With Mitt's Ascent, We're Back to the 'Mormon Question'

To begin working through the queue of open issues, let's dip once again into the anti-Mormon mailbag.

RomneyFamily.jpgFrom the Republican Party's point of view, the big news of these past two months is that the nomination of Mitt Romney has become both unavoidable and unacceptable.

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.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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