Getting our values straight on the Mormon “issue”

For the record: Attacks on Mitt Romney based on his LDS religious heritage are unacceptable and un-American.

I am often offended by the number of conservative Republicans who fail to step up when partisans in their own party present ugly insinuations regarding President Obama’s alleged un-American-ness, his religion, or coded references to his race. Governor Perry’s comments about whether President Obama loves America, and Mitt Romney’s somewhat more sophisticated comments in the same vein rank among those that really tick me off.

People like me can object to these comments. Yet because we are liberal Obama supporters, our words don’t always reach the people that most need to hear them. We need John McCain, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and others to step up. They often fail to do so. It’s sometimes incumbent on Democrats to step up, too.

Consider the supposed issue of Governor Romney’s membership in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Romney is encountering religious bigotry. The core political problem isn’t with Democrats. It more often resides within a core of intolerant conservative evangelical voters who may not regard LDS adherents as Christians, and, thus, who may not vote for Mr. Romney. Still, Democrats should speak up about this.

A fairly amazing op-ed in today’s Washington Post illustrates the problem. Lisa Miller begins her essay, “an Open Letter to Mitt Romney” as follows:

Dear Governor Romney,

You haven’t asked, but I’d like to offer you some free, nonpartisan advice about how to talk about your Mormon faith in public. When a Texas megachurch pastor can rob you of a news cycle, as the Rev. Robert Jeffress did last weekend when he called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “cult” at a meeting of religious conservatives, you need to do a better job of explaining your beliefs.

She closes with the final advice:

There is a lot in the Mormon tradition for a conservative to be proud of. You need to show the wavering voters on the right that you believe that at least as much as I do.

I have some free, nonpartisan advice for Ms. Miller. The problem isn’t Romney. It is those “wavering voters on the right” who need a swift kick in the pants along with a free copy of the U.S. Constitution.

As I mentioned, intolerance or skepticism regarding Mormonism extends beyond the Christian right. Some Democrats may be tempted to tap into these feelings, especially when the LDS church itself is occasionally active on behalf of illiberal causes, such as in its opposition to gay marriage.

In a tough 2012 campaign, some Democratic party operatives may be motivated to grab any weapon at hand. Of course, a few of the same bloggers and commentators who thought it was brilliant to write stupid and cruel things about the Bristol and Trig Palin will be writing stupid and cruel things about Romney’s LDS heritage. That’s not where we want to go.

LDS doctrine seems forbidding and strange when viewed from the outside, unsympathetically. The same is true of just about every other faith tradition. If you don’t believe me, imagine how a literal-minded person outside the Judeo-Christian tradition would read Psalm 137:9 (“Happy shall he be, that takes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.”) or any number of other problematic scriptural passages.

People should be judged on the basis of how they live their lives and how they treat others, not on the basis of their supposed theological commitments, their supernatural accounts of creation and the like. The theological pillars of most religions are implausible to outsiders. If religion were only “about” these theological matters, it would have died out long ago. Religion includes so much else: culture, community, and family. It involves drawing personal meaning from sacred texts that usually include crazy and offensive stuff interspersed with insights that millions of people find deeply meaningful.

Based on what really matters in life, I’m very impressed by many friends and colleagues who follow the precepts of LDS. They, and everyone else, have the right to be judged as individuals, not as members of their church.

Contra Lisa Miller, Mitt Romney does not have to explain his faith. He doesn’t have to defend his church, either, though it’s fair to ask his views regarding his church’s particular political activities. His main responsibility is to defend his own actions and beliefs, his own approach to public policy.

As a secular, liberal, Jewish Obama supporter, I’m no Romney fan. Maybe this gives me a special responsibility to defend him when he is attacked on the basis of his personal heritage. In 2011 America, it’s depressing that we even need to mention such basic points.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

33 thoughts on “Getting our values straight on the Mormon “issue””

  1. As an atheist, one of the last groups it’s ok to bash and discriminate against, and whom Romney famously dissed as not what Americans want in a leader (I guess were not Americams to him), I have no problem with anyone who points out that the Mormon cult is simply Scientology plus about a hundred years … I would vote against a scientologist in a heartbeat, purely because of their “faith.”. So why shouldn’t I vote against a Mormon, just an earlier edition of the same thing?

    The no religious qualification in Article VI refers to government-established tests for officeholders; there’s nothing in the or anywhere else that works to prevent voters from preferring or disliking candidates based on their faith, especially when one party is nothing but a prayer meeting and the other is led by a guy who was happy to submit to televised interrogation about his faith from that Pastor Rick Whomever, the mega-church con man.

    1. “the Mormon cult is simply Scientology plus about a hundred years”

      I think that’s entirely unfair. I don’t believe that blackmail was ever a sacrament for Mormons, even a hundred years ago. It is for Scientologists, which is probably the best reason, aside from the phenomenal gullibility, for not voting for one.

      As for the “coded references” mentioned above, I’ve already noted that I don’t have the secret decoder ring liberals rely upon to detect them, so they pass me by unnoticed.

      1. Brett, You could google 3 terms at once: ‘dog whistle,’ ‘racism,’ ‘Obama,’ if you care to learn how this semi-coded racist stuff works.

        One example out of very many:

        News Hounds: Huckabee Echoes The Dog Whistle: Mocks Obama’s …
        Huckabee Echoes The Dog Whistle: Mocks Obama’s “Hip-Hop Pals” At His Birthday Barbecue. Reported by Ellen – August 8, 2011 -. Last week, Fox Nation put ……/huckabee_echoes_the_dog_whistle_mocks_obamas_ hiphop_pals_at_his_birthday_barbecue.php – Cached – Similar
        “With Obama Hip Hop BBQ headline FOX proudly shows dog …
        Aug 5, 2011 … “With Obama Hip Hop BBQ headline FOX proudly shows dog whistle racists how its done, take notes!” — John V. Moore. By ABL on August 5th, ……/with-obama-hip-hop-bbq-headline-fox-proudly -shows-dog-whistle-racists-how-its-done-take-notes-john-v-moore/ – Cached – Similar
        Fox Nation Blows The Racist Dog Whistle Once Again: ‘Obama’s Hip …
        Fox Nation Blows The Racist Dog Whistle Once Again: ‘Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs’. Seeded on Fri Aug 5, 2011 7:28 PM EDT. Read Article ……/7269054-fox-nation-blows-the-racist-dog-whistle- once-again-obamas-hip-hop-bbq-didnt-create-jobs – Cached – Similar
        With Obama Hip Hop BBQ headline FOX proudly shows dog whistle …
        With Obama Hip Hop BBQ headline FOX proudly shows dog whistle racists … Dog whistle racists throughout America, step the fuck aside, FOX ……all... – Cached – Similar
        With Obama Hip Hop BBQ headline FOX proudly shows dog whistle …
        John V. Moore provides this hilarious analysis of Fox News’ Hip-Hop BBQ dog whistle vuvuzela1, complete with a Fresh Prince of Bel Air Hip Hop rating scale.…/“with-obama-hip-hop-bbq-headline-fox-proudly- shows-dog-whistle-racists-how-its-done-take-notes”-—-john-v-moo… – Cached – Similar

        1. Oh, I’m familiar with the terms, I just think they’re generally BS, just a way of making sure that Republicans are “racists” no matter what they say; A kind of rhetorical mine field liberals set out for anyone who disagrees with them.

          It’s not like conservatives couldn’t do the same for liberals, identify all sorts of terms you use as ‘coded’ reference to this or that. I’m glad they don’t, it’s a nasty business, trying to prevent people from expressing views you don’t like by redefining the words they’re using.

          1. Right, because it’s perfectly legitimate to refer to a birthday party for the President where fewer than half the guests are black and which includes the Marine Corps Band as a “hip hop BBQ” and show only pictures of black guests with your story. No appeals to racism going on there, no sir.

            It’s not like conservatives couldn’t do the same for liberals, identify all sorts of terms you use as ‘coded’ reference to this or that. I’m glad they don’t

            Oh, I’m sorry, if I’d realized you’d been in a coma or suffered some head trauma for the entirety of the 2000 and 2004 and 2008 election cycles, I’d have been nicer to you. Or are you not familiar with the terms “latte sipping” or “arugula” or a zillion other conservative code words I could bring up but won’t for the sake of sparing you further embarrassment?

  2. Not sure how you reconcile this: “Mitt Romney does not have to explain his faith” with, one sentence later, this: “His main responsibility is to defend his own actions and beliefs.”

    How exactly do you separate his faith (which he does not have to explain” from his “beliefs,” which he does? Are you arguing that he has to explain all of his beliefs, except his religious ones? Is that because they are less important than his other beliefs, or because they are more important, or what? I fail to understand why those beliefs should be immune from the scrutiny to which we should subject his other beliefs.

    I certainly considered — and was troubled by — Obama’s religious beliefs before eventually looking past them and voting for him anyway. I will consider Romney’s too. And I find it a little offensive that this aspect of Romney’s background should be somehow off limits.

    1. It seems pretty simple to me. Romney’s beliefs regarding what the government should (or shouldn’t) do to lower the unemployment rate and regarding whether or not gay men and lesbians can serve in the military are relevant to his prospective actions as President, and therefore he is responsible for defending them. His beliefs regarding the corporeality of God-the-Father and his belief regarding the fate of the righteous in the afterlife are not relevant.

      Perhaps his opinions regarding gay men and lesbians in the military are informed by his religious conviction, but to me as a voter, someone who is anti-gay out of religious conviction is just as odious a candidate as one who has found a secular justification for homophobia; I care about the policy judgement itself more than I care about how the politician arrived at it.

  3. Amen, Harold!

    JMG, if you want to hold Romney’s bigotry against him, I’m with you. But replying with bigotry of your own somewhat reduces the force of your complaint.

    I, too, am a disbeliever in the God of Abraham, or any personal deity. But that makes you and me members of a small minority, both currently and historically. Our (un)belief strikes others as no less strange than the Garden of Eden in Missouri strikes you. Francis Bacon – no fool – wrote, “I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind.” Bigoted believers at least have the excuse of revelation. Bigoted unbelief is harder to justify, even in its own terms.

    [Fn.: “Alcoran” = Koran]
    “The Legend” = The Golden Legend, a medieval hagiography collection full of miracles.

  4. The question is, will his faith get in the way of his understanding of the role of the Presidency? And considering how Romney will literally say anything to get re-elected, the answer is a resounding No. His faith is irrelevant to judging him. There are many more useful ways to do so.

  5. I find it hard to see what in JMG’s post is “bigoted.” Is it the claim that Scientology is a scam, the implicit claim that LDS started as one, or the purely factual observation that ‘no religious test’ has nothing to do with what voters choose based on?

    1. The bigoted part is his implicit claim that a religion that started as a scam must remain so 100 years later, plus his eagerness to state a mere plausible conjecture (Mormonism started as a scam) as an undisputable fact.

      (Mark, what counts as belief today would likely have counted as borderline unbelief a few centuries ago. I’m not so sure that America is a country of believers as much as it is a country of religiolatry.)

      1. Mark knows this joke, but the rest of you may not: A well-to-do Jewish (but it could be Unitarian) fellow sent his daughter to the best private school in town, one run by the Episcopalians. Every day after school, he asked her, “What did you learn in school today?” One evening she replied, “We learned about the Holy Trinity.” The man got very upset and told his daughter, “Now get this straight. There is only one god, and we don’t believe in him!”

        1. Good joke, but it probably requires a Reform or Reconstructionist Jew, if you’re not using a Unitarian. A Conservative Jew would never tell his daughter that Conservative Jews don’t believe in the One G-d, although he would likely be disappointed if she didn’t figure it out on her own. (For you goyim out there, the distinction between Reform and Reconstructionist Jews is that Reconstructionists believe in Jewish law.)

      2. What transforms a scam into a non-scam? Or, if we grant that Joseph Smith was sincerely deluded rather than consciously fraudulent, what turns one man’s delusion into other people’s respectworthy “faith”? These questions apply to Moses, Jesus, Mohamed, Smith, Hubbard, to name but a few. “Religiolatry” is surely the correct answer to them.

        I agree that it is unseemly for the religious to snipe at each other in the political arena, but I can’t get too worked up about it.


        1. It’s not so much that 100 years transforms a scam into a non-scam. It’s that 100 years means that you’re not talking about people who fell for the original scam, you’re talking about people who were raised by people who fell for the original scam. Or several iterations down the road.

          All religions are irrational. But if you’re raised in one, it’s fed you before you achieved rationality, (Assuming you ever did.) and so says very little about your mental acuity/gullibility. The level of rationality necessary to reject religion after being inculcated with it during your childhood is fairly rare, we can hardly expect it of everybody.

          OTOH, if you convert to a new religion, you can quite properly be blamed for being gullible enough to, for instance, believe a joke concocted as part of a drunken bet at an SF convention.

          1. I think Brett’s answer contains truth, but is incomplete.

            Even if the founders of a religion were scamsters, their acolytes are not. They actually believe (often enough), and they try to make their new religion into something that merits belief. A few generations of liturgists and theologians and non-charismatic leadership transforms the original religion into something very different and far less scamly. And–if it is a successful religion–it will have to appeal to many people other than the original marks.

          2. “Even if the founders of a religion were scamsters, their acolytes are not.”

            Not necessarily. (Though they may well be.) But what we do know of the followers of new religions is that the people who fall for the scammers are at the least gullible. In direct proportion to the absurdity of the new religion. When you’re talking about a religion invented by a guy who was at best a B list SF author? That’s pretty darned gullible, indeed.

      3. Okay, so the bigotry is somewhere in the vicinity of the scientology comparison. But to me, noting that Joseph Smith was a charlatan, and a self-conscious one, seems to be a point well worth making, whether you state it as brute fact, as inference to best explanation, or merely as a good hypothesis.

        “Strong words”, I can abide, “tending toward heat and not light” maybe, but “bigoted” is far too strong. I do claim (for example) that I would refuse to vote for any Mormon or Baptist or Jehovah’s witness or Roman Catholic (mutatis mutandis for other religions) based on the views of the organizations involved, except inasmuch as they explicitly disavowed to my satisfaction the objectionable positions of their groups. If that’s “bigoted”, well, I’m a bigot then.

        1. “When you’re talking about a religion invented by a guy who was at best a B list SF author?”

          Insert “Atlas Shrugged” Joke Here.

  6. Isn’t this all strange that nobody seemed to care about this issue when Romney’s Dad ran for president in 1968? His Dad got tripped up by a wire service article that was misreported by early idiot corporate media pundits, and there was even the question of whether his being born in Mexico to American born parents made him ineligible to run for president that year, but that’s another story…,_1968

  7. I don’t think it’s all that strange. The whole Mormon thing is being blown up out of proportion, to distract from Romney’s real problem being that, in order to get elected in Massachusetts, he had to do and say a lot of things that don’t sell very well with Republicans elsewhere in the country. I’m not saying nobody cares about it, but there seems to be an effort going on to replace Romney’s real problem with one it’s thought he can deal with.

    It’s clear the GOP establishment has already picked him as their nominee, and the media aren’t unhappy to help with anointing him, given that he’s the least conservative prospect. You’ll know they think he has it in the bag when they switch over to attacking him.

    1. Meanwhile, on Earth:

      “Rick Perry received the most favorable coverage of any candidate for president during the first five months of the race, but now Herman Cain is enjoying that distinction, according to a new survey which combines traditional research methods and computer algorithmic technology to code the level and tone of news coverage.

      Perry lost the mantle of the candidate enjoying the most favorable treatment to Herman Cain two weeks ago, after the Florida straw poll in which Cain scored a surprise victory. Meanwhile, though he has often led in the polls, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has received less coverage and less positive coverage than the shifting casts of frontrunners — and that remains true even now. He ranks second in the amount of attention received, and the tone of that narrative has been unwaveringly mixed.”

  8. Harold,

    I fell that your post ignores the basic structure of the modern right. The money boys call the money shots (and will probably get Romney, aided by the whackjob right candidates being unfit for public display), but the base are the guys who suck this sort of language right up. And it’s more necessary for the money guys to go with, because they’re scr*wing the base over economically. Faux populism requires extra faux.

  9. People should be judged on the basis of how they live their lives and how they treat others, not on the basis of their supposed theological commitments, their supernatural accounts of creation and the like.

    Then if a candidate has theological commitment to — say — the imminence of the Rapture, and if his church constantly expresses their longing for an end to this wicked world, it would be bigotry to raise questions about his religion? It would be more relevant to a voter to ask whether he was kind to his neighbors and gave generously to charity?

  10. In response to Jeffrey Kramer’s question: No, it would be appropriate to raise questions about his religion because longing for an end to the world could affect his policy decisions, whereas his supernatural accounts of creation would not likely do so.

    1. Religions are more than accounts of creation, and it isn’t only Reconstructionists or Premillenialists whose doctrines have policy implications. Abortion, criminal justice, science, marriage law… a person’s religion at the very least touches on all those issues, and many more.

  11. “a free copy of the U.S. Constitution”

    There’s nothing in the Constitution that prevents a voter from refusing to vote for a person based on his religious beliefs. The prohibition on religious “tests” — “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office” – is a prohibition on a requirement that an official must swear to any prescribed belief. It doesn’t prevent voters from rejecting a candidate whose beliefs are offensive to them.

    You may remember that John Kennedy said, clearly and openly, that as president he would not follow the orders of the church hierarchy, and condemned anyone who contended that religous authority had any place in government decision-making:

    “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote …
    I believe in an America … where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials …
    I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
    Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

    Can Romney say what John Kennedy said?

    1. Who knows, maybe his behavior in office will be improved by believing that the Presidency is merely a stepping stone to higher office, rather than the end of his career?

  12. [just ran into this incredible piece on the stupendous web!]

    LDS a “cult”? What about the “rapture”?

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is “not a Christian” and Mormonism is a “cult,” according to Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the Dallas (TX) First Baptist Church.
    His “cult” remark is based on his belief that the Latter-day Saints church (which didn’t exist before 1830) is outside “the mainstream of Christianity.”
    But Jeffress hypocritically promotes the popular evangelical “rapture” (theologically the “any-moment pretribulation rapture”) which is outside mainstream Christianity (Google “Pretrib Rapture Politics”) and which also didn’t exist before 1830 (Google “Pretrib Rapture Diehards” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty”)!
    And there are 50 million American rapture cultists (some of whom turn Wikipedia into “Wicked-pedia” by constantly distorting the real facts about the rapture’s bizarre, 181-year-old history) compared with only 14 million LDS members.
    The most accurate documentation on pretrib rapture history that I have found is in a nonfiction book titled “The Rapture Plot” which is carried by leading online bookstores. I know also that the same 300-page work can also be borrowed through inter-library loan at any library.
    Latter-day Saints believe in fairness, which is why I feel called to share this message.

  13. For me, it’s difficult to separate mormon doctrine from the church’s past and/or present animus against black people, women, and queerfolk, not to mention its authoritarian practices. So it’s not so much a question of whether the LDS is a cult (the FLDS certainly is) but where Romney stands on his church’s positions. I would expect similar issues to arise for the candidacy of an avowed devout traditional catholic person with regard, say, to abortion or wars of choice or prosecution of child molesters.

  14. This all seems profoundly wrong-headed. Right-wing religious voters (or at least their spokesmen) care (or at least profess to care) primarily about whether candidates share their religion, and that is clearly religious bigotry. For the rest of us, it is, or should be, a value-neutral question as to whether or not Mormonism is a brand of Christianity in good standing, a Christian heresy, or something else entirely.
    Mitt Romney does have to explain his faith for the same reason he has to defend his health care policy: because he’s a member of the party that demands rigid Protestant orthodoxy. That’s a stupid, destructive demand for a political party to make and it’s not the responsibility of liberal bystanders to put a pretty face on it.

Comments are closed.