(hat tip: Matt Lybbert, thanks: Connor Boyack)
Thursday, January 4
I was delighted when I learned that you would be responding to my article on Mitt Romney. I admire your work on Joseph Smith and the beginnings of Mormonism, so I hoped for a critical engagement with the substance of my essay.
I must admit, however, to being disappointed with your response. Instead of answering the questions I pose, you dismiss them as a product of my overheated and paranoid liberal imagination. Unwilling to concede the validity of anything I argued in my piece, you claim that what I wrote “makes no sense” to Mormons–all the while failing to point to a single factual inaccuracy in my article. Rather than engaging with the theological concerns I raise, you say that they all flow from my belief that Mormons are religious “fanatics.” Indeed, you consider this last point so decisive that you use variations on the word “fanatic” 14 times in your 1,000-word response–despite the fact that I never used it or any similarly harsh or dismissive adjective to describe Mormon beliefs in my article.
For the record, I don’t consider Mormons to be fanatics. I consider them to be very seriously religious, and I think that their faith deserves respect–certainly far more respect than it has typically been accorded in the press and by evangelical Protestants. I am deeply impressed by the audaciousness of Joseph Smith’s revelations. In addition to bringing forth a new 500-page book of scripture and setting out to correct (”retranslate”) the canonical Old and New Testaments, Smith denied the creation of the universe ex nihilo, proposed that God has a body, and suggested that human beings can evolve into Gods themselves. More remarkable still, he persuaded large numbers of people to accept these heterodox beliefs and to risk (and, in many cases, to lose) their lives defending their right to affirm them.
However odd Mormon beliefs may sound to orthodox Christians and doctrinaire secularists, these critics need to recognize that the LDS Church proclaims a vision of the world and God that speaks to something noble in the souls of millions of Mormons and the thousands of people who convert to the Church every year. (This is, in part, what Harold Bloom meant in The American Religion when he accurately described Joseph Smith as one of history’s great religious geniuses.)
It is precisely my respect for Mormonism–my desire to take it and its religious claims seriously–that leads to my disappointment at your response to my article. You say that arguments like mine “baffle” Mormons. But why? I made three interrelated assertions in my essay–that Mormons believe Jesus Christ will return sooner rather than later; that, when he returns, he is likely to rule the world from the territory of the United States; and that the president of the Church is considered to be a prophet of God. Then I teased out various possible political implications of these theological commitments. In your response, you do not take issue with my three assertions, presumably because they are accurate statements of core LDS beliefs. Where my article becomes baffling is thus apparently in its discussion of implications. Mormons, you imply, would never follow a morally questionable or politically perilous pronouncement by the prophet in Salt Lake City.
I do not doubt that you and many other Mormons believe this. But can you tell me (and other non-Mormons) why–on what basis–you believe it? A devout Roman Catholic, for example, would have plenty of theological resources to grapple with an analogous question about following a papal edict. She might begin by pointing out that the Pope is not considered a prophet and is only rarely presumed to speak infallibly. She might then appeal to natural law, which an authentic papal pronouncement could never contradict. Then there is the closed canon of scripture. And a series of binding councils stretching back to the early days of the church. And a nearly 2,000-year tradition of relatively settled dogma and doctrine on faith and morals.
As I explained in my article, Mormonism has none of these moderating safeguards. It considers its leader to be the “mouthpiece of God on Earth.” Mormon cosmology is arguably incompatible with natural law theory. It rejects the authority of every church council accepted by historic Christianity. And its scriptural and doctrinal traditions are fluid and radically open to revision in light of new prophetic revelations. On the other side of the ledger, I also suggested that the hierarchical structure of the LDS Church has tended to have a moderating influence on its leadership and that it might very well continue to do so in the coming years. To this you have added individual conscience, which you believe would keep Mormons from following a questionable prophetic commandment unthinkingly. This is a promising start, but it is only a start. Conscience, after all, is a notoriously unreliable guide to right action–one that is most effective when it supplements firmer sources of morality and belief.
Does Mormonism contain such sources? If so, what are they? I taught at Brigham Young University for two years and count several Mormons among my closest friends, and yet the answer to these questions remains a mystery to me. And LDS culture today is shot through with so many unsettling contradictions that I find it hard to see how this mystery could be dispelled anytime soon. The Church is profoundly conservative, but its theological and historical foundations are incredibly radical (involving not only multiple acts of prophesy and revelation but also the establishment of a polygamous theocracy in the intermountain west). I know many intellectually curious and skeptical Mormons, but their curiosity and skepticism nearly always remains cordoned off from their religious beliefs.
At the level of the ward (or parish), LDS church life is highly egalitarian, but individual Mormons tend to be extraordinarily deferential to ecclesiastical and political authority. I could go on.
As Mitt Romney prepares to become the most serious Mormon candidate for president in American history, members of the LDS Church (and especially its leading scholars and intellectuals) owe it to themselves and to their country to think deeply and publicly about these issues. The alternative–striking a purely defensive stance and hoping the questions and concerns will go away–is simply not a serious response.
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