Monday, January 22, 2007

Mitt Romney and Mormonism: A response to Damon Linker's article "The Big Test"

Mormonism 101

A response to Damon Linker’s article “Taking Mormonism Seriously: The Big Test”

Damon Linker’s article “Taking Mormonism Seriously” puts Mormonism in a rather bad light. I feel this is unjustified and would like to respond to some of his concerns.

My background is, by all counts, typical LDS. My paternal great-grandfather became a Mormon in 1899 and my mother’s side converted in the 1840’s. I come from a large family of six children and have around 40 cousins, most of whom are strong in the faith. I did two years of missionary work in South Africa (November 1991 to October 1993), attended Rick’s College (now BYU Idaho), and got my undergraduate degree from BYU (in Mechanical Engineering). I have no especial standing in the church and have no academic credentials in the field of religion. In my ward (congregation) I have served as a financial clerk, Sunday school teacher, family history consultant, and so forth. I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics--not at BYU. By all counts I'm an average Mormon. Something I am very proud of.

--First there are some theological issues that restrict how a Mormon refers to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Statements like Mormon church or LDS church are considered to be incorrect because we believe that it is Christ’s church. So, for the sake of brevity, I shall refer to it as the church. I do not intend this to be presumptuous--

One of Linker’s primary objections to Mormonism can be characterized by the question he would ask his BYU students: “What would [you] do…if the prophet in Salt Lake City commanded [you] to commit murder in the name of [your] faith.” The typical Mormon response--my response--would be, “that wouldn’t happen.” However, Linker and others, liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious, do not share my faith, and I don’t share their skepticism. Would the prophet of the Mormon faith command the Saints (members of the church) to do some morally outrageous thing? Do I believe that his statements override tradition and scripture? No. So, how can these concerns be resolved? They can’t. The only thing to be done is to get to know us a little better and obtain a feel for who we are.

Few other faiths claim current prophets, at least a prophet whose words could possibly be put on par with ancient scripture. Judaism has the Torah, Christianity has the Bible, and Islam the Koran; the teachings of Buddha and Confucius were written down long before Christ, and Hindu scriptures date back thousands of years. These traditions are established and, as such, are well understood and offer few surprises. According to Linker Mormonism does not have this predictability and without it there exists the danger of “prophetically inspired acts and innovations, the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way.” The church is only 177 years old and does have an open cannon of scripture. We believe in the Bible, as well as the Doctrine and Covenants (scripture consisting mostly of the teachings of Joseph Smith, abbr. D&C), the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price. But any further revelation would be only an addition to this corpus of scripture. It would not supplant it. The last time a revelation was added to the Doctrine and Covenants was 1918, before that 1847. Two official declarations have also been added: one ending polygamy (1890) and the other (1978) making priesthood ordination available to all worthy males--thus ending the practice of barring black men from the priesthood.

But for the sake for argument suppose that the prophet did command the Mormons to do something truly bizarre. Church organization puts checks on this. At the top is the prophet (currently Gordon B. Hinckley). His position is one of leadership. He presides over the highest ecclesiastical body in the church, the First Presidency, which consists of himself and his two counselors. Naturally his counselors recognize his leadership; they also know each other very well. If he were to receive some strange revelation his counselors would have to be convinced that it came from God. Otherwise it could not be considered the word of God for the church. Below the First Presidency is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They would also have to unanimously accept a revelation as legitimate. This quorum as well as the First Presidency are made up of, well, old men, who for the most part have known each other for decades and would not be susceptible to the truly weird--For example Russell M. Nelson has, among other things, served as president of the Society for Vascular Surgery as well as a chairman of the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery for the American Heart Association; James E. Faust was president of the Utah Bar Association (1962–1963); and Dallin H. Oaks was a justice of the Utah Supreme Court until he resigned (1984) to become and apostle. Each member of these quorums is considered to be a prophet and if any decision is to be binding the voting must be unanimous.

It is true that Mormonism is very pro-American--Something that occasionally causes friction when doing missionary work in other countries. Our beliefs about the United States include a conviction that the founding fathers were inspired by God. A revelation received by church founder Joseph Smith stated, “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I[, God,] established the Constitution of this land, by the hand of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood” (D&C 101:79-80). “The shedding of blood” refers to the U.S. war of independence. An earlier revelation on the same subject says, “And now, verily I [, the Lord,] say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them. And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land” (D&C 98:4-6). From Linker’s view this precedent could spell trouble. God requires his people to obey his commands which are given through the prophet; here God has given the Saints permission to obey that law; and as such he could just as easily instruct them to disregard it. But this hypothesis can be tested.

As many people know, Mormons once practiced polygamy--more correctly referred to as plural marriage. Plural marriage was the result of a revelation received by Joseph Smith and was practiced from the mid 1840’s to 1890 when it was officially abandoned. During this time it is estimated that 20 to 25 percent of Mormon adults belonged to polygamous households (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Plural Marriage”). What is not well known are the extremes to which the United States went to coerce the Mormons into abandoning plural marriage. In 1862 the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was signed by President Lincoln; in 1882 Congress passed the Edmunds Act; and in 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act. This and other legislation eliminated women’s suffrage in Utah (one of the first territories to adopt suffrage was Utah--a move which more than doubled the LDS voting population), stripped polygamists in Utah of their right to vote (this did not require being convicted of polygamy in a court of law), hold public office, and sit on juries. The government seized all church property in excess of $50,000 (chapels were exempted). The church was disincorporated and its leaders were pursued and arrested (almost all of whom had plural wives). In 1884 the territory of Idaho instituted a test oath that effectively prevented any Mormon--whether single, monogamous, or polygamous--from voting or holding public office. Naturally this went to the Supreme Court but the law was upheld. Elements of the Edmunds-Tucker Act also went to the Supreme Court and, not surprisingly, they were also upheld. It was the Edmunds Act that made polygamy equivalent to a felony; however, many of the arrests were for unlawful cohabitation which was a misdemeanor. The church held out for nearly thirty years but with its leadership in hiding or in jail and the church bankrupt they finally acquiesced. The president of the church at the time was Wilford Woodruff who issued what is called The Manifesto: “…Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise…”--this is one of the afore mentioned official declarations. During the most severe persecution the church ever experienced there were no commandments given by the prophet to rise up and murder the Gentiles--Mormons sometimes refer to non-Mormons as Gentiles. And, except for resisting the anti-polygamy laws, no crimes were committed. Resistance to the anti-polygamy laws was motivated by the belief that plural marriage was protected by the free exercise of religion. It was also quite possibly the largest and longest act of civil disobedience in the history of the United States. It all ended rather peacefully.

Linker has some strong reservations about the possibility of Mormons developing a natural morality. He writes, “there is simply no room for a natural morality in Mormon theology.” I’m not quite sure what he means by natural morality--I’m not a philosopher. I suppose this means a morality that is not derived from revelation; but rather one that results from human reason, possibly guided by science (such as evolutionary theory), but not the divine. Mormons tend to have conservative political views and this statement could also imply his desire for Mormons to be willing to adopt more liberal views. It’s obvious that, as a church, we differ with liberals on issues such as homosexuality, gay marriage, and abortion. The leaders of the church also tend to have conservative views on the role of Government. But considering the history of the church that should not be surprising. The past has a long arm. So in whatever respect Linker means that Catholics and Protestants can develop a binding moral theory, Mormons generally share similar views with conservative Catholics and Protestants on moral issues. In reality our politics are very similar. He stated that “Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose.” Again, I am unsure what he means by this so I shall explain some points of Mormon theology that illustrate our views on existence. Mormons tend to be shy about explaining their beliefs. Something rooted in being different. I expect that people not familiar with Mormon theology will find it interesting, or even strange.

God. We believe that God is a corporeal being, i.e., he has a body, like man’s, of flesh and bone (D&C 130:22). For those who view God as an incomprehensible nebulous being who is everywhere and no place, this is right out! There are many verses in the Bible that speak of man being created in the image of God, and Mormons take them literally. Muslims and Jews might see this as a type of idolatry, but no more than the concept of God-made-man. We also reject the Trinitarian concept of God.

Creation. The creation was the act of God organizing preexisting matter. (There is no ex nihilo in LDS beliefs.) Actually, this idea is not hard to believe in. As any physics student knows energy is conserved, and as such it was never created and can never be destroyed. It can only be converted from one kind of energy to another, such as turning kinetic energy into heat. Those who see God as creating the universe from nothing could say, “my God is greater than your god.” But we comprehend little about the universe and humans often pontificate about things that are not well understood, especially when it comes to religion. As it is, we comprehend very little about God, so I am not troubled by these objections. Saying Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose” is like saying a hospital has no moral or intrinsic purpose because it was made from dirt which has no intrinsic moral purpose.

Purpose of life. There are three stages to man’s existence: pre-mortal, mortal, and the rest of eternity. The pre-mortal life means we existed as individuals before we were born. This doctrine also involves something called the intelligence of man. Beyond its suggestive name we don’t know what it is. But it is sufficient to say that it is something that makes us, us. As with creation it cannot be created out of nothing, only organized. Speaking of the intelligences the Book of Abraham (in the Pearl of Great Price) says, “[they] have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are...eternal” (Abraham 3:18). Speaking of this in a slightly different way D&C 93:29 reads, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” If intelligence and truth cannot be created then from where do they originate? Non-Mormons might say from God, but in the LDS view truth exists independent of God. It simply is. This doctrine dominates the LDS view of agency and excludes predestination and reprobation. If God did not create all things then God cannot be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Our view of truth also means that it can be revealed and/or discovered. “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself” (D&C 93:30). Since truth can “act for itself” a study of mathematics and science will never, beyond a sense of wonderment and majesty, reveal God. As a result Mormons can be very accepting of modern science. For example, most Mormons look at evolution with skepticism but from my experience those with a science background have no objections to it. With this in mind Linker’s statement, “to this day, the Mormon church teaches genuine respect for reason only when it operates within the narrow limits set for it by LDS prophesy” is incorrect.

The fall of man. The purpose of life is to progress and God created the universe for that very purpose. Not only was it created for this purpose, but for it to be realized man had to fall--Man cannot frustrate the purposes of God. Were Adam and Even ever happy in the Garden of Eden? No. They had no understanding of this concept. All they had experienced was, what we may call because our experience is often otherwise, comfort. This amounts to “you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone.” “If Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And… [Adam and Eve] would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2:22-25). Why didn’t God simply create a fallen world to begin with? I suppose it’s because he only makes perfect things, then gives us our agency by establishing laws and consequences, and then lets us decide. Moral agency cannot exist without choices, consequences, and alternatives.

Heaven and hell. In traditional Christianity and Islam there is one heaven and one hell. The Mormon view is more complicated. There is hell (sometimes called outer darkness) and three degrees of glory. The three degrees of glory are, in order, the celestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom, and the telestial kingdom. Their respective glories are likened to the sun, the moon, and the stars. Those who go to the highest kingdom are those who were valiant in their adherence to the faith. Those who go to the terrestrial kingdom are those who knew they could have lived a more righteous life but for whatever reason elected not to try. And those who go to the telestial kingdom are “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie” (D&C 76:103). Speaking generically, those who go to the middle kingdom obeyed the “thou shalt not” commandments and neglected the “thou shalt” commandments; those who go to the lowest kingdom neglected both; and those who go to the highest kingdom faithfully followed both. As to hell, those who go to the telestial kingdom suffer in hell for a long time, but after they have paid the price of their sins they are redeemed from it. As for suffering an eternity in hell, for almost all people this is impossible to qualify for. We also believe that we are saved by grace; but our understanding of this is very different from a general Protestant interpretation of grace. There is the idea that we cannot do this on our own and that we need forgiveness, but sadly this doctrine is not well developed. In practice obedience to the commandments is emphasized. We also hold to the belief that those who inherit the celestial kingdom can become like God (with exceptions). The fifth president of the church, Lorenzo Snow, said, “as man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” We see the second part of this as a logical conclusion to, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Mortal life. This part is very important as the rest of eternity hangs in the balance. But I shall not go into the details of this doctrine but rather explain some LDS views of life generally. “Every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God” (Book of Mormon, Moroni 7:13). This is a very common sense statement, and a very non-Biblical one. In the traditional sense it's not even Christian. (Traditional because I consider Mormons to be Christians.) For example, just suppose that some verses in Buddhist scripture teach people to do good works. Then those verses must have come from God. If this is true there exists the possibility that Siddhartha Gautama received some divine inspiration. Along these lines is a statement issued by the First Presidency on February 15, 1978.

The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God's light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. …We believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation. (Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love for All Mankind.)

There is also a hope for salvation which extends beyond the grave. Therefore, if I have a friend who is not especially interested in becoming a Mormon--and I have several such friends--I don’t feel compelled to believe they will loose their opportunity for salvation. After all, those who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the sick and afflicted are the “blessed of [the] Father” (Matt. 25:34). And anybody can do those things.

By now you’re probably getting the picture that Mormon theology is very different from historical Christian theology. These differences have compelled many evangelicals to label Mormonism as a cult, or even Satanic. During my two years of missionary work I came across this from time to time. For those who serve their two years in the southern states, they come across this a lot. (From discussions I have had with LDS seminary and institute teachers it’s not as bad as it once was.) We live in an increasingly globalized world and our worldview will strongly affect how we interact with others. The Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam encompass half of the world’s population. They hold the view that God has progressively revealed his will to mankind resulting in his final Truth: the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran. Though these traditions are based upon common sense ideas of honesty, charity, and love, their adherence to a closed cannon of scripture has motivated and been used to justify conflict throughout their history. In the LDS view “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word” (Book of Mormon, Alma 29:8)--another non-Biblical statement. We see revelation as continual and do not claim exclusive access to God. Closing the cannon of scripture and abandoning the concept of modern prophets would effectively eliminate this inclusive view of other religious traditions.

Linker also brought up some questions. “Does [Mitt Romney] believe…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?” I don’t know what exactly Mitt Romney believes. But the church does believe in the concepts quoted above. So, unless they are considered to reveal, not only a conviction in the reality of Jesus Christ and that he will come again, but, a form of religious extremism, I can’t understand why this should concern anyone. I suppose there might be the fear that the Mormons, under the prophets command, might feel compelled to build up the kingdom of God in the United States by any means whatsoever--Somewhat like radical groups that claim a divine right to the Holy Land, and therefore the right to take it by any means. I assure you that as a church we are trying to build the spiritual kingdom of God on the earth, but that it won’t become a political kingdom until Christ comes. If he does come, and it turns out we’re right, I guess everyone will see things as we do. If he doesn’t come, don’t worry about it.

Mr. Linker expressed the fear that, “under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would truly be in charge of the country.” That fear is unfounded--as if the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would do something like that. Besides church doctrine wouldn’t allow it: specifically, the doctrine of stewardship and agency. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). We are therefore only stewards over what God has given us. President Hinckley’s stewardship is the church. If Mitt Romney were elected president then the Presidency would be his stewardship, not President Hinckley’s. It’s reasonable to assume that both people understand this. But more can be said about it. The church has a manual entitled “Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood” that elaborates on this doctrine. Although this manual addresses issues related to governance within the church the general principles say a lot. The section entitled Stewardship and Delegation says, “we have the agency to act for ourselves. Therefore, when we receive a stewardship, we are free to care for it in the way we decide. We are free to be faithful, diligent, and obedient; but we are also free to be lazy and disobedient.” It goes on to say, “Each person should be allowed to exercise personal agency in caring for his or her stewardship. A wise leader will offer his help to the assigned person but will never make the decisions for him or her.” This instruction applies to people, such as bishops, who preside over their congregation within the church. For non-church responsibilities the principle of independent decisions is even stronger. Each person “should be an agent unto himself” (D&C 29:35). With this context in mind it should be clear that President Hinckley would not tell President Romney how to run the country.

Scriptures, culture, and tradition all work upon a person’s beliefs, conscience, and actions. Each individual is a captive within his culture and uses his traditions to make inferences about right and wrong. Many of Linker’s objections originate from the fear that the Mormon prophet might give some “theologically or morally outrageous” declaration. There is nothing that I can say that can prove this will not be the case. Neither can I prove my brother won’t kill me tomorrow. I know this won’t happen because I’ve known him all his life. Perhaps some people don’t consider this a form of proof, but as far as I’m concerned it is. But there is a more subtle objection to Mormonism in Linker’s article. Where will it go in the long run? He talks of Mormonism “as it is currently constituted” and says “it is impossible to know how Mormons will resolve this significant tension over the coming years,” and “[President] Hinckley is an exceedingly unthreatening figure. And whoever succeeds him may very well prove to be equally anodyne.” These concerns go beyond the term of any single U.S. president.

Linker’s article has voiced his objections to both Mitt Romney and Mormonism. His criticisms explore what the consequences can be if a person holds the conviction that so-and-so is a prophet of God. He further criticizes the theology as unpredictable and therefore perilous. His statement “Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose” is, on a practical level, untrue. Also, in light of the fact that we do no claim exclusive access to God, his statement “everything we know…about right and wrong comes entirely from divine commands communicated to humanity by prophets” is false. As is his allegation that the church is “[suspicious] of autonomous reason.” He has also exploited the shock value of some of the more unusual aspects of Mormon theology, such as the belief that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri.

Should Mitt Romney’s Mormonism be an issue in his run for the Presidency? Whatever personal views about religion one may hold Romney’s religion should, for the most part, be left out. Though this will be harder then it seems since people are fascinated with things they consider to be strange, such as Mormon undergarments or temple worship.

There are many people who would make a good president and Mitt Romney is one of them. He seems to have done a fine job as Governor of Massachusetts. All in all, I prefer him to McCain or Giuliani. But Romney’s religion will make getting the Republican nomination, and assuming he succeeds, winning the presidential election, extremely difficult. There are just too many ways to take a jab at a Mormon. His running will, however, reveal that a great deal of ignorance and religious prejudice still exist in the United States.

With both sides of the argument on the table one can decide for ones self if Mormonism is a “theologically unstable, and…politically perilous, religion.” And think long and hard about the consequences of making Mitt Romney president of the United States.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a sincere statement.