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

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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.

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.
Amazing!

More after the jump.

___
"It's not bias against Mormons, it's bigotry against non-Christians as a whole."  A reader writes:

I think you're missing an important point in the backlash against Romney by fundamentalist Christians in the GOP.

Whether Romney were Mormon or Jewish, or Hindu, or (god forbid!) Atheist, or Buddhist is, to a large degree, all the same. To a large portion of today's Republican Party, if you're not Christian, you're not acceptable. And a large number of Christians do not define Mormon as being Christian. I remember a gay(!) fundamentalist Baptist co-worker tell me, a couple years ago, softly, under his breath, that Mormons are nice people, but they are not Christian.

So this is an example of bigotry against non-Christians in general as opposed to bigotry against Mormons, specifically. In that sense, it's wrong to think that Mormons are being singled out in this instance.

It's difficult for me to feel particularly sorry for Romney on this matter given the degree to which he has been willing to change his political stances to best appeal to Republicans. One cannot help but think that he might be quite content in a world where fundamentalist GOPers defined Christianity in such a way as to include Mormonism in the tent rather than out of it, where Romney was a beneficiary of that bigotry, rather than a victim of it.

I have no proof of that, of course. But it's hard not to think it quite possible, given Romney's flip flopping over issues like abortion.

All of this, by the way, still leaves open the possibility that some may be motivated by specifically anti-Mormon bias. But in this case, I don't think it's any more anti-Mormon than anti anything else that these Values Voters see as non-Christian.

From the Southern Hemisphere, a case for more atheists in public life:

We live in New Zealand, and my wife is Australian.  We enjoy, and certainly notice, how none of this religious talk ever ever EVER comes into the political sphere down under. How refreshing it is, that when it comes to politicians, no one knows, or seems care about your personal religious beliefs.  There is no psuedo religious test, or proclamation of your belief in Jesus Christ necessary, to be in the political game.

Julie Gillard, Australian PM, is an atheist, for goodness sake.  Can you imagine that in America?  Me either. Also, what is so noticeable is  "what is absent" in the political speech. There is none of that "God Bless Australia or NZ"  talk, or "We are praying for you " language related to this last seasons horrific Queensland's floods, as an example.  A simple, "We have you in our thoughts", worked just fine, and no one politician thought or felt the need to either beech or blame God.  

Agreement about the atheists, from a reader in England:

Can't wait to see if your mailbag includes any of my fellow liberal atheists noting that (a), of course it's bigotry; but (b) you'd have to be crazy to take the tennets of Mormonism (or any other religion) seriously.

The Plates of Nephi aren't any weirder than, say, the Assumption of Mary. But the Assumption isn't any less weird than the Plates. The Latter Day Saint movement simply hasn't been the necessary millenia to acquire the patina of normalacy that mainstream Christian churches have. (Though I wonder if that patina is washing away; the Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere springs to mind. Imagine an election between a Mormon candidate and an Opus Dei candidate.)

And, raising some issues that I'll turn to in further dispatches, from a mother of a Mormon convert:

I hope that as you continue this topic, you will give space to some of the more sensible replies you received, rather than the rant you printed today - a rant that certainly does seem to prove your point - that those who would not  vote for a Mormon are ignorant and bigoted.

Personally, I would be very reluctant to vote for a Mormon, and I don't think this is the same as not wanting to vote for a Black person or a woman. You have said that you will address the issue of what is inborn versus what is a choice, so I won't go into that here.

You also have stated that a Mormon has a constitutional right to run for office. While I agree with you there, I don't think it means that I can't consider that person's religious beliefs when choosing how to vote. Can you imagine no circumstance in which you would consider a person's religion in voting? Some fundamentalist Christians believe that God put dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith. Is it wrong for me to consider that denial of scientific knowledge important in casting my vote? Would refusing to vote for a person because he is a member of the Heaven's Gate religious group be simple bigotry? Must we cast rationality completely aside because a belief falls under the category "religion"? If not, who gets to decide where we can draw the line without being accused of bigotry?

I know quite a bit about the Mormon religion because my daughter converted while she was in high school. She asked if she could go to a class to "learn" about Mormonism and, being open minded, I allowed it. I had no idea at the time that I was sending a child who had not yet developed critical thinking skills to face a very sophisticated marketing plan. I was not allowed to attend her wedding because it was in a Mormon temple. If you are a parent, perhaps you can imagine that pain. I object to a church that claims to be family friendly, yet is so willing to tear parents and children apart.

And their beliefs really are far outside the mainstream. For instance, they do believe that they can ultimately become gods. The church is extremely homophobic and sexist. And one doesn't have to search very hard to discover that Joseph Smith, their prophet, was a fraud with a record of involvement in get-rich-quick schemes and a truly reprehensible attempt to override citizen's rights in Nauvoo, Illinois. I have numerous other problems with the Mormon church, but this letter is already long.

A Black person cannot choose to be white, but Mitt Romney does not have to stay with the Mormon church. I do not care whether he is or is not "Christian." I would be willing to vote for a Muslim. But I think Romney's adherence to the Mormon church matters, and I am not a bigot because I will consider that when I vote.
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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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