From time to time, I rail about the various forms of discrimination and prejudice that are sadly still rife in our country. For example, I have complained about marriage discrimination, which in most states does not allow committed gay and lesbian couples to enjoy the same privileges as us heterosexuals. I have huffed at the State of Virginia for making adultery a crime. I have groused about nanny-ing legally adult college students, which at least here in the Old Dominion means that at certain public universities women can get antidepressants but not birth control pills from campus health clinics. I have railed about DC Voting Rights, or more specifically the lack of full voting rights in the District of Columbia.
As best I can tell Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and well-moneyed presidential candidate, is not a victim of religious discrimination. However, he is a victim of plain old fashioned and really quite mean spirited religious prejudice. Oh Lordy, Mitt happens to be a Mormon.
The horrors! Because he is a Mormon, Mitt must be one step away from having a second wife. Lord knows with all his millions that he is spending on his own presidential campaign that he could afford another one. In much of the South, despite his love of family and his generally conservative credentials the fundamentalist Christians are busy stuffing their ears when he comes to town. It is not just in the South where Mitt is getting something of a cold shoulder, but he probably receives more of it there than in other parts of the country. Many of us still respond to Mormons the same way we do to telephone solicitors.
Mitt is not trying to convert anyone to Mormonism, at least not as part of his run for the presidency. In fact, he is doing his best not to call attention to his Mormonism. He wants to be President of the United States, not head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Since reputedly Mitt is something of a born salesman, perhaps if he loses his White House bid he will start working his way up the Mormon church hierarchy instead. Right now he just wants to be treated (and here is a radical idea) just like anyone else running for this high office.
For many of us this will not do. Perhaps if Mitt were to stop believing in those special words allegedly transcribed by Joseph Smith these voters could embrace him. He could embrace the Southern Baptist Church instead. Or the Methodists. He could even convert to Roman Catholicism, since being a Catholic is no longer a bar to the presidency. Given that Mitt has a history of changing his political stripes to suit the times, why not require him to change his religious stripes in order to get our vote?
It does not look like that will happen. Mitt is a Mormon and is likely to always remain a Mormon. For him to give up Mormonism he also has to estrange himself from much of his family and his social circle. Mormonism is a faith, but like most of us born into a religion, it is also a way of life and a way of seeing the world. Maybe John McCain can be a bit disingenuous, calling himself a Methodist for years until he runs for the presidency. (Now he says he is a Baptist.) With few exceptions, it appears that once you have swallowed the Mormon Kool-Aid, you are a Mormon for life. I empathize. I swallowed the Roman Catholic Kool-Aid because I was born into a family of Catholics. I left the church shortly after turning adult. Nevertheless, Catholicism is still inside of me. Its perspective still colors much of my world. I will no more wholly excise Catholicism than Mitt would successfully excise his Mormonism.
So why are all these Christians upset with Mitt being a Mormon? Most of them are devout Christians, and Mitt would count himself as one of them. Just like his Southern Baptist friends, he wants to bring as many people to Jesus Christ as possible. He clearly loves his wife. He has raised a very healthy and happy family. He is very successful both politically and financially. However, many Christians just cannot see any Mormon as Christian. Why? Apparently, they think the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was either delusional or a fraud. They do not believe he found those divinely placed silver tablets in upstate New York. They do not believe he was a messenger from God. They especially do not believe that the Book of Mormon is some sort of newest testament. Of course, the whole polygamy thing really upsets them, even though Mormons abandoned it long ago. Had society been more accommodating toward their lifestyle they would not have moved en masse to Utah. They were the 19th century’s version of Pilgrims, spurned by their own neighbors and forced to move far, far away to practice their faith.
So is it the silver tablet thing that gets traditional Christianity up in arms? Or is it the polygamy? Or is it both? My question is, “Why should it matter anyhow?” Have these Christians excised that portion of the Bible where Jesus speaks so lovingly about universal brotherhood? Jesus did not scorn the lepers, or the prostitutes or the Samaritans. He broke bread with them and spoke to them as equals. As for those silver tablets, is there any less evidence for them than the many miracles attributed to Jesus? Did Jesus really ascend into heaven? Did he really bring back the dead? Did he really feed thousands with a few loaves of bread and some fish? According to the Bible, he did all these things along with the impressive feat of raising himself from the dead. It is in the Bible, but the Romans and others in that time and place apparently never bothered to write these remarkable feats down. My guess is that most Christians believe in Jesus’ miracles because they were taught to believe them. The same is true with Mitt. The evidence that Joseph Smith encountered those silver tablets with the Book of Mormon on them is no more ludicrous than Jesus feeding thousands with a few loaves and fishes.
The tenets of most faiths by definition are unprovable. That’s why they call it faith. Christians or anyone who are leery of Mitt Romney based on his religion need to look in the mirror. The only thing that may make your faith more “reasonable” than someone else’s is that more people agree with your faith. That proves nothing. Except for a few dissenters like me, back in March 2003 most Americans were convinced Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and our national security was in peril. They were wrong. Being part of a consensus does not mean you are right. It just means you have many people who agree with you.
Now it just so happens that I have my issues with Mormons too, particularly in the way they treat their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. However, I refuse to say their faith is anymore unreasonable or unworthy than anyone else’s faith, including my own Unitarian Universalism. The reality is that while many of us believe in our souls in the rightness and correctness of our faith, our faiths are not provable.
Our founding fathers refused to establish any religious test in order for someone to hold office. A new president is not required to take the presidential oath on a Bible, or even to add, “So help me God” to the oath (which in fact is not even in the oath of office). He or she does not even have to swear to uphold the oath, just to affirm it. Our founding fathers were smart. They knew that a person’s religious faith or lack thereof had no relationship to their ability to serve in a public office. Instead, we were invited to judge someone based on their history, their character and their views.
For my part, I will try to vote in the spirit of our founding fathers. While I may not like Mormonism in particular, I also know that it is no more unreasonable than any other religion out there. Like most faiths, it has many admirable qualities. If I discriminate against someone solely based on his or her religion, I am doing myself and my country a disservice. We have huge problems to deal with in this country. We need to most competent people possible in public office. Ruling out someone based solely on their religion (or lack thereof) simply adds to the considerable odds that we will not get the person we need for our next president.
Cut Mitt some slack.