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Nathan Nebeker is a technology executive and entrepreneur. He was born in Salt Lake City, and his family descends from some of the early Mormon pioneers. The opinions expressed below are his own. The founders of the United States had a lot of good ideas, but undoubtedly one of the best was the decoupling of religion from government.
In principle, someone from any religion can be President of the United States. So even though all but one president has been a member of some flavour of Protestant Christianity, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism doesn’t disqualify him from the presidency in the eyes of the American public. This is a good thing. In principle.
At the risk of sounding like a mullah, I believe there are deeper reasons that a Mormon should be disqualified from being president.
Romney’s candidacy, along with a Broadway smash musical and a few other things, have come together to create a “Mormon moment.” But despite this, public knowledge of Mormonism is limited to some superficial cultural impressions, with an underlying feeling of vague suspicion.
If Romney were to win, you could say Mormonism is a fringe branch of Protestant Christianity, and therefore he wouldn’t be charting any new territory. Mormonism is actually kind of a hybrid between Protestantism and Catholicism. They embrace the most basic Protestant idea of a personal relationship with God, (for men, anyway), but have the hierarchical power structure, rigid dogma, and the expectation of obedience of Catholics.
“Romney’s idea of truth is not something discovered after hard-fought inquiry and testing, but instead is declared by a person with authority, often for unexamined reasons, and sanctioned by divine validation.”
Protestants do not accept Mormons as one of their own, ostensibly for all sorts of technical theocratic reasons. But the real reason Mormons are regarded as outside the tapestry of Protestantism is that’s just how the Mormons want it. This otherness hints at the problem of a Mormon president, but the deeper reasons are epistemological – that is, having to do with the Mormon notion of truth.
Joseph Smith, the Mormon’s founder, was not an intellectual. He was a creative and energetic megalomaniac, and intensely charismatic individual. But he was no Martin Luther, nor even a Calvin. He didn’t come up with a revolutionary and enduring idea on which to base the religion. Mormonism, instead, is founded on the belief that American Indians are descended from Jews (this is not a joke – you can look it up). He unified two pop culture historical mysteries of the mid-nineteenth century among the uneducated middle class, (1) where did the American Indians come from, and (2) what happened to the two lost tribes of Israel?
The “answer” to this twin mystery is the subject of the monumentally tedious and derivative Book of Mormon, which, along with the King James Bible and a few other thin volumes of inspiration from Joseph Smith (which include the original revelation on polygamy), are the holy books on which the religion is based. It tells the story of the lost tribes of Israel getting into boats, settling the Americas, and getting a visit from Jesus while on a layover during his resurrection.
So how could such a socially successful creed come from this? A big part of the reason is that Joseph Smith was murdered at the best possible time for the fledgling movement to come under the control of the autocratic and exceedingly gifted social architect Brigham Young, and that all this coincided well with the westward expansion of former Europeans across the United States.
The Mormons were swept along into the broader demographic and geographic wave of settling the West. And because of their particular skill in irrigation, a remarkable resilience in the face of serious hardship, and practicing an economically successful version of socialism, including appropriation of property for the collective, they were able to thrive in the desert of Utah, which was otherwise considered uninhabitable, or at least unattractive, by other pioneers. The “bulls and steers” structure of polygamy didn’t hurt, either.
But what about now? How, in this day and age of higher common learning and mitochondrial DNA analysis, could not just a religion, but a complete society continue to thrive as well as Mormonism does, when it is based on such clearly false tenets? This question used to really bug me, until I was blessed with another realisation (or perhaps I should call it a revelation?) some years ago.
Mormonism’s social structure is so strong, not despite its frail basis in truth, but because of it – because it makes the price of admission to the club high. To say “Yes, I am a Mormon” is to say “Yes, I’m in the 2+2=5 club, are you?” This (along with expensive tithing) filters out casual participants. You need to be willing to compromise a normal sense of what’s reasonable and rational to be part of this group. It’s a strong commitment, which makes for a strong creed.
A necessary consequence of this is that Mormons must be insular and secretive. Of course their aggressive proselytizing may make them seem less insular than, say, the Amish. But all of that missionary salesmanship is just an entreaty to join an ultimately insular society. This is what is behind the Mormons’ reticence and awkwardness at being in the cultural spotlight. But the key point of insularity is it’s a society based on a private version of the truth.
Now you could go all Dawkins on me and say that all religions have this brittle, monolithic epistemology. But the difference is that once a religion gets to a certain level of maturity, it no longer has to constantly assert the legitimacy of whatever myths it is based on. The theological constructs then become increasingly abstract, the ethics overtake the dogma, and the pragmatic issues are allowed to be pragmatic.
So I am not saying having a president with religious convictions is problematic. Far from it. Jimmy Carter was the most outwardly religious president, of the modern era at least. But his Christianity manifests mostly in a deep sense of empathy and forgiveness. Having this key, powerful component of Christianity guide public policy is a good thing in a leader. It can even be inspiring, such as with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of post-Apartheid South Africa, which, despite not being perfect, enabled tremendous healing within a very wounded society.
While Mormons have adopted these Christian ethics and practice them well, particularly among their own, at its core, this isn’t what Mormonism is about. It’s about being a club.
Once a month, the Mormon church meeting is devoted to what is called “Fast and Testimony meeting.” Fast means you aren’t supposed to eat that day. Testimony means you are supposed to get up and publicly declare your faith. These meetings start slowly, with awkward silences. But inevitably, they take off, fuelled by group psychology and holy one-upmanship. The most common phrase heard during these meetings is, “I know this church is true,” or, more tellingly, “I know this is the only true church.” Or, for those into subtext, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
So why does all this make a Mormon president a bad idea? Since it is so deeply ingrained in the Mormon culture to have a sense of truth that is private, unquestionable, and not subject to analysis, debate, or verification, Mormon authority figures, like Romney, become very accustomed to speaking from God’s point of view, and feeling entirely justified in keeping their motives or reasoning secret. Without any checks and balances, authority figures can easily become unmoored and drift from reality.
Some individuals drift a long way from reality. Mormon culture has produced more than its share of self-justifying lunatics, like Brian David Mitchell, Mark Hoffman, and Dan Lafferty–as have many other religions. But the difference in thinking between these outliers and mainstream Mormons is a difference, not of kind, but of degree, as both positions are based on truth as monolithic declaration.
This helps illuminate Romney’s flip-flopping, etch-a-sketching political character. His is not the cynical, coldly pragmatic moral calculus that Nixon so masterfully practiced for political gain. Romney actually believes he has a patriarchal right to say whatever he wants. His idea of the nature of truth is not something which is discovered after hard fought inquiry and testing, but instead is declared by a person with authority, often for unexamined reasons, and sanctioned by divine validation. This is much more dangerous than Nixon. Nixon knew he was lying.
It also illuminates Romney’s secrecy – about his tax returns, about details of his public policy, or any justifications behind his statements. Within Mormon culture, he is used to speaking to an audience who tell themselves, “ours is not to reason why.”
So when you see a smug smile on Romney’s face, it isn’t just the smile of a super rich guy marinating in his own ego. It’s the smile of someone who is always holding in the back of his mind a belief that he has a special, private truth, unknown to those outside his club, that makes him superior and unquestionable. Yet at the same time, he is ignorant of the dangerous fact that this “truth” is all too flexible. This would be a very bad characteristic of the leader of the free world.
Now it’s not the case that all Mormons are categorically disqualified from being president. It’s just that we should only consider someone with a bit more distance from the dogmatic traps of this young religion. Someone more like Huntsman, for example.
SEE ALSO: Why I Think A Mormon SHOULD Be President
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