Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Is Mitt Romney’s religion fair game?

Posted by metaphorical on 6 February 2007

According to Tim Rutten of the LA Times:

Romney comes from a political family. His father, George, was a liberal Republican, a supporter of civil rights and an opponent of the war in Vietnam. When Mitt Romney, a one-time independent, ran as a Republican against Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, he was pro-choice and opposed discrimination against homosexuals by the Boy Scouts. Since then, his adherence to the values of so-called social conservatism has increased along with his national political ambitions.

Well, pandering to the right is certainly fair game. But what about his Mormonism?

Rutter takes to task Jacob Weisberg, who says it is.

A few weeks ago, Jacob Weisberg, editor of the influential online journal Slate, posted a piece that began, “Someone who refuses to consider voting for a woman as president is rightly deemed a sexist. Someone who’d never vote for a black person is a racist. But are you a religious bigot if you wouldn’t cast a ballot for a believing Mormon?” According to Weisberg, no. “If he gets anywhere in the primaries, Romney’s religion will become an issue with moderate and secular voters — and rightly so. Objecting to someone because of his religious beliefs is not the same thing as prejudice based on religious heritage, race or gender. Not applying a religious test for public office means that people of all faiths are allowed to run—not that views about God, creation and the moral order are inadmissible for political debate…. Nor is it chauvinistic to say that certain religious views are deal-breakers in and of themselves … I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism … [which] is based on such a transparent and recent fraud.”

So long as Weisberg feels the same way about the founding whoppers of Christianity, it’s hard not agree with him. On a scale of weird, impossible-to-believe ideas, there’s no real difference between fundamentalist religions, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, or shellfish-is-an-abomination Judaism. (Or, as Richard Dawkins puts it, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”) If Weisberg is singling out Mormonism, of course, that’s a fair complaint.

Rutten definitely goes too far, though, when he says:

Worse, Romney “has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine.” Thank God Weisberg’s antipathy to Romney isn’t based on religious bigotry.

We’re talking about Romney’s beliefs. Why are some of them off limits? If he’s opposed to gay marriage because of some personal bigotry, that’s a matter of legitimate public interest, but if it’s not even personally based, but grounded in religion, then it’s not?

These “personal beliefs” have public consequences. When someone runs for public office, we need to know what they are. I don’t happen to need to know where he stands on polygamy, because it’s not one of the key issues I care about, but I can see where it’s important to others. For my own part, I don’t want to vote for anyone who denies science’s privileged position on empirical matters, such as evolution. That’s not bigotry, that’s responsible voting.

And when someone like Romney benefits from religious pandering, it’s important they’re punished for it as well. These people have gotten a free ride for long enough, reaping the benefits of irrationality without paying any price. Certainly among my circle of atheistic and agnostic friends, I don’t think we would be so vociferous in our disbelief (e.g., here) if it were not for the rise over the last decade or so in vociferous lunacy coming from the fundamentalist wings of various religions.

And I do mean lunacy, for example the “proof” that the Christian god exists by Samuel J Hunt, a self-described “Pre-Physical Therapy and Dietetics student,” at Western Kentucky University.

As a press release sent to a colleague of mine (which doesn’t seem to be on-line yet) says:

According to the author, the Scientific Method has been subtly proving the Genesis cosmology in every classroom around the world for more than 450 years.

Hunt apparently bases his theory on what he’s learned in his Chemistry 120 and Physics 233 classes. While apparently you have to buy the book to get the whole theory, much of it seems to be reproduced here, including these choice passages:

Reality is everlasting and eternal, and is comprised of harmonic wave patterns and their interactions. It is these interactions that give rise to what we see as substance and all matter in the universe. The understanding and ability to manipulate constructively, and the ability to understand and categorize certain wave patterns can lead to the development of true medicine and the end of all disease, death, and environmental destruction.

All wave patterns within our universe are based on Sound. The understanding of this seemingly impossible phenomenon will be the turning point of Mankind’s destruction, to his healing and the establishment of Heaven on Earth.

Sound is the beginning and initiator of everything that has pattern.

Mitt Romney doesn’t have to say whether he agrees or disagrees with every crackpot theory to come along. But we do have a right to know which crackpot theories he does come into an election believing, and on the leading crackpot theories of the day, such as the various forms of re-emergent neo-creationism, we need to know where he stands.

It’s not clear Rutten would agree. Invoking the candidacy of John Kennedy, he writes:

Religious belief is a matter of conscience and if there is no privacy of conscience there is no separation of church and state, a principle both Slate and the New Republic claim to defend. Do the editors of those journals really want to take us back to the 1960s, when as many as one American in four said they never would vote for a Catholic or a Jew for president?

Well, actually, Mr Rutten, I would hope that at least one in four Americans won’t vote for a religious fundamentalist for president. Certainly, there are Catholics and Jews whose religious beliefs enrich their moral and social consciousnesses. Jimmy Carter is an obvious example of that. I know that in the summer of 1976, I couldn’t tell whether which sort of Christian he was, and I regret that I didn’t vote for him for president because of it. No one is asking Christians to repudiate the Bible, or Mormons to repudiate their Book, or Moslems theirs, as a source of inspiration. As a source of morality, geology, and biological fact, though, yes, we may well need them to disavow it—where “we” is that fraction of the electorate that’s hopelessly grounded in reality.

2 Responses to “Is Mitt Romney’s religion fair game?”

  1. The New Republic has an ongoing debate on Romney and Mormonism. It started with Damon Linker:

    But defending the constitutional right of every qualified citizen to run for office is not the same as saying that a candidate’s religious views should be a matter of indifference to voters. In the case of Mitt Romney, citizens have every reason to seek clarification about the character of his Mormonism. Does he believe, for example, that we are living through the “latter days” of human history, just prior to the second coming of Christ? And does he think that, when the Lord returns, he will rule over the world from the territory of the United States? Does Romney believe that the president of the Mormon Church is a genuine prophet of God? If so, how would he respond to a command from this prophet on matters of public policy? And, if his faith would require him to follow this hypothetical command, would it not be accurate to say that, under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country–with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong?

    One suspects that, if pressed in this way, Romney would seek to assure voters that he would never follow such a command if it conflicted in any way with his oath of office. How such a statement would square with his professed Mormon faith is far from clear, however. Under modern conditions, some religions–Protestantism, post-Vatican II Catholicism, Judaism–have spawned liberal traditions that treat faith primarily as a repository of moral wisdom instead of as a source of absolute truth. Other religions, by contrast, have tended to require believers to accept everything or nothing at all. Mormonism (like Islam, another faith founded in prophecy) is one of the latter, binary religions. When a Mormon stops accepting the binding truth of prophetic revelation, he effectively becomes a lapsed Mormon.

    Linker argues that the LDS prophetic tradition and the doctrinal subservience of Mormons to the prophet should be considered in the political debate. For Linker, and TNR editor Jacob Weisberg, Romney’s faith is a show stopper.

    John Judis shot back with this:

    Of course, you can find followers of any American religion who would do crazy things if asked by the president of the church, their minister, their rabbi, or the Pope. And you can find a few crazy ministers and rabbis and a bigoted Pope or two. But that’s not the point. The first question is whether the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in America have been inclined to make such immoral pronouncements. They haven’t, and there is no evidence they are about to. And the second question is whether Romney has displayed the kind of fanatical commitment that, if they were to do so, would override the moral and political considerations that a politician brings to bear in making decisions. And there is no evidence that Romney–or his father or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch or Jeff Flake–would. In other words, there is no reason not to give Romney the same pass that voters like Weisberg or Linker gave to Catholic or Jewish candidates.

    But I don’t see the point of the debate. I wouldn’t support Romney because of his positions on a host of social issues, not because he is a Mormon. Why make the presence (or absence) of religious belief in a candidate the sole criteria?

  2. Why make the presence (or absence) of religious belief in a candidate the sole criteria?

    Having it a sufficient condition for not voting for someone isn’t quite the same as a sole criterion….

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