December 10, 2007

More on Romney and Mormonism

In his speech, Mitt Romney said that faith absolutely does belong in the public sphere saying, inexplicably, that "freedom requires religion", a statement that makes no sense whatsoever, but was just blatant pandering to religious sentiment.

Given his remarks, a close examination of his own faith is now fair game. People should ask him if any and every faith (including, but not limited to, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny) belongs and if not, what exactly he believes in and why his faith should be on his 'approved' list and the others not. It will not, however, strike most religious people that such questions should be asked because those kinds of questions presuppose a sense of rational inquiry about the nature of faith. Religious people tend not to think is those terms because doing so is dangerous to faith itself. As the TV character House said, "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people." I suspect that such questions won't be asked by mainstream reporters either because they will open up uncomfortable questions about the rationality of the nature of the beliefs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims too.

Last Friday's posting on Mitt Romney and Mormonism opened up a very interesting discussion in the comments, along with some useful links to more information.

Mike Pirnat provided a link to a funny South Park clip on Mormonism.

It follows pretty much what I described before except in one detail. Christopher Hitchens wrote that during the translation sessions, the scribe Harris was prevented from seeing Smith and his book and magic stones by a blanket strung across the kitchen. The cartoon gives a different version (which I have also heard) that the book and stones were hidden inside a hat and Smith buried his head in the hat in order to see the translations. Which version is true? I don't know. Maybe both, that he put his head into a hat and also stayed behind a blanket. Who knows, this divergence may form the basis for another doctrinal schism in the Mormon Church. I am not saying that Mormons are more prone to hair-splitting doctrinaire conflicts than other religions. That basis for a split would make as much sense as the doctrinal causes of the schisms that plague all the denominations, sects, and factions within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

I heard that even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not immune from such divisive tendencies, with a sect called the Reformed Church of Alfredo splitting from the main body, and that further tensions exist caused by whether Parmesan or Romano should be the holy cheese used by the Pastafarians. And I won’t even get into the Marinaran heresy. I must say that I am disappointed. I had hoped that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was better than the other churches. Why can't they all get along?

Jared provided a link to a PBS Frontline special on the Mormons. (The documentary is four hours long and split into 26 digestible chapters of about 10 minutes each. It is generally very sympathetic to the Mormons. For some reason, chapter one had only audio on my browser.) Jared adds that "It's much more accurate than the cartoon you posted, which emphasizes elements in [M]ormon mythology that are more than obscure and don't really work into the main stream theology as held by most members."

But isn't that how religion has worked? They usually start out with an enormous number of extraordinary claims mainly because the followers expect some big end-times event to be imminent. Both Jesus's and Joseph Smith's disciples expected the second coming in their own lifetimes. And then as time goes by and nothing happens and scientific advances and rational thought make their beliefs increasingly untenable, religious apologists slowly erase the more embarrassing elements from their history and reconstruct a narrative that is more acceptable to modern times. In the case of the Mormons, some revisions come in the form of "revelations" from god received by the church elders at convenient times. The origins of Christianity and Judaism and Islam were very likely filled with even more bizarre beliefs than the ones they currently have.

Jared adds, "Unfortunately for Romney, he is a very good [M]ormon. This means he is very authoritarian and probably homophobic. And sexist."

This raises an important point. If faith is so important to Romney and he firmly believes that faith belongs in the public sphere, what exactly is Romney's status in the Mormon Church and what does that status require him to believe?

Jesus' General is a hysterically funny satirical website but on occasion the good General writes serious posts (the products, he says, of his 'inner Frenchman'). It turns out that the General was once a Mormon in good standing whose family were very high up in the hierarchy and so he knows a lot of things that the general public is not aware of which enables him to describe the kinds of beliefs that Romney is likely to have.

In addition to his public statements proclaiming his religiosity, Mitt holds a temple recommend. They are only issued to the faithful. As a high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, he holds the highest level of priesthood a Mormon may hold. He's also served as a bishop and a stake president (leadership positions serving areas roughly equivalent to parishes and diocese). He is unquestionably a faithful Mormon.

Mitt is a member of a very dogmatic sect. Dissent is not allowed. The late N. Eldon Tanner, a councilor to the prophet, once preached "When the Prophet speaks, the debate is over."
. . .
As a High Priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, Romney believes he receives revelations from God. He believes God directs him to do the things he does, and he never makes an important decision without asking God for guidance and receiving a revelation first.
. . .
The lesson Mormons, including Mitt, take from [the story of god asking Nephi to cold-bloodedly murder and behead Laban, a powerful official, in order to get his "Brass Plates"] is that the greater good may require the violation of important laws, in this case, theft and murder. It's a lesson that is stressed in Sunday classes for adults and children as well as the weekday seminary classes Mormon teens are required to attend. It's an important scripture and doctrine.

This is why it is critical to discuss a candidate's religious beliefs. It gives us the best insight we can get into how someone like Mitt would govern. He's the type of leader who would believe that his actions are condoned by God and are not subject to Earthly laws like the Constitution.

Sound familiar?

So there we are. Mitt Romney should be asked a lot of questions about his faith, as should anyone who does not believe in the separation of church and state and says that faith belongs in the public sphere and that his or her faith is important to him or her.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and Pascal's wager

For those not familiar with it, Pascal's wager is the desperate Hail Mary attempt by religious people to persuade skeptics that they should believe in god as a kind of insurance policy. It goes like this: If you believe in god and it turns out that there is no god, then you are no worse off than having been as an atheist. But if you do not believe in god, and there is a god, then you are doomed to everlasting hell. So isn't it better to play safe and believe?

This argument is so ridiculous that I am sure the readers of this blog don't need me to spell out all the reasons why. But here is a South Park clip that illustrates just one counterargument..


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Did you listen to the Diane Rehm show on NPR yesterday? The first hour was an interesting discussion about religion and politics with particular attention to Mitt Romney.

Posted by Chris Weigold on December 11, 2007 08:23 AM


No, I missed it. I'll see if I can find it online.

Posted by Mano on December 11, 2007 10:48 AM

Dear Mano,

Apparently the world is full of closeted ex-mormons. I should mention that while I'm an athiest I was raised as a Mormon, which is why I felt justified in making semi-offensive blanket generalization about an entire faith in a previous comment. I based my generalization off the conduct of the leaders of the LDS church.

Of course, not all Mormons are conservative. Indeed, there exist a breed of good, practicing, "liberal-mormons", a camp that I belonged to before my deconversion. They are in the clear minority, but they do exist. As one would expect in a hierarchal system, they are not as favored as their more standard peers, and tend to be looked over in church appointments in favor of the "Romney" types.

Still, most of what the General says is unexaggerated, except for the Nephi-Laban story, which is usually used as a "mysterious ways" clause. What's important to note is that party allegiance subconsciously trumps religious allegiance for most people. For example, if you actually read the Book of Mormon you'll realize it's impossible to believe everything in it and be a Republican. Particularly a war-hawk, since it says (not quite verbatim) "If you start a preemptive war you'll go to hell. Even if you think your enemies will attack you first. I really mean it. Also God will destroy your whole nation. So really don't do it. " Romney supports the Iraq war.

I think there's some stuff in there about how torture is bad, but I'd have to look that up. I know the New Testament does (Valid extention of the ol' turn the other cheek clause). So, I think we can be certain that Romney won't follow EVERYTHING taught in the Book of Mormon. Just the stuff that suits his political beliefs.

Posted by Jared on December 11, 2007 05:30 PM


I agree. All these so-called "religious" politically ambitious people cynically use their religion as a prop and a cover for what they really want to do for other reasons.

This can be both good and bad, since religions advocate both noble and truly awful things.

The problem is with the whole idea that religion should play a role at all in the making of policies that should be arrived at for rational reasons.

Posted by Mano on December 12, 2007 08:39 AM