In the previous post, I showed how some journalists and media pundits like Christopher Hitchens and Jacob Weisberg think that believing in Mormonism indicates stupidity and disqualifies the holder of the right to high office. Weisberg states “Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.” I suspect that many people share that view.
This is an interesting argument. But it raises the obvious question as to why beliefs in mainstream religions are not considered dogmatic or irrational or absurd. Why should believing in Mormonism be considered be considered outside the bounds of acceptability while believing in Christianity or Judaism or Islam is not? For that matter, why is the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church or the Hare Krishnas seen as so outlandish by many people?
Weisberg makes a stab at addressing this problem:
One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. (my emphasis)
Basically he seems to be saying that although Mormonism may be a fraud just like Christianity and Judaism, its problem is that it is not old enough. If the fraud is old and opaque enough, that would pass muster. That is really such a weak argument as to not be an argument at all. It is the kind of reasoning one comes up with when one has already decided on the conclusion and is now scrambling around to justify it by any means possible.
The reasons for popular disdain cannot lie in the nature of the beliefs itself, that the beliefs of Mormonism or Scientology are so bizarre as to be beyond the pale. If one is a Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, one is already committed to believing things so bizarre (the virgin birth of Jesus or that god spoke to Moses via a burning bush or that god dictated the Koran verbatim to Mohammed) that one would have to be disqualified from sitting in judgment on the credibility of the beliefs of others. So while I have little idea of what Mormons actually are required to believe (for all I know they believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I cannot see how it could be any more preposterous than the beliefs of other so-called mainstream religions. It seems to me that once one has abandoned the need for any scientific evidence for one’s beliefs, all bets are off and you might as well believe in fairies and unicorns.
So what makes something a cult and something else a religion? It cannot be the existence of a prophetic leader. It is true that most modern-day phenomena that we call cults tend to be founded by a charismatic leader. One thinks of cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones for example. While it is true that Mormonism was also founded by a so-called prophet Joseph Smith, so also was Christianity and Judaism and Islam, and yet we do not label those as a Jesus cult or Moses cult or Mohammed cult.
It is tempting to conclude that the difference between religions and cults is based purely on size and acceptance, that as cults become established, are around for a long time, and grow in size, they become mainstream and thus accepted by the community at large. It seems as long as a large number of people believe in something, that belief, however preposterous objectively, becomes viewed as reasonable. If every other person in your community is a member of a particular group, it is hard to see that group as different and threatening, the way that a very small group can be seen.
But there may be something more tangible that divides those groups that we call religions from those we call cults. It could be argued that cults tend to have secrets that are revealed only to the initiated, and that there is some tangible repercussion, if not punishment, for leaving the group once you had joined.
With mainstream religions, there is really no secrecy as to what being a member involves. You can know before going into it what being a Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Jew means. And you can leave the group later if you want to, without being shunned or ostracized or threatened or worse. But with groups like the Mormons, there are secrets that only Mormons supposedly know. When I visited Salt Lake City, for example, the main tabernacle was closed off for non-Mormon visitors and the Mormons apparently have rituals that are not revealed to non-Mormons.
Again, this may be a factor largely determined by size. When groups become large, as the mainstream religions became over time, it becomes hard to keep its internal secrets from becoming public knowledge. Even now, one can find some of the secrets of the Mormon religion on the web, put there by former members, with all this revelatory activity triggered by Andrew Sullivan’s post that more than 43% of the population would not vote for a Mormon because they do not consider them to be Christians. This spread of information is inevitable these days and perhaps if Church of Latter Day Saints made all its beliefs public, the Mormons would be more accepted.
But returning to the original question of whether Mitt Romney being a Mormon is sufficient reason for him not being considered suitable for being president, being a member of a group that had secrets has not disqualified others in the past. After all, both George Bush and John Kerry were members of a secret society at Yale and many Presidents have been Masons. And yet, there is clearly some discomfort with the idea of having a Mormon president. Perhaps that will pass with time, the way that Kennedy managed to overcome objections to his Catholicism, an objection that seems far-fetched just a little over forty years later.
As more and more Mormons become visible and are seen as being just like others, being a Mormon might not be a negative factor for holding high office. After all, George Bush takes great pride in being a very religious Christian and see where that has taken us. It is hard to imagine that a Mormon could be any worse.