Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Public Discourse Around the LDS Church--1

I've been meaning to write more about how Mitt Romney's campaign has created a public debate about the LDS's position in the more general public arena, but from my position as a non-believing Mormon it's always seemed a little presumptuous. I find myself responding to other people's posts rather than putting up my own.

Here's one post on Romney's Mormonism, from Matt Yglesias, which gets to one of the key aspects that's bothering me about the current debate. Romney, as a wannabe conservative Republican, is trying to pick up primary votes from the evangelical South. In order to do so, he's claiming a general Christian moral high ground: "we're all people of faith, here, and that's what's important." This is understandably annoying to people who embrace secular values or think that religious faith is not a prerequisite to governmental position.

What's killing me is the number of journalists and bloggers who, in trying to hit back against Romney's annoying aspects, are repeating the claims of the theologically rigid. Yes, Catholics and some evangelicals hold that Mormons aren't really Christian. However, most Mormons react to that charge as a filthy slur. Even as a non-believing, non-practicing Mormon, as I search for an analogy for how this line of analysis feels, I end up thinking of the charge of deicide against the Jews.

And that brings me to the second link I want to preserve here, Liz's getting skeptical about the extent to which "Christian" gets to mean "decent folks" in our culture. Being reminded that Mormon doesn't get to mean "Christian" or "decent folks" without a trial period and a debate just offends me. There is a great deal to criticize about the LDS Church, from its racist past to its current patriarchal structure. Among the various Christian sects, the LDS church has retained a coherent hierarchal unity, which makes it seem like an institutional monolith--and particularly to Republican viewers, I would say. However, the extended LDS community--the jack mormons, expelled mormons, cynical mormons, gay mormons, resigned mormons, intellectual mormons--these people (most of whom probably still remain on the church rolls) are some of the most decent folks I've known. I'd be appalled to see them subjected to a theological test to run for office.

[Update: DaveB has an excellent post on eerily similiar themes over at The Great Whatsit.


Anonymous DaveB:

It's funny how we jack-Mormons feel this injustice in behalf of Romney. I wrote about it last week and now reading it I feel like I was too kind towards Romney, too defensive about my former religion. But yes, this theological test feels terribly unfair. And yet, Romney longs to be accepted as a "person of faith" (not his words, but he's used them about himself) -- but he conveniently ignores the coded nature of the phrase: It means "Christian or maybe an orthodox Jew, nothing more." Lieberman was barely within its boundaries; Mormons are barely without, it appears.

2/22/2007 12:51:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Romney is being such a prat about this. I had some good feelings towards him (even though it's very unlikely I would ever have voted for him) before he made his hard right turn and started claiming the mantle of religosity.

Still, it's really unpleasant to watch people pooh-pooh Mormons--or, as Liz vividly put it, piss out of the tent on them. I mean, magic underwear is funny, but "not really Christians"!

2/22/2007 07:51:00 AM  
Anonymous I don't pay:

When I suggested the subject I was hoping your answer would be along these lines. For our circle you're a better witness than a believer would be. I'd like to think the overwhelming majority of people with some religious feeling will respond sympathetically—it'll be easy to reject Romney without recourse to this nonsense— to this, but I think it helps to bring it up preemptively, so to speak

The word verification for this comment actually begins with idp!

2/22/2007 03:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

OT: I dropped a link to this on an Unfogged thread, but will repeat here, so you don't miss it.


2/23/2007 12:41:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

IDP, I hope you also looked at Dave's post! He's also a jack mormon, and his post actually uses systematic reasoning!

2/23/2007 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Charleycarp, your link isn't working!

2/23/2007 09:52:00 AM  
Anonymous NotATurtle:

Drop the end of the url and it works.

2/23/2007 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

How about this?


2/23/2007 09:14:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Thanks, Charley. It's so difficult to gauge videos of this sort, I find: the soldiers are professionally constrained, the reporters are limited by time and permissions, the detainees themselves are reduced to rumors and artefacts. More immediately, I was horrified to see someone repeat that "asymetric warfare" line.

2/24/2007 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger JRoth:

This gets at precisely what is so frustrating about Romney, that I couldn't see over at LB's thread because so much else was being said. It's not about Romney's tack rightward - he was too far right before, so who cares? - but about his cowardice in not standing up for his religion. He's become the most publicly-Mormon figure in modern US history (UT politicians and Reid are incidentally Mormon, as far as media coverage is concerned), but he won't stand up for his landsmen. Instead, he's trying to wink&nod his way into mainstream Christianity without actually making the arguments, without facing down the implicit bigotry of other Christians. IOW, he'd be happy to pull the ladder up after himself if he can get up it. If he's elected, it would do little or nothing to advance the mainstreaming of Mormon religion, because he's not running as a Mormon, but as a Christian Conservative.

To put it in terms of US racial history, he's trying to "pass."

2/25/2007 11:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

I hope this does not insult you too much. I was raised to believe that Mormons were not Christian, but we were certainly taught that Mormons were "decent folk" - like Jewish people or Buddhists. So, it's at least possible that some of the people asking whether Mormons are really Christian simply mean - are they theologically within the Christian faith?

"Being reminded that Mormon doesn't get to mean 'Christian' or 'decent folks' without a trial period and a debate just offends me."
Why should being religious get to mean "decent folk" without a trial period? Also, any Liberal or Democrat today never gets to count as "religious" or "decent folk" - look at how John Kerry's Catholicism was constantly questioned while Rudy gets a complete pass. Romney would not be suffering any of these slurs if he had been a fire-and-brimstone, right-wing, pro-life, anti-gay Republican. His Mormonism wouldn't be an issue then.

This is part of a larger pattern - Liberals & Leftists constantly have to show they're good people and Godly people. Conservatives get a complete pass - up until the moment they start molesting boys and there is irrefutable evidence (see Mark Foley). Further, good & decent & Godly all mean nothing more to political reporters than intolerant, authoritarian, and patriarchal.

2/25/2007 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Anonymous, I agree with much of what you're saying, but that opening paragraph still gets to me.

This, specifically:
So, it's at least possible that some of the people asking whether Mormons are really Christian simply mean - are they theologically within the Christian faith?

I don't doubt the sincerity of the people asking this question, but I do sort of want to punch them in the jaw. THE Christian faith? Who on earth gets to define that? Did the Protestants ditch papal authority only to embrace a free-floating heresy meter?

I mean that word "heresy," btw: If we aren't properly Christian to other Christians, then we're heretics because we are claiming to be Christian. So, remember, these highminded theological debates really are about whether "normal" Christians get to call Mormons heretics. In public. During an election.

Make fun of polygamy and beards and holy underwear and people saying "hecka" and BYU and the Jewish landing on Yucatan, if you like. That shit is pretty funny, after all, and all Mormons have heard the jokes a billion times. Sober conversation about how the faith of our fathers (and mothers!) is heretical, however, offends my sense of fairness.

Well, and makes the soi-disant sober-minded discussant look hilariously inquisitorial.

2/25/2007 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger Russell Arben Fox:

Beards are funny?

2/25/2007 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Some of the nineteenth-century patriarch beards are pretty funny. Not so atypical for the time, I suppose.

I appreciated your post on Romney's campaign, Russell. It was much more generous than my writing has been.

2/25/2007 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

I wrote a long response that got eaten up. I would simply say - I don't believe in heresy at all. I do believe that religious believers can define what falls within their belief system and what doesn't. And by labeling something - "no what I believe" - a person is not necessarily saying "you're a heretic" or "you're a liar."

However, I should say, in this context that's clearly exactly what people are trying to do here to Romney, and I do find it despicable. But to me it's part of their entire trend of simply labeling things "heresy" to avoid debating the merits.

None of which makes this particular incident less hideous or gross or morally abhorrent.

2/25/2007 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

Jack, I don't find this particularly complicated. Plenty of people can and do believe that anyone who dares add to the Bible is a heretic, basically by definition. And so are those who would follow the heretic. I'm not a believing Christian, but I not only find it plausible that a Protestant would think members of the LDS heretics, but implausible that they wouldn't.

That's not about the beards, the underwear, and the polygamy: those are just cultural quirks. The issue is at the very core of the Mormon faith: did God reveal truth to a particular fellow (with a given history) in upstate New York. If one thinks that the answer is no, and that the supposed revelation is a complete and utter fraud (or a delusion, if one wants to take the more benign view) heresy is maybe a charitable description.

That's come off a little stronger than I meant it. Let me put it this way: people can think that the revelation was real; possible but improbable; or false. People who fall into the latter category -- and imo it IS a definining attribute of some strains of Christianity that the canon as currently understood is, by Divine Mandate, complete -- are in a difficult position wrt Mormonism. Better to just focus on how they're generally decent people, and not worry about the implications of their heresy.


2/25/2007 02:42:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Well, I'm rational enough to admit that from most orthodox Christian points of view, the Mormon faith is OF COURSE heretical. From an academic standpoint, the staccato shimmyings of the historical heresy/orthodoxy dialectic are fascinating.

It's even more fun to drill past the abstract theological disputes into the material history: what besides the Manichean heresy made the Cathars so threatening to the French King and the Catholic church?

I don't mean to suggest that the Mormons are about to get slaughtered and occupied the way the Cathars were. Perhaps the heresy charge (and "are Mormons really Christians" is a PC version of that) is just mainstream America's way of pointing and saying: "Look at those weirdos; nice enough people, though." I just dislike it when I see people I otherwise respect occupy that position of power with such insouissance.

I am also worried about the degree of theological specificity that is becoming normal in our political discourse, but that is perhaps another topic.

2/25/2007 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger John Emerson:

I have argued the case for heresy. From the theological point of view, there are at least four fairly important heretical Christian sects in the US besides LDS: Jehovah Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian Science, and Unitarian.

All of them either reject points of doctrine accepted by all Catholic and (Russian or Greek) Orthodox denominations and all other Protestant denominations (usually the Trinity), or else they claim a separate revelation which stands alongside the Bible (i.e., which is not an interpretation of the Bible, but a new revelation).

On the trinity question, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Chaldaean and Assyrian Orthodox also have heretical views, but are mostly accepted as Christian. (Though they have often moderated their teaching in order to accomodate the Western churches.) So probably the separate revelation is the main impediment. [Note: "Orthodox" here apparently just means "Eastern"; this group of churches and the Russian / Greek Orthodox regard each other as mutually heretical and unorthodox].

A further consideration is that at the beginning all of these sects defined themselves specifically against the given practice and theology of their time, which they deliberately and vividly rejected. So it's not like these people got ambushed by bigots when they were trying to be nice.

When I first got started on this I was mostly just saying why I thought that Christians concerned with doctrinal purity would probably have serious problems with Romney, but when people started saying "What's the big deal, really? Those people are bigots" I boggled. To say that Christians should tolerate people as people makes sense, but to say that they have to accept everyone who claims to be a Christian as a Christian seems excessive.

Theology is sort of a loony enterprise, but many Christians do take it seriously (as I did a little bit during my early youth), and Christians who are sticklers on theology will have problems with Mormons.

Even conservative Christians who accept Jews based on some special-dispensation granddaddy-clause might not accept Mormons, who originally almost all started as orthodox Christians and then changed (apostasy or heresy).

2/25/2007 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger John Emerson:

Mormons, like observant Jews and even Muslims (pre-9/11) have passed the "decent-folks" test. In this they contrast to seculars and liberal mainline Christians.

The problem is that some conservative Christians add an additional Bible/Jesus/Born-Again test. These probably also reject Catholics, Unitarians, and maybe even Episcopalians and Lutherans (many conservative Christians are anti-liturgical).

2/25/2007 06:02:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

You're making good points, Emerson. I've got to say that it comes off a bit differently when an irreverant, atheistical old coot like you calls my family's religion a heresy than when, say, Romesh Ponnuru does. But I've got to leave it here for tonight.

2/25/2007 08:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Matt:

While I agree that magic underwear is funny, I want to question if it's really any funnier than a lot of stuff most people won't make fun of in public- like kosher rules. I mean real, the evil power of pork contaminated your dishes and spoons and you'll never use them again? Washing won't take it away? That's not just a cultural practice but believing in magic, and every bit as funny as magic underwear (and less practical) but you'll not hear nearly as many people making fun of that.

2/25/2007 10:52:00 PM  
Anonymous teofilo:

Oh, so now Emerson brings the ecumenicism.

2/25/2007 11:31:00 PM  
Anonymous teofilo:

Matt: That's not actually how it works.

2/25/2007 11:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Matt:

Teofilo- that doesn't really help. That your magic beliefs are highly intricate and full of strange rules (hot pork more dangerous than cold! Viniger is always hot!) doesn't make them any less crazy or believing in magic. No one who follows any of these rules gets to say anything bad about the silly magic beliefs of any other religion.

2/26/2007 10:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

JRoth says Romney's trying to "wink&nod his way into mainstream Christianity without actually making the arguments, without facing down the implicit bigotry of other Christians."

but hasn't the current LDS prophet done exactly the same thing?

i liked it better when i was a kid and we knew and accepted that we were a peculiar people. if someone asks romney the "are moromons christian?" question, i hope he shoots back, "yeah we're the *only* true christians, you apostate freak" just to give them a taste of the same.

2/26/2007 05:19:00 PM  
Anonymous teofilo:

I don't see how the Kosher laws are "believing in magic" any more than every other religious practice, including going to church on Sunday.

2/26/2007 07:41:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Don't let me see you mock Temple Garments then, Teo!

And the Anonymous just above--I resemble that remark. I remember once, as a kid, going to an ecumenical Christian camp for a couple of days and not recognizing myself or my family's religion in anything that was being said.

2/26/2007 08:01:00 PM  
Anonymous teofilo:

I don't keep kosher, JM.

2/26/2007 08:06:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Nor do I wear magic underwear. So, equal mockery!

2/26/2007 10:13:00 PM  
Anonymous teofilo:


2/26/2007 11:57:00 PM  

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