January 5, 2008

YOU CAN'T ABANDON WHAT YOU NEVER HAD:

What Is It About Mormonism? (NOAH FELDMAN, 1/06/08, NY Times
Magazine)

Mormonism’s political problem arises, in large part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces. The church’s most inviting public symbols — pairs of clean-cut missionaries in well-pressed white shirts — evoke the wholesome success of an all-American denomination with an idealistic commitment to clean living. Yet at the same time, secret, sacred temple rites and garments call to mind the church’s murky past, including its embrace of polygamy, which has not been the doctrine or practice of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, for a century. Mormonism, it seems, is extreme in both respects: in its exaggerated normalcy and its exaggerated oddity. The marriage of these opposites leaves outsiders uncomfortable, wondering what Mormonism really is.

For Mitt Romney, the complex question of anti-Mormon bias boils down to the practical matter of how he can make it go away. Facing a traditional American anti-Catholicism, John F. Kennedy gave a speech during the 1960 presidential campaign declaring his private religion irrelevant to his qualifications for public office. For Romney, a Republican who would risk alienating “values voters” if he denied faith a central role in politics, emphasizing the separation of church and state is not an option. In his own religion speech, he coupled his promise to govern independently of the hierarchy of his own church with a profession of faith: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.” Although this formulation is unlikely to satisfy those evangelicals who deny that the LDS church is Christian, Romney presumably calculated that speaking about Jesus Christ in terms that sound consistent with ordinary American Protestantism would reassure voters that there was in the end nothing especially unusual about Mormonism.

Something troubling is afoot here. From a constitutional standpoint, the religion of a candidate is supposed to make no difference. Even before the founding fathers dreamed up the First Amendment, they inserted a provision in the Constitution expressly prohibiting any religious test for office. The framers recognized, of course, that a candidate’s religion (or lack thereof) would enter political debate, and they were prohibiting only a formal test for taking office. But they were also giving their imprimatur to Jefferson’s appealing notion that a person’s beliefs about religion were no more relevant to his politics than his beliefs about geometry. Romney, by contrast, was staking his character and values on his religious beliefs while insisting that no one ask what those beliefs are.

It is easy to see why Romney would see some aspects of his Mormon identity as an asset. In the elite East Coast worlds where Romney has made his career, Mormonism signifies personal rectitude, professional competence and an idiosyncratic-but-impressive rejection of alcohol and caffeine. If anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeople and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet — rather like being Jewish, but taller.

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

For some, then, the objection to Romney may be that Mormonism is religiously false and that voters should choose a president who belongs to the true faith. If many Americans felt this way, that would be bad news for Romney but worse news for the country, since it would mean that we had abandoned the values that underlay the constitutional ban on religious tests. But most Mormonism-related discomfort with Romney may, in fact, reflect less a view of religious truth than a sense that there is something vaguely troubling or unfamiliar in the Mormon manner or worldview. This latter possibility presents Romney with an especially tricky political problem. For such reservations are not simple prejudice; they are a complicated outgrowth of the tortured history of the faith’s relationship to mainstream American political life over the nearly two centuries since God first spoke to Joseph Smith.


Misunderstanding of the Constitution aside, where is the evidence that Americans, since before the Founding, have not imposed a de facto religious test, just not a de jure one?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 5, 2008 9:24 AM
Comments


Fascinating to see that a US-Mormon has to stand in the cross-fires from US-crusaders who as electors still want a fast changing world to remain ignorant.

ragnar gohjerta, norway

Posted by: ragnar gohjerta at January 6, 2008 12:28 PM

Fascinating to see that a US-Mormon has to stand in the cross-fires from US-crusaders who as electors still want a fast changing world to remain ignorant.

ragnar gohjerta, norway

Posted by: ragnar gohjerta at January 6, 2008 12:30 PM

Ignorant? We're bringing the world the Word.

Posted by: oj at January 6, 2008 8:25 PM
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