Michael Kinsley has raised the bar. Starting out on the trail blazed by his former Slate colleague Jacob Weisberg, Kinsley has pulled out a blowtorch to slash and burn great swaths of new acreage. Where Weisberg posited (against all evidence) that people who believe in prophets are incompetent rubes, Kinsley argues (against all history) that you can’t even believe in the Bible and be qualified for the presidency. The war of secularist escalation continues, and before long, it’s going to claim some victims.
All of this from a new Time Magazine op-ed titled God as their Running Mate. For a writer as well-respected as Kinsley, the ubiquity of flat-out cheating in this piece is lamentable. For example, notice how the opening line purports to tell us how Romney’s stance on his private religiosity is untenable. The support for the argument comes in the form of Mario Cuomo, whose stance on abortion was objectionable because he viewed abortion as murder and yet respected a woman’s right to choose. How this argument applies to Romney, who neither believes abortion is murder nor defends a woman’s right to choose, escapes this lowly reader.
Next, Kinsley makes the point that if God is advising religious candidates, he is entitled to know what God is telling them, just as he’d like to know what Karl Rove would be telling them. This is an asinine analogy, for two reasons. First, no current candidate has ever claimed God as a campaign adviser. The fact that a candidate claims publicly to be privately religious (as required by American voters) falls far short of claiming that God is behind the candidacy, or even interested in it. The claim says nothing at all about God, but only something about the candidate’s view on God. But more to the point, even if some candidate did make the claim that God was aiding in their candidacy, Kinsley would have just as much right to know what God was telling them as he would to hear what Karl Rove tells his clients– that is, absolutely nothing. Good journalist that he is, Kinsley is interested in what advisers tell their candidates, but neither he nor the public is ever entitled to know what they’re saying. This swipe does reveal something about Kinsley though- the implication that just as Rove might be saying slimy things to his candidate, so might God. Just another reason why this piece is so badly thought out if it intends to persuade anyone outside of Kinsley’s little circle of areligious pundits.
Other distortions abound,* but we have to come eventually to responding to the central claims of the piece. Kinsley concludes that three elements of religious belief are imperative for a candidate to explain to voters. First, we must know what “forms of conduct a candidate’s religion forbids or requires.” In Mitt Romney’s case, since tobacco, alcohol and premarital sex are off limits, Kinsley wonders how Romney can consistently believe these principles and still deal with those Americans that might want to smoke and drink and carouse. Kinsley frames this issue as if it’s the first time it’s been asked, sounding like a college freshman with some clever ideas and zero real-world experience. Does Kinsley really believe that religious Americans have never considered how their beliefs apply to nonbelievers? Is he really unaware of the millions of pages of philosophical, political, and theological texts dealing with this question? More important, does he really think that religious people in pluralistic America still have no idea how to behave vis-a-vis those who don’t share their beliefs? Sure, there will also be some tensions around the margins (school prayer, ten commandments in the courts), but to suggest that we risk the passage of anti-fornication laws with a Romney presidency is either deliberately obtuse or grossly uninformed.
Second, Kinsley argues that a religion can teach something about a candidate’s worldview, as in how the faith views gender roles. This is at least a plausible position. If some religion contains teachings that strike at the core of American values, a candidate that holds those values is subject to legitimate inquiry. But again, the problem with this focus is the use of religion as a means of understanding a person, when there are dozens of better lenses through which to come to know a person. If you want to know how a candidate thinks about gender roles, look at his family, his policies, and his record. The myopic focus on religion as the rosetta stone of candidate character (an approach I have dubbed “Divination”) reveals almost nothing, besides the fascination of so many in the media with something they view as so bizarre as religion.
Finally, Kinsley’s third point is simply to agree with Weisberg– that anyone who believes in “con-men” shouldn’t be president. And by the way, where Weisberg limited his definition of “con-men” to Joseph Smith, Kinsley apparently includes such well-known charlatans as Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Kinsley makes clear that this issue is about a candidate’s character, by which I think he means a candidate’s credulity.
No one ever spells out the credulity argument, but it apparently runs something like this: Mitt Romney believes in Joseph Smith, who is an obvious fraud. So what’s to keep him from believing Vladimir Putin if he calls to say that Russia has destroyed all its nukes. There are several steps missing from the argument. First, there’s the fact that Mitt Romney has some very unique reasons for believing in Joseph Smith (as other Christians have unique reasons for believing in the Bible),— things like allegiance to a church and upbringing and spiritual disposition, etc.— which would never come into play in any political situation. Second, if credulity is what we’re really concerned about, why not check the guy’s record to see how gullible he is. Based on his career at Harvard, Bain Consulting, Bain Finance, the Olympics, and running Massachusetts, there’s no evidence of credulity in Romney’s character. Doesn’t that end the debate? Finally, if believing the bible is the test of presidential disqualification, how many of our presidents have been unqualified for the office? Certainly more than half of them. No wonder America is such a primitive, unsuccessful country.
Kinsley closes with a slam on Romney– how ironic that a man of apparent religious conviction holds no actual values. To Kinsley, a person’s position on immigration is apparently far more central to character than a person’s faith. If that’s true, remind me again why we must evaluate the candidate based on his religious beliefs, rather than his policies?
*Among the other distortions: The Mormon line on “passionate kissing” outside of marriage is nowhere near as absolute as Kinsley says it is. Mormons hold that sex outside of marriage is sinful, and therefore teach their youth, as a pragmatic precaution, to be careful about preliminary actions that will tempt to further intimacies. The LDS Church has never disciplined anyone for passionate kissing.
Further, to say that Mormons believe the Bible is a “mistranslation” is to completely obscure the truth. The LDS Church’s Eighth Article of Faith states, in pertinent part: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. . .” The minor point of that clause is that yes, we recognize that the Bible may contain translation and transcription errors (a rather noncontroversial point among Biblical scholars). The major point, and the one with the real impact on the religious lives of Mormons, is that Mormons believe that the Bible is the word of God. They study it, discuss it, and consult it for spiritual guidance very much as other Christians do, differing only by declining to assert its inerrancy (as well as by acknowledging the existence of other scripture).