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Mormonism, Catholicism, and the Romney Candidacy

In a piece recently published in the Catholic and Evangelical portals of the Patheos [1] website, Warren Cole Smith explains why he cannot support Mitt Romney’s candidacy for President of the United States.  “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church [1]” reminded me of the sort of anti-Catholic screeds [2] that were widely published during the presidential candidacy of Senator John F. Kennedy.

Catholics conversant with the 1960 election will recognize in Mr. Smith’s piece the sort of histrionics [2] that were employed against them and their faith in the not-too-distant past. Consider this excerpt from Smith’s essay:

The Christian worldview teaches that there is a short tether binding beliefs to the values and behaviors that flow from them. If the beliefs are false, then the behavior will eventually – but inevitably – be warped. Mormonism is particularly troubling on this point because Mormons believe in the idea of “continuing revelation.” They may believe one thing today, and something else tomorrow. This is why Mormons have changed their views, for example, on marriage and race. Polygamy was once a key distinctive of the religion. Now, of course, it is not. Mormons once forbade blacks from leadership roles. Now they do not. What else will change?

Where to begin? First, the claim that “if beliefs are false, then the behavior will eventually – but inevitably – be warped,” depends on the plausibility of the belief in question and not on the overall plausibility of the worldview from which it heralds. For example, suppose that Mr. X, a Mormon, believes that marriage is a one-flesh communion between one man and one woman, and thus he aligns himself with the Catholic tradition, though he believes this understanding of marriage because he heard it from a Mormon prophet and he believes that the prophet speaks infallibly on such matters.

Although, as a Catholic, I do not believe that Mormon prophets are real prophets, this does not mean I believe that Mormon prophets may not utter true beliefs. After all, Mormonism developed out of nineteenth century American Protestantism, which is itself the result of the sixteenth century schism within Catholic Christianity. For that reason, it should not be a surprise to discover that the LDS [Latter Day Saints] get a lot of things right about the nature of the moral life and civil society, even though one may have good reason to believe that Mormonism as a theological tradition is mistaken.

Mitt Romney: Should his Mormonism trouble Catholics?

So, there is nothing incoherent in saying that one may have good reasons to reject a particular theological tradition, such as Mormonism, Islam, or Christian Science, while at the same time claiming that the tradition embraces beliefs that are nevertheless true. Mr. Smith, however, seems to believe that a belief is false if it is tethered to a worldview that is false. But that cannot be right, since it is overwhelmingly the case that people who hold a religious faith we think is mistaken are able to quite easily hold true beliefs that are derived from that faith but can be defended as true independently of it.

Second, Mr. Smith seems to be claiming that because LDS theology has changed over time based on the directives of an unaccountable magisterium, therefore, Mormon candidates cannot be trusted to hold those beliefs that they presently hold in common with traditional Christians. This is reminiscent of the old anti-Catholic canard [2] that one ought not to vote for Senator Kennedy because he will take orders from the pope. So, just as a Catholic candidate must unthinkingly listen to the Supreme Pontiff (as it was often depicted during the 1960 election [2]), an LDS candidate must obey his capricious and authoritarian leadership as well.

But in both cases the critic holds a one-dimensional and superficial understanding of doctrinal development. Take, for example, the two LDS cases cited by Mr. Smith – polygamy and the priesthood.  In both cases the LDS Church has moved in the direction of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the Reformers, all of which have rejected polygamy as well as racial tests for clerical office. So, far from being a sign that portends to a theologically arbitrary LDS future, these shifts are positive and reasonable developments in Mormon doctrine that traditional Christians should applaud and support. That is, one may view these shifts as evidence that Mormonism is moving closer to the moral and doctrinal commitments of the Christian communities from which it sprang in the nineteenth century.

Third, it seems that the changes within Mormonism are far more modest than the sort one finds within Mr. Smith’s own Evangelical Protestantism. For example, on the matters of women’s ordination [3], abortion [4], contraception [5], divorce [6], eternal punishment [7], Chalcedonian formulation of the Incarnation [8], infant baptism [9], ecclesiology [10], the nature of God [11], and even the inerrancy of Scripture [12], Evangelicals have held a wide variety of views over the past fifty years, all of which are considered by many Evangelical scholars as well within the bounds of orthodoxy.

But unlike Mormonism, or even Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, there is no magisterium within Evangelicalism that is constrained by the doctrinal pronouncements of its predecessors, such as in church councils or in official catechisms. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has far more latitude for changing his church’s doctrine than do Pope Benedict XVI and Mormon President Thomas S. Monson in tinkering with their own.

The lesson to be learned here is that one should examine another’s theological tradition with at least as much charity and rigor as one expects others to assess one’s own. (I know that this last sentence will probably come back to haunt me).

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).