Book Review: Could I Vote for a Mormon for President?

Mormon for President Book CoverReview of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romneys Religion, by Ryan T. Cragun and Rick Phillips, July 2012, Strange Violin Editions (strangeviolineditions.com).

Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? is a well-written, thoughtful, fair, and balanced appraisal of the Mormon religion and the role it may, and more importantly should, play in deciding whether to vote for Mitt Romney for president of the United States. Its also a book in search of an audience it will probably never find. Why? Because its presumed audience is people who may not vote for Romney because of his religion. As Cragun and Phillips admit themselves, in real terms, this is a fairly narrow segment of the population: mostly evangelical Christians (and possibly some Catholics, if my own experience as a Mormon missionary in South Texas is any guide) who have been indoctrinated by their religious leadership to believe that Mormonism is a cult. Or, to put it another way, people who likely believe that the Earth was created in six dayspeople not known for embracing the rational, or views that are fair and balanced outside of the context of Fox News. One can always hope, though, that theres a segment of the citizenry that, wishing to be well informed before exercising their democratic rights, might be willing to learn.

Cragun and Phillips are up front about their own backgrounds and political views: theyre both formerly active, faithful Mormons who have since left the Mormon church, and neither of them intends to vote for Mitt Romney because they both disagree with his politics. Theyre both sociologists, and that fact obviously informs their approach and tone.

That out of the way, they proceed to tackle the controversial questions that repeatedly arise in the public sphere about Mormonism. In order, the subjects they tackle: cultishness, Christianity, history, polygamy, temples, garments, Word of Wisdom, missionaries, Kolob, King Follet Discourse, Jesus/Satan sibling rivalry, heaven, the Bible, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, racism, and authority. Their conclusion? No rational person should let any of these reasons stand in the way of voting for a Mormon purely on the basis of religion. Their defense against several of the weirder strains of Mormonism (such as Kolob and temple garments) boils down to this: its really not that much weirder than mainstream Christianity or masonry, when you get right down to it. Which is a perfectly reasonable approach to a sociology professor. Other people, such as the presumed target audience, may take umbrage at the idea that their beliefs are just as weird as Romneys.

While I largely agree with their analysis and conclusions, I think there are a couple of areas where a reasonable person could be concerned by Mitt Romneys religious background: the revelation factor and the apocalypse factor.

In Mormon culture, revelation plays a central role. Mormons are regularly warned about placing the learning of men (an expression that is always derogatory) above their own personal testimonies of the Truth (very much with a capital T). There is a distinct hierarchy of knowledge for a Mormon: the highest level is revelation received by Mormon leaders, starting with prophets and moving on down through the ranks. Revelation, for Mormons, also has reverse chronological precedence–later revelation always trumps earlier revelation. The next layer in the hierarchy of knowledge is ones personal testimony, which constitutes direct revelation from God, via the Holy Ghost, of the correctness of the revelation received by the church leadership (a revelation that the leadership is wrong can only have come from Satan rather than from God). Every other form of knowledge, including science, facts, and even reason, should always be subservient to revelation. My worry is that a Mormon might be more likely to resolve difficult problems through prayer, which is at best a roll of the dice, an appeal to the irrational within oneself, and at worst deeply tainted by religous goals, most of which I, and many Americans, do not share. Im not suggesting that Romney would appeal to the Mormon leadership for guidance, or that the Mormon leadership would reach out to Romney to offer such guidance. This seems highly unlikely (though not impossible). Im more concerned about Romenys internal process, and the way that Mormons have a strong tendency to devalue reason.

The second problem is related to the first, but regarding a very particular area: the Mormon view of the end of the world. Mormons believe that we are very near the End Times. The standard Mormon view is that the history of mankind begins at roughly 4000 B.C. In Mormon theology, as Cragun and Phillips note, God lives on planet where each day is approximately 1000 years, or one millennium. Thus there have now been six millennia of earth history. As with the days of the week, this means earth is now due for its sabbath, a thousand year period known as The Millennium. The bad news is that before the arrival of the Millennium, a lot of bad things have to happen first, some of which are already happening, some of which are still to come. Essentially, Mormons believe that Satan is nearing the apex of his power, and the period immediately preceding The Millennium will be marked by a plethora of disasters, both natural and human, culminating in a cleansing of the earth by fire (a companion piece to Noahs Flood, which was a cleansing of the earth by water).

The United States, in Mormon theology, was raised up specifically by God for the restoration of his one True church, and it also has an important role to play in the End Times. Ditto Israel, and Jerusalem in particular. While not all Mormons agree on all the theological particulars (such as the literal age of the earth), and the teachings have built in caveats (No man knoweth the day and the hour), I think its safe to say that most faithful Mormons believe that the end of the world is very near, and could arrive at any moment. Mormons are fond of nodding knowingly at every bad thing that happens in the news, every one a sign of the times. Id be very surprised if Romney doesnt share this general view. There are a number of ways this view could be bad for a U.S. president to have. For one thing, its an easy justification for ignoring long-term problems like global warming. Why worry about what will happen in 100 or 200 years, when the earth is likely to be wiped clean and rebooted much sooner than that? Of even greater concern to me is mix of Mormon theology and foreign policy regarding Israel. Is a Mormon president likely to make decisions about our support for Israel, and our willingness to get involved in conflicts that have a nuclear component, based on theological considerations?

Neither of these considerations is unique to Mormonism. George Bush, after all, was famously incurious and impervious to facts, and frequently undermined the role of scientists in government decision making. Many Christians share the Mormon view of the end of the world, or something very similar. The lack of uniqueness, however, doesnt diminish the importance of such considerations. In lesser part, this is a quibble I have with some of the other defenses that Cragun and Phillips offer of Mormon views. They several times point to the fact that some criticisms people make of Mormons are not unique to Mormons, but I take small comfort in the idea that the sexism or homophobia likely to pervade a Romney administration cannot be definitively traced to Romneys Mormon background. Cragun and Phillips argue that the important thing is Romneys politics. It is the nature of politicians, though, and Romney more than most, to equivocate, to refuse to be pinned down about actual policy, or worse, to present conflicting, but politically expedient, views to different audiences. In the absence of solid information about what Romney would do as president, I think its fair to examine his Mormon background for clues.

On the whole, though, I find Craguns and Phillipss arguments to be compelling. Mormonism, in its modern form, falls solidly within the American mainstream. Romney does not have some hidden Mormon agenda. The policies a person could object to that may have some basis in his Mormon upbringing are all in plain sight. Theres no good reason to be worried about the possible impact of Mitt Romneys religion when there are so many better reasons to fear the prospect of a Romney presidency.

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Robert

Loves to read books. Frequently does so. Currently lives and works in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

29 thoughts on “Book Review: Could I Vote for a Mormon for President?

  1. There are some other unexpected ways in which Mormonism could impact politics:

    1. a move away from the attempt to label an unborn fetus as “a life” and abortion as “murder” from a legal standpoint. The LDS Church, while sharing the Christian Right’s dislike of abortion, does not share their methods or legal strategy at all.

    2. an end to the Christian “war on science” – for the simple reason that Mormons are not, and have never been, as fired up on topics like science, evolution, and other issues as conservative Evangelicals. Mormons are like Protestants in the 1950s – secure enough in their children’s education that they aren’t really concerned if the kids pick up a few odd theories at school. It’s not an issue we get fired up on.

    3. a focus on getting work done. A less ideological Republicanism and more results-oriented. Mormons are, first and foremost, pragmatists interested in getting stuff done. You get ideological loudmouths who feel free to voice their opinions in Sunday school of course. But those guys are never very popular in the ward (even if they manage to make the resident liberals feel like the environment is anti-liberal), and don’t usually end up being Stake President. High level local leadership is usually about results and getting work done. Ideology that interferes with that is frowned upon.

    You can see these trends in Romney’s political history. He governs like a Stake President.

    Which is to say – he governs like a pragmatic, and very competent MODERATE.

    Mormon leadership has always been rather moderate. Something that ideologically-driven bloggers have a hard time recognizing (to a hammer, everything looks like a nail…). Results are favored over doctrine, ideology, and political purity.

    This is what I expect from Romney, IF he is given the opportunity to govern the way he really wants to.

    But that’s a big “IF”.

    Romney’s problem isn’t his Mormonism. His problem is that he’s weak within his own party. Kind of like Bob Dole was. Romney does not enjoy the unqualified support of the GOP base. Because the GOP base has already sensed Romney’s Stake President instincts toward moderation and pragmatism and it angered them. They don’t trust him to be the ideologue they want.

    As a result, Romney will have to spend his entire campaign reassuring the far right that he’ll take care of them to avoid being backstabbed by his own party. He’ll have to make far right-wing campaign promises (which he will then be tied down to – and have to honor), and he’ll have to swing his rhetoric and campaign too far right.

    In the end, my feeling is that Romney would make a competent and MODERATE president if allowed to “govern like a Mormon.”

    But he probably won’t be allowed. He’ll probably end up being forced to govern like George W. Bush.

    Which is why I don’t think I can vote for him.

  2. I think its safe to say that most faithful Mormons believe that the end of the world is very near, and could arrive at any moment. Mormons are fond of nodding knowingly at every bad thing that happens in the news, every one a sign of the times. Id be very surprised if Romney doesnt share this general view. There are a number of ways this view could be bad for a U.S. president to have. For one thing, its an easy justification for ignoring long-term problems like global warming. Why worry about what will happen in 100 or 200 years, when the earth is likely to be wiped clean and rebooted much sooner than that?

    I agree that this is a big problem. The fact that the “end times” belief/attitude is a mainstream position is a bigger problem than the president holding a specifically Mormon version of this belief.

  3. I agree that the lack of planning for the future is a constant problem in politics, on both sides of the debate. I have heard so many people, from a number of different religions, that we do not need environmental policies because our children and grandchildren will be caught up in the rapture.

    I even heard an argument that US foreign debt doesn’t matter since we won’t have any need for money when Christ comes. The entire conversation reminded me of “Eat, drink and merry, for tomorrow we die.” or you vould translate it as, tomorrow Christ will come save us from our obesity, our hang over and make it so we won’t have any consequences for our actions.

    The Father that I know does not allow us to avoid the consequences for our actions and choices. As I teach my children, you can make your own choices, but you don’t get to choose the consequences. It does work backwards too. You can choose the consequences you want, then you can choose the action that will bring it to you. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had leaders who looked at life, and their decisions as politicians started with what they want to create, and then figured out what things would get them there would be great. Even more I wish they would be open about what those goals are, and why each step is necessary.

    I have no idea if Romney would do that, but it is something that is a part of most ward council meetings I have been involved with. I also wonder if Romney might choose people who are seen as advisors that actually are more like stake councilors and a larger group that can give a variety of viewpoints, similar to a high council. I would also love to see specific agencies given goals and told to ask if they need more people or different people “called” to help, and then leave them alone to do it.

    Unfortunately, being a stake president a while ago doesn’t mean that those experiences will stick with him more than the political machine. I am not sure I can vote based on that hope, especially since Romney seems to be “dating” a pretty big group of people who will try to make him the kind of puppet that George W became. Sigh.

    I get more cynical each political cycle.

  4. Chanson and Robert – I only see the “end of the world” mentality among Mormons as being a problem with environmentalism issues. I don’t see it much at play in anything else.

    We’ve got to keep in mind that while Mormons may have an apocalyptic world view. They also have a relentlessly practical and results-oriented worldview. Mormons are ALWAYS interested in getting work done and problem-solving.

    Usually, I’ve found that this practicality more than balances out any apocalyptic excesses the group might otherwise be prone to.

  5. >Mormon leadership has always been rather moderate… Results are favored over doctrine, ideology, and political purity.

    I think this observation is spot on. And since there is no Mormon doctrine, only LDS objectives, let the leadership be judged by the worthiness of its goals and its competence in achieving them.

  6. Chino, don’t be silly.

    Saying results are favored does not automatically equal “there is no doctrine.”

    You’re such an ideologue sometimes.

  7. So Chino, you think that the fact that women can’t hold the priesthood and therefore hold major leadership positions in the church is a function of pragmatism and not doctrine? Time and experience have shown that men are simply better leaders?

  8. Regarding the apocalyptic effect, I agree that Mormons tend to be fairly practical, but I think that the whole end times thing is an area where the irrationality of Mormons shines through. Nearly any and everything, through the magic of confirmation bias, becomes a sign of the times, proof that the end is near.

    I think that the apocalyptic factor is what’s driving a lot of the right wing mass hysteria these days (not just Mormons, of course). Not every right wing Christian believes that Obama is the antichrist, but the fact that quite a few do drags the whole conversation towards the paranoid fringes.

  9. Robert, I don’t see a lot of attitudes like that in church at all. I suspect that extreme views like that are rather fringe even in the conservative North American LDS population. Here in the Colorado LDS church – I never hear a peep of any of that stuff really.

    As for confirmation bias – one thing to realize about religion is that it isn’t scientific inquiry. Nor is it SUPPOSED to be scientific inquiry when done well. Religion is a lens that we use to give meaning to the reality we find ourselves in. So narrowly avoiding the car crash has religious meaning – but likewise being injured in a car crash ALSO has religious meaning.

    Yes, it’s ad hoc. Yes, it looks like confirmation bias.

    And no – I see nothing wrong with that. Because there is nothing wrong with people adding their own personal meaning to the events they live through. It can be an uplifting and useful experience. And not everything has to be done via the scientific method. In fact, most of our important daily decisions are not done scientifically – religious or not.

  10. >So Chino, you think that the fact that women cant hold the priesthood and therefore hold major leadership positions in the church is a function of pragmatism and not doctrine? Time and experience have shown that men are simply better leaders?

    No, I think it’s a function of the membership being too timid to demand that the boys who’ve been profiting from the original set-up since day one start sharing the power.

    100 years from now, Mormon doctrine will be unrecognizable to any of us reading along here today, but the family names of the leadership will be the same as ever.

  11. I always have to ask when someone says “profiting from the LDS Church” –

    Who is profiting? And how?

    Thomas S. Monson lives in a smaller house than I do, for crying out loud. And we’re barely paying the bills.

  12. Kvetching about the size of Monson’s house would be akin to shaking your fist angrily at the hood ornament on the Mack truck that just ran you off the road.

    Hundreds of millions of dollars are paid out each year in salaries and billions more awarded in contracts. As a member of the org making the disbursements, it’s disturbing that you don’t know the answers to your own questions re who and how.

  13. Yeah?

    Prove it.

    And yes – I read the Businessweek article.

    And no – it doesn’t make this point for you.

  14. Percent of NZ tithing receipts used for remuneration: 49%

    “Management capture.” It was bound to happen in an org with a geriatric board and a revenue stream that can be counted on regardless of performance.

  15. Seth, try coming to live in Utah for a while. :) There’s no shortage of tin-foil hat rhetoric in Utah. The fact that Colorado is considered to be in play in this year’s election says something about the difference in political climate there, I think.

    Also, regarding confirmation bias, I’m mostly trying to point out that I personally find the prospect of a president who believes that the world is probably coming to and end soon to be a little scary. Is that unique to Mormonism? Absolutely not. It’s also why I would have been extremely uncomfortable with the idea of Rick Santorum as president. Be that as it may, keep in mind that I agreed with the conclusion of the book I reviewed: no one should make their choice about whether to vote for Romney based on his religion. It seems better to take his speeches and policy statements (vague as they are) at face value and to base any decision on those. Why dive into Mormon doctrine when Romney has said so many objectionable things outright? I didn’t mean to suggest that anything about Mormon doctrine should be a significant part of that discussion.

  16. I grew up in Utah – first Richfield, then Provo.

    I live in Colorado in part, because I wanted to get AWAY from Utah. So I’m aware of all the good old Eagle Forum, Tea Party goodness of life in Zion. I’m just saying it’s still a bit fringe even there.

    By the way – I don’t for a moment believe Santorum really believes his own Evangelical rhetoric. My belief is that the Christian Right is something Santorum discovered early in his political career as a matter of campaign strategy – not as a matter of personal conviction.

  17. I don’t know when you left, but there’s been a significant uptick of right-wing intensity since Obama was elected. I don’t think it’s a particularly fringe thing when they manage to throw out someone like Bob Bennett for committing the heresy of voting the conservative line only 93% of the time.

  18. I left around 2002.

    I suppose it’s not impossible that things may have polarized more since then.

  19. Let me first say that I’m a mormon, and also that I’m not going to, under any circumstances, vote for Romney. That said, I feel that I should address the points that you have made that consider him to be dangerous.

    First, the ‘End Times factor’. Though it is true that most Mormons believe that the End Times are near, we also believe in a principle of Stewardship over the Earth. So I don’t believe that Romney will base any policies or reactions, or lack thereof, toward disasters, climate change, or other global event, on a believe that the End Times are near. Indeed, if he is a good Mormon, he will be more likely to enact environmentally responsible legislation.

    Second, the ‘Revelation factor’. Romney’s strategy hasn’t been from much of a religeous stand point so much as a business stand point. He talks a lot more about his business experience than he does his religeon. He seems to rely much more on his political analysts than on his priesthood.

    I have my own two-fold reasons why I won’t vote for Romney: Flip-flop and economic outlook.

    Romney has changed his mind so many times on so many times on so many issues that it is hard to tell whether he stands anywhere on any of them. It makes me very uncomfortable to not be able to pin-point where someone that I’m suppose to vote for stands on things.

    I’m deeply afraid that Romney will attempt to deregulate corporations as much as possible while at the same time restricting the growth and safety net for the middle and lower class. I believe that he will drive us as close to a plutocracy as possible.

  20. @20 Good points.

    It’s true that a Mormon might emphasize stewardship over “end times = destruction”. But Mormon + Republican would probably make him lean more towards the latter than the former. But I guess that’s another way of saying that his Mormonism isn’t really the root of the problem.

  21. Chris, good points. As I state in my conclusion, even though there are a couple areas where a Mormon background gives me pause, on the whole I don’t think it’s really relevant. My greatest fears about Romney are due to his actual stated positions, including, as you say, his support for plutocracy. I’m also concerned about his willingness to say nearly anything to get elected, including repeatedly lying about both his own record and Obama’s record (a decidedly UN-Mormon trait, I should add, as generally speaking Mormons are nothing if not honest).

    It’s been fascinating to read about George Romney, who seems so much more appealing than his son. The elder Romney represented a lot of what’s best about Mormonism, I think, including honesty, pragmatism, and a deep sense of fairness.

  22. “Flip flopping” is just a derogatory way of saying “changed his mind” which is really just an indication that Romney can change his opinion on something and learn from his experiences.

    Which is really nothing more than what I expect from grown up responsible people. Anyone who never changed his mind is someone who shouldn’t be allowed in positions of responsibility – or near sharp objects.

    Really, Romney didn’t change his views any more than Ronald Reagan did. The flip-flopping label is purely an invention of anti-Mormon Evangelicals who are absolutely convinced that Mormons are a bunch of smiling liars who will do and say anything to get our missionaries in your door and make you lose Jesus. Flip-flopping was just a convenient excuse for them to apply to Romney the bigoted stereotype they have of ALL Mormons.

  23. Seth@23-I understand that Romney’s lack of stance is from a business man’s point of view. http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/07/opinion/obeidallah-romney-ceo/index.html?iref=allsearch#0_undefined,0_ expresses that fairly well.

    I realize that a mature adult, and especially an effective business person, must be able to change their perspective quickly in order to meet that of their intended customer. Politics is a little different though. Voting on a politician is not entirely unlike buying a car.

    The prudent car buyer will check out a car’s specifications, reviews, history, and give it a visual inspection in order to determine if it is the right car for them and their needs. Is it a two seater coup, or a family sedan? Can you take it through stormy weather, or is it a strictly fair weather car? Does it require a lot of maintenance, or is it very reliable?

    I want to know what a politician that I vote for is going to do under whichever conditions that they face, how they will vote when certain bills try to get passed, and if the decisions that they make are representative of them taking care of their own interests or the people that they are responsible for. If there is a disaster, are they going to take a vacation or get knee deep in figuring out how to best help the situation? If there is a threat from another country, is their first reaction going to be to send in the troops and bomb the back to the stone age, or seek diplomatic resolution until they are blue in the face? If there is an economic crisis, are they going to throw a bunch of money around, unregulated, to companies that got us into the mess in the first place, or are they going to assign a committee to investigate cause of it all and do nothing until results are determined?

    Those are the kinds of things that I’d like to know before I vote on someone. Unfortunately, the only person who has the right answers to all of my questions has been in Heaven for almost 2000 years.

  24. No, it’s not really that different Chris.

    A politician in a democracy is supposed to represent the will of the people – not his own stubborn ideals. A politician who changes opinions according to the will of his constituents is simply doing his job correctly.

  25. Eh, that’s only one possible theory of representative democracy, Seth, and not in any way a self-evident one or one that is specifically enshrined into our law or public policy.

  26. Right. The whole point of the Senate was to have men (back then) who had longer terms and wouldn’t be swayed by popular prejudice as easily.

    But the point I was after was that the Romney flip-flopping is not something that concerns me greatly and to give the counterpoint reason for that. I don’t care about Romney’s changes of stance. What I do care about is who he is going to be beholden to once he takes office.

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