The Trial of Christopher Hitchens

It’s here– the next big attack you’ll be reading about everywhere. This time it’s no less an intellect/polemicist than Slate’s Christopher Hitchens, whose intelligence and polymathy are matched only by the palpable rancor of his rants. (For those keeping score, this makes the fifth religious attack on Romney’s faith appearing in Slate’s pages in the last year, counting this, this, this, this, and the present article. Why is that, Slate?). Hitchens has already outed himself as no friend to Mormonism, or to religion in general, by way of his too cutely titled new book God is not Great. (You can read an excerpt on the “ridiculous cult” of Mormonism here. Note while you’re there that while the book purports to attack all religion, Slate only had the gumption to publish excerpts attacking Islam and Mormonism. No good picking on anyone that might be able to fight back in numbers, right?).

Hitchens picks up his current tirade where he left off in that last edition, making enormous assertions based on glaring mischaracterizations of Mormon history and belief. Not to fear, he’s writing in a very prominent online magazine, so Hitchens can rest assured that his readers will assume he’s been fact-checked and vetted, and will walk away from the article believing they’ve just heard all they need to know about Mitt Romney’s crazy religion. It’s one thing to go on a tear in some small evangelical magazine, and another to post a dirty, mendacious diatribe in a visible forum viewed by tens of thousands of intelligent Americans. Sadly, something below that number will view this response, so regardless of the actual truth of these matters, Hitchens has already won. If Hitchens can sanctimoniously concoct the trial of Henry Kissinger for alleged crimes against humanity, surely he ought to stand trial himself for these glaring crimes against decency and truthfulness.

But enough hand-wringing. Let’s pick up some of the worst of Hitchens’ claims and show the world how pitiful they are in the light of truth, shall we? As Hitch might say, do let’s. There’s so much here that we’ll dispense with our normal snappy segues and paragraph structures. It’s bullet point time.

  • Hitchens starts by discussing Romney’s video response to the recent push polls in Iowa and New Hampshire attempting to tie Romney to a number of controversial Mormon doctrines. To Hitchens, the video is model of “revolting sanctimony and self-pity,” and is also part of an affirmative strategy for Romney to gain politically by defending himself. I recommend viewing the video to judge the level of sanctimony and self-pity, because I don’t see it. In fact, if you’ve ever been attacked on the basis of your religion or another out-of-bounds characteristic, you’ve probably gotten a lot more exercised than Romney does here. But then, it’s possible Hitchens never watched the video, because he feigns ignorance about why Romney brings up the timing of Thanksgiving- even though Romney clearly explains that “this is a time when we’re preparing for Thanksgiving. A time when we get to celebrate the fact that this nation was founded in part to allow people to enjoy religious freedom.” See the connection yet, Hitchens? (more…)

Do Mormons Read the Bible?

You may recognize this as one of the questions posed in the now notorious slam-polls that went out through Iowa and New Hampshire last week.  This one is right in the RomneyExperience wheelhouse, and we would offer a definitive answer, but it looks like the work has already been done.

Jeff Fuller of Iowans for Romney has the low-down on the question of how Mormons view the Bible in relation to the Book of Mormon.  It’s a good, concise answer, and I highly recommend it.  Thanks, Jeff.

Are Mormons Christians? Romney’s Answer

One of the most difficult and contentious questions surrounding the matter of Mitt Romney’s faith is the question of whether he is a Christian. While you might think the simple truth would be easy to get at, it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer because it is fraught with so much sectarian weight and political consequence. It’s like asking someone if a hanging chad should count as a vote– a relatively simple question with a pretty limited set of surrounding facts, but if the question is asked of a party operative in late 2000, it becomes far, far more complex than just the objective facts at the core of the inquiry.

That’s why it’s fascinating to hear Mitt Romney himself answer the question. Here he is, in an interview with NRO’s Byron York. He’s responding to a question asking his reaction to people like Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) who said that “You cannot equate Mormonism with Christianity; you cannot say, ‘I am a Christian just like you.’ If he does that, every Baptist preacher in the South is going to have to go to the pulpit on Sunday and explain the differences.”

Romney’s response:

“You know, the term ‘Christian’ means different things to different people,” Romney told me. “Jews aren’t Christian. That doesn’t preclude a Jew from being able to run for office and become president. I believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world and is the son of God. Now, some people say, well, that doesn’t necessarily make you a Christian because Christian refers to a certain group of evangelical Christian faiths. That’s fine. That’s their view. Others say, no, anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the Savior should be called Christian. That’s fine, too. I’ll just describe what I believe and not try to distinguish my faith from others. That’s really something for my faith to do and for the churches amongst themselves to consider.”

This is a masterful answer. Besides the fact that it finds a way to consider each side’s viewpoint and finesses the contention in the middle, it has the added benefit of being unassailably true. Further, if I’m right that the vast majority of Americans agree that “Christian” refers to a follower of Christ, without regard to the belief checklist definition posited by many evangelicals, this explanation should appeal to most readers, who will conclude that Romney fits their own definition of “Christian” just fine.

You have to respect Romney for being willing to walk this fine line, confessing his own belief in Jesus Christ without the need to rely on needlessly battle-worn labels.

UPDATE: Looks like the Article VI guys agree with me

USA Today: Pleeeease tell us what you believe!

USA Today ran a column by George Washington U. Professor Jonathan Turley banging on the old “if you run on religion, you have to answer questions on your religion” nail. As Turley writes, “[I]t may be time to demand that, when politicians call to the faithful, they should have to answer to the faithful on their own religious practices.”

Turley spends most time applying this piece of wisdom to Mitt Romney, of course:

Yet, when one is campaigning evangelically, it is hard to maintain that the faithful flock should not question the shepherd. There is particular sensitivity over in the Romney camp. Mitt Romney is a former bishop and stake president (or head of a collection of congregations) in his church, but he has largely refused to discuss the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Romney admitted last week that his staff does not want any in-depth discussion of LDS on the campaign trail. The church remains controversial with many religious voters who view it as non-Christian and polytheistic.

Even so, Romney is actively courting the faithful, including changing his positions on key moral issues, such as gay marriage, due to personal (if belated) conversions. He has called Jesus Christ “my personal Lord and savior” and alluded to the Gideon Bible as his favorite reading, leaving Mormons and non-Mormons wondering about his faith values. If religion is the most important factor in a person’s life and directs his decisions on issues such as gay marriage, why should the electorate not learn about that faith?

This passage reveals Mr. Turley to be more interested in finding support for his tenuous point than dealing with actual facts. (more…)

Yes, They Were Push Polls

I am heartened to see the breathless response of the national media to the slimy survey calls being made to Iowa and New Hampshire voters that delve into obscure questions of Mitt Romney’s faith.  It’s one thing that calls like this happen in today’s political cycle, but it would be something else entirely if no one got up in arms about it.  This week’s response to these calls seems to guarantee that few will dare try something like this in the next few months (although all bets are off come the general election campaign, of course).  Which is not to say we’ve seen the last of this in the primary, but anyone who had been considering such tactics will certainly think twice now, and spend more time covering his tracks than gaining newly anti-Mormon supporters.

I wanted to add one small point to everything that’s been said about these events in the last few days.  Despite the appropriately furious reaction by many, one issue seems to have become a part of the narrative that should not be.  If you read much of the coverage, you’ll find several stories that break down the difference between what took place here and “push polls,” asserting that the calls made to Iowan and NH were something else entirely.  The term most often used is “message testing.”  That is, these calls were just being made to test certain messages so that campaigns or other advocacy groups can better understand how to craft their talking points.  *Okay, no big deal then, sorry to have made such a fuss.*

Hold on a second.  There are two things to note here.  First is that most of these stories are driven directly by sources at Western Wats (the polling company responsible for the calls).  I called an old friend at Western Wats and got the same thing– we don’t do push polling, these were methodologically substantive pieces of survey research.  Given that that’s the only information coming out of Western Wats, I understand why some people wanted to print it, but it just happens to be a huge piece of disinformational smokescreening.  Regardless of the informational richness of the survey for Western Wats’ purposes, it makes not an iota’s worth of difference to America, Mormons, reporters, Romney, or anyone else that there is actual research going on here instead of calls for the sake of convincing voters.  This is a distinction without a difference, and Western Wats is behind the blurring of the lines.  (Push polls? We are waaaaaay above that.  We only ask long lists of anti-Mormon questions when we care about the results!)

Which leads to my second point.  The very argument suggests something far grander– that rather than just trying to convince the recipients of each call, the intention is actually to test and refine a message regarding anti-Mormonism that will then be broadcast on a much larger scale to use Romney’s religion against him.  Why we should be sanguine about this angle is not evident to me?  Did everyone miss what they’re calling these calls?  Message testing!  Whoever hired Western Wats to make these calls is interested in knowing how best to package Anti-Mormon bigotry to bring down Mitt Romney!  (Okay, that’s way too many exclamation points.  Let me calm down for a minute).

We should not buy the spin being offered on the nature of these calls.  I’m no expert on telephone research (although I spent a year working for a Provo-based rival of Western Wats, so I’m happy to pose as an expert if you’d like), but I don’t think there’s any real difference at all between these calls and the push polls that became famous back in 2000.   Both have the effect of persuading voters on completely irrelevant issues, both are dirty and underhanded, and both deserve outright condemnation and legal investigation.  Let’s hope the anti-Mormon calls to Iowa and New Hampshire are met with both.

They’re Heeeere . . .

The push pollers, anti-Mormons, and political opportunists, that is.

Politico’s crack ’08 blogger Jonathan Martin has the story. Apparently, a Utah-based market research company has been hired to call voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and ask question after question about each respondent’s opinions regarding Mormonism, its status as a “cult,” its adherence to the Book of Mormon, and the eligibility of a Mormon to hold political office. This would seem to be targeted at a specific Mormon candidate, if you can think of one that holds that profile.

While it’s an awful thing to see, pretty much everyone (including me) predicted this. And it’s coming at exactly the time you would expect it to. So far we have strong denials from the McCain and Giuliani camps. However, given the current legal climate of campaigning, it could be virtually anyone paying for these calls behind a 527 group. Someone see if there have been any papers filed to set up “Anti-Mormons for Truth.”

And by the way, following up on the new gloves-are-off mode we’re entering, here’s another nice piece of scurrilous anti-Mormonism. I had planned to respond to this today, but other duties have called. Hopefully we can have a real response up soon.

Finally, if you haven’t seen it already, this New York Times piece on Romney’s mission is decent. While the continuing, obsessive focus on Romney’s religious experience is unfortunate, at least the focus is on Romney’s religious experience– rather than on the abstract theological beliefs putatively held by his religion. Once you accept the topic of the piece, it’s a pretty fair treatment that continues the inevitable process of humanizing this candidate as the country pays more attention to him.

Anti-Mormon Gloves Coming Off

Martin Frost, writing on FoxNews.com, made an invitation to his readers. He asked them to write him expressing their feelings regarding voting for a Mormon. Mr. Frost says the majority of his more than 400 respondents expressed a hope that people could get past that issue and vote for candidates on the merits. This is encouraging. But Mr. Frost, who purports to belong to that same camp, didn’t print any of those emails. Instead, he chose to publish thirteen of the most vitriolic pieces of bigotry you’re likely to ever see in a national news medium. This is pathetic.

Let’s review a few of these emails, and remember- the topic is not the truthfulness of the LDS Church, its theology or practice, the salutary effect it has on members’ lives, or any other such religious question. The topic is whether a person is comfortable voting for Mitt Romney in light of his Mormon faith. Here’s a rule of thumb: If someone asks you if you can vote for Hillary Clinton, and your response focuses more on “women” than “Hillary,” you’re a bigot. Keeping that same principle in mind, let’s look at a few of the cuddly reader responses: (more…)

High Quality Links

A few worthwhile articles have popped up in the last few days, which you faithful readers may enjoy:

First, the Economist spends a week in Utah investigating Mormonism.  It’s a somewhat surprising piece, because the short, punchy writing leads one to expect to see a few below the belt punches or factual flubs.  Neither appear.  The writer is fair-minded and willing to give the benefit of the doubt where deserved.  It’s a short and entertaining read, one that informs on America as much as on Mormonism.

Second, highly respected LDS scholar Terryl Givens has a short blog post musing on the meaning of Romney’s run for the presidency over the background of the paradoxes of Mormon culture.  Also well worth reading.

Finally, a breathtakingly open inquiry into the wide diversity of life within Mormonism, by Mathew N. Schmalz writing in Commonweal (“A Review of Religion, Politics, and Culture”).  Schmalz details a multitude of facets of Mormon life, showing again and again how varied Mormons are, and how willing to think critically, dissent, and break with orthodoxy when moved upon.  I strongly disagree with some of the opinions expressed by Mormons in this piece– but that’s just the point, isn’t it?  Kudos to Schmalz, who joins Dr. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp in the club of outsiders who really seem to ‘get’ Mormons.

World Magazine: Mitt is a Liar Because He is a Mormon

I often don’t cover the venom being spewed in smaller publications, just because such publications are less likely to make a broad impact, and are less likely to be persuaded to repent anyway. Once in a while, though, some two-bit magazine will print something so indefensible that it’s hard to bite one’s tongue.

This week’s offender is World Magazine (tagline: Weekly News | Christian Views). Columnist Joel Belz wrote a piece titled “Trifling With the Truth; Mitt Romney’s Mormonism May Shed Light on His Sudden Policy Changes.” Reading the title sets off a few suspicious alarm bells, which ought to remind the cautious reader to be on the lookout for evidence.

Some of the highlights:

By theologian Norman Geisler’s count (he’s written two books about Mormonism), Mormons reject more than half the 16 main tenets of historic Christianity– held jointly by Roman Catholocism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and traditional Protestantism. So we’re plowing brand new ground when we talk about electing a Mormon as president.

And exactly what is the new ground we’re plowing? Did you see the deft leap from discussion of traditional Christianity orthodoxy checklist to . . . electing a president? (more…)

South Carolina: Raising the Stakes, Risking the Wrath

It became clear last week that recent polls out of South Carolina showing a surprising rise to the top by Mitt Romney in that state deserve to be taken seriously. Much as the other candidates would like to dismiss these reports, and pundits have long thought such an ascension unthinkable in this heavily evangelical state, Romney’s advantages in organization, endorsements, and work ethic seem to be paying off, at least for now.

In the immediate wake of this good news for the Romney camp comes a reminder to mix their optimism with a healthy dose of caution. This Michael Crowley story in the New Republic catalogues the well-known tradition in South Carolina Presidential politics of fighting as dirty as humanly possible.

Crowley details several low blows already dealt in the S.C. race, many of them leveled directly at the biggest chink in the Romney armor: the millstone of Mormonism. Exhibit 1 is a mysterious letter widely distributed just before an S.C.-based debate last Spring, wherein Joseph Smith was unflatteringly compared to Mohamed, with emphasis on each prophet’s (supposed) ambition to become a “warlord.” Even uglier, a mass email reached many S.C. voters with the message that “[t]hose dark suspicions you hide deep inside yourself about Mormonism are trying to tell you something. . . Trust your instincts! . . . the light of truth will burn through the smoke and mirrors of Mitt Romney’s movie star looks and crafty words!” Unsurprisingly, the enlightened author of this ominous counsel remained anonymous. But the religious insinuation– God is trying to tell your conscience to reject the glossy candidate of evil– was easily discerned. (more…)