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).