I am not going to vote for Mitt Romney, but I’m not going to vote for him because of his policies, not because of his religion. The U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits offering a religious test for office. In fact, prior to Kennedy Presidents were supposed to just be nominally religious. Reagan professed some sort of Christianity, but never doing the basic thing that Christians do – attend worship. Still, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what sort of faith, if any the President has.
I am not anti-Mormon. On a personal level I’ve known a number of Mormons, and they’ve all been good people. Intellectually, the Smith narrative, while it has essential problems with credibility, is a compelling narrative. The image of the colony’s members, the bee hive, an image of a busy and constructive vision of the American work ethic.
What I have against Mormonism is not the theology. I don’t know Mormon theology, but what I have heard makes it seem to me to be a kind of American works righteousness theology. It seems like a Calvinism with costumes and Indians. It’s a bit odd, but so is the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence.
What I have against Mormonism is the implicit notion that no other religion is either right or adequate for an ordinary human’s needs. I think that the impulse comes from Joseph Smith’s anxieties in the burnt over district. As I recall from my American Church history courses, Smith looked at the competing revivalist impulses and felt that they couldn’t all be right, and he wanted to be right.
This conviction that their way of being faithful is The Right way to be faithful leads to sending largely untrained young men out for two year cycle tours in which they attempt to convert people regardless of their current spiritual connections or life vulnerabilities. This conviction that they are right and we are wrong leads Mormons to baptize the dead, so that they have a chance to decide to be Mormons in the next life.
My experience with Mormon proselytizing goes back many years. I was pastor of a small congregation outside Charleston, SC. One of the girlfriends of one of the teenagers came to our congregation and in the first year I was pastor, actually joined the congregation. She broke with the boyfriend, but remained active in the life of the church. She was bright, thoughtful, well read, wanting to discuss ideas, and strangely vulnerable. Her senior year in high school she came to me for counseling. She was, she said, pregnant and wanted an abortion. We talked about alternatives. She thought that her parents would respond punitively if she told them of her pregnancy or carried the baby to term. Would I drive her to Columbia for an abortion?
I agreed, and on a Saturday morning I drove her to Columbia, SC. I waited and took her home. She said very little on the way home. She said that she was convinced that this was the right thing, but I felt that there was still a need for support. But I was in my third year in the parish and I didn’t know how to support her, much less how to bring some sort of reconciliation between herself and her parents.
She disappeared from the congregation’s life for a while. When next I saw her she told me that she had decided to convert to Mormonism. She’d been visited by missionaries. They read the Book of Mormon with her. They asked her to pray over it; was it the true word of god, was it right? The prayer convinced her, she said, in a somewhat faltering voice that seemed to me to be filled with doubts, vulnerabilities, and regret. Yet she was convinced that she should be a Mormon, had told the missionaries that she would convert, was scheduled for baptism and planning to go to BYU in the fall.
While I said to her, “If you feel that’s best, then I’ll support you,” I was seething on the inside. I thought very quickly of my one ex-Mormon member. She was afraid that the missionaries might find her. What she thought they’d do, I have no idea, but she was genuinely fearful of the consequences of leaving the Mormon faith.
What this boils down to is that it seems to me that Mormonism lacks the epistemological modesty that is useful for civility in contemporary civilization. They’d like to be considered just another Christian denomination, but don’t actually consider the rest of us as equals. We are the gentiles to their true religion. I find that annoying.