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? I think Mr. Belz skipped a few steps here. Is he saying that all other presidents have accepted more than half of the 16 main tenets of historic Christianity? (Unlikely, don’t you think? Or did Bill Clinton have strong feelings on the Trinity, despite his wife’s belief that a person can be saved without Jesus?). Or just that the putative religion of each president has done so? (Also a long shot, if you keep Jefferson, Eisenhower, and Nixon on the list). Or is he just doing a little fearmongering for a hopefully sympathetic audience who won’t expect real logic? No time to decide, we’ve got to move on:
It’s not a trivial matter that Mormonism, as a cultic movement, has a bad reputation when it comes to getting its own story straight. Check out the public record, if you will, including fairly recent interviews with Mormon officials in venues like larry King Live, 60 Minutes, and Newsweek. Do these officials hold to the fantastical 1827 golden tablets of Mormon founder Joseph Smith–or not? Well, they seem to say: We believe it when we want to, and we don’t when it’s less convenient. Where Mormonism isn’t shrouded in deliberate secrecy, it is covered with confusion.
In almost a year of reading everything written about Mormons in the news media, this is one of the most outlandish claims I’ve seen. First, note the loving aside, in which Belz goes out of his way to remind the read that Mormonism is a “cultic movement.” Perhaps World Magazine readers know what that means. I have no idea, and my guess is Belz would be hard-pressed to defend that designation under rational cross-examination. Second, the heart of the claim: In interviews with the press, Mormon leaders can’t get their story straight. Case in point, it appears that they have publicly waffled over whether they believe Joseph Smith’s story regarding his discovery and translation of the Gold Plates, which were the basis for the Book of Mormon. Belz hasn’t got any quotes for us, nor can he point to any single instance of this happening. Instead, he just tells the reader to go look for herself at Larry King Live, 60 Minutes and Newsweek.
Well, I’ve seen all the interviews with Mormon leaders on all of those outlets, as well as countless other public appearances and releases by the Mormon leadership, and I can say without one iota of doubt: it never happened. Never has any Mormon official controverted, watered down, or even downplayed the origin story of the Book of Mormon. The story of Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates is as orthodox as Mormonism gets, and no Mormon leader has ever communicated anything but rock-solid commitment to that story. Belz’s unsupported insinuations to the contrary are simply laughable to any informed reader.
But moving from specific to general, is there anything to the larger point that Mormonism is covered in “deliberate secrecy” and “confusion?” Belz later asserts that Romney “seems to be on both sides of the same issue,” a “deviously confusing approach [which] seems to be consistent with his faith rather than counter to it.” Further, Romney is “a man whose religious upbringing, of all things, suggests that the truth is a negotiable commodity.” Anything to that?
Absolutely not. But then, I’m a Mormon, brought up to lie as an article of my faith, so why believe me? The most important thing to note in this article is that its central thesis, reasserted over and over, finds not a shred of support. Belz cannot point to one example of Mormon prevarication (setting aside his spurious and un-sourced claim that Mormons deny the Book of Mormon sometimes). But in the rest of his column he proceeds as if he’s proven his point beyond reasonable doubt. He hasn’t.
The LDS Church’s 13th Article of Faith, written by Joseph Smith, reads as follows:
We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
In other words, Mormons believe in the same virtues as pretty much every other religious community, including “being honest.” If Mitt Romney is a liar– and all of the evidence indicates that he’s not– then he came by his dishonesty on his own. He did not learn it from the Mormon Church. Mormons are taught the virtue of honesty just like everyone else, and they believe in it as one of the defining elements of a person’s character. Mormon leaders do not teach any doctrine that could be construed as giving support to lying in any way. If Mitt Romney has learned anything about integrity from his religion, it is a strict standard of perfect honesty, nothing more.
The idea that an entire religious movement, now composed of 13 million members*, could get away with encouraging a loose approach to integrity is absurd. What’s more absurd, however, is the idea that a magazine can make such groundless, mean-spirited accusations against an upstanding religious faith, and still carry the label “Christian.”
*Correction: The original post stated LDS Church membership as 14 million. An alert reader sent me this link, which shows LDS Church membership worldwide approaching 13 million. My apologies.