When religious views matter in politics

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The political topic of the week was Mitt Romney's speech on religion, his attempt to defuse any concerns voters may have about his Mormon faith.

Over at National Review Online (of all places), Jason Lee Steorts responds to criticism that "Mormonism is nuts" (as he puts it) by saying that all religion is nuts.

I'm not going to attempt a comprehensive treatment of why Mitt Romney's Mormonism does matter in the presidential campaign, but here are a few thoughts I had while gazing into my stovepipe hat at a rock folding laundry.

1. Mormonism's weirdness goes beyond the strangeness of its specific doctrines (e.g., God is a man who earned his godhood on the planet Kolob) to two more worrisome qualities: Its esoteric nature and the fact that it relies on the testimony of a convicted con-man, someone who used fakery to bilk people out of money and used the same sort of fakery to invent a religion.

While there's plenty of "weirdness" to be found in Christianity, it's all out in the open for anyone to see. But the Mormon temple and its ceremonies are off-limits to all but the faithful.

In that regard, Mormonism bears a resemblance to a much newer American-born religion: Scientology, where you have to work (and pay) your way through several levels of initiation to hear the core doctrines about galactic warlord Xenu and the poor Thetans he blew up.

2. While a candidate's view on, say, the propriety of infant baptism or the nature of the Trinity may be irrelevant to his performance in public office, there is a branch of theology that is fundamental to governance -- anthropology, which in a theological context deals with the moral and spiritual attributes of mankind. Historically, Christian doctrine has affirmed the special dignity of man as created in the image of God, but also his fundamental depravity as a result of the Fall. One's views on this topic will affect the way you approach right-to-life issues, animal rights, education, law enforcement, and defense policy. The belief that mankind's dignity and depravity are immutable characteristics -- a fundamental precept of conservatism -- will lead you to different conclusions than the belief that human nature is evolving and progressing. The notion of checks and balances stems from the notion of human depravity and the need to limit the power available to selfish human beings.

More importantly, your views on human nature will either square with reality or they won't. The proof's in the pudding: An accurate understanding of human nature will help you develop policies that work, just as an accurate understanding of the principles of aerodynamics will help you develop aircraft that fly.

The Mormon view of human nature strikes me as a kind of Pelagian moralism, which is bound to err in the direction of trying to achieve moral improvement through legislation. To be fair, plenty of Christians err in the same way.

3. I keep thinking about Harold Bloom's book The American Religion, which lumped Mormonism and the dominant strain of Southern Baptist thought for most of the 20th century (until the conservative resurgence in the 1980s) together with Emerson's transcendentalism as varieties of gnosticism. (David Wayne's review of the book is worth reading.) Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both Southern Baptists of the type that Bloom identifies with gnosticism. What about Mike Huckabee?

ONE MORE:

4. Romney said, "There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution." Dead wrong.

The Constitutional prohibition is a limit on government: The federal government can't make a rule that, for example, all customs inspectors must affirm the Nicene Creed or denounce the Pope.

Recall that for over a century, anyone holding an office under the Crown of England had to receive communion in the Church of England and had to subscribe to the following declaration:

"I, N, do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever: and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous..."

This Test Act was still in effect when the U. S. Constitution was drafted.

Romney is wrong to suggest that the prohibition in the U. S. Constitution forbids individual voters from considering a candidate's religious views. I can choose not to vote for Romney because he wears magic long-johns and follows a religion founded by a con-man. I can choose not to vote for him because of his impeccable hair. I can choose not to vote for him because of his flip-flopping on social issues.

Or I can choose not to vote for Mitt Romney because he is deliberately misreading the Constitution in a self-serving and freedom-limiting way.

UPDATE (2007/12/11): The misreading and mischaracterization spreads. I'm no fan of Lawrence O'Donnell, but Hugh Hewitt is wrong to say that O'Donnell favors a religious test because he wants Romney to explain where he disagrees (if at all) with the tenets of the Mormon religion. Hewitt also asks O'Donnell, "Why are you so bigoted against Mormons?" That's an unfair question and beside the point. It's the sort of cheap rhetorical ploy I'd expect from a radical lefty.

MORE (2007/12/13): Rod Dreher has this right, regarding Huckabee's recent comment about an odd Mormon doctrine:

To be sure, I don't care what Romney believes about this matter, as long as it doesn't affect the way he proposes to be president, and I think it's a big mistake to hold that against him. But surely it isn't an "attack" for Huckabee merely to have brought up one of the more unusual doctrines of the Mormon church.

What Romney is really doing is trying to deflect public attention from a religious teaching he would rather not explain by trying to make Huckabee seem like a villain for having raised it in the first place. It's a strategy I'm familiar with. There's a Muslim lay leader in Dallas who has repeatedly accused me of attacking the Islamic faith when I have pointed out unusual and threatening things that Islam teaches, and have tried to get him to explain, or at least own up, to it. To his credit, he hasn't backed away from the sharia's brutality, even as he affirms it as just and right, but he indefatigably characterizes my perfectly legitimate questions about what he believes his faith requires of him in public life (e.g., killing homosexuals) as bigoted attacks on his faith. He keeps saying we ought to all try to get along. Well, yeah, let's get along ... but let's not deny real and important differences, especially when they involve theological sanction for revolting violence, even murder. Ya know?

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8 Comments

s said:

Thanks for posting as many people have no clue about the Mormon faith and You can see why Romney is going to be a tough sell. He is very nice looking -- believe it or not some people will vote on that alone.

Interesting when Steve Largent ran for Governor, I am sure Steve Largent felt he had the nomination locked up and sealed to win as he was in the lead for a long time. Being popular and attractive was not good enough in his campaign run. Some news media would call him "helmet head" and that he made "C's" in college trying to make him look average in intelligence and half as intelligent to the very smart Brad Henry. Some news media made him look as though he was just an average congressman -- nothing spectacular by any means. Steve Largent had a stroke a while back which with the physical shape he keeps himself in is pretty shocking, but I think he recovered from it. However, that is why health history is very important when considering someone for President of the U.S. and their faith is equally an important factor.

I don't think Romney can win nationally since he is a Mormon. I remember M. Romney's wife trying to get the Christian vote and saying on national t.v. "but we believe in Jesus Christ" You need to watch their words in politics.

Dan Paden said:

The belief that mankind's dignity and depravity are immutable characteristics -- a fundamental precept of conservatism -- will lead you to different conclusions than the belief that human nature is evolving and progressing.

Readily granted--but since it seems likely--to me at least--that most of our candidates this go-round are either outright non-believers or nominal believers, I'm not terrifically sure that Mr. Romney's Mormonism makes that big a difference as compared to, say, what certainly appears to be Rudy Giuliani's nominal Catholicism.

Which is not to say that this sort of thing doesn't concern me, just that we don't have what I would like to have: a large pool of intelligent, experienced, hard-core conservative Christian candidates to draw from.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both Southern Baptists of the type that Bloom identifies with gnosticism. What about Mike Huckabee?

I have read at least one source off-handedly suggesting that Mike Huckabee was no friend of the conservative resurgence. On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that he is a creationist, and that he thinks homosexuality is sin. Those are positions that I'd generally think of as reflecting theological conservatism.

My main concerns with Mike Huckabee are that he seems to think, far too often for my taste, that government's role is to do the sort of good works that can really only be successfully carried out by private organizations, and that he seems blissfully incapable of coming to grips with the problems presented by illegal immigration.

webworm Author Profile Page said:

Here it is, 0700 Sunday morning, as I prepare to exercise my religious rights and beliefs between power outages; my Mac PowerBook battery is pretty well charged up, so I may make it through the day. Your views on the LDS situation are well thought out, at least from your perspective. My problem is that I don't worry about Romney's faith; I am worried about Hillary's lack of same. And I am worried about Muhammad Obama's islamic bent. I cringe at that thought! Mike Huckabee is a Baptist preacher. Our previous experiences with Jimmy and Slick Willie scare me a lot. I think we have had enough of that sort for a while. Romney isn't hiding anything; we know all about him and his faith. For the moment, that is good enough for me.

s said:

Jimmy Carter is considered by millions to be the absolute worst ex-president. Jimmy Carter undermined American Foreign policy and turned millions of democrats into republicans. Thank you Jimmy Carter for all those new Republican votes during the following election! He was pretty much shunned for his advice by other presidents.

Bill Clinton ran against the elder Bush that has a very low-key personality and that combined with his age and other situations going on during that vote and with Bill Clinton's adoring nature playing his instrument on late night tv, likeable personality and with lots of media assistance that "purposely" avoided all of Bill Clinton's personal failures when showing those extremely expensive and staged public relations experts using their good friends in public relations to twist the American public's perception on who the real Bill in campaign ads. Voters elected Bill Clinton in spite of Hillary Clinton telling viewers to not vote for her husband when Barbara Walters interviewed him and brought up Gennifer Flowers and there were sexual affairs with many other women showing even Bill Clinton taking oath as Governor of Arkansas was just as wild and uncontrolled and Bill Clinton as Governor of Arkansas was severely undisciplined in his personal behavior as when he served as president. Bill and Hillary's obvious long-time strain in their marriage and his political aide letting us know Bill and Hillary's marriage is extremely odd and it's as though they use each other just to get elected in politics.

Hillary Clinton has a book at Mardel talking about God. Her upbringing in a political family and her endless desire to get all those White House perks and Bill Clinton wanting to get back in the "game" as though she was trying to overcome her failures including those close to her report Hillary has a hot terrible temper, people that have crossed them have ended up in unexplained suicides and other bad reports. Hillary endured staying with Bill's endless many personal failures for political gain only -- not because of "God" or her religion.

Huckabee's overwhelming latest popularity has surprised many and many conservative could be shifting their favorite candidate to Huckabee so that the Republican's will win again.

Oprah with her influence is making Hillary Clinton a tough-sell.

Pro-life issues is why some candidates have been known to change their point of view when running for President of the U.S.

s said:

Tulsa World today page one has an article on ROBERTS POWERFUL IN BYLAWS. Online you can read that was a very popular subject and there were 177 comments on that story last I checked.

s said:

Interesting book to read MORMONISM UNMASKED when considering Mitt Romney

sbtulsa Author Profile Page said:

the Mormon church is the fastest growing denomination in America, maybe the world. the question is not in Romney's philosophy on church and state. the question is what in Romney the Mormon would he transport in to his governance.

Mont McNeil Author Profile Page said:

As a Mormon and a regular reader of your site, I was disappointed with much of your post. I expect skepticism; Joseph Smith himself stated that he doesn't blame anyone who doesn't believe his story -- if it hadn't happened to him he'd have a hard time believing it himself. But I'm disappointed to see derision. A few particulars:

Referring to Joseph Smith as a convicted con-man is misleading. He was in fact at one time indicted on charges of deception and public disturbance, but was acquitted on the deception charge although convicted on the other. (Your link seems intended to leave the misimpression.) That wasn't the last time he was hauled into court and convicted on spurious evidence -- this sort of thing seems to happen to religious visionaries all the time. Paul comes to mind. Christ too, for that matter. And most of the rest of the post you linked to is similarly misleading and deceptive.

The translation of the Book of Mormon through the use of seerstones is a fantastic story. Could the translation of the Book of Mormon have occurred through the medium described? You or I wouldn't have thought of it, but then again you and I probably wouldn't have thought we could make a blind man see through rubbing a clay made of dirt and spit onto his eyes. Or could feed five thousand people with a handful of loaves and fishes (with plenty left over). Or that a leper could be healed by bathing himself seven times (not just once or six times) in an ordinary river. All of which I believe, by the way, but I wouldn't have thought of any of them. And I'm not trying to compare Joseph Smith to Christ here -- Joseph (like the leper, the five thousand and Naaman) was the recipient of God's supernatural intercession, not the purveyor of it. God does move in mysterious ways -- you don't doubt that, I suppose.

And the derisive use of "magic long-johns" to describe LDS temple garments was offensive. I'd expect that kind of insult from a Howard Stern, but not from a committed Christian such as yourself. All I know about you is from reading your blog and hearing you on the radio, but you don't seem to be the sort who would refer to a yarmulke as a "magic beanie" or a crucifix as a "magic death icon". Most religions have sacred emblems or icons whose significance may not be obvious to nonadherents. But ignorance needn't lead to rudeness.

Thanks for all your good work, Michael, and for letting me use your comments section to address these points. Personally I'm not yet sold on Mitt for President myself -- the myth of the monolithic Mormon political opinion has yet to explain the existence of, say, Harry Reid -- and still haven't made up my mind (leaning Giuliani). But I worry that discourse about what Mitt does bring to the table -- something that should be paramount to a good government advocate such as yourself -- gets obscured by namecalling and derision about his faith.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 8, 2007 11:12 PM.

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