Monday, June 25, 2007

A Strategy against Romney

Lately I have been thinking about whom is more opposed to Mormonism: liberals or the evangelical right? Liberals object to the conservative stands on social issues common among Mormons; but they also object to conservative Christians on that same count. (Though liberals would probably object a little more to a Mormon.) Conservatives in turn would not vote for a liberal candidate. But many would not vote for a Mormon either. The evangelical right might agree with Mormons on many social issues, but they object to the overall teachings of Mormonism. While Mormons have supported non-Mormon presidential candidates, the evangelical right has a problem supporting a Mormon one.

At least for liberals there is some symmetry in their objections to Mormons and to evangelicals: liberals probably wouldn’t vote for any conservative. However this cannot be said for the Christian right. Amy Sullivan (an editor of The Washington Monthly) wrote of some of these difficulties. In her article “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical Problem” (here) she writes of her first exposure to Mormonism:

The first time I ever heard about Mormons was in fifth grade, sitting in a basement classroom of my Baptist church, watching a filmstrip about cults. Our Sunday school class was covering a special month-long unit on false religions; in the mailorder curriculum, Mormonism came somewhere between devil worshippers and Jim Jones. Although most of the particulars are lost to me now, one of the images remains in my mind: a cartoon of human figures floating in outer space (an apparent reference to the Mormon doctrine of "eternal progression") that appeared on the screen next to our pull-down map of Israel. Even at age 10, the take-away message was clear. Mormons were not like us, they were not Christian.

Amy Sullivan has some nice things to say about Romney. Her article explores, in a very realistic way, the difficulties a Mormon will face in getting the evangelical vote. She quotes one “longtime political observer” as saying, “Publicly, it’s not an issue. Privately, it’s a big damn issue.”

These objections go very deep. Like many other Mormons I did two years of LDS missionary work. During that time a liberal never Bible bashed (argued over doctrine) with me or told me my religion is Satanic. Such things only came from the evangelical types. Their motivation is nothing less than to prevent the eternal damnation of the human race. Therefore, they must oppose all false churches and doctrine at every turn. Such an objection is very different from the objections that liberals have toward conservatives.

On the other side of the political divide, the left objects to the right on many issues. One concern that many liberals have is that religious belief rather than reason is being used to justify positions on important political issues. Andrew Sullivan (who is liberal on social issues) has no objections to a belief in God or to organized religion: his objections are focused on all forms of religious absolutism. In his article “When Not Seeing is Believing” (Time Magazine, 2 October 2006, here) he writes, “Can you engage in a rational dialogue with a man like Ahmadinejad, who believes that Armageddon is near and that it is his duty to accelerate it? How can Israel negotiate with people who are certain their instructions come from heaven and so decree that Israel must not exist in Muslim lands? Equally, of course, how can one negotiate with fundamentalist Jews who claim that the West Bank is theirs forever by biblical mandate? Or with Fundamentalist Christians who believe that Israel’s expansion is a biblical necessity rather than a strategic judgment?” His objections cover a wide range of extremism in religious traditions: Moslem, Jewish, and Fundamentalist Christian.

Liberals might object to Mormonism because of their differences with Mormons on social and economic issues. But evangelicals object to Mormonism because (they believe) it is a cult. But this is not to say there isn’t an interaction effect between liberals and evangelicals on the Mormon question.

Damon Linker--who’s The New Republic article “The Big Test” provoked my response here--stated in a correspondence with some TNR readers, “[to the] contention that, in my view, ‘[r]eligion is only dangerous in the hands of conservative Republicans,’ I unapologetically plead guilty, at least if we limit ourselves to the present moment in U.S. political history” (here). So Linker won’t vote for a conservative, whether he be Mormon or otherwise. So I wonder, what was the purpose of his “Big Test” article? Liberals already won’t vote for a conservative Mormon. So to whom was he writing? Is he building a case for the left to use against (what he believes is) an extreme religion? Probably. But he seems to be doing more than preaching to the converted.

In his article “The Big Test” Linker takes care to create a marked distinction between Mormons and the rest of Christianity. He writes “Mormons differ from mainstream Christians in another respect as well: their emphasis on the centrality of prophecy.” Linker is bothered by the fact that the LDS cannon of scripture is open. He writes, “Mormonism opens the door to prophetically inspired acts and innovations, the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way.” One solution he proposes is for “the LDS Church to follow the lead of the Catholic Church in developing a tradition of philosophical reflection on natural law.” Here are some other quotes from the same article.

Christianity in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions holds that direct revelation ended many centuries ago, before the scriptural canon was closed in the late fourth century…but Mormonism is unique in the emphasis it places on prophetic utterances.
Unlike the God of Catholics and Protestants--who is usually portrayed as the transcendent, all-powerful, all-good, and all-wise creator of the temporal universe out of nothingness--Smith's God is a finite being who evolved into his present state of divinity from a condition very much like our own and then merely “organized” preexisting matter in order to form the world.
Yet the fact remains that, as it is currently constituted, Mormonism lacks the intellectual or spiritual resources to challenge a declaration of the prophet who runs the church.
Under modern conditions, some religions--Protestantism, post-Vatican II Catholicism, Judaism--have spawned liberal traditions that treat faith primarily as a repository of moral wisdom instead of as a source of absolute truth. Other religions, by contrast, have tended to require believers to accept everything or nothing at all. Mormonism (like Islam, another faith founded in prophecy) is one of the latter, binary religions.

Even in his correspondence with Richard Bushman (over the “Big Test”) he emphasized how unchristian Mormon beliefs seem to non-Mormons:

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. (here)

In his article Linker mentions that Mormons believe the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri, that Mormons do not believe in creation ex nihilo, and he talks of how the Mormon view of God differs from the mainstream Christian view. These things are of little interest to secular liberals and have no bearing on political issues; but they are of great doctrinal import to non-Mormon Christian conservatives.

Hugh Hewitt said of the left’s opposition to Romney, “they want to get the knives into the back of Romney, and they want America to believe the evangelicals put them there” (here). It appears that a hands off approach is one way of doing this; they are trying to feed arguments to the evangelical right to provoke them into doing the their dirty work. Because of evangelical opposition to Mormonism the pieces are already in place. A Gallup poll conducted in February (here) shows that while conservatives would vote for a Catholic (94%), an African American (92%), a Jew (91%), a woman (82%), and a Hispanic (84%) only 66% would vote for a Mormon. While 75% of liberals and 77% of moderates would vote for a Mormon.

Linker is well aware of the difficulties that a Mormon will face in getting the support of evangelicals. However, from his article “A Bigger Tent” (Slate, 11 October 2006) he clearly believes that Romney has a good shot at it:

And yet Mitt Romney’s undeclared candidacy has so far managed to inspire a remarkable degree of enthusiasm among right-wing Christians. Conservative Catholics have a proven track record of voting for non-Catholic candidates who support the issues they care about Among evangelicals, some clearly admire the stands Romney has taken against gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research in liberal Massachusetts and hope that he’ll come to be seen as a viable alternative to McCain and Giuliani, both of whom fall to Romney's left on social issues Even Falwell has admitted that it’s the issues that will matter in the next presidential contest. (here)

What Linker has done with his “Big Test” article is posed arguments with which a person on the religious right can use against Mormonism; and he presented them in such a way that one would feel justified in their attack.

So far I have found only one case where his arguments are being used by a conservative Christian against Romney. A blogger by the name of Dwayna Litz writes in a post titled “Inventing a Mormon President: A response to Hugh Hewitt’s A Mormon in the White House?” of her disagreements with some of Hewitt’s conclusions (here). She opens with this statement: “I am a fan of radio personality Hugh Hewitt, the author of A Mormon in the White House? I am in full agreement with him that faith is under attack by American secularists, and in politics there are many who would exclude believers from elected office.” From her blog entry it is obvious that she views Mormonism as an evil cult. She writes, “[Hugh Hewitt] shows no signs of detecting any problems with people that he himself recognizes is teaching heresy. Where in the history of the church have heretics been found to be trustworthy?” And she mentions the Linker article:

An equally disturbing problem is presented by Damon Linker, in New Republic (January 2007), “Mormonism opens the door to prophetically inspired acts and innovations, the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way.” This unknown factor needs to be addressed. Romney’s avoidance of these issues makes unknown what will happen should he be elected.

The political campaigning is just starting to gather momentum. And, it is true that political candidates are never treated fairly. However, the unfair treatment is not equally distributed. It’s a little early to determine if Linker’s arguments will be widely used by the religious right. But I suspect a few more evangelicals will take the bait.

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