25 January 2007

Mitt Romney for President - Part IV

(hat tip: Matt Lybbert, thanks: Connor Boyack)

Friday, January 5

Dear Damon,

I appreciate your moderate and respectful reply to my objections. It is often hard for non-Mormons to understand how Mormons believe all we do. You at least see how Mormon beliefs and our way of life could be satisfying to educated, reasonable people, among whom you presumably would include Mitt Romney.

What troubles you is the implication of belief in prophetic revelation: Would Mormons perform any dire deed for their prophet no matter how contrary to conscience? And what about the belief that the United States and the Church might combine to dominate the world some day? Would Mitt Romney serve as the tool of Church leaders in facilitating a plan for world domination? His belief in revelation seems to require that he should.

These seem like perfectly legitimate questions, but they have a point only if you assume potentially dark motives on the part of Church leaders. You object that you do not use the word “fanatic” in your article, but the questions evoke the very image of fanaticism I was talking about: evil-minded religious leaders employing their spiritual authority over blindly loyal followers to magnify their own power. That is exactly the picture painted by the nineteenth-century polemicists who labeled Mormons fanatics. And they reached their conclusion in the same way as you do–by “teasing out” implications. The protestations of innocence by Mormons themselves mean nothing. Nor do their actions calm the fears. All that matters is that the reasoning from premise to conclusion–revelation to vicious action–is impregnable. Doubtless without meaning to, you are following the reasoning of the anti-fanatics to its fearful conclusion.

In evaluating the political implications of Mormon beliefs, you should use real facts about real events, not theoretical possibilities. Have Mormon leaders actually used their influence to manipulate politicians in the interest of world domination? What reason is there to think they have this on their minds? The reason Mormons are likely to find your analysis a phantasm is that we rarely, if ever, speculate about the world when the millennium comes. This is simply not on the agenda of active Mormon concerns, and it is certainly not a “core” belief. If anything, Mormons draw on the tradition that holds that many religions will flourish after the coming of Christ–a kind of American-style tolerance of all faiths. Mormons conscientiously carry the gospel to the world, but I have never heard a Mormon forecast political domination, much less collaboration with the United States government. Are you aware of Church leaders discussing such plans? No.

From your reply, I would judge that you are most concerned about loyalty to prophetic authority. Would Mitt Romney as president give way to immoral and illegal directives from Salt Lake? You make the subtle and interesting point that Mormons have no natural law tradition to constrain a Mormon president–either a president of the Church or the country. Since revelation trumps everything, where are the limits?

Your concern might be alleviated by considering how revelation actually works–in Mormonism and in biblical history. The scriptures themselves place heavy restraints on prophets. It makes a big difference that the moral law is enunciated endlessly in Mormon scriptures. The Ten Commandments were rehearsed in an early revelation, reinstalling them as fundamentals of the Church. Later, the Saints were told “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” Could all this be overthrown by a new revelation? You think that revelation wipes the slate clean, negating everything that went before. But that is not the way prophetic revelation works, now or ever.

The proper analogy is to the courts and the Constitution. The law is what the courts say it is, we assert hyperbolically. Theoretically nine justices can overturn any previous interpretation of the Constitution on a whim. But, in fact, they don’t–and we know they can’t. Their authority depends on reasoning outward from the Constitution and all previous decisions.

The same is true for prophets. They work outward from the words of previous prophets, reinterpreting past prophecy for the present. That was certainly true for Joseph Smith, whose most extreme revelation–plural marriage–was based on plural marriage in the Bible. Prophets do not write on a blank slate. They carry forward everything that went before, adapting it to present circumstances. Like Supreme Court justices, they would put their own authority in jeopardy if they disregarded the past. The moral law, embedded in this revelatory tradition, exercises far greater influence on Mormon thought than the abstractions of natural law could possibly effect.

I am asking you not to focus so narrowly on what you take to be the logical implications of revelation. That is what critics of fanaticism have been doing for centuries. Look at the historical record of the past century as Mormons have entered national politics. Is there evidence of manipulation?

Consider the Church’s own renunciation of control over the consciences of Mormon politicians–a stand Catholics have not taken. Are you saying this is a false front? Keeping in mind the injunction in Mormon scripture to submit to lawful government, is there any real basis for concern?


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