!). So his view is colored by his primary concern- that I believe in a “evil” gospel. To be blunt, I believe (as you do as an LDS believer) that HE believes in an “incomplete” or false gospel. Both his belief and your belief are hurtful to each other- that is a fact. Neither should apologize, as Jesus Himself wasn’t sent to make friends, but to preach Truth. Both you and Mr. Smith believe to have that Truth, exclusive of the other. So to expect him to view historical events the way you do is not realistic. And if God cannot change someone’s mind without their consent, it is foolish for us to try. Mr. Smith is clearly not interested in seeing history the way we do, and it is pointless to try, or even to be angry about his view. I have found it humbling to try and see how creedal Christians view the logical conclusion of our doctrines- and it profoundly hurts many of them. Are we able to accept the same from them?