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Voting for a Mormon

Perhaps it is just a sign of the fact that deep down inside I am and always will be a foreigner, but I have to admit that I have trouble getting my head around the Mormons. It didn’t help that my first introduction to the religion was through Sherlock Holmes, but still. The history strikes me somewhere between incredulity and horror, from golden plates in upstate New York to massacres out West. The theology comes across as totally barmy. We can become gods with our own planets! And the practices strike me as creepy. No coffee and tea is bad enough. But the underwear!

Frankly, at the best of times, I would not be keen on voting for Mitt Romney. When he was governor of Massachusetts, it seems to me he did a lot of good. But he has spent the last decade in denial, claiming either that he did not do these things or that he is very sorry that he did. It is the total lack of integrity that gets to me. The man will say anything to become president. If anyone puts me in mind of e. e. cummings’ pithy comment on politicians, he does. (I will link to the comment. As I have pointed out many times, The Chronicle of Higher Education is a family newspaper, and we must not shock our readers.)

But is it acceptable not to vote for Romney because—or at least partially because—he is a Mormon? My inclination is to say, “Absolutely.” The president is different from, say, a congressman, because the president is not just a politician, but the leader of the country—the symbol of the country like the Queen in England. I don’t want someone who denies evolution as my President; I don’t want someone who takes seriously the golden plates stuff as my President.

I was brought up short on this a month or so ago by my fellow Brainstormer, Jacques Berlinerblau. As always, he didn’t mince words: “anti-Mormon prejudice is wrong, shameful, and un-American.” Crash! Bam! Kazoo! That shut me up because on these things I think Jacques is one of the most thoughtful writers I have encountered. Am I just wrong?

I wrote to one of my colleagues about this, John Kelsay, former chair of our Department of Religion, student of the Islamic concept of Just War, and incidentally an ordained Presbyterian minister. Here is the exchange.

MR: I am just not sure I could vote for a guy who thinks he is going to be a god on his own planet – I would say also that given the way that the Mormon Church got involved in the anti gay marriage vote in California, I am not comfortable on that score either

JK: On the latter issue, I’d say what matters is what Romney’s policy is going to be, even as we evaluate RCs based on what they’ve done vis a vis abortion, rather than on the official policies of their church. On the former, I guess my views are shaped (perhaps overmuch) by Jefferson’s line to the effect that it doesn’t matter much politically whether one’s neighbor believes in one god or many; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Of course, the last part is why Romney’s stance on gay marriage can matter–here we’re not dealing with notions of deity, but with a policy stance. On that one, when I function as a scholar, I find it interesting to look at the reasons he might give and how those fit into Mormon beliefs. But when I function as a citizen, deciding for whom to vote, all that matters to me is the policy stance, because that tells me what he’s likely to do.

I think Berlinerblau and Kelsay are helping me to see my way forward on this—a little bit at least. I don’t know whether it is prejudice or not, but I think it is perfectly okay to have contempt for the views that someone might have. I would put six-day creationism in this category and much Mormon theology also. I don’t think that that necessarily means that you have contempt for the person. I have a good friend, Paul Nelson of Chicago, who is a six-day creationist. He learnt the ideas from his family—his grandfather Byron Nelson was a major figure in the movement early in the twentieth century. I understand why Paul has his views without in any sense empathizing with them.

If you don’t necessarily have contempt for the person—frankly, I don’t see how you could ever fail to have contempt for a person who subscribed to National Socialism, even if they never intended to act on their beliefs—then I think one could vote for them as president or some such thing. You may not want to, but doing the right thing is not necessarily what you want to do.

The trouble is of course whether and how one can be certain that the person’s personal views will not translate into action. I think the Kennedys showed pretty clearly that they were not going to be pushed around by the Catholic Church when it came to social policies. But I remain convinced that both Bush Junior and Tony Blair went into Iraq because they had a particular Christian vision of the world as divided into white and black, good and evil, and this simplistic view and all that goes with it was a motivating factor. And just don’t get me going on American evangelical politicians and red heifers and the State of Israel.

But the social and related issues are very important, and it is legitimate to involve these in your assessments and decisions. The Mormon Church on the matter of homosexuality is troublesome and it is clear that it is willing to use its vast funds—don’t forget the 10-percent tithing—to achieve social ends it thinks desirable. So while anti-Mormon prejudice may be wrong, I don’t think that being anti-Mormon is necessarily being wrong.

However, since it has taken me a couple of months to respond to Berlinerblau’s admonition, you can see that I don’t approach this issue with the confidence shown by most of those who comment on what I write for Brainstorm. For once, I really would welcome the thoughts of others on this topic.

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