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Mitt Romney's Mormonism

A TNR online debate.

Wednesday: Richard Lyman Bushman
Thursday: Damon Linker
Friday: Richard Lyman Bushman

Friday, January 5

Dear Damon,

I appreciate your moderate and respectful reply to my objections. It is often hard for non-Mormons to understand how Mormons believe all we do. You at least see how Mormon beliefs and our way of life could be satisfying to educated, reasonable people, among whom you presumably would include Mitt Romney.

What troubles you is the implication of belief in prophetic revelation: Would Mormons perform any dire deed for their prophet no matter how contrary to conscience? And what about the belief that the United States and the Church might combine to dominate the world some day? Would Mitt Romney serve as the tool of Church leaders in facilitating a plan for world domination? His belief in revelation seems to require that he should.

These seem like perfectly legitimate questions, but they have a point only if you assume potentially dark motives on the part of Church leaders. You object that you do not use the word "fanatic" in your article, but the questions evoke the very image of fanaticism I was talking about: evil-minded religious leaders employing their spiritual authority over blindly loyal followers to magnify their own power. That is exactly the picture painted by the nineteenth-century polemicists who labeled Mormons fanatics. And they reached their conclusion in the same way as you do--by "teasing out" implications. The protestations of innocence by Mormons themselves mean nothing. Nor do their actions calm the fears. All that matters is that the reasoning from premise to conclusion--revelation to vicious action--is impregnable. Doubtless without meaning to, you are following the reasoning of the anti-fanatics to its fearful conclusion.

In evaluating the political implications of Mormon beliefs, you should use real facts about real events, not theoretical possibilities. Have Mormon leaders actually used their influence to manipulate politicians in the interest of world domination? What reason is there to think they have this on their minds? The reason Mormons are likely to find your analysis a phantasm is that we rarely, if ever, speculate about the world when the millennium comes. This is simply not on the agenda of active Mormon concerns, and it is certainly not a "core" belief. If anything, Mormons draw on the tradition that holds that many religions will flourish after the coming of Christ--a kind of American-style tolerance of all faiths. Mormons conscientiously carry the gospel to the world, but I have never heard a Mormon forecast political domination, much less collaboration with the United States government. Are you aware of Church leaders discussing such plans? No.

From your reply, I would judge that you are most concerned about loyalty to prophetic authority. Would Mitt Romney as president give way to immoral and illegal directives from Salt Lake? You make the subtle and interesting point that Mormons have no natural law tradition to constrain a Mormon president--either a president of the Church or the country. Since revelation trumps everything, where are the limits?

Your concern might be alleviated by considering how revelation actually works--in Mormonism and in biblical history. The scriptures themselves place heavy restraints on prophets. It makes a big difference that the moral law is enunciated endlessly in Mormon scriptures. The Ten Commandments were rehearsed in an early revelation, reinstalling them as fundamentals of the Church. Later, the Saints were told "no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned." Could all this be overthrown by a new revelation? You think that revelation wipes the slate clean, negating everything that went before. But that is not the way prophetic revelation works, now or ever.

The proper analogy is to the courts and the Constitution. The law is what the courts say it is, we assert hyperbolically. Theoretically nine justices can overturn any previous interpretation of the Constitution on a whim. But, in fact, they don't--and we know they can't. Their authority depends on reasoning outward from the Constitution and all previous decisions.

The same is true for prophets. They work outward from the words of previous prophets, reinterpreting past prophecy for the present. That was certainly true for Joseph Smith, whose most extreme revelation--plural marriage--was based on plural marriage in the Bible. Prophets do not write on a blank slate. They carry forward everything that went before, adapting it to present circumstances. Like Supreme Court justices, they would put their own authority in jeopardy if they disregarded the past. The moral law, embedded in this revelatory tradition, exercises far greater influence on Mormon thought than the abstractions of natural law could possibly effect.

I am asking you not to focus so narrowly on what you take to be the logical implications of revelation. That is what critics of fanaticism have been doing for centuries. Look at the historical record of the past century as Mormons have entered national politics. Is there evidence of manipulation? Consider the Church's own renunciation of control over the consciences of Mormon politicians--a stand Catholics have not taken. Are you saying this is a false front? Keeping in mind the injunction in Mormon scripture to submit to lawful government, is there any real basis for concern?


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Thursday, January 4

Dear Richard,

I was delighted when I learned that you would be responding to my article on Mitt Romney. I admire your work on Joseph Smith and the beginnings of Mormonism, so I hoped for a critical engagement with the substance of my essay.

I must admit, however, to being disappointed with your response. Instead of answering the questions I pose, you dismiss them as a product of my overheated and paranoid liberal imagination. Unwilling to concede the validity of anything I argued in my piece, you claim that what I wrote "makes no sense" to Mormons--all the while failing to point to a single factual inaccuracy in my article. Rather than engaging with the theological concerns I raise, you say that they all flow from my belief that Mormons are religious "fanatics." Indeed, you consider this last point so decisive that you use variations on the word "fanatic" 14 times in your 1,000-word response--despite the fact that I never used it or any similarly harsh or dismissive adjective to describe Mormon beliefs in my article.

For the record, I don't consider Mormons to be fanatics. I consider them to be very seriously religious, and I think that their faith deserves respect--certainly far more respect than it has typically been accorded in the press and by evangelical Protestants. I am deeply impressed by the audaciousness of Joseph Smith's revelations. In addition to bringing forth a new 500-page book of scripture and setting out to correct ("retranslate") the canonical Old and New Testaments, Smith denied the creation of the universe ex nihilo, proposed that God has a body, and suggested that human beings can evolve into Gods themselves. More remarkable still, he persuaded large numbers of people to accept these heterodox beliefs and to risk (and, in many cases, to lose) their lives defending their right to affirm them. However odd Mormon beliefs may sound to orthodox Christians and doctrinaire secularists, these critics need to recognize that the LDS Church proclaims a vision of the world and God that speaks to something noble in the souls of millions of Mormons and the thousands of people who convert to the Church every year. (This is, in part, what Harold Bloom meant in The American Religion when he accurately described Joseph Smith as one of history's great religious geniuses.)

It is precisely my respect for Mormonism--my desire to take it and its religious claims seriously--that leads to my disappointment at your response to my article. You say that arguments like mine "baffle" Mormons. But why? I made three interrelated assertions in my essay--that Mormons believe Jesus Christ will return sooner rather than later; that, when he returns, he is likely to rule the world from the territory of the United States; and that the president of the Church is considered to be a prophet of God. Then I teased out various possible political implications of these theological commitments. In your response, you do not take issue with my three assertions, presumably because they are accurate statements of core LDS beliefs. Where my article becomes baffling is thus apparently in its discussion of implications. Mormons, you imply, would never follow a morally questionable or politically perilous pronouncement by the prophet in Salt Lake City.

I do not doubt that you and many other Mormons believe this. But can you tell me (and other non-Mormons) why--on what basis--you believe it? A devout Roman Catholic, for example, would have plenty of theological resources to grapple with an analogous question about following a papal edict. She might begin by pointing out that the Pope is not considered a prophet and is only rarely presumed to speak infallibly. She might then appeal to natural law, which an authentic papal pronouncement could never contradict. Then there is the closed canon of scripture. And a series of binding councils stretching back to the early days of the church. And a nearly 2,000-year tradition of relatively settled dogma and doctrine on faith and morals.

As I explained in my article, Mormonism has none of these moderating safeguards. It considers its leader to be the "mouthpiece of God on Earth." Mormon cosmology is arguably incompatible with natural law theory. It rejects the authority of every church council accepted by historic Christianity. And its scriptural and doctrinal traditions are fluid and radically open to revision in light of new prophetic revelations.

On the other side of the ledger, I also suggested that the hierarchical structure of the LDS Church has tended to have a moderating influence on its leadership and that it might very well continue to do so in the coming years. To this you have added individual conscience, which you believe would keep Mormons from following a questionable prophetic commandment unthinkingly. This is a promising start, but it is only a start. Conscience, after all, is a notoriously unreliable guide to right action--one that is most effective when it supplements firmer sources of morality and belief.

Does Mormonism contain such sources? If so, what are they? I taught at Brigham Young University for two years and count several Mormons among my closest friends, and yet the answer to these questions remains a mystery to me. And LDS culture today is shot through with so many unsettling contradictions that I find it hard to see how this mystery could be dispelled anytime soon. The Church is profoundly conservative, but its theological and historical foundations are incredibly radical (involving not only multiple acts of prophesy and revelation but also the establishment of a polygamous theocracy in the intermountain west). I know many intellectually curious and skeptical Mormons, but their curiosity and skepticism nearly always remains cordoned off from their religious beliefs. At the level of the ward (or parish), LDS church life is highly egalitarian, but individual Mormons tend to be extraordinarily deferential to ecclesiastical and political authority. I could go on.

As Mitt Romney prepares to become the most serious Mormon candidate for president in American history, members of the LDS Church (and especially its leading scholars and intellectuals) owe it to themselves and to their country to think deeply and publicly about these issues. The alternative--striking a purely defensive stance and hoping the questions and concerns will go away--is simply not a serious response.


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Wednesday, January 3

Dear Damon,

Your anxiety about a Mormon politician knuckling under to a Mormon Church president replays the debate in 1904 over the seating of Apostle Reed Smoot in the United States Senate. Senators kept questioning church president Joseph F. Smith about his control of Mormon politics. Over and over, he assured the committee that he had no intention of dictating Smoot's votes in the Senate, but the questioning went on.

Now, a century later, we can judge the actual dangers of the Mormon Church to national politics from the historical record. Have any of the church presidents tried to manage Smoot, Ezra Taft Benson, Harry Reid, or Gordon Smith? The record is innocuous to say the least. There is no evidence that the church has used its influence in Washington to set up a millennial kingdom where Mormons will govern the world or even to exercise much sway on lesser matters. It's a long way from actual history to the conclusion 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."

Mitt Romney's insistence that he will follow his own conscience rather than church dictates is not only a personal view; it is church policy. The church website makes this explicit: Elected officials who are Latter-Day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated church position. While the church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent. You are going against all the evidence of history and stated church policy in contriving the purely theoretical possibility of Mormon domination. Is that not the stuff from which all paranoid projections on world history have been manufactured?

Liberals must be particularly cautious in speculating about the political intentions of religious groups because of their fascination with fanaticism. Fanaticism is one of the most firmly entrenched stereotypes in the liberal mind. The fanatic is the polar opposite of all that the liberal stands for and thus constitutes a particularly delicious enemy.

Joseph Smith ran up against the fear of fanaticism almost from the beginning. It was the chief underlying cause of the recurrent expulsions the Mormons suffered. When non-Mormons could find no specific infractions to warrant prosecution in the courts, they resorted to vigilante action to drive the Mormons out. The Mormon presence was unbearable because they were so obviously fanatics. Quite typically, the fear of fanaticism led democrats into undemocratic extremes. Mormons were deprived of their property and the right to live and vote in a supposedly open society. In 1846, after a decade and a half of recurring attacks in Missouri and Illinois, a body of armed citizens forced out the pitiful remains of the Mormon population in Nauvoo by training six cannons on the town.

The stereotype of fanaticism is essentially a logical construction. The seemingly airtight logic is that anyone who claims to speak for God must believe he possesses absolute truth with an implied commission to impose that truth on everyone else. Mohammed, to whom Joseph Smith was frequently compared, used violence. Joseph Smith, lacking the means, tyrannized his own followers and refused to acknowledge the truth of any other doctrines but his own. You assume that Mormon leaders, by the same token, will want to commandeer the United States government to advance their cause.

Nothing Mormons can do will ever alleviate these fears. It did not help that the right of individual conscience in religious matters was made an article of faith, or that the Nauvoo city council passed a toleration act for every conceivable religious group including Catholics, Jews, and "Muhammadans." Whatever they said, their neighbors could not believe that the Mormons' ultimate goal was not to compel everyone to believe as they did.

Your essay chooses not to look at the historical record, because specific facts are irrelevant in explicating fanaticism. It is the logic of revelation that counts. The Mormons have to be interested in world domination because their doctrine requires it of them. Furthermore, they are all dupes of the chief fanatic and will willingly do anything he requires. You cite as proof of this extravagant claim "more than one" undergraduate who said he would kill if commanded. No mention was made of students who said they would have refused. That method is in keeping with the management of the fanatic stereotype. There is no effort to give a balanced picture. Certain key facts or incidents are made archetypal. In unguarded moments or exceptional instances the true nature of the fanatic mind reveals itself.

The unquestioned belief in the potency of fanaticism makes facts unnecessary. Readers know in advance what to expect just as they foresee the ending of a romantic movie far in advance. The art of writing in this mode is to mobilize all of the foreknown elements and arrange them to reach an expected conclusion.

Damon, I thought you moved along judiciously through most of the essay, but you blew your cover in the paragraph of questions to Mitt Romney. There, you try to nail him on his beliefs about the church president being a prophet. It follows necessarily, you think, that, if Romney believes in current prophecy, the church will run the country under his presidency. That leap from assumption to conclusion in one bound is only possible if you are steeped in the logic of fanaticism. For Mormons themselves, it makes no sense.

You are caught in the dilemma that ensnares everyone preoccupied with fanaticism. You describe Mormonism in a way that makes perfect sense to non-Mormons and no sense to Mormons themselves. This means, to me, that you are describing the inside of your own mind as much as the reality of Mormonism. Mormons will hear a lot of this so long as Romney is in the race, and it will baffle them every time.

Richard Lyman Bushman

By Richard Bushman and Damon Linker