A week or so ago I read an essay by evangelical journalist and author Warren Cole Smith, suggesting that voting for a Mormon – any Mormon – was a less than responsible thing to do. I found its logic profoundly disturbing.
Some very good conversations between evangelicals and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been going on for years. I hope there will be more, and that they’ll be instructive and mutually respectful. Conversation is the beginning of understanding. But too often we see reactions to old stereotypes, like this one. So here is my open letter to Warren Cole Smith in response to his assertions.
We’ve never met. I hope we might have a chance to do so.
I read your symposium essay and it got me thinking. I hope you won’t mind if I avoid discussing particular political candidates. My church is serious about its neutrality in party politics, and as a church spokesman I am always careful not to tip my hat in the direction of either an incumbent president or any of his opponents.
In fact, this letter is emphatically not about the candidates at all, but about how differently you and I understand what it is to be an American.
I hope I can fairly summarize the salient points of your essay. It seems to boil down to this:
1. Any Mormon, regardless of qualifications for office, is unfit to serve because his or her religion is somehow “demonstrably false.” By false, I assume you mean different from yours, or from how you define “biblical Christianity.”
2. Because Mormons believe in continuing revelation, they could “believe one thing today and another thing tomorrow.”
3. The election of a Mormon president would give the religion a boost because it would seem like an endorsement. And that would be a bad thing.
To be honest, Warren, I don’t really know how good or bad any of the likely candidates – Latter-day Saint or otherwise - might be as president of the United States. I’ll try to figure that out for myself before I enter the voting booth in 2012. But whoever might be elected, I expect the judgment that this nation and history will eventually render about him, or her, will have little to do with where they worshipped on the Sabbath. It will have much to do with their grasp of economics, of foreign policy, of education and health care, of their skills as commander in chief. It will likely reflect how they responded to crises, their core values and ability to unite and rally the American people.
I admit, I’m struggling just a tad with your logic that the very fact of being a Mormon disqualifies a person from high public office. That would be news to Senator Orrin Hatch, who has served his country and constituents for 34 years. And to Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader - one of the most powerful positions in government.
It would also be news to former Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who as a member of President George W. Bush’s cabinet ran a department that accounts for almost a quarter of all federal outlays. Or to Larry Echo Hawk, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, in the present administration. And, of course, to the dozen-or-so other currently serving senators and congressmen who are also Latter-day Saints, as well as the thousands of non-Mormon voters who recognized their merits and helped elect them to office. If there is anything “demonstrable” it’s that Mormons have been serving most capably in national government for over a century.
I’m trying hard to figure out how and why belief in “continuing revelation” has or could compromise the performance of any of these legislators and public servants, since that is what your essay implies. “Continuing revelation” means two things to Mormons. First, it means we look for answers to personal prayers – a practice that you and I probably share. Second, it means church leaders receive inspiration and guidance to lead the church worldwide. It doesn’t mean, as you assert, that we “believe one thing today and another thing tomorrow.” As evidence for that, you offer a theological caricature and cite two changes in church policy, which occurred over 120 years. Something of a stretch, don’t you think?
To your third point, there’s your assertion that the election of Mormons to high office would be a tacit endorsement of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This argument, while not new, is frightening in its implications. Substitute the word “Jew” for “Mormon” and see how comfortable that feels. We may reasonably hope that most people vote on the basis of policy positions and not of denomination. I never thought of the election of John Kennedy as an endorsement for Catholicism, or that Richard Nixon’s election “legitimized” Quakers (as if these groups needed legitimation). I think most Americans saw their religious affiliations as incidental to their policies and platforms.
In reality, the church that I belong to embraces a membership with views across the political spectrum, and maintains its independence and neutrality from party politics. If I know anything about my church, it’s how carefully it distances itself from the actions of party politicians and government, and respects the autonomy of any political office holder.
So let’s move beyond these questionable assertions to the premise in your post that really disturbed me, stated by you this way:
“I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve.”
Who decides, Warren, that one religion is acceptable and another “false and dangerous”? Do you? Does the church that you attend? Since you aren’t calling for Mormons to be legally barred from the highest office in the land, is your idea just to effectively marginalize Mormons and make it impossible for them to run for office? Do you feel the same way about other faiths that are different from yours? Catholics, perhaps? Isn’t there something called Article VI, a constitutional provision that forbids a religious test for political office? “…No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” What does that mean – what has it ever meant – if it doesn’t apply in a case like this?
What it seems you would like me and six million other Mormons in the U.S. to do is concede a fundamental right granted to all Americans because we don’t fit within your definition of what is theologically acceptable. Fortunately, that’s not what the Constitution says, and it’s not what America teaches. I should hope that I can sit one of my grandchildren on my knee and tell them that in our religiously diverse society they are as good as anyone else, and that they will be judged by the fruits of their lives and not by discriminatory interpretations of their faith.
With the greatest respect, Warren, your position is unreasonable, un-Christian and untrue to American ideals. Neither is it typical of the Christians I know, or of those writing at your venue. Mormons across the country live side by side with evangelicals as neighbors, work associates and friends. There is much that they share. And by the way, despite my clear disagreement with some of your theology, I would have absolutely no problem voting for an evangelical who was in every way qualified to be president of the United States.
It’s time to overcome unfounded fears, to stop propounding them, and to start trying to understand each other better. If you want to talk theology, then let’s get beyond the laundry list of trivia that typically crops up in the news media, and get to the substantial issues – interpretation of the Bible, additional scripture, the purpose of life. Hopefully our next interaction can be a personal one. If you ever come to Salt Lake City, please drop in. I’d welcome a meaningful discussion.
More On Faith and Mormonism:
Clayton Christensen: Stephen Hawking and the experience of God
Otterson: Is this really a ‘Mormon moment?’
Jena McGregor: Are Mormons better leaders?
Michael Otterson | Jun 7, 2011 10:20 AM