Ernest Partridge: About This “Mormonism” Thing
About This “Mormonism” Thing.
When Willard “Mitt” Romney announced his intention to run for the Presidency of the United States, one might suppose that there was joy in Salt Lake City among the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
I suspect that by now those leaders may be having some second thoughts.
For while it was a good thing for the American public to learn about the Mormon faith, Church leaders are now discovering that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
The thirteen Articles of Faith of the Mormon religion enumerate a set of beliefs, some of which are quite consistent with traditional Christianity, and others which, while unique to Mormonism (e.g., the Book of Mormon), are not outlandish or immediately offensive to most ordinary Christians. (The Articles of Faith were written by the Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, to a Chicago publisher, John Wentworth, in 1842). The Articles say nothing about God once being a mortal human and being one among many Gods, about the brotherhood of Jesus and Satan, about God inhabiting a planet called “Kolob,” or about the “magic underwear” that devout Mormons are required to wear, etc. Nor are you likely to hear about such things from the Mormon missionaries that might appear at your front door.
However, it now seems naive to have supposed that these and other bizarre Mormon doctrines would not be brought to light by Mitt Romney’s political rivals.
Many faithful Mormons are surprised at the astonishment and derision that some LDS beliefs provoke among the general public. This surprise is likely due to the simple and universal fact that beliefs that are taught in childhood and shared in a community of believers are regarded by the faithful as “obvious” and “ordinary,” while at the same time those same beliefs are considered, “from the outside,” to be weird and outlandish.
I can testify to this fact, for I have experienced Mormon doctrine from both the inside and the outside. From childhood, through high school, I shared Mitt Romney’s faith in the Mormon religion. Then that faith totally vanished during my freshman year in college – at Brigham Young University, of all places!
MORMONISM AND ME
If I might be permitted a few autobiographical remarks, this is how it happened.
My high school education was outstanding. I was among a few students selected to attend a “demonstration” school attached to a state teachers’ college, where we were taught by college professors. There I acquired a precociously secular, scientific, and scholarly perspective on human history and institutions. At the same time, my parents (both graduates of BYU and both post-graduates of Columbia University) saw to it that my two brothers and I regularly attended LDS Sunday services. They accepted the conventional view that “Sunday School” was essential to a child’s moral development – a view that I have since come to seriously doubt.
Accordingly, during my adolescence, I carried about in my head, a bifurcated mind. There was “the weekday mind” of ancient dinosaurs, of evolution, of American Indians as migrants from Asia, and above all, of skepticism, scientific discipline and critical thought. Then there was “the Sunday mind” of the Creation in 4004 BC, of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s flood, of the Indians as migrant Israelites (the “Lamanites”), and of faith trumping “man’s reason” – faith: “the substance of things hoped-for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews, 11:1). I somehow managed the alternation of mind-sets from weekdays to weekends to weekdays again, without undue strain.
But at BYU the shifting of mind-sets from classroom to classroom to library to study hall proved to be untenable. At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred to the University of Utah and majored in Philosophy. Courses in geology, anthropology, new-world archeology, etc., pounded the final nails into the coffin of my childhood faith. In the words of the apostle, Paul: “when I was a child, ... I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (I Corinthians, 13:11) In my mind, the Latter-Day Saints, formerly “us,” became “them,” and since then I have never looked back. (Accounts of this “de-conversion” may be found in my unpublished “A Peculiar People” and “Religion and the Schools: A Dialog”).
Today, the polygamous man-God of Kolob, the magic underwear, the Hebrew-Indians, the translating peep-stones and the golden plates, the farm boy and the angel, “the curse of Cain” upon all people with any African ancestors, baptism for the dead (the Creator of the earth and all human souls being incapable of saving those souls all by himself), etc. – all this and more seem as bizarre to me as they do to most non-Mormons. (The essential tenets of Mormon theology are presented in this remarkable cartoon narrative of unknown origin. It is generally accurate, although there are a few identifiable minor errors. For example, Mormons do not believe that God and Mrs. God came to earth as Adam and Eve).
But equally bizarre to me is the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation (the ritual cannibalism of God’s body), the argument that birth control is contrary to “natural law,” the protestant fundamentalist beliefs in biblical literalism, young-earth creationism, and the doctrine of “the rapture,” the orthodox Jewish ban against eating shellfish or wearing mixed fabrics, and the Islamic belief that the Angel Gabriel handed the Koran to Mohammed. Much worse is the plain immorality of many traditional religious beliefs. These include the belief that the genocide, murder and mayhem chronicled in the Old Testament were condoned and even commanded by the Lord God, that God had ordered that disobedient children, blasphemers, unchaste young women (but not men), and those who toil on the Sabbath be put to death, and that a loving God created billions of souls, all but a few thousand of whom He has condemned and will condemn to eternal damnation and torment. Among those condemned are authentic “secular” saints and martyrs such as Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Galileo, Voltaire, Gandhi, Jefferson, Sakharov, who somehow failed in their lifetimes to agree with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.
A “RELIGIOUS TEST” FOR PUBLIC OFFICE?
We Americans are traditionally a tolerant people, who believe that one’s personal religious faith should not disqualify one from public office. It is so stated in Article Six of our Constitution: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Until recently, I endorsed this pronouncement without qualification. Now, after seven years of George Bush’s “faith-based” administration, I have reservations. Thus, I find the prospect of a Mitt Romney or a Mike Huckabee administration to be unsettling. At the very least, the question of a “religious test” for public office deserves some careful scrutiny.
The issue articulates around the meaning of “religious test.” The term can be interpreted negatively: “no Catholics, Jews, Moslems, or atheists need apply.” Or it can be interpreted positively: “these offices are open exclusively to born-again evangelical Christians” (or other religious persuasion). Article Six of the Constitution notwithstanding, there is, practically speaking, a religious test for the Presidency and for membership in Congress; no self-professed atheist has ever occupied the White House, and only one admitted non-believer is now in Congress (Pete Stark of California), although there may be a few more who associate themselves with a religious denomination out of political necessity.
Does “religious test” refer to an individual’s religious affiliation, or to his or her religious beliefs? Despite the close correlation between affiliation and belief, the distinction is crucial. Exclusion from public office on grounds of religious affiliation is a giant step toward theocracy and the establishment of a state religion. The framers of the Constitution were wise to forbid it.
But once you have identified a person’s religious affiliation, what do you have? Perhaps, not much. Consider, for example, “Mormonism.” There are reportedly over twelve million Mormons. Among them are faithful Mormons like Mitt Romney, with uncompromising “testimonies” of the truth of their beliefs in “the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ,” of the Book of Mormon, of the divine mission of Joseph Smith, and of the divine authority of the “prophet, seer and revelator” in Salt Lake City, who leads the LDS Church. There are, I would guess, at least as many “social Mormons,” who have an abiding respect for the history and traditions of the Church and who enjoy the weekend company of other Mormons, while at the same time rejecting the LDS theology. “Social Mormons” admire, as do I, the strong family values, the integrity, and the in-group solidarity and compassion that is conspicuous among the Mormons. But they may be much less impressed with the indifference of the Church and its members to social and economic injustice. Many of my much-admired professors at the University of Utah were non-believing “social Mormons.” So too, as I was eventually to discover, were my parents.
And finally, because it is extremely difficult to remove one’s name from the membership rosters of the Church, those rolls include individuals who are totally alienated from the Church. When the LDS Church proclaims that there are more than twelve million Mormons, the Church no doubt counts me among them, although I have entered a Mormon church just twice in the last forty years, each time for the funeral services of my parents.
So when Jon Meacham of Newsweek writes that “the world’s nearly 13 million [Mormons] ... believe that God ... [revealed] the Book of Mormon,” Meacham and Newsweek are flatly wrong.
Because John Kennedy was apparently a “social Catholic” rather than an uncompromising believer in the absolute authority of the Pope and the Vatican, his affirmation of the separation of church and state was quite credible and thus he was fully qualified to serve as President of the United States.
Accordingly, an individual’s religious affiliation, per se, should not disqualify one from public office. But should a person’s religious beliefs enter into a public discussion of that person’s qualification for office? Here the issue becomes complicated and controversial, and the distinction between religious affiliation and religious belief comes into play.
Suppose a candidate for public office identifies himself as a believer in the ancient Aztec religion, and thus an advocate of ritual human sacrifice to the Sun God. In such a case, clearly the vast majority of Americans would say that he is unqualified for public office. I’d venture that those who signed the Constitution would agree. However, I would argue that the correct focus of this objection would not be to his religious affiliation but rather to his public advocacy of human sacrifice.
The same argument would apply, I suggest, to those who would promote policies of burning witches, of trial by combat, and of capital punishment for disobedient children, homosexuals, and blasphemers. True, all such policies issue from religious conviction, but it is the specific policies, not the general religious orientation, that should be of most immediate relevance.
What if a Roman Catholic proclaimed that if elected, he would do his utmost to outlaw all birth control drugs and devices, “because the Pope tells me to do so.” If so, then that person should not hold public office in the United States. Not because of a “religious test” against that candidate because of his Catholic faith but rather because of his attempt to “establish” Catholicism as the ultimate source and sanction of secular U.S. law (contrary to the First Amendment to the Constitution) and to impose his religious beliefs upon citizens that do not share these beliefs.
Similarly, if a candidate of any religious persuasion were to suggest that persons of other faiths, or no faith, must be given a diminished citizenship status in our republic, then that candidate likewise disregards the establishment clause of the first amendment. Those who insist that “this is a Christian nation” are of such a type, as is Mitt Romney when he asserts that he would not appoint an Moslem to high office in his administration.
Finally, suppose a believer in “the end times” proposes to do nothing about global warming, to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and all environmental protection laws, and to invest nothing in alternative “green” energy sources. He proposes all this because, like Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary, James Watt, he devoutly believes that Jesus will soon return to renew the earth, thus making all such policies unnecessary. Again, such a candidate should be judged as unsuited for public office because of his policies, and not because of his religious affiliation. In fact, many evangelical Christians, such as Jimmy Carter, believing as they do in responsible “stewardship” of God’s creation, have an opposite point of view.
Having thus separated a candidate’s religious affiliation from his public policies, I do not wish to suggest that religious faith is irrelevant to one’s conduct in public office. Quite the contrary. If a candidate wishes to tell the world that he intends to be guided in public office by his religious convictions, then a voter is fully entitled to examine those convictions and to speculate as to the behavior and policies that might issue from those convictions. As we have seen, the professed religious convictions of George Bush, of his appointees to high office, and of his supporters in the religious right, have had profound effects upon public policies and legislation regarding global warming, energy, scientific research and development, public health, and foreign policy towards Islamic nations.
With these considerations in mind:
What About Mike Huckabee? Like Jimmy Carter, Mike Huckabee is a Southern Baptist. But Huckabee is no Jimmy Carter. Carter, a trained and certified nuclear engineer, negotiated an amicable personal peace between his religious faith and modern science, and thus his administration was distinguished by Carter’s support of scientific research and education . Huckabee, unlike Carter, does not accept evolution or the scientific account of the age of the earth, and he believes the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, to be the inerrant word of God.
This is not the sort of leader that the United States requires at this crucial moment in the nation’s and the world’s history. As Al Gore correctly warned us in his Nobel Prize speech, we are facing a planetary emergency. Evidence of rapid and radical climate change comes from data samples that are thousands and millions of years old. Remedial action must take long-term ecological consequences into account. Resources, information and initiatives from the life sciences are urgently needed, and evolution is the central coordinating concept of the biological sciences. The last thing we need in the White House is a man who denies evolution, who believes that the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and who believes that inerrant wisdom resides in a collection of ancient texts by unknown authors.
What About Mitt Romney? Mitt Romney is a man of uncompromising faith in his “restored gospel” and in its living prophet, Gordon Hinkley, the President of the LDS Church. Perhaps Romney believes that he can govern independently of the doctrines of his church and the guidance of its leaders, but I am not convinced. This is a church that proclaims, “when the prophet [LDS President] has spoken, the thinking has been done.” I’d prefer a president who continues to think after an old man in Salt Lake City has had his say.
Romney’s firm grasp on the “iron rod” of LDS doctrine (a Book of Mormon allusion) is not replicated in his announced political and economic policy positions. Far from it. His alternating, weather-vane endorsements and rejections of positions on abortion, gay marriage, etc. have become notorious. We know that Mitt Romney is a faithful and believing Mormon. But what else is he? He gives us little guidance as to his position on public issues, or as to how he would perform as President. In any case, if you don’t like his political position, just be patient. Like Seattle weather, it’s bound to change.
Romney’s so-called “JFK speech” in Texas was alarming to say the least, and had the opposite intention and effect than did Kennedy’s. Bill Curry in The Huffington Post summarized it well: “Kennedy reassured evangelicals that though his faith was different from theirs he’d never impose it. Romney told them his faith wasn’t so different and that in any event he’d be happy to help impose theirs.” Romney, who has announced that Moslems have no place in his administration, effectively demoted non-believers (secularists) to second-class citizenship when he asserted that “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish together.” By implication, the irreligious and the non-religious are enemies of freedom.
In that same speech, Romney warned that “in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning.” He did not spell out that “original meaning,” nor did he explain how he intends to undo this allegedly excessive separation – how, that is, he would reunite church and state in a Romney administration.
I wonder if Romney has given much thought to the meaning and implications of his reassurances regarding the role of religion in American political life.
I can report that this “secularist” is not reassured.
Faith and dogma have got us into our global trap. Trained intelligence, education, critical thinking and courageous political initiative must lead us out.
These essential assets have been in short supply in this political season.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".