Unavoidable: Seriously, which of these other people can you imagine on a platform with Barack Obama? Even as beset and damaged as Obama has become. Which of them could Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, or the most partisan anti-Obamaite imagine succeeding in that role? The only possible exception is Jon Huntsman, and he can't get out of the cellar among the GOP candidates.
Unacceptable: The symptom of this problem is the apparent 25% ceiling on Romney's support in GOP polls. This ceiling persists despite the increasing smoothness of Romney's debate performances, despite the relatively gaffe-free nature of his campaign, and despite the clownish or pathetic self-destruction of each "promising" challenger in turn. (Next up: Newt Gingrich.) The causes of the problem seem to be some combination of (a) the "Obamneycare" flip-flopper image, (b) whatever other things people don't like about him personally and politically, and (c) the Mormon Question
The striking aspect of the Mormon Question is its high-low strategic mix. Earlier I quoted a specimen of low-grade anti-Mormonism, from the "they are not real Christians, they're just crazy cultists who worship snake-gods" tradition. Recently we've seen anti-Mormonism from impeccably lofty sources, eg Harold Bloom in the NYT and Christopher Hitchens in Slate, the former summing up the high-end critique this way:
The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?
And from Hitchens:
Whether this makes it a cult, or just another of the born-in-America Christian sects, I am not sure. In any case what interests me more is the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS, discussion of which it is currently hoping to inhibit by crying that criticism of Mormonism amounts to bigotry.
Here is a note I got to similar effect from a long-time Atlantic reader:
An investigation of any religious doctrine will disclose it is fantasy. A good look at Mormon theology will document it is insanity. The Presidency is REAL. A person in that office is actually able to give an order that will result in the destruction of our world. Mormons believe, along with a lot of other certifiable nonsense, that they are more safe than other people because they wear a special set of underwear, and that a man living a proper Mormon life will, after death, be given his own planet to populate. It is not bigotry to wish to avoid having within arms length of the red phone a person convinced of such nonsense.
To declare my own views:
- I believe that virtually any faith you can name rests on tenets that are "irrational," unprovable, and largely supernatural. That's why they call it "faith."
- In my experience, almost any belief system appears "weird" to people outside it, and most of them, inspected closely enough, have aspects of the sinister. It's a banal point, but still true, that the supernatural parts of the Book of Mormon seem "weirder" than those in Exodus, the Nativity story, the Book of Revelation (talk about weird and sinister), or the Koran because they allegedly happened in the 1800s, not millennia ago, and in upstate New York rather than in the Holy Lands.
- On the other hand: there are such things as cults, dangerous "belief systems," and organizations so odious that mere membership in them presumptively disqualifies people as political candidates. The American Nazi Party? Sure. The U.S. branch of al Qaeda, or Aum Shinrikyo? Also yes. Scientology is a closer call, for reasons I'll get into another time.
Reduced to its basics, the "Mormon Question" is whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with some 15 million members worldwide and about half that number in the United States, is this kind of presumptively disqualifying organization. It is embarrassing to have to say this, but I don't think it is.
That leads to the second-level question, of whether a candidate's stands and traits are so determined by religion that you really can't judge the person apart from the faith. People who didn't live through those times will find it hard to believe, but such a fear really was part of the barrier for John F. Kennedy in 1960. "Serious" people wondered -- in print and out loud -- whether an American Catholic could govern with America's best interests in mind, not the Vatican's.
I can imagine Mormon candidates -- or Muslim, Baptist, Jewish, Christian Scientist, etc ones -- who were so fundamentalist in applying their faith that to vote for them would be to vote in their religion. Neither Romney nor Huntsman gives off that vibe to me. I'm not going to vote for Mitt Romney, but that's because of the corelessness of his positions, and the irresponsible warmongering of his talk about Iran, and his shameless bloody-shirtism about the immigrant menace, and many other positions that have no known connection to his faith. For me, Romney the Mormon is exactly as appealing as he would be if he were Catholic, Jewish, Episcopalian, or any other mainstream faith. The only difference is that I would actually find him more appealing if he were an "out" Muslim or atheist, because those would be gutsier stances in the America of our day.
But enough about me! Here is a sampling of recent mail, with more to come. First, from a reader who identifies himself as an LDS member, on the general question of who is the nutty cultist:
On the accusation that Mormons believe such crazy things that we can't possibly be rational: have they been watching the Republican debates? The two most rational people in the room have clearly been the two Mormons.
I'm actually not a fan of either Romney or Huntsman. I voted for Obama in 2008 and anticipate doing so again. I'm not at all proud of how Romney in particular has run his campaign thus far, but "rationality" is definitely not one of his problems.
And further on nutty cultism, from another LDS member:
I was amazed at the letter you published by the man who talked about the sun god stuff. I've been LDS my whole life and that was the weirdest characterization of the faith I've ever seen. How could I attend this church weekly for 55 years and never hear of such things?? He must really be an enemy to this church to create such a distorted view of our theology.
More after the jump.