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.

An Open Letter to the LDS Church

I was riveted by the fascinating tale of excommunication from the Mormon church, over at Mind on Fire, told with great honesty and feeling, as well as by the reader community response. I have just one question, though, which I suppose should be directed to the Mormon church itself: Where’s my lousy excommunication?

I did my best to protest various and sundry church policies, and eventually left the church in as public a way as was possible, at least for the times. While still at BYU, for example, I once wrote a leaflet criticizing the BYU dress code, using scriptural arguments, and distributed thousands of copies on campus. I wasn’t shy about thisI began distributing on the third floor of the BYU administration building, in the president’s office. When a friendly campus police offer escorted me to the Office of Student Life, explaining to me that I needed to get their approval before distributing flyers on campus, I filled out the official form requesting permission and then promptly distributed the rest of the flyers anyway! What did I get for my rebel ways? Continue reading “An Open Letter to the LDS Church”

Summum Goin’ On

Pleasant Grove City has won a battle in the legal war with Summum, Utah’s local pyramid/wine/sex cult. From what I’ve read, it appears that the matter is far from over, though, as this particular battle was narrowed in its scope to its free speech component. In essence, the Supremes have ruled that monuments simply aren’t speech the same way that, say, speeches are. Therefore, Pleasant Grove, in this particular case is not the referee amongst competing speakers–instead they are the speakers themselves, and having adopted and placed the ten commandments monument has made it into the city’s own speech. So you can’t prohibit their choice on free speech grounds. BUT…the issue has more clearly moved over into establishment clause turf. Which is a whole nother ball of wax altogether.
Continue reading “Summum Goin’ On”

NCMO at BYU

According to a Salt Lake Tribune article, citing a survey conducted by a retired BYU sociology professor, only “1 percent to 3 percent of students say ‘making out and intense kissing’ are acceptable in a ‘hanging-out’ relationship.” No report on what percentage considers screwing like bunnies (or at least having oral intercourse) acceptable.

This whole article made me laugh. Having been a BYU student, and having spoken to more than a few former BYU students, I can confidently proclaim that this survey is total crap. Because why would students ever lie on a survey about sexual behavior when sexual behavior is grounds for being dismissed from the university, and possibly disciplined by or removed from the Mormon church, which generally results in community ostracization? I see no real motive to under-report sexual behavior, even on a survey that was presumably supposed to be anonymous.

I freely confess that a couple things could cloud my judgment on this: 1) BYU has, supposedly, tightened up the “ecclesiastical endorsement” process, by which students are vetted for their spirituality and loyalty to Mormonism as a condition of acceptance and continuing attendance at BYU, so maybe, and I stress maybe, BYU students as a group are more virtuous than in days of yore (though I seriously doubt that, young people being young people); and 2) I will accept that any random sampling of BYU students interviewed by me, then or since, is likely to be skewed in favor of at least liberal and possibly rebellious behavior (another hallmark of young people, I might add). Even given those adjustments, I pronounce the survey results to be completely and utterly silly. Just how old (and gullible) was this retired BYU sociology professor, anyway? Continue reading “NCMO at BYU”

Romney and Religion

Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy has brought Mormonism—and the role of religion in politics—into the spotlight in some interesting ways. His candidacy is revealing of some of the fault lines both in Mormon culture and in the American political environment.

The Mormon church has long had a confused approach to its identity as the only true church. Obviously, the belief that God told Joseph Smith that all other religious sects were abominations in his sight is something that’s not going to sit well with people of other faiths. You can’t really get around this particular problem, since the story of Joseph’s first interaction with God the Father and Jesus Christ, referred to by Mormons as the “First Vision,” is sacrosynct, essentially the core of the religion. What you can do is attempt to smooth it over with ecumenical nicety and soothing words about shared goals. Continue reading “Romney and Religion”

The Space Between Subjectivity and Objectivity

There are few things as enjoyable as coffeeshop philosophizing, and usually my favorite philosophical topic to mangle is epistemology, which is the study of whether it’s possible to know things, and if so, how we attain knowledge. Over the years, I’ve trended towards a viewpoint that I call radical subjectivity (using radical in the sense of root rather than in the sense of extreme–compare definition 1 to definition 3 here to see what I mean). I can’t remember where or when I first encountered the term radical subjectivity, but it’s a perfectly adequate term for describing this basic concept: Continue reading “The Space Between Subjectivity and Objectivity”

Fiction at Main Street Plaza

Coming soon to a browser near you, Main Street Plaza will be publishing fiction! Our first published piece will be “Love, Mormon Style,” by Bob Bringhurst. “Love, Mormon Style” was originally published in a short fiction anthology called In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions. This is a humorous yet poignant story about a BYU student trying (and mostly not succeeding) to remain chaste, which we’re confident is a subject near and dear to the heart of each and every one of you.

Every Thursday (starting April 5) we’ll publish a new story for your reading pleasure. Pretty much the only rule for fiction on Main Street Plaza is that it must contain at least some aspect of or reference to Mormon culture, though Mormonism need not be central. Eventually, we’d like to work up to having a short story writing contest, so all you authors out there, get those creative juices flowing. In the mean time, we hope you enjoy reading a few different possible answers to the question of what constitutes Mormon art.

Mormon Art

So what the heck is Mormon art, anyway? Putting aside the much larger question of what is art (but using the term broadly to cover all creative expression), we might instructively ask: What is a Mormon? Do we count only members of the mainstream organization, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Do we draw the line at active members only? What about people who are active members but non-believers? Because there are plenty of those. Feminists? Intellectuals? Democrats? If you decide to let the term Mormon refer to anyone who self-identifies as a Mormon, the circle becomes much, much wider. You get not only members of the mainstream organization, but you get members of the multitude of splinter organizations (there are probably far more than you think), and you must include the ever-growing ex/post-Mormon community, many of whom still self-identify as Mormons. Even when you consider art created by active, church-going, temple-recommend holding Mormons, you have to ask: does the art have to actually be about Mormons or Mormonism directly to be considered Mormon art? Can someone who has been steeped in Mormon culture ever produce anything other than Mormon art? Should art that’s about Mormons, even when created by non-Mormons, be considered Mormon art?

Continue reading “Mormon Art”