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Is It Mormon in America?

As Mitt Romney prepares to run, secular liberals develop their own religious test for public office.

By 1.4.07

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Now that Mitt Romney has made the "lone walk" from the Massachusetts State House to the 2008 presidential race, he can expect to face many questions. Not about abortion, Iraq or immigration, mind you. Instead, the candidate will be pressed to discuss the Angel Moroni, The Pearl of Great Price, and his relationship to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

That's right, while Bill Clinton was only asked whether he preferred boxers or briefs, Mitt Romney can expect inquiries about temple garments. And, against the conventional wisdom, the questioners won't necessarily be evangelicals. Erstwhile advocates of tolerance and religious pluralism are already sounding the alarm about the risks of letting a Mormon's fingers near the big red button.

First up was Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who argued last month that genuine belief in the Latter-day Saints' "founding whoppers" places a presidential candidate beyond the pale. Weisberg seems a little uncomfortable with revealed religion in general, but finds Mormonism especially unsettling because, he says, founder Joseph Smith was such "an obvious con man." People have a right to believe con men, Weisberg generously allowed, but not if they want us to play "Hail to the Chief" when they enter the room.

Ever equitable, Weisberg doesn't just single out Mormons. He wouldn't vote for "a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu" either, so Romney's coreligionists shouldn't feel so bad.

Weisberg isn't the only one using the occasion of Romney's presidential bid to question a Mormon's suitability for the Oval Office. Former First Things editor Damon Linker has a cover story in the current New Republic devoted to the topic. Linker seems to take religion more seriously than Weisberg and is more detailed in his discussion of Mormon theology, but implies repeatedly what Slate's man asserts -- that putting a Mormon in the White House might not be such a hot idea.

Linker, whose piece sparked an interesting debate on TNR's website, raises two main concerns. Mormons believe that the president of their church is God's "mouthpiece" on earth; they also hold that direct revelations from God continue, making it difficult to predict with any certainty what this mouthpiece may say to a Mormon in the White House. Put the two together and, Linker asks, "would it not be accurate to say that, under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country -- with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong?"

You don't have to accept the tenets of Mormonism or any other religion to see that the standards Linker and Weisberg want to impose would in effect disqualify a lot of Americans outside the LDS church. After all, it was once claimed that a Catholic president would end up taking orders from the pope. And many religious traditions seem like strange superstitions to people on the outside. That doesn't just apply to the many young-earth creationists Weisberg would vote against, but also an even larger number of Americans who believe in things like the virgin birth or the resurrection.

Weisberg tries to get around this by observing that Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism are really old while the younger Mormon faith is just "Scientology plus 125 years." "The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor," he wrote. And Linker makes a similar argument: "Under modern conditions, some religions -- Protestantism, post-Vatican II Catholicism, Judaism -- have spawned liberal traditions that treat faith primarily as a repository of moral wisdom instead of as a source of absolute truth."

Yet there are plenty of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews who take the latter view of their faith and believe at least some of the miraculous events their religious texts describe actually occurred. Should they all be excluded from positions of authority unless they liberalize their theological views?

Maybe it would be better to judge their commitment to a free political order by looking at their behavior instead of trying to square that commitment with outsiders' interpretations of their theology.

In this case, Mormons have a long, bipartisan tradition of responsible secular governance: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (whose ascension doesn't seem to have caused any concern), Democratic Congressmen Mo Udall and Dick Swett, longtime Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, and Romney himself don't appear to have taken all their cues from Salt Lake City. There is no evidence that any of them "view U.S. politics as a stage on which the ultimate divine drama is likely to play itself out, with a Mormon in the leading role."

The evidence may not matter to some liberal secularists. They have proven they are not resistant to making faith-based political arguments themselves.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.