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