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The Big Test

Taking Mormonism seriously.

Within days of stepping down as governor of Massachusetts on January 4, Mitt Romney is expected to announce his candidacy for president. Shortly after that, Romney will almost certainly need to deliver a major speech about his Mormon faith—a speech in the mold of John F. Kennedy's 1960 address to the Baptist ministers of Houston, Texas, in which the candidate attempted to reassure voters that they had no reason to fear his Catholicism. Yet Romney's task will be much more complicated. Whereas Kennedy set voters' minds at ease by declaring in unambiguous terms that he considered the separation of church and state to be "absolute," Romney intends to run for president as the candidate of the religious right, which believes in blurring the distinction between politics and religion. Romney thus needs to convince voters that they have nothing to fear from his Mormonism while simultaneously placing that faith at the core of his identity and his quest for the White House.

This is a task that may very well prove impossible. Romney's strategy relies on the assumption that public suspicion of his Mormonism—a recent poll showed that 43 percent of Americans would never vote for a Mormon—is rooted in ignorance and that this suspicion will therefore diminish as voters learn more about his faith. It is far more likely, however, that as citizens educate themselves about the political implications of Mormon theology, concerns about the possibility of a Mormon president will actually increase. And these apprehensions will be extremely difficult to dispel—because they will be thoroughly justified.

THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT has been enormously successful at convincing journalists not to raise questions about the political implications of a candidate's religious beliefs. Analyzing the dangers of generic “religion” to the nation's political life is considered perfectly acceptable—indeed, it has become a cottage industry in recent years—but exploring the complicated interactions between politics and the theological outlooks of specific religious traditions supposedly smacks of bigotry. The focus on Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960, for example, is today widely derided as a shameful expression of anti-Catholic prejudice that ought never to be repeated.

This is unfortunate. However useful and necessary it may be to engage in theoretical reflection on politics and “religion,” the fact is that there is no such thing as religion in the abstract. There are, rather, particular religious traditions, each of which has its own distinctive history of political engagement (or disengagement, as the case may be). And, certainly, the political history of pre-Vatican II Catholicism—with its overt hostility to modernity, democracy, liberalism, and religious “error,” as well as its emphasis on the absolute authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals—raised perfectly legitimate questions and concerns about what it would mean for the United States to elect a Catholic to the nation's highest office.

A very different, though arguably more troubling, set of questions and concerns are posed by the prospect of the nation electing a president who is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). In some ways, Catholicism and Mormonism present diametrically opposed political challenges to liberal democracy. With Kennedy's faith, the concern was over the extent of his deference to a foreign ecclesiastical authority. The genuine and profound loyalty of Mormons to the United States and its political system is, by contrast, undeniable. Indeed, LDS patriotism flows directly from Mormon theology. And that is precisely the problem.

With few exceptions, America's Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities have roots in Europe and the Middle East. However Americanized these communities may be in doctrine and spiritual outlook, their theologies ultimately derive from older and richer traditions that predate the United States. This is true even of the many branches of Protestantism that began and flourished in the New World, nearly all of which have built on Calvinist theological motifs.

Not so for Mormonism. Radicalizing traditional Protestant worries about corruption in the historic church, the religion founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in upstate New York has understood itself from the beginning to be a “great restoration" of authentic Christianity after an 1,800-year “apostasy” that began with the death of the original apostles. That this restoration took place in the United States was no accident, according to Mormon theology. Smith produced a 500-page document, The Book of Mormon, containing the record of an ancient civilization, descended from the biblical Israelites, that supposedly lived, flourished, and collapsed in the Americas 1,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Jesus Christ visited these people after his resurrection in Jerusalem, spreading his gospel in the New World and planting the seeds of its rebirth many centuries later by Smith himself.

In later revelations, Smith went even further in placing the United States—both geographically and politically—at the focal point of sacred history. The Garden of Eden, he claimed, was located in Jackson County, Missouri. The American Founders were “raised up” by God in order to establish a free government that would allow the restoration to occur and the LDS Church to spread the restored gospel throughout the nation and the world. (Accordingly, all 30,000 undergraduates at LDS-owned Brigham Young University (BYU) are required to take “American Heritage”—a course that teaches the “American system of government and institutions in the context of the Restored Gospel.”)

The centrality of the United States to Mormon theology extends beyond the past and present to encompass the end times as well. Like many of the religious groups to emerge from the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, Mormons are millennialists who believe themselves to be living in the years just prior to the second coming of Christ; hence the words “latter day” in the church's official title. Where the LDS differs from other communities gripped by eschatology, however, is in the vital role it envisions the United States playing in the end times. The Mormon “Articles of Faith” teach that, when Christ returns, he will reign “personally upon the earth" for 1,000 years, and LDS interpretations of a passage in Isaiah have led some to conclude that this rule will be directed from two locations—one in Jerusalem and the other in “Zion” (the United States). This belief has caused Mormons to view U.S. politics as a stage on which the ultimate divine drama is likely to play itself out, with a Mormon in the leading role. Joseph Smith certainly thought so, which at least partially explains why he spent the final months of his life—he was gunned down by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844—running for president of the United States.

MORMONS DIFFER FROM mainstream Christians in another respect as well: their emphasis on the centrality of prophecy. Christianity in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions holds that direct revelation ended many centuries ago, before the scriptural canon was closed in the late fourth century. Numerous heterodox movements have made contrary claims, of course, but Mormonism is unique in the emphasis it places on prophetic utterances. Not only was the religion founded by a self-proclaimed prophet who brought forth new works of scripture (The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price) and even rewrote (“retranslated”) passages of the canonical Old and New Testaments in light of his personal revelations; but the man who holds the office of the president of the LDS Church is also considered to be a prophet—“the mouthpiece of God on Earth,” in the words of Mormon theologian and Apostle Bruce McConkie—whose statements override both scripture and tradition.

The truly radical implications of this view were brought home to me during two years (1998-2000) I spent as a (non-Mormon) visiting professor in the political science department at BYU. Like good teachers everywhere, another non-Mormon colleague and I posed moral and ethical dilemmas in our classes in order to encourage our students to reflect on the character of the beliefs they brought to the classroom. What would they do, we wondered, if the prophet in Salt Lake City commanded them to commit murder in the name of their faith, much as the God of the Old Testament supposedly instructed the ancient Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites? More than one pious young Mormon invariably responded by declaring that he would execute the prophet's commands, no matter what.

The point is not that Americans need to beware a covert genocidal plot by Mormons. On the contrary, LDS prophetic declarations since the late nineteenth century have tended to moderate church teaching, moving the community into greater conformity with mainstream American values—abolishing polygamy in 1890, for instance, and opening the Mormon priesthood to black members of the church in 1978. Yet the response of the BYU students nevertheless points to a potentially dangerous problem in LDS theology—namely that, by elevating prophecy above other sources of revealed truth and by insisting that the words of a prophet supersede mainstream Christian as well as established LDS scripture and tradition, Mormonism opens the door to prophetically inspired acts and innovations, the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way.

Thoughtful Mormons are well-aware of this problem, but the peculiarities of the church and its founding make devising a solution extremely difficult. One option would be for the LDS Church to follow the lead of the Catholic Church in developing a tradition of philosophical reflection on natural law or some other moral ideal to which God and his prophets are assumed to be bound or co-equal. This rationalist tradition could then be used to check the veracity of prophetic pronouncements. The difficulty, however, is that Smith encouraged his followers to cultivate suspicion of philosophy. Mormons assume that the centuries-long “apostasy” that preceded Smith was caused in large part by the rationalizing of faith that took place in the early church. According to Smith, it was questions like the one Socrates posed to Euthyphro—does God love what is good because it is good, or is it good because God loves it?—that led the church fathers and early church councils into theological and doctrinal errors that corrupted Christianity for nearly 18 centuries. To this day, the Mormon church teaches genuine respect for reason only when it operates within the narrow limits set for it by LDS prophecy.

But the obstacles to Mormons developing a binding moral theory go beyond the church's generalized suspicion of autonomous reason; their concept of God seems to deny the very possibility of such a theory. Unlike the God of Catholics and Protestants—who is usually portrayed as the transcendent, all-powerful, all-good, and all-wise creator of the temporal universe out of nothingness—Smith's God is a finite being who evolved into his present state of divinity from a condition very much like our own and then merely "organized" preexisting matter in order to form the world. As a result of this highly unorthodox revelation, there is simply no room for a natural morality in Mormon theology, since Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose. Everything we know—or could ever know—about right and wrong comes entirely from divine commands communicated to humanity by prophets. The idea of appealing to a higher principle against the word of a prophet—the idea, in other words, of using one's own mind to cast moral or intellectual doubt on the veracity of a prophetic pronouncement—therefore makes no sense in the Mormon conceptual universe.

These limitations have led some leaders of the church to propose that Mormons should look to the currently accepted canon of scriptures revealed by Smith as the standard by which to assess all future revelations. In the words of Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth president of the church, official LDS scriptural texts should be used as “the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man's doctrine." This moderate and moderating view remains a controversial position in the church, however, and for good reason. None other than Joseph Smith and his successor-prophet Brigham Young seemed to take a different stance toward the authority of revelation. Compared with “living oracles,” Young declared, canonical works of scripture “are nothing,” because they “do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation.” To which Smith replied, "Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.”

It is impossible to know how Mormons will resolve this significant tension over the coming years. The church's current president, 96-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley, has certainly shown no sign of theological radicalism during his eleven-year tenure as prophet. As those who have caught one of his many jovial appearances on “Larry King Live” will have noted, Hinckley is an exceedingly unthreatening figure. And whoever succeeds him may very well prove to be equally anodyne. In practice, the rigidly hierarchical institutional structure of the LDS Church—with the prophet as well as the two counselors with whom he shares the “First Presidency” drawn from the “Quorum of Twelve Apostles”—is remarkably effective at enforcing theological conservatism. It is simply very difficult to rise to the top of the organization without being a consummate company man.

Yet the fact remains that, as it is currently constituted, Mormonism lacks the intellectual or spiritual resources to challenge a declaration of the prophet who runs the church, regardless of how theologically or morally outrageous that declaration might be. Members of the church may insist that non-Mormons have nothing to worry about, since God would never issue an immoral edict, but that is quite obviously a matter of faith—a faith that non-Mormons do not share. As long as the LDS Church continues to insist that its leader serves as a direct conduit from God—a God whose ways are, to a considerable extent, inscrutable to human reason—Mormonism will remain a theologically unstable, and thus politically perilous, religion.

ARTICLE VI OF the U.S. Constitution famously stipulates that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Though the Framers meant to prohibit a test compelling office-seekers to affirm a particular set of religious views, it makes sense to treat the proscription as applying negatively as well—as prohibiting a test that would exclude members of certain religious sects from holding office. In our time of heightened sectarian tensions—when devout believers and secularists increasingly perceive themselves to be stationed on opposite sides of a cultural chasm—it is crucially important that Americans remain committed to allowing every qualified citizen to run for public office, regardless of his or her religious views.

But defending the constitutional right of every qualified citizen to run for office is not the same as saying that a candidate's religious views should be a matter of indifference to voters. In the case of Mitt Romney, citizens have every reason to seek clarification about the character of his Mormonism. Does he believe, for example, that we are living through the "latter days" of human history, just prior to the second coming of Christ? And does he think that, when the Lord returns, he will rule over the world from the territory of the United States? Does Romney believe that the president of the Mormon Church is a genuine prophet of God? If so, how would he respond to a command from this prophet on matters of public policy? And, if his faith would require him to follow this hypothetical command, would it not be accurate to say that, under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country—with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong?

One suspects that, if pressed in this way, Romney would seek to assure voters that he would never follow such a command if it conflicted in any way with his oath of office. How such a statement would square with his professed Mormon faith is far from clear, however. Under modern conditions, some religions—Protestantism, post-Vatican II Catholicism, Judaism—have spawned liberal traditions that treat faith primarily as a repository of moral wisdom instead of as a source of absolute truth. Other religions, by contrast, have tended to require believers to accept everything or nothing at all. Mormonism (like Islam, another faith founded in prophecy) is one of the latter, binary religions. When a Mormon stops accepting the binding truth of prophetic revelation, he effectively becomes a lapsed Mormon.

At the beginning of his political career, that description seemed to fit Romney pretty well. In his failed bid to unseat Senator Edward Kennedy in 1994, Romney responded to questions about his faith by stating that he was not running “to be a spokesman for my church.” In the same campaign, Romney also asserted that states should be free to decide whether to allow same-sex marriage, and he demonized Republican “extremists” for seeking to “force their beliefs on others.” These remarks would be unusual for any devout Mormon, but they are especially noteworthy because Romney made them at a time when the LDS Church was actively working to ensure that Hawaii would not become the first state in the nation to—in the words of a church statement issued in February 1994—“give legal authorization or other official approval or support to marriages between persons of the same gender.” Even on abortion—the issue that, more than any other, unites conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons—Romney portrayed himself as a moderate as recently as 2002, claiming in his run for Massachusetts governor that he “would protect the current pro-choice status quo” in the state because “women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not the government's.”

But the Mitt Romney currently contemplating a run for the White House is a very different candidate. Seeking to serve as the standard-bearer for the religious right, he now staunchly opposes abortion and supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He claims, in short, to be a man of deep piety who wishes to increase the role of conservative religion in the nation's public life. Far from soft-pedaling his faith, as he once did, he now embraces it as central to his political strategy.

A cynic would say that Romney has changed his positions in order to win the Republican nomination and that, in his heart, he's most likely a lukewarm believer in the doctrines of his church. In that case, non-Mormons may have nothing to fear from a Romney candidacy (though religious conservatives may have grounds for concern about how well he will represent their cause). But there is another possibility: Romney may have undergone an authentic religious rebirth during the last few years—a rebirth that has led him to embrace the fundamental tenets of his church more fully than ever before in his political career. If so, voters need to know it. And they need to think long and hard about the possible consequences of making such a man the president of the United States.

Damon Linker is the author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. This article appeared in the January 20, 2007, issue of the magazine. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.