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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

On Mitt and Mormonism

If you haven't read my friend Damon Linker's TNR article on Mitt Romney, and the problems which his candidacy--and potentially Mormonism as a whole--poses for Americans like himself, go do so immediately. I'll wait.

I don't write much about my Mormon faith or subjects arising from it on this blog, partly because I already contribute to Times and Seasons, a blog run by a bunch of Mormon writers and scholars that I'm proud to be part of. (Damon once did some guestblogging with us, back during his First Things days, and boy did he stir things up.) Another, smaller, reason why I don't write much about my Mormonism or Mormon issues in general here is that I find that a great deal of work has to go into just getting clear on the terminology one is using before much can be discussed. Figuring out what Mormons like myself mean when we say we believe in following the counsel of a "living prophet," for example, or determining exactly what is being alleged when someone from another faith declares that the Mormon church--whose formal name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (abbreviated LDS)--isn't a "Christian" church, is anything but simple, and I don't like the easy accusations ("Mormons are followers who can't think for themselves") and equally easy rebuttals ("if we say we worship Jesus Christ, then we're every bit as 'Christian' as anyone else") that tend to predominate in such arguments. So usually, when topics that I think can't be discussed properly without mucking around in terminological debates come up, I prefer to either keep my thoughts to myself or communicate them solely to people with whom I've already hashed all that out. There are a lot of other things worth talking about, anyway.

But I'll have to make an exception this time, because Damon's article asks some hard questions about my faith, and he and those who read his piece deserve some answers. But it also should be understood that the way that Damon has set up his questions, and the unstated assumptions behind them, in some ways make the answers he deserves harder to understand than they need to be. I don't have any real interest in helping out the Romney campaign (which seems to have more or less officially begun today). Frankly, as much as I like some (though by no means all) of his social and cultural policies, he seems like a pretty standard corporate Republican to me, and thus not someone I'd vote for. But I do have an interest in what the Romney campaign means for and about Mormons in America, and for that reason, while I'm glad it was Damon and not, say, an inflammatory polemicist like Jon Krakaeur writing this article, I still wish Damon had asked his questions better than he did.

But let me give Damon this much credit--his article is miles better than Jacob Weisberg's ignorant little Slate essay here. Why is it better? Primarily because Damon treats Mormonism with at least some respect rather than outright contempt (as well as the fact that he does not get nearly so many of his facts wrong, and doesn't make nearly as many infantile cheap shots along the way). Both Linker and Weisberg make the argument that 1) the constitutional prohibition on religious tests for office is in no way a denial of the propriety of critically examining the content of a candidate's religious beliefs, and 2) that Mormon religious beliefs, upon a critical examination, can be seen as potential sources of political concern. Both of these points are, I think, correct as far as they go. But for Weisberg, the Mormon beliefs that invite political examination are the basics of my faith itself--the revelations I and other Mormons believe to have been received by Joseph Smith, as well as the scriptures he produced and the church organization he established. Weisberg never explains why such elementary matters are of particular import when examining a presidential candidate; he simply recites them (relying, he claims, upon a notorious and highly critical biography, one which just happens to be over sixty years old and which has long since been surpassed in terms of both its methodology and its access to historical data) as evidence that Mormons are, of course, idiots. He allows that the foundational claims of most religions are also probably idiotic, but that "the world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor"--which makes me wonder if Weisberg ever reads any religious news coverage, anywhere. While it is true that there are various more or less orthodox streams of thought within traditional Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the existence of such variety hardly changes the fact that many millions of people in America--and many thousands of elected officials as well--have made it perfectly clear that they do believe in such (to use Weisberg's words) "dogmatic, irrational, and absurd" things as the notion that Moses personally spoke with God on Mt. Sinani, or that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, or that Mohammed recorded the words of Allah in the Qur'an as they were dictated to him, etc. Invoking the passage of time since these claimed events, as Weisberg does, doesn't seem to lessen whatsoever the force of his attacks against the beliefs (and hence the intelligence) of, oh, let's say former president Jimmy Carter (Southern Baptist), current U.S. senator Joe Lieberman (an orthodox Jew) or newly elected U.S. representative Keith Ellison (Muslim). If Weisberg is content in making such attacks, fine--but to present the basics of Mormonism as somehow uniquely tripped up by his absurd-to-his-no-doubt-exquisitely-rational-mind standard suggests simple bigotry rather than thoughtful analysis.

Damon, by contrast, is thoughtful in his treatment of Mormonism, and is familiar with the basics of the faith as well. His analysis, which does not come to any outright conclusions but which strongly implies that Mitt Romney, simply because of his Mormon beliefs, might not be a very good choice for the highest office in the land, focuses on two specific points. First, he highlights the Mormon belief in America's providential character, and our belief in Mormonism's involvement in such. Like many other Christian movements that originated in or have flourished on the American continent, Mormonism has tended to invest the New World, and specifically the United States, with millennial importance, though Damon alleges that Mormon thinking here has gone further than most of these other movements; as Damon puts it, "[t]he centrality of the United States to Mormon theology extends beyond the past and present to encompass the end times as well....This belief has caused Mormons to view U.S. politics as a stage on which the ultimate divine drama is likely to play itself out, with a Mormon in the leading role." Second, he examines the Mormon belief in the existence today of a living prophet who can communicate the will of God to the faithful, and whose words "can override both scripture and tradition," as Damon puts it. The animating force behind this examination is a story (one that he has shared with me before) about his time teaching at Brigham Young University, when on more than one occasion he was told by different students--after proposing a thought experiment involving the prophet calling them up out of the blue and telling them that they needed to commit some heinous crime in God's name--that nothing would get in their way of "execut[ing] the prophet's commands." Taking these encounters to heart, Damon suggests that electing a president who believes that there really is a living "mouthpiece of God on earth," and whose faith apparently commands obedience to that mouthpiece, opens up at the very least the possibility that said mouthpiece might command him in matters of public policy, perhaps even issuing commands that could contravene widely accepted principles of morality or prudence. Given the obvious fact that most citizens of the United States do not accept the leadership of the Mormon prophet on such matters, such a possibility ought to be a matter of great concern.

Regarding Damon's examination of Mormon beliefs about the United States' eschatological role, I have few criticisms--he manages a little innuendo that I think ought to be beneath him, and he mangles the history of Joseph Smith's slapdash campaign for the presidency--which, as a little historical research would have made clear, was motivated almost entirely by the dynamics of Illinois politics at the time and by Smith's desire to protect the community of Nauvoo from the sort harassment the Mormons had previously suffered in Missouri, and not really at all as part of a supposed ushering of the Kingdom of God. (Not that such millennial political hopes didn't exist, but they never expressed themselves in connection with American electoral politics.) Still, even with all that Damon doesn't seem to me to be alleging much of significance in regards to such Mormon beliefs, perhaps mostly because their influence in the lives of Mormons today is so obviously small. Mormon millenarianism is a fascinating topic, but it is also very much a background theme in the contemporary church, and while most Americans would probably instinctively think Mormon claims about these matters are nutty, they'd also have to acknowledge that they are mostly without specific political content, unless one chooses to seriously and unfairly strain one's interpretations.

Very simply, Mormon beliefs about the United States and the end times come down to this: it is popularly (and to a degree doctrinally--more on that difference below) accepted in the Mormon church that the freedoms guaranteed in the United States, particularly through the absence of established churches, made the founding of our church possible, and that consequently we need to both see a divine purpose in the founding of this nation and feel a divine imperative to preserve the freedoms its founding guaranteed. (An imperative that I have felt more than a few Mormon legislators have failed to respect lately.) There is also a popular (though not so much doctrinal) belief within the church that Mormons in the U.S. will play an important role in the eventual fate of this country in the lead-up to the second coming of Christ. But--and this is the important thing for purposes of this argument--there is no clearly defined sense of what that role will be. In the 19th century, when Mormons were being harassed and murdered and driven out of American territory by mobs, when the leaders of the Mormon migration to the Utah Territory sought to build a theocratic State of Deseret and cut all ties to their home country, and when the U.S. government used military and legal means to bankrupt the church and imprison its leadership for the practice of polygamy--during all this time, that eschatological "role" was more often than not understood as an oppositional one, with the Mormon church standing as a witness to the judgments soon to come upon the United States and its inhabitants for having failed to live up to its promises. (See here and here for some good studies of this period in Mormon history.) It was only later, in the 20th century--and especially in the post-WWII years, as the conservative anti-communism of the John Birch Society and other groups had an unfortunately disproportionate impact on the thinking the church's leadership--that an affirmative and strongly patriotic understanding of this role took hold (see here and here for more analysis). Today, you see an understanding of that role changing once again, as we Mormons adjust ourselves spiritually and procedurally to fact that, for all the ways our scriptures and history tie us to this nation, we are increasingly an international, non-American and non-Caucasian religious body.

Of course, through it all, there have been various claims and rumors which have been batted about in Mormon circles (some of which have made it into the news in connection with Romney's likely candidacy), and a few of them could potentially have relevance for how a Mormon president might view the constitution and country he or she would swear to defend. But so far as I know none of these beliefs--whether rumored or doctrinal or somewhere in between--have anything to do with specific foreign or public policies; decidedly unlike many other religions which have an eschatological edge to their beliefs, post-19th-century Mormons have had very little to say the battles of Armageddon that sometimes seem to be the obsession of the whole evangelical world. Obviously, someone worried about abuses of patriotism might plausibly be concerned to discover that the affection and expectations that a candidate for president expresses for this nation are partly religious in nature. But such a concern, in regards to Romney, would not be categorically different from that which--according to this line of argument--therefore should have bee felt in response to the intense piety which characterized the mature political views of presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan. Damon has hung around enough Mormons to know this, and he knows enough about American history to know that American providentialism isn't that far removed from American exceptionalism, which is hardly anything new or uniquely threatening on the political scene.

His second argument, about the epistemological and political complications of electing someone who actually believes in prophets and prophecy--someone, that is, who actually takes seriously (whatever they end up believing in the end) the kind of prophetic topics mentioned in the previous two paragraphs--is a stronger one, because it gets at some admittedly problematic truths about the Mormon faith. It is one thing, of course, to believe--as on one level or another practically all Christian do--that the Old Testament prophets really did speak with God and or that the apostles really did interact with angels; it is an entirely different thing to believe that such communication and interaction does, or at least can, happen in our day, and to fully appreciate the radical implications of such. That is a hard thing to wrap one's mind around; many Mormons themselves fail to do so, and Damon isn't entirely successful either.

In his account of this problem, Damon once again allows himself a couple of false or misleading implications that ought to have been beneath him: when he writes that "the Mormon church teaches genuine respect for reason only when it operates within the narrow limits set for it by LDS prophecy," he leaves his readers with the idea that LDS prophets have pronounced on hundreds of topics and that the basic ability of Mormons to function as scientists or philosophers or anything else is profoundly compromised, something that someone like himself who has known Mormon engineers or logicians or doctors or schoolteachers ought to realize is false. But the real problem--for him and for Mormons like myself--comes to the fore in the following passage:

[T]he response of the BYU students [mentioned above] nevertheless points to a potentially dangerous problem in LDS theology--namely, that by elevating prophesy above other sources of revealed truth, by insisting that the words of a prophet supersede mainstream Christian as well as established LDS scripture and tradition, Mormonism opens the door to prophetically inspired acts and innovations the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way. Thoughtful Mormons are aware of this problem, but the peculiarities of the church and its founding make devising a solution extremely difficult...[A]s it is currently constituted, Mormonism lacks the intellectual or spiritual resources to challenge a declaration of the institutionalized prophet who runs the church, regardless of how theologically or morally outrageous that declaration might be. Members of the church may insist that non-Mormons have nothing to worry about, since God would never issue an immoral edict, but that is quite obviously a matter of faith--a faith that non-Mormons do not share. As long as the LDS church continues to insist that its leader serves as a direct conduit from God--a God whose ways are to a considerable extent inscrutable to human reason--Mormonism will remains a theologically unstable, and thus also a politically perilous, religion.

While I have a few caveats to my general response to Damon, and will touch on a couple of them below, let me sum up my reaction to this claim of his with the following: you're right--Mormonism is "theologically unstable," and not very many people, whether or Mormon or otherwise, seem to know what to do with that. Damon is right to highlight this instability. However, I also think that my church's problematic theology (or more specifically, the lack thereof), when properly understood and contextualized, can only be conceived as "politically perilous" given the particular notions of religion and politics that Damon is committed to.

The practical truth of the matter, as Damon capably explains elsewhere in his article, is that there is no way any "covert genocidal plot by Mormons" of the sort which hysterics might read into the claims Damon heard from some (how many exactly, I'd like to know) of his students could ever be expected from, or even suspected about, a Romney administration or that of any Mormon president. It wouldn't happen for many reasons, including some he himself documents: the fact that for over a hundred years LDS prophetic teachings have consistently moved the church in the direction of "mainstream American values"; the existence of many statements by numerous church leaders who have emphasized the need to test revelations from whatever source against the existing scriptural canon; the reality that the church is a hierarchical institution that carefully weighs its every public statement and consequently practices a genuine "theological conservatism." True, accepting on faith the possibility of prophetic leadership does mean that every faithful Mormon is expected to generally treat the statements of the president of the church as "inspired"--an assumption which makes possible the pious yet boneheaded statements such as Damon was subjected to at BYU (anyone who has grown up in the church like myself has heard all that and more). But in actual fact there have been only three statements by prophets in the 162 years since the death of Joseph Smith that have been accepted as scripture and therefore been made formally binding upon the membership of the church (you can find them here, here, and here), and only the second of those--the ending of the practice of polygamy--clearly had specific political significance. (And in fact, the upshot of its political significance is that a Mormon prophet promised that the church would not attempt to merge the its spiritual agenda with the surrounding polity, basically abandoning--at least on some readings--Mormonism's sectarian and/or theocratic mentality entirely.)

Now this is, to be sure, a highly incomplete account of Mormon life. I do not deny that mine is an authoritarian religion, in the limited and specific sense that lines of authority (mostly involving priesthood offices) find support in the basic doctrines of the church and are therefore mostly beyond contestation, allowing our leaders a good degree of latitude within their appointed spheres. And it is within those spheres that one finds the stories that any of the many thousands of people critical of Mormonism will be happy to relate: the self-righteous youth leader who forbade his charges from associating with their non-Mormon friends, the local bishop who made life hell for the young man dealing with sexual guilt, the church officer who forbade a book club to meet at the church building because he thought their choice of Beloved meant they were reading pornography, the apostle who said no good Mormon could ever be a Democrat (just as 140 years ago, when Mormons were practicing communal economics in Utah, the member of the church who insisted on the righteousness of going into business and keeping his profits for himself was not uncommonly considered by his neighbors to be a traitor to the faith). Nonetheless, all these anecdotes do not add up to the reach of those spheres of authority being equal to what Damon's logic states they potentially, politically, could be. Anyone with his knowledge of Mormonism knows full well that most statements by church leaders--even those explicitly announced as revelation!--are nonetheless routinely subjected by individual members of the church to their own judgment and discernment. The famous line from Joseph Smith himself is that "a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such," a statement which he followed with a call for all believers to keep the commandments, stick close to the scriptures, practice Christian charity, and thereby have the Holy Spirit with them so they can make righteous judgments for themselves about the comportment and truth what the prophets have claimed to reveal. (Have there been Mormon leaders that have downplayed this reliance on canon and conscience, suggesting instead that when prophets speak all other measurements fall by the wayside? Absolutely, and if one prefers the route of single-minded devotion to the latest whisper from Salt Lake City, there are more than enough models available to emulate. But then again, Joseph Smith's statement--which he explicitly applied to his own statements and behavior--could just as well be used (and I often wish it were more often used) against those leaders and their devotees as well.)

The result of all this has been anything but an unblemished record of success when it comes to prophetic involvement in ordinary political matters. The sustained prophet of the church back in 1933, Heber J. Grant, called on all Mormons to vote to preserve Prohibition; instead, Utah cast the vote which repealed the amendment (and the fact that mass excommunications did not follows puts in doubt Damon's claim that, were Romney to disregard a particular edict from the prophet he would automatically be considered a "lapsed Mormon"). More recent--and more relevant to Damon's discussion--is the fact that Harry Reid, Democratic senator from Nevada and incoming Senate Majority Leader, is a Mormon who has pointedly refused to support the proposed federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage, despite the support it has received from the church leadership, and he hasn't been kicked out of the church yet either, a fact that caused some conservatives with screwed-up priorities to scratch their heads in confusion. (Incidentally, for what its worth the exact same thing could be asked about other Mormon scholars, as well as myself.) Mormon life is filled with complicated negotiations, with generally orthodox--and, assuming we're talking about the Mormon population in America, generally conservative--but by no means wholly anti-intellectual debates over how the faithful should accommodate personal scriptural interpretation, prophet statements, private conscience and public interests taking place regularly. (See here for some scholarly work on Mormon voting patterns, and here for my own take on various complaints--some legitimate, some not--about the Mormons of practicing "theocracy" in Utah.) Again, Damon knows all this. And yet, despite his familiarity with these matters and with Mormons like myself who live through them, he nonetheless maintains that "no intellectual or spiritual resources" exist within Mormonism which would prevent faithful Mormons from being driven from one extreme to another by their faith. Why? Richard Bushman, replying to Damon on TNR's website, suggests that he is "preoccupied with fanaticism"; Nate Oman, a law professor at William & Mary (and one of my Times and Seasons cobloggers), thinks his suspicions are of a piece with old anti-Catholic fears about "popery." My own opinion? One that focuses on Damon's political philosophy, of course.

I think that it is telling that Damon places "intellectual" and "spiritual" together in the passage quoted above. The fact that the past 100 years have demonstrated clear patterns in how Mormon prophets preach and how Mormon believers respond to that preaching does not constitute, in Damon's thinking, a spiritual principle. And he's correct--it doesn't. Or at least, it doesn't if one cannot think about spiritual principles (to say nothing of intellectual ones) outside of a rather (though its defenders would claim necessarily) restricted and rational reading of the Western philosophical tradition. Damon is clearly indebted to that reading of philosophy: for him, an examination of a candidate's religious beliefs has to involve a search for grounds, for principles from which one can initiate a fundamental critique. Damon is wrong when he writes that "the idea...of using one's own mind to cast moral or intellectual doubt on the veracity of a prophetic pronouncement...makes no sense in the Mormon conceptual universe"; all that I've written above demonstrates that. And yet, he is not wrong if the "Mormon conceptual universe" is identical to that of other, non-revelatory, natural-law-or-scriptural-inerrancy-pronouncing religions--in other words, if its universe is like that of the sort of religions which the Western political and philosophical tradition has influenced and in turn been influenced by over the past two thousand years. From that perspective, what one scholar has called the "dialogical" aspect of the Mormon faith--by which he meant that the core of Mormon belief is bound up in a personal acceptance of and "dialogue" with a revelatory and interruptive presence in their lives, specifically the artifactual "presence" of the Book of Mormon as a book of new scripture that must be accounted for--may be fascinating, but it is also of no use intellectually. That aspect of Mormonism (and indeed, by some accounts it is the sum total of "official" Mormonism) results in promises and practices, but not principles; it gives you spiritual truisms but no solid theology. In fact, other Mormon scholars have gone so far as to argue that an acceptance of the possibility of continuing revelation, of new truths and commands from God, forces Mormon belief into what might be called an "atheological" mode: the works of God become legitimately describable only in terms of covenants made and contexts acknowledged; they resist philosophical or dogmatic conceptualization. Thus the practices of Mormons--their institutions and procedures and ordinances--themselves constitute the closest we can come to the sort of spiritual or intellectual principles Damon is asking for; when asked whether we believe the prophet has the authority to potentially dictate a complete political agenda to the faithful, our response is, at best, "yes, we do, but don't worry about it, because he won't." Why won't he? "Because things don't work that way." Why don't they work that way? Well, for all the reasons given above--the routines of the church, the mental habits of the membership, etc.

But wait, Damon or someone like him would likely respond: are those real reasons, the sort of reasons that would qualify as persuasive in a pluralist society wherein most people are not culturally or historically embedded in a community that can discern their moral and rational force? Ah, now we see the problem. What we have here is a situation wherein a new faith--one that is young enough and different enough to appear to be, so far at least, still holding itself together despite its outrageous claims (unlike so many other revelatory and eschatological faiths which emerged and then died out during the evangelical revivals of early to mid-19th-century America)--is confronting the implicit epistemological rules of our liberal democracy. I would insist that the confrontation is not actually present--and moreover that, in the minds of the sort of voters who will likely care more about Romney's decisions than his decisionmaking processes, it likely does not even appear real--but I have to admit that it is conceivable nonetheless. It is not a violent confrontation, like the one over the Mormon practice of polygamy, in which the U.S. government repressed a theologically-driven alternative to America's moral norms, but a much more civic one, one having to do with how one believes a democratic polity can be (or must be) constituted.

But that just makes me wonder about what Damon thinks characterizes "civic" life within such a polity. Is citizenship truly a matter of simply adhering to set of publicly discursive proclamations? What about "membership"; what about "belonging"? Damon makes much out of John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech to an association of Southern Baptist ministers in Houston during his campaign, and how he "set voters' minds at ease by declaring in unambiguous terms that he considered the separation of church and state to 'absolute.'" In a sense, Damon is correct to see in that speech as a necessary clarification and act of commitment on Kennedy's part; given, as he writes, Roman Catholicism's pre-Vatican II "hostility to modernity, democracy, liberalism, and religious 'error,' as well as its emphasis on the absolute moral authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals," it was perfectly reasonable for Kennedy to feel a need to communicate his adherence to clearly identifiable boundaries and principles. But surely that is not all that he was doing, was it? Consider the speech in full, and consider his audience. Certainly Kennedy's speech was full of classical liberal phrases, about religion being a matter of "private conscience" as distinct from the "national interest" and so forth. But it also puts its speaker--a Catholic running for the office of president--into his audience's historical shoes, reminding them that "[i]t was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom," and adding that "[t]oday I may be the victim--but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart." His goal was not to elucidate exactly how and why a Catholic could be Catholic and still be a servant of the people; his goal was show that, as a Catholic, he aspired as much to "the American ideal of brotherhood" as any of the ministers (many of whom no doubt harbored anti-Catholic feelings) in the sound of his voice.

Now admittedly, there may not be much difference between "the American ideal of brotherhood" and Damon's preferred liberal catechism; one of the basic reasons the United States is such an interesting case in discussions of community and identity is that, in the view of at least some scholars, we are the achetypical creedal nation--civic membership in America, according to this line of thinking, really does come down to adherence to a set of (in this case epistemological) guidelines, and nothing more. I've written before about why I think this is wrong from a philosophical, linguistic, and cultural standpoint, but leave all that aside; just think about solely what Kennedy was trying to do. Was he actually trying to convince the Southern Baptists he was speaking to that Catholicism was not what they believed it to be? No--he was trying to convince them that he, a Catholic, was not what they feared him to be: specifically, someone who suffered from a "divided loyalty." In speaking to them, he gave them a sense of his allegiance(s), both religious and civic. He came off sounding very American, as someone who would handle problems and address issues in a very American way. And that was good enough. The fact that there were still, in those pre-Vatican II days, enormous problems in accounting for the "constitution" of Catholicism in an America which was decidedly congregational and Protestant in its civic religion, was not in the end much of a problem for Kennedy's supporters; they saw that he could fit in, that he was a "member" of America's basically disestablished (ir)religious culture, that he could belong and be trusted, and hence theologically-driven opposition to his candidacy melted away. The fact that Romney, as Damon himself admits, has governed Massachusetts in a fairly moderate way, would seem to provide him with the same ammunition that Kennedy possessed: "judge me on the basis of fourteen years in the Congress," he said to the assembled ministers. Romney's record cannot eliminate Mormonism theological instability, that must be admitted; but it does show more than enough cause to be suspicious of abstract, principle-based arguments which try to discover something "politically perilous" in someone whose membership in the American community, whose civic activity in that community, displays anything but.

If Damon's argument was solely driven by these questions of political theology, I would consider my response complete: the questions he is asking cannot be answered the way he wants them to, because Mormonism is not now, or at least not yet (or perhaps never will be), a religion that is capable of producing doctrinal parameters that can be perfectly matched with the epistemological presumptions of modern pluralism. Truth be told, the same could be said about any Christian church; the debate between the radicalness of the Christian revelation and secularness of liberalism is a deep one, and there are tensions aplenty on the level of practice as well as principle--in fact, Christianity and liberalism have been shaped to a great extent by their mutual historical negotiation or rejection or embrace or those tensions. Perhaps the same will be said for Mormonism, in time; perhaps Romney's candidacy (and articles critical of it like this one!) will be part of that process. But for the moment, there is one more thing which needs to be said.

And that is that it is entirely possible that the reason the history of Mormon behavior and its obvious congruence with contemporary American civic life isn't satisfactory to Damon is because what he sees as politically perilous isn't really Romney's theology, but what Romney is advocating. Romney's Mormon theology thus simply puts an additional spin on Damon's primary concern, which he has spelled out at length in his book. The big difference between Romney and Kennedy, as Damon states in his TNR piece, is that Romney cannot appeal to that aspect of American culture (or, if you prefer, that article of liberal principle) which highlights the separation between church and state; rather, he is running as "a man of deep piety who wishes to increase the role of conservative religion in the nation's public life." This is, to be sure, a subject worth debating...but it doesn't seem to have much to do with a belief in prophets or eschatology. And the proof of this suspicion is the fact that Damon's article never even mentions Harry Reid. Now of course, Romney himself is in the news, and the presidency is always big news, and so perhaps Damon can simply plead that talking about all these issues involving Mormonism without discussing Reid's own involvement was a reasonable journalistic choice. But such an excuse can only go so far. The fact is, Reid is going to be the Senate Majority Leader, he's going to have the power to move constitutional amendments forward or make all but certain they'll die before reaching the floor, he's going to be able to twist arms and schedule votes that will impact what happens on the Judiciary and Commerce and Foreign Affairs committees--he will, in short, be a very powerful man. And Harry Reid is a Mormon in good standing. The obvious conclusion is that Damon is worried about Romney being theocratic, or at least thinks it is important to contemplate the peculiarly Mormon ways in which he could be theocratic, because he is suspicious of what Romney seems to be interested in doing with his peculiar theology. He doesn't appear to feel the same about Reid, because he's not suspicious of what (if anything) Reid intends to do with his peculiar theology in his new position, even though he constitutes the same "problem" for America that Romney does.

I find myself thinking back to my long critique of Damon's book (and, as an aside, wondering if this critique is even longer). What Damon has bitten into here is a set of concerns that implicitly demonstrate the level of contestation in our society at present over what it means for a polity to be "secular." Last time around, he did so by way of biting into the theocons; this time, it's via the Mormons. Damon's agenda is to create--or preserve--a secular society that draws equally upon a skeptical liberalism which much religion opposes, and a kind of cosmopolitan pluralism which social traditionalism opposes. They are wrapped together in his thinking. This goes to Noah Millman's insight that Damon's argument is really a kind of identity politics, or my old accusation that he and his opponents share the same theoretical space: everything comes down to struggle over what ought to be happening or allowed in the public square, even though the philosophical questions he puts on the table ought to actually point to how that square is defined in the first place. Of course, Damon isn't really interested, I think, in challenging the constitution of the liberal order; he just wants to see its principles worked out in the way he thinks best for its own maintenance, and hence for the maintenance of the particular freedoms it allows. I'm sympathetic to that (as a Mormon, a member of a minority religion that suffered great persecution in the past, how can I not be?), even if I reject the philosophical priority which he attaches to it. And, for all he gets wrong and for all my frustration about what Damon's article fails to acknowledge, I have to say I admire it, if only because it's focus on Romney--whether disingenuous or not--highlights something Mormons ought to be thinking long and hard about. And that is this: Romney is aiming to be the candidate of social conservatives, including "theoconservatives." In doing so, he has increasingly appropriated the language employed by religiously-motivated opponents of same-sex marriage--in other words, very much the kind of "natural law" language which Damon claimed Mormonism did not support. (I discuss this more here.) To the extent that ambitious and/or unreflective Mormons who are going along with him feel comfortable with that language, they are changing the nature of the Mormon faith, making it--and its "conceptual universe"--less a matter of membership and practices, and more theological, more compatible with those deeply ingrained tensions and compromises that characterize the Christian tradition, and thus more accommodating of Damon's intellectual/spiritual demands. This is, to be sure, not necessarily a bad thing; for myself, I'm not sure it's something I would oppose. But it is something that we ought to be aware of all the same--just as, in retrospect, many Catholics have wondered about the man whose campaign for president in many ways defined their final steps into the American mainstream, perhaps more of us Mormons ought to wonder whether Romney's quest for the Republican nomination might not lead some us into embracing a theory of politics, a set of priorities for the public square, that our own decidedly atheological and dialogical commitments and covenants do not readily support--or indeed, match up well with at all.


Anonymous said...

Nothing funnier than religions trying to defend their faith and practice by portraying themselves as oh so reasonable. Institutionalized faith is by its very nature not reasonable, cannot be, would be hopelessly contradictory if it were - and I'm sure Weisberg finding fault with Mormonism because of its newness is about that central absurdity: I understand and in some way accept the irrational nature of old religions because, well, they're old - what am I gonna do, argue with Catholics that the Pope isn't the Vicar of Christ?; but to go to the bother to invent a new religion founded on yet more irrational claims and to do so in a time of advancing rationalism in a country defined by rationalism - well, that's much harder to take seriously and causes one to view with extreme scepticism the motivations behind such a desire.


Posted by Credo

Clark Goble said...

Fantastic response Russell and well worth the time it took to read. Hopefully TNR links to it because it is something I'd hope many (especially journalists) read. 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...


Nothing funnier?

There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.
Alfred Korzybski

"With most men, unbelief in one thing springs from blind belief in another."
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg  

Posted by mike

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Russell. The state of public discouse about religion in this country is terrible. We need to do better, more carefull discussion like this.

Anonymous said...

"There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking."

Thought ought to begin with doubt and end in belief.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice post!