Where Does It End? The Real Danger in Warren Smith’s Perspective

Dave noted yesterday at Times and Seasons the inherent incivility of journalist Warren Cole Smith’s recent dismissal in Patheos of Mormons’ eligibility for the office of President of the United States precisely because of their religion. I found Dave’s analysis cogent and important. My concern with WCS’s viewpoint runs deeper than whether he and those who share his views have simply departed from the bounds of civil discourse.

A sound inference invited by WCS’s Patheos article is that he, and by extension those who agree with him, believes the religious beliefs of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) disqualifies them from playing any role whatsoever in the society that WCS envisions for the United States of America. This is, of course, fundamentally at odds with the ethos of what America means (and what it means to be an American) for most of its inhabitants: a land where the first freedom continues to be the freedom of religion/conscience.

Arguments about Constitutional interpretation aside, most Americans should and can agree that the First Amendment ingeniously guarantees this first freedom through the combination of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause — two essential components that most Americans believe (at the Founding as well as now) must be a part of the equation to guarantee freedom of religion as our first freedom. This combination creates the environment for a truly religiously pluralistic society to exist (especially after the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the First Amendment against state and local governments instead of just as a limitation on the federal government) by preventing religious organizations from mingling religious influence with civil government and in so doing fostering one religious organization or dogma over another. More importantly, by preventing religious organizations from mingling religious influence with civil government, the First Amendment is meant to and does prevent one religion from proscribing another in its spiritual privileges and denying the individual rights of citizens who happen to be members of a disfavored religion.

In the pluralistic society that this framework makes possible (a pluralism that is, in fact, indissociable from a democratic society), religion does not disqualify an individual from any public office or from performing their civic duties as citizens in any other capacity in society. WCS’s arguments in his Patheos article, however, trend in the other direction and should cause concern for Americans more broadly, not just Mormons.

WCS argues that Mormons are dangerous and therefore should not be eligible for President of the United States. But the same logic behind WCS’s arguments must apply to Mormons in any other capacity as well: Senators, Congressmen, Governors, Mayors, Police Chiefs, FBI Agents, school teachers, firemen — and there is nothing in WCS’s reasoning or logic that would prevent his view from extending into the purely private economy. Mormons should not be in positions as CEOs, industry leaders, partners at prestigious law firms or indeed any law firms, doctors, surgeons, professors at private universities, etc. WCS’s main reasons for concluding that Mormons are dangerous and therefore unfit serve as President of the United States include the following*:

  • Unreliable — Mormons believe in continuing revelation. Because Mormons believe that God leads his Church now as in ancient times through inspiration to leaders ordained and set apart as Apostles (including the President of the Church and his counselors in the First Presidency) who are sustained by church members as “prophets, seers, and revelators”, they are dangerous. “If the beliefs are false, then the behavior will eventually—but inevitably—be warped” (Patheos).
  • Errant — WCS points out that despite Romney’s and most Mormons’ ardent belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the World, as portrayed by the New Testament, Mormons generally do not subscribe to, and indeed explicitly reject as extra-biblical and unnecessary, the Nicene Creed. Romney (and any other Mormon candidate for President of the United States) therefore “has some explaining to do” (Patheos) because failure to “affirm the Nicene Creed” makes Mormons’ otherwise pious devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ “flawed and dangerous” (Religion Dispatches).
  • Weird — Mormons have “highly idiosyncratic views of history” (Patheos) that stem from their religious beliefs. For example, “Mormons believe Lost Tribes of Israel came to the Americas, and that Jesus came too” (Religion Dispatches). Despite a fairly large body of Mormon beliefs that a secular, atheistic society could legitimately deem “weird” (in addition to the Divine Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ, the miracles he performed during his Ministry, his Atonement including his Resurrection from the Dead, among others), it is interesting that in continuing to emphasize this point about the Lost Tribes of Israel (in the Patheos article and the Religion Dispatches interview) WCS focuses on something that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not and has not taught as doctrine in the past.† Believing, for example, that after his death and Resurrection in Jerusalem (and after his Forty Day Ministry), Jesus Christ visited people in the Western Hemisphere who believed in him as the sought-for Messiah based on Old Testament scriptures, is according to WCS too weird and ahistorical and could interfere with “negotiating the outcomes of conflicts with real histories that go back thousands of years” because “conflicts in the Middle East, in Asia, and elsewhere require an understanding of history and human nature that are not fabricated out of whole cloth” (Patheos).
  • Validation — Being President of the United States is a big deal. So if a Mormon is elected to that office, “there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy — whether or not this is his intent — will be to promote Mormonism. A Romney presidency would have the effect of actively promoting a false religion in the world” (Patheos). In fact, despite Romney’s clear record of actually living the life of a Christian disciple§ (as evidenced by the sum total of Mitt Romney’s existence, his actions, his family, his devotion — too squeeky clean, in fact, for anyone to be able to bring up any dirt on him in the 2008 election except precisely his pious devotion to Jesus Christ as a Latter-day Saint), Romney and all other Mormons are “unfit to serve” because in WCS’s opinion, and apparently in the opinion of an unquantifiable but arguably large number of primary voters, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a “false and dangerous religion” and a Mormon president could break down prejudices in people’s minds against Mormons resulting in, perhaps, more people joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The truly chilling aspect of WCS’s perspective is considering its ultimate implications for our pluralistic society in the United States. If WCS and likeminded people believe that these main reasons hold true when considering the capability of a Mormon to serve as President of the United States, then where does it end? We can very reasonably infer that the same list/reasoning applies in the minds of WCS and those who agree with him theologically when considering whether a Mormon (or other citizen who is a member of a religion that does not affirm the Nicene Creed) should be in almost any other position in our body politic, whether in the public or private sector. Particularly the last summary point about publicity/validation means that WCS and those who agree with him theologically are against Mormons in any high-profile position, whether in companies of their own creation and management or in government representing constituencies including WCS or those who agree with him theologically.

For most Americans, this whole idea should be very alarming and viewed as extraordinarily dangerous to the pluralism and good order that we enjoy today in our Constitutional Republic, the first fruits of which are to guarantee religious freedom and freedom of conscience. The society envisioned by WCS and those who agree with him theologically does not protect religious freedom in the manner conceived of in our Constitution by preventing religious organizations from mingling religious influence with civil government and thereby fostering one religious organization or dogma over another through government channels. To the contrary, the fruits of WCS’s society would inexorably be the proscription by adherents of one particular religious dogma of other religions/dogmas in their spiritual privileges and the denial of the individual rights of citizens who happen to be members of a disfavored religion. This might have been the standard operating procedure in the German Democratic Republic (where the state religion of atheistic party Communism proscribed the spiritual privileges and individual rights of all other religions/dogmas despite lip-service to religious freedom and equality in constitutional documents) or other totalitarian states but it is not what America is about.

Let us all work tirelessly to prevent this from happening and to promote a truly pluralistic society that is true to its first freedom in protecting the religious freedom of all of its citizens. The alternative is not only dangerous — for Americans, it is unthinkable.

——————————–
* It should be noted that at Religion Dispatches Joanna Brooks recently concisely summarized WCS’s reasons as Mormons are “errant, weird and unreliable” (the same list I employ above as an accurate summary), which curiously drew an objection from WCS despite the fact that they are a distillation of the premises on which WCS’s argument rests. The above list fleshing out Joanna’s shorthand shows that her descriptors were indeed an accurate summary of WCS’s reasons for concluding that Mormons are dangerous and unfit for President of the United States. Nevertheless WCS bristled at Joanna’s shorthand, telling her not to put words in his mouth and claiming to have “tons of Mormon friends”. To WCS’s Mormon friends if it is true that he has some, I ask, do you realize that he views you not just as misguided theologically — despite your wholehearted acceptance of Jesus Christ as your Savior (perplexities arising from the Nicene Creed aside) and your full fledged efforts to live every day as disciples of Jesus Christ — but actually as dangerous to our body politic?

† Latter-day Saints generally believe that God led select groups of families from the Ancient Near East, particularly Jerusalem, to the Western Hemisphere at various times throughout recorded history, and it is the religious history of these people that Mormons believe is contained in the Book of Mormon. It is not claimed that these people constituted the Lost Tribes of Israel. If Mormons’ beliefs are so weird, why does WCS need to overreach in this manner and characterize immigrant groups as the Lost Tribes to make it sound weirder?

§ As opposed to a mere abstract belief in the Nicene Creed — this is lived religion we’re talking about here, where the rubber meets the road. “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).

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7 Responses to Where Does It End? The Real Danger in Warren Smith’s Perspective

  1. Todd says:

    I think you (or whoever wrote this) ultimately undermine your own case.

    You wrote: “The truly chilling aspect of WCS’s perspective is considering its ultimate implications for our pluralistic society in the United States. … For most Americans, this whole idea should be very alarming and viewed as extraordinarily dangerous to the pluralism and good order that we enjoy today in our Constitutional Republic, the first fruits of which are to guarantee religious freedom and freedom of conscience. … Let us all work tirelessly to prevent this from happening and to promote a truly pluralistic society that is true to its first freedom in protecting the religious freedom of all of its citizens. The alternative is not only dangerous — for Americans, it is unthinkable.”

    But that same freedom of religion allows any private individual, in light of his own religious views, to *not* vote for a candidate precisely because he disagrees with their religious views. And our freedom of speech allows him to explain to others why he isn’t voting for that person. As indeed it allows you to say why you think he is wrong to do so.

    But freedom of religion means freedom for people who don’t like your religion to say so, and to try to win others over to their point of view. If WCS’s comments are to be suppressed, then in what sense are we a “truly pluralistic society”? He speaks as a private citizen, does he not?

    In short, your article itself seems to be a “proscription by adherents of one particular religious dogma of other religions/dogmas in their spiritual privileges and the denial of the individual rights of citizens who happen to be members of a disfavored religion” — except that it favors the “dogma” of pluralism and proscribes as “dangerous” the criticizing of others’ beliefs and acting on that in an electoral capacity.

    N.B.: I didn’t read WCS’s article, nor do I know anything about the man, nor even agree with his points as you have summarized them. And I know little about Mormon beliefs, as such.

  2. Todd says:

    Or, to summarize even further, if it is good that you decry his beliefs as “dangerous” for our country, surely it is good that he do the same with respect to your beliefs?

  3. john f. says:

    His perspective on this is dangerous because it reveals a lack of commitment to fundamental American values of religious freedom and pluralism. He is saying that anyone who is a Mormon or any other religion that does not subscribe to the Nicene Creed is unfit for public office and, even more, should not be supported by other citizens of the country in their endeavors because they are not only unfit but also a danger to their salvation. By the same logic, no Mormon or adherent of a religion that does not subscribe to the Nicene Creed should be in any position in society, whether in the public or private sector. He is revealing a vision of what he wants to make America — a society in which only creedal Christians have a right to live and work and enjoy all political, civic and private freedoms that are uniquely guaranteed by our Constitution. His ideal society looks like Saudi Arabia, only creedal Christian instead of Sunni Islam.

  4. john f. says:

    By the way Todd, I wrote this, not Jordan.

  5. Todd says:

    John, perhaps this will help me understand where you’re coming from better: Do you think that people who believe the same things as Warren Cole Smith are fit for public office? Would you vote for them? Or would you not vote for them precisely because of their religious beliefs?

    It certainly seems you’d answer “yes” to that last one, based on your urging us all to “work tirelessly” to avoid a world like Smith (you claim) wants. But if I am right that such is your position, then, again, you appear to be doing the same thing as Smith. Namely, decrying someone’s fitness for office on the basis of their religious beliefs.

    As I understand it, you do so on the basis of your commitment to the “fundamental American values of religious freedom and pluralism”. Now, “religious freedom” as a fundamental value, I understand, because it’s explicitly encoded in the Bill of Rights. But what, exactly, do you mean by “pluralism”, and where is this “fundamental” value to be found, exactly?

    Because you appear to be using “pluralism” to mean freedom from criticism, decrying Smith’s attacks on Mormon belief, and allowing these attacks to inform his voting and his speech. I don’t think “pluralism” like that is a fundamental value at all. Perhaps you don’t either. If so, again, please explain what you did mean.

    Still, assuming that pluralism is as fundamental as religious freedom, what to do when these values clash? As, indeed, they have here. Smith is plainly exercising his religious freedom here (as well as his freedom of speech). Yet you decry him for being anti-pluralism. Which value trumps the other? You appear to be arguing that pluralism wins. If so, we definitely need a clear definition for it. And what would you cite from a legal standpoint to indicate that pluralism trumps a First Amendment right?

    Beyond that, you’ve constructed a rather tenuous straw man, in which I’m expected to believe that Smith’s argument applies at every single level, to every possible vocation — from President on down to parent. But, from what I’ve read, this is not Smith’s argument at all. Are you really unable to distinguish between President and any other elected official? And between all elected officials and any other position in the workplace or society? This appears to be an egregious category error on your part.

  6. john f. says:

    I am unsure whether “people who believe the same things as Warren Cole Smith” are committed to natural rights and human rights or whether they think only a certain class or type of people (people who subscribe to the Nicene Creed) are possessed of these rights. His Patheos column gives me no reason to think that a robust defense of natural rights would be a priority for him.

    I have not heard much commentary from Mormons in the media or elsewhere arguing that Evangelical creedal Christians are unfit for public office because of their religious beliefs. I think it is highly unlikely that this would occur even if Mormons were in the majority in a particular political party’s primary constituency.

    Religious pluralism is indissociable from a truly republican democratic society. It is the natural and desirable outcome of the particular framework for protecting religious freedom that is set up in our Constitution. The French approach of laïcité is not desirable or appropriate in the United States because our political and intellectual heritage (inherited from the English Enlightenment) in this country did not necessitate certain drastic measures to curb what was perceived as a major problem of church and state corruptly reinforcing each other and abusing human rights. Our resulting framework, contrary to French laïcité, allows us to rise above mere religious toleration to enjoy a genuine pluralism while still respecting the separation of church and state that is essential for the protection of freedom of conscience for those who do not belong to the majority religion. I wonder whether Warren Smith is particularly concerned with the separation of church and state and the preservation of a robust secular public sphere or whether his ideal society looks more like Iran (if the theocracy in Iran were fundamentalist American Evangelical Christians) — after all, despite the complaints that we hear from time to time from American Evangelical Christians that Christians are the most persecuted people in our country or in the world, Warren Smith has little need to worry that his faith will ever be classified in the United States as a minority religion that needs protection against the intentions of a government composed of adherents of a faith that bears ill will against or even that harbors outright desire to eradicate his religion.

    Each of us will of course be informed by our prejudices when standing in the voting booth. For many, including Warren Smith, prejudice against a person based on the religion he or she was born into and to which he or she remains loyal despite the obvious advantages that would come from walking away from that religion, will be one of the factors guiding a decision in the voting booth, regardless of the candidate’s abilities, background, or other qualifications. This comes along in the package with a rights-protecting democracy.

    Warren Smith’s argument is a justification of letting such prejudice determine a vote. My argument is not too bothered with the inherent incivility of this approach (which is the topic of a post by a friend of mine to which I linked in the first sentence of the original post — you might be interested in checking that one out too). I am exploring what Warren Smith’s ideal society looks like by following his logic on this point to its ultimate conclusions.

    I do not see any reason to think that Warren Smith intends a category distinction between President of the United States and any other visible leadership or leading position in society, or any position in which a Mormon would be in contact with and have the opportunity to portray Mormonism in a positive light to fundamentalist Evangelical Christian children (like a school teacher or a policeman or fireman). If Mormonism is so dangerous that it alone can disqualify someone from the Presidency, there is no reason to think that Warren Smith approves of his daughter’s Mormon fifth grade teacher or that the CEO of the biggest company in his state is Mormon (both hypothetical — I have no idea whether Mormons are in such positions). Why do you think Warren Smith is fine with the CEO of Credit Suisse being Mormon or the founder of JetBLue airlines or the governor of a state but not the President of the United States?

  7. D says:

    the idea of Mormonism as “dangerous” is very offensive and disheartening. We all need to fight for religious pluralism and speak out against the ones who try to crush it. great post.

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