The Soft Bigotry of Accusing Mormons of “Soft Secrecy”

In media discussions of Mormonism, one often comes across the assumption that Mormons are “secretive.” The accusation is rarely accompanied by facts or sources, but the grainy cult-like feel it seems to give the LDS Church has made it a pretty sticky meme for some. I’ve addressed the question at length in a two-part series of posts here and here.

Surprisingly, the New York Times Magazine appears to have ignored RomneyExperience’s take on the question, opting to publish the thoughts of a Harvard Law Professor instead. Noah Feldman authored a long article published yesterday hypothesizing on what about Mormonism so many Americans find troubling. I should note that Feldman is no polemicist or bigot, and he make several insightful points, alongside a few complimentary portrayals of Mormons (“If anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeopoel and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet — rather like being Jewish, but taller.”).

However, when one approaches the central thesis of Feldman’s piece, it becomes quite surprising to notice just how unable he is to support his argument. Feldman begins with a historical view of Mormonism, detailing how Mormons became secretive in their early days in order to protect themselves from outsiders who would persecute them due to their unorthodox beliefs, most prominently the practice of polygamy. Feldman briefly follows this up by noting that once in Utah, Mormons became somewhat isolated from mainstream America (natch). Let’s concede these points and move to Feldman’s central claim:

The Mormon path to normalization over the course of the 20th century depended heavily on this avoidance of public discussion of its religious tenets. Now that plural marriage was out of the picture, the less said the better about the particular teachings of the church, including such practices as the baptism of the dead and the doctrine of the perfectibility of mankind into divine form. Where religious or theological conversation could not be avoided, Mormons depicted themselves as yet another Christian denomination alongside various other Protestant denominations that prevailed throughout the United states.

What Feldman is saying, in essence is that as Mormons have become more mainstream over the last 80 or so years, they’ve decided to clam up about their distinctive doctrines and act like they’re just another Christian church. (more…)

Are Mormons Racists?

Despite his completely unblemished personal record on race relations, it’s become clear that some want answers from Mitt Romney regarding the racial stances of the LDS Church. Romney will never give such answers, nor should he. The focus by some on the question of Mormon racism is an attempt to smear a good, progressive, modern man with a few quotations and stories from others of his faith, a means of slurring-by-association that should not be accepted. I’ve noted before that there’s not a hint of any basis on which to allege that Mitt Romney is himself a racist, and that should end the inquiry. Still, I’ve seen a number of sensible people who seem to agree with the less-sensible Mssrs. Hitchens and O’Donnell, that Romney ought to answer these questions. So it’s worth delving into the topic in order to kill the continuing chatter about Mormon “racism.”

Two threshold questions ought to be raised before delving into the history. First, is there any reason to believe that the present-day Mormon Church is racist today? Second, is there any reason to tie Mitt Romney to any charge of Mormon racism? The answer to both questions is an unqualified “NO”. The modern day Mormon Church is a huge global organization, with members representing every race, and congregations in approximately 170 countries. Many hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints are black, living in places like Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. I am told that Brigham Young University, owned by the LDS Church, is the most diverse university in the country, measured by the number of nationalities represented there (I have seen this claim myself but cannot find documentation. If you can, send it to me). There is nothing preached in the Church that approaches, justifies, or encourages racist thought. Indeed, national polling data in recent times has shown that Mormons are actually less likely than other Americans to hold racist attitudes. Anyone wishing to smear the LDS Church with claims of present-day racism simply does not know the LDS Church. (Further points in this regard are offered in a thoughtful post at ColTakashi).

As for Romney, he comes from a racially progressive family that championed civil rights. Mitt’s father George marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time when such actions were not uncontroversial in the Republican party, and Mitt celebrated the LDS Church’s reversal of its policy against black priests. Romney has a pristine record on race relations, and so questions regarding the racial stances of his faith should remain just that- targeted at his faith, not him. So, on to the larger question regarding Mormonism and race:

The Priesthood Ban

It’s important to understand what the LDS Church’s Priesthood ban entails, beginning with an understanding of the Mormon concept of Priesthood. (more…)

Irrational? Mormon Beliefs Aren’t Alone

I loved this article at NRO regarding the rationality of religious belief. To those who dismiss Mormonism because it seems so irrational, the author asks how to distinguish Mormon irrationality from that of any other faith:

Lots of people take it as a given that Mormonism is nuts; the tolerant ones just think this shouldn’t keep Mitt out of the White House. Many who hold the “Mormonism is nuts” position are religious themselves — and they’re the ones I find hardest to understand. I suspect that, almost to a man, they are (1) incapable of rationally defending their own beliefs and (2) completely unaware of how deeply irrational — in the sense of “rationality” given above — those beliefs are.

Which of the following ideas requires the bigger leap of faith: that a resurrected Christ appeared to ancient inhabitants of the Americas, or that the dead can come forth from their tombs at all? That the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, or that there was a Garden of Eden? Why do so many people scoff at the notion that an angel spoke to Joseph Smith, but accept without question that angels spoke to men and women in the Bible? (And since when is it rational to believe in angels?)

Shall we put the history of Mormonism on trial, too? Do we have a hard time voting for Mitt because his church practiced polygamy a hundred years ago, or withheld its priesthood from black men until 1978? Yes? A politician whose church has burned heretics at the stake, on the other hand . . .

You get the idea. People look on Mormonism with skepticism and contempt not because its doctrines are uniquely irrational, but because it is young and obscure. Miracles are easier to accept when viewed from the safe distance of two or three millennia; they have no business in James Monroe’s America. And familiarity with hoary old concepts — God, Resurrection, Heaven — desensitizes us to just how philosophically radical they are.

To be honest, I think he gives away too much here. I don’t think Mormon or Christian religious beliefs are irrational in the strictest sense of the word. They are often un-empirical, un-verifiable, and yes, weird sounding. But it’s not uncommon to hear a Mormon or a Christian express rational reasons for believing what they do. Imagine you had an experience for which there were very good reasons to believe that a divine being communicated with you. Wouldn’t it then be rational to believe whatever that divine being told you? That is often the basis for the beliefs of many religious people. Again, these are not empirically verifiable evidences, but they’re not crazy either.

Regardless, the point is that however irrational Mormonism may be, Christianity has no claim to greater rationality. It all reminds me of a church sign I saw once:

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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…)

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

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…)

Values Vs. Theology

After making a nice effort to fact-check the ludicrous accusations being thrown around by some anti-Mormons on its discussion forum, Slate has now reverted to form– deliberately obtuse and mockingly dismissive of religion. The latest iteration comes in Slate’s coverage of the recent endorsement of Romney from Bob Jones III, who operated the famously fundamentalist college that bears his name, and is the grandson of its founder.

Slate’s blog-bite coverage in full:

Losing his religion: Check out Bob Jones’ official “endorsement” of Mitt Romney:

Asked whether Romney’s religion was a stumbling block for him, Jones replied, “What is the alternative, Hillary’s lack of religion or an erroneous religion?”

“As a Christian I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism,” he said. “But I’m not voting for a preacher. I’m voting for a president. It boils down to who can best represent conservative American beliefs, not religious beliefs.”

Wait, what? I thought the whole point of an endorsement from Bob Jones was that he—or any other fundamentalist Christian university president, for that matter—does pick based on religious beliefs. No one cares what Bob Jones thinks of the health-care plan or tax cuts or plan for Iraq. They want to know who worships the best God! It’s like a master chef recommending a restaurant even though he hates the food.

People always discuss Romney’s beliefs as a weak spot. Who knew he’d be our nation’s last defense against a pagan Giuliani or Clinton administration?

In other words, “I, Slate writer, can’t think of any reason why any religious leader or follower would care about anything besides theology! What’s up with this wacky guy- endorsing someone from a church he doesn’t believe in? These Christians just keep getting crazier and crazier!”  Clearly, Bob Jones III has conducted himself in a way unbecoming of a Christian stereotype. (more…)

The Irresistible Irrelevancy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Cue deep-voiced trailer-announcing specialist Don La Fontaine:

This Friday, in theatres everywhere, God’s fury will be unleashed! Or how about: Holy Warriors will spill blood in God’s Name! Or maybe: Religious people are crazy killers!

The possibilities for super-sensationalistic tag-lines are infinite. But the ways in which the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre is relevant to the 2008 presidential campaign are not. Interest in this episode is rising as a result of the marketing campaign surrounding September Dawn, a modern retelling of an old story, which attempts to persuade of its relevance via emphasis on the similarities between 19th century Mormon zealots and contemporary Jihadists. Exhibit 1: the massacre happened on SEPTEMBER 11th!!! This fact, apropos of nothing, appears in every interview, story, release, and blurb sent out to hype the movie. Perhaps the chance to chill viewers with a coincidental convergence of the calendar is the best they’ve got.

I had planned to see September Dawn this weekend, the better to respond to it, but alas, Variety’s description of the film’s climax as “graphically staged,” “fetishistic” “massacre porn” convinced me I might find better ways to spend my Friday night. Massacre porn not really being my thing.

Regardless, one need not see the movie to understand that it provides easy ammunition for unscrupulous critics to lob at Mitt Romney if needed. (more…)

Romney: “I Understand My Faith Better Than You Do”

There are some who would discredit Mitt Romney by first tying him to his faith and then making him answer for its unpopular history or doctrines. Others, like newly-minted celebrity Jan Mickelson, the radio host heard in the below video, have a more devious tactic in mind. They attack Romney by first agreeing with his faith and then accusing him of lacking sufficient character to adhere to his beliefs. It’s a bizarre sort of politico-religious jujitsu, but it’s not the first time it’s happened. To summarize the latest, Romney visited a radio program in Iowa hosted by Mickelson last Thursday. After a few minutes of the usual stuff, Mickelson launched into a full interrogation about Romney’s past stance on abortion and Mickelson’s own view that Romney should have been excommunicated from the LDS Church as a result. The two had a mostly civil exchange on the air, and then continued their sparring with increased intensity for quite a while off the air (all caught on video tape by the station). Anyway, if you are at all interested in questions surrounding the treatment of religious minorities in public life, this video is a must watch. Forgive it the slow start– the second and third acts are worth the wait.

Before the big issues, let’s deal with the facts. First, it is simply not true that the LDS Church excommunicates, disciplines, or sanctions any person who supports the legality of abortions. (more…)

The Myth of Mormon “Secrecy”

The New York Times had an interesting article on Saturday profiling Richard Bushman, a former Columbia Professor and author who has become a sort of de facto spokesman for Mormons in this moment of heightened interest in the religion. The following paragraph (in this otherwise fair and accurate piece) caught my eye:

[Bushman] believes Mormons can overcome prejudice only through vigorous dialogue with outsiders. For the nation’s nearly six million Mormons, a largely insulated community that is barred from discussing rituals outside of temple, it is not a natural posture.

The emphasis on Mormon “insulation” as well as the hint of secrecy strike at a common theme in outsiders’ discussions of Mormonism. In the past few months, no less than three reporters have asked me questions about supposed “Mormon secrecy,” one of them focusing on the fact that Mitt Romney’s non-Mormon in-laws were not allowed to attend the Romneys’ temple marriage ceremony. Other commenters have predicted that Mormon “secrecy” would be used against Mitt Romney. And the recent news that the Oregon Supreme Court may require the LDS Church to disclose its closely guarded financial reports to the public in connection with pending litigation keep the issue at the forefront.

Which leads to the question: is the LDS Church secretive?

Short answer: Not very. (more…)