Mocking religious beliefs: the grandfather clause

Is believing that you will rule your own planet after death weirder than young-earth creationism?

What makes Mormon beliefs fair game for mockery in the minds of some journalists?

A local Fox News reporter decides to ask random voters whether they’d vote for a candidate “who believes that if he’s a good person in his religion he will receive his own planet” (in the afterlife). He follows up with a question about locating the Garden of Eden in Missouri. One of the voters dutifully replies that he finds the beliefs “a little nutty, a little fruity” and wouldn’t vote for such a candidate.

Both of those beliefs are, supposedly, tenets of Mormonism. I don’t know Mormon theology, but I haven’t seen the assertion challenged. Whether actual Mormons literally believe such things is another question to which I don’t have the answer.

In any case, the beliefs are supposed to make Mitt Romney (and presumably Jon Huntsman) ineligible for the White House.

What makes locating the Garden in Missouri any less plausible than locating it in Asia, at the headwaters of the Euphrates and three other rivers, one of which encompasses Ethiopia? What makes an afterlife on one’s own planet more risible than a celibate afterlife somewhere in Heaven (that is, the sky) with God and all the angels?

Since we don’t actually know anything about what happens to individual consciousness after death, it’s hard to see how any given belief on the topic could count as more absurd than another; once you’ve swallowed the camel of the flame continuing to burn after the candle is gone, why strain at gnats?

And neither of these (supposed) Mormon beliefs approaches the pure silliness of “young-earth” creationism, which implies not only that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time but that the entire visible cosmos can’t be more than 6000 light-years across, and that therefore photographs of other galaxies represent what cannot exist. Moreover, beliefs about geology, biology, and physics are in fact relevant to public policy, while beliefs about the nature of the afterlife are not.

Yet no reporter would consider asking voters whether they would regard Sarah Palin’s (apparently) literal belief in young-earth creationism to be a disqualification for the Presidency. Why, then, should Mormon beliefs be fair game?

Part of the answer, obviously, is simple numbers. Of two equally weird beliefs, the one believed by the smaller group will seem weirder. Another part is age: the Book of Mormon was written more recently than the Book of Genesis. Neither really provides an adequate moral basis for abandoning the principles of toleration.

My own view is that candidates’ “Sunday beliefs” should be off limits unless and until a candidate decides to carry them over into discussion of public issues. (Anti-feminist or gay bigotry doesn’t get a pass just because it claims biblical roots.) That is, I’d make “no religious test” a rule of discourse as well as a rule of law. But if Mormon, or Islamic, beliefs are fair game, then Catholic and Protestant and Jewish beliefs should be on an equal footing.

Better not to go there.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “Mocking religious beliefs: the grandfather clause”

  1. Some religious beliefs elevate political issues into moral causes, limiting the choices available to political leaders. Candidates for high office should be able to distinguish between the political (temporal) and the moral (transcendent) domains. Knowing when you are talking politics, and not deceiving yourself into thinking you are talking about the eternal, is a pillar of sanity in the public square. To insist that potential holders of elected office meet this criterion of sanity is not to apply a religious test.

  2. “Some religious beliefs elevate political issues into moral causes, limiting the choices available to political leaders.” For example, the belief that slavery, or Jim Crow, was morally wrong? It’s hard to see how moral beliefs – religiously based or not – could or should be kept out of politics.

  3. Wait, you mean a reporter attempting to determine whether there is an anti-Mormon bias in the electorate is guilty of intolerance? Are you saying that the press should NOT have discussed anti-Catholic bias in 59-60?

    The voter did not “dutifully” report that he felt the belief to be nutty unless, of course, that is not what he believes. Rather, the voter truthfully repoerted his opinion and the effect on his preferences in candidates. Is it better not to know?

  4. Watch the video, JMG. The reporter is clearly stirring up bigotry, not merely reporting on it.

  5. I think perhaps they want people to focus on how silly Mormonism and other fringe religions are so people won’t start to question the utter absurdity of the “accepted” mainstream faiths like Christianity and Judaism. Just a thought.

  6. I don’t know, I just think any candidate whose religion practices symbolic cannibalism really shouldn’t hold elective office. I mean what kind of whacked out religion who have you pretend to eat someone every single week?

  7. Long-time inactive Mormon here (although I consider myself an atheist).

    Both of those beliefs are, supposedly, tenets of Mormonism. I don’t know Mormon theology, but I haven’t seen the assertion challenged. Whether actual Mormons literally believe such things is another question to which I don’t have the answer.

    Technically both are true, although I don’t know how much individual Mormons know about them. I learned about both in a Mormon Seminary class and in church growing up.

    1. The highest level of heaven is supposed to be godhood, at which point you become a god over your own children and worlds (who then are born in mortal flesh, and the cycle continues).

    2. The Garden of Eden is in Independence, Missouri, according to LDS beliefs. We learned about that and the area next to it, called “Adam-Ondi-Aman” (I can’t spell it), which was where Adam was exiled to after expulsion from Eden.

    What makes locating the Garden in Missouri any less plausible than locating it in Asia, at the headwaters of the Euphrates and three other rivers, one of which encompasses Ethiopia? What makes an afterlife on one’s own planet more risible than a celibate afterlife somewhere in Heaven (that is, the sky) with God and all the angels?

    Exactly. These are all unproven assertions, with only dubious “evidence” and testimonials from believers as “proof”.

    The only thing that makes the LDS faith weaker is that it makes some rather strong claims about past civilizations in the Americas that are rather dubious on archaeological grounds. The Bible is a bit more ambiguous because some of it is historically accurate and there’s no question that it was heavily written in the 1st Millenium B.C.E., but archaeology hasn’t been entirely kind to it.

  8. Mark, I think you’re very wrong on this. And I say not just on tactical grounds, but on basic progressive grounds.

    Let’s ask ourselves: what upsets you here? The sneering tone of the reporter, or the airing of this information?

    The sneering reporter will always be with us — he was with us sixty years ago asking whether “colored” people should be allowed to use the same facilities as decent folk (obviously not), and twenty years ago asking whether “queers” should have the same legal rights as decent folk (obviously not). But the rest of society changes and eventually this reporter keeps his mouth shut in public (at least on these particular issues), and then he dies.

    What about the airing of the information? Any reader of my comments will know that I’m no fan of religion. But if we have to have it, the best option available seems to the deracinated, hippie, “man, it’s all just different names for the same spiritual feelings” sort that prevails on the left and right coast. We got to that, and we extend it, through a slow process of people seeing that people around them, people they respect and admire, in fact hold rather different theological views from themselves. In the case of christian fundamentalists, the only crowd around that seem likely to fill that role are mormons.

    Finally: “Yet no reporter would consider asking voters whether they would regard Sarah Palin’s (apparently) literal belief in young-earth creationism to be a disqualification for the Presidency. Why, then, should Mormon beliefs be fair game?”
    This is, when you think about it, NOT a comment on the desirability of keeping mum on candidates’ theological beliefs; it is a comment on the corruption of the US media. And, pace my earlier comment, I truly believe that the US (and the world) would be a whole lot better off if, in fact, we had a whole lot less of this sort of thing. If we can’t get CBS to do this, there is value in Jon Stewart, or Al Jazeera, or Haaretz, or the Times of India pointing out these beliefs repeatedly.

    And the value is not in preventing Palin from being elected; the value is in getting children all over the world to look at their own belief systems and be rather less intolerant. Even when Palin is such a clown that one wonders at who would take her as a role model, look at the big picture. Even as we speak, there are undoubtedly a few Palin wanna-be’s in India, figuring out the details of their platform of mocking Moslems and Chinese, and promulgating myths and outright lies regarding India past. Publicizing the parallels between these clowns and the US’ version of this phenomenon are undoubtedly in India’s interest.

  9. I don’t think LDS beliefs about the location of the garden of Eden or about the afterlife are silly. However, the claims that Native Americans are the descendants of two lost tribes of Israel that built a civilization in North America then fought each other into a long decline is belied by extensive archaeologic, linguistic, and genetic findings. I suppose you could say the same thing about young-earth creationism too.

  10. If a presidential candidate endorsed superstitious belief that is not religion based, would the electorate be better off knowing that prior to an election? For example, President Reagan arranged his schedule around his wife’s belief in astrology. I doubt that that would have mattered to his more dedicated supporters (nor to his confirmed detractors), but it would have been helpful, I submit, for undecided voters to have been informed of that irrational belief before casting their ballots.

    Why would the same not be true of superstitious belief that is based on religion?

    (Apart from the irrationality of the former First Lady’s belief, the p*s*y-whipping aspect of the former president’s deference is also noteworthy.)

  11. “once you’ve swallowed the camel of the flame continuing to burn after the candle is gone, why strain at gnats?”

    But, of course, the answer to that is that one shouldn’t swallow camels, not that one should also swallow gnats…

  12. Mark asks:

    “ ‘Some religious beliefs elevate political issues into moral causes, limiting the choices available to political leaders.’ For example, the belief that slavery, or Jim Crow, was morally wrong? It’s hard to see how moral beliefs – religiously based or not – could or should be kept out of politics.”

    I do not know if this will clarify the point, but there was an old poll done by Americans United for Separation of Church and State some years ago showing that the more religious you were, the less likely you were to accept political compromise.
    http://www.au.org/media/church-and-state/archives/2005/03/church-goers-les.html

    When compromise is ruled out, the range of choices available to politicians becomes more narrow. Political questions can be compromised on, but to become morally compromised is a terrible thing. You do not compromise with evil.

    Slavery (ditto for Jim Crow) raises interesting questions as an extreme test case. I feel pretty certain that William Lloyd Garrison was more nearly right than Henry Clay, but I wonder if we might be living in a better country today if there had been a few more Henry Clays (or Abraham Lincolns) in the 1850s rather than a few more William Lloyd Garrisons.

    In a sense, I think that we are living right now with our very own President Clay, AKA Barack Obama. I often get frustrated with his willingness to keep compromising with the Tea Party and other extremists. I still like him because he does seem to know the difference between issues that admit of compromise and moral principles that must stand immovable. My sentiments are not universally shared.

    At one time (shortly before Roe), the Southern Baptists called for legislation permitting abortion in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, and the likelihood of emotional, mental, or physical harm to the mother. They were a bunch of Henry Clays at that time, looking for political solutions to abortion issues; today, there are many more Garrisons in the field. This is a development to be regretted.

    You need moral values in politics in order to know which options to prefer, when the consequences of each are clearly laid out. You do not need to think that the options lead to either the Beatific Vision or to the Central Pit of Malebolge. You need to know that it is just politics, after all.

  13. Mark, I agree with you that the Mormon position on the afterlife has little bearing on electoral politics and should be off-limits since it really is no different than any other conception of the afterlife, but also because America should be a place that embraces different religious concepts. However, I think whether a candidate believes in Young Earth Creationism still is a relevant topic since it is very plainly and factually wrong and suggests that the person who believes it has great difficulty in understanding the most basic facts of reality. I don’t want such a person near the White House or Congress or the Supreme Court.

    So the rule for me might be: If one can be reasonably agnostic about something (ie., the religious belief is not empirically testable), then it’s off-limits, but if the belief contradicts a firmly established and important fact, then it should be aired and discussed.

  14. There might be two other reasons why nutty Mormon beliefs are treated worse than comparably nutty Jewish, Christian, or Muslim beliefs.

    First, Mormons insist that they are Christians. To other Christians, this is a statement of heresy, which always gets treated worse than heathenism. I don’t think that Jews or Muslims are as hard on Mormons as other Christians.

    Second, Joseph Smith was a religious genius, but no literary stylist. Nobody can credibly defend Mormon sacred works on their literary merits (at least in their English incarnation), unlike much of the Bible, or most of the Koran.

  15. 1. “My own view is that candidates’ “Sunday beliefs” should be off limits unless and until a candidate decides to carry them over into discussion of public issues.”

    2. “It’s hard to see how moral beliefs – religiously based or not – could or should be kept out of politics.”

    Let’s add: 3. Just about any political position will be predicated on at least one moral position (not exclusively, but moral positions will be involved).

    Conclusion: All “Sunday beliefs” must be fair game because it’s impossible to keep them out of politics. The only way to make them off limits would be to say “sorry, that is my belief but there are no political consequences from it and it does not really impact my political or policy decisions.” In that case, yes, reporters shouldn’t pretend those beliefs are news-worthy. Otherwise, yes, those beliefs are relevant – and we know this from your own words.

    It really doesn’t matter if a candidate *decides* to carry them over. On the contrary, when candidate tries to avoid talking about them that may make them even more important to investigate. What matters is whether they influence the candidate’s positions, conclusions, decisions, etc. Even if the candidate doesn’t talk about them openly.

  16. Mark is dead wrong here. I think that candidates ought to all take a cue from Kierkegaard and say, “‘The strength of religious conviction is inversely proportional to its publicity’ therefore my religious beliefs are nobody’s business.'” To the degree the candidate espouses any religious belief whatsoever, those claims are absolutely fair game; in fact they should be regarded as crucial to the evaluation of the candidate’s judgment, ethicality, hypocrisy, and intlligence.

    Almost all of us make a leap of faith somewhere (even empiricism is one)but “Faiths” (“Sunday Beliefs”) get a special dispensation they don’t deserve. Beliefs in the face of or absence of evidence are also prejudice, and they should not be bowdlerized into something loftier. Insofar as your prejudice makes you more humane, ethical, self-restrained and tolerant (as some Faiths do — for some)it should be tolerated by others. Insofare as your prejudice (typically in emulation of the Big Bigot in the sky) posits some good higher than fairness, merit, and truth it should be pissed on from a great height. Ridicule, however prone to abuse it may be, is one of the most effective non-violent tools we have for shaping behavior and shaming error. We should not hesitate to use it on educated adults who still insist upon magic, miracles and monsters. Never forget: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. History has confirmed this many times since Volaire formulated it.

    Finally, I call BS on Mark here: “Since we don’t actually know anything about what happens to individual consciousness after death, it’s hard to see how any given belief on the topic could count as more absurd than another….” Alas, we do know what happens to individual consciousness after death, as certainly as we know anything in this universe. Consciousness ceases with death — that’s what makes it death. There is no evidence whatsoever (save for the confabulations of the Monsters, Magic and Miracles set) to the contrary.

  17. My own view is that candidates’ “Sunday beliefs” should be off limits unless and until a candidate decides to carry them over into discussion of public issues.

    In 2008, Austin Dacey published a book arguing the opposite; the title is The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. The book closes with the following paragraph:

    Conscience is what unites thinking persons and free peoples across ethnic, national, and creedal lines, and in its unfolding through public conversation, our moral lives are measured out. Conscience cannot be found in duty to God, for it is conscience that must judge where one’s duty lies, and so the faithful cannot hold a monopoly on morality. Before any of us is a member of the Body of Christ, the Umma, or the Chosen People, we are all members of the community of conscience, the people who must choose for themselves.

    Given that Michelle Bachmann uses her religious views to bolster her with the Teahadi’s, those views deserve to be discussed and criticized in the public forum. If that causes examination of the religious views of Romney as well, so be it. In the long run, I think this should benefit politicians like Pete Star, who have more rational world views.

  18. “What makes locating the Garden in Missouri any less plausible than locating it in Asia, at the headwaters of the Euphrates and three other rivers, one of which encompasses Ethiopia?”

    Obviously you’ve never been to Missouri…

  19. I basically agree here right up until I imagine how I’d feel if there were a scientologist candidate who was looking seriously competitive. I would not feel good at all about having a scientologist president no matter his/her political ideology, yet I don’t know if I can justify that feeling as a legit exception relative to other religious beliefs I consider silly.

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