The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is a cultural and religious enigma. An indigenous American religion that springs from the great American West, it was founded by the descendants of Europeans who had settled in the northeastern United States. Its practitioners, known as Mormons, are celebrated by many for their support and practice of the traditional American values of family, patriotism, and love of God. Yet in the nineteenth century it practiced and preached plural marriage (polygamy), battled the U.S. government for its very existence largely because of that practice, and offered an alien creed to largely Protestant America. Although the LDS church in 1890 rejected polygamy and thus ended its fights with Washington over the practice, its idiosyncratic beliefs remain intact. These include belief in a corporeal finite God who is an exalted and perfect man, an uncreated universe for which God is not the first cause, a doctrine of salvation (or exaltation) that promises divine status to its recipients, and extrabiblical scriptures and prophetic revelation contrary to the catholic creeds of Christendom.
Founded in 1830, the Mormon church’s central message is that Christianity had lost the true gospel only a few generations after Jesus’ original disciples had died. (Mormons are unclear on precisely when this total apostasy was complete, but it surely had to have occurred prior to the formulation of the A.D. 325 Nicene Creed, which the LDS church rejects). The point is that true Christianity had vanished from the earth for roughly 1,500 to 1,700 years, until a fourteen-year old resident of Palmyra, New York, named Joseph Smith Jr. claimed that, as a result of answered prayer, he was personally visited by God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Smith was instructed by them to join none of the Christian churches. This is when Mormons believe Smith began his cooperation with God and his Son in the restoration of the true gospel.
Part of the restoration included a new set of inspired scriptures, the first of which was the Book of Mormon (1830), which contains the story of the resurrected Christ visiting America and preaching and teaching his gospel to its native peoples. According to the LDS narrative, Smith translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates that were buried in New York’s Hill Cumorah, a location that was revealed to him by the Angel Moroni. Another aspect of the restoration included a new ecclesiastical structure based on apostolic succession and the passing on of priestly authority without requiring a special class of clerics. According to Smith, in 1829 he and his friend Oliver Cowdery were visited by John the Baptist, who bestowed on them the Aaronic Priesthood, which empowers its recipients to preach, baptize, ordain others, and perform Levitical duties. Smith claimed that, soon after receiving the Aaronic priesthood, he and Cowdery were visited by the Apostles Peter, James, and John, who literally laid hands on Smith and Cowdery in order to restore the Melchizedek Priesthood. This bestowed on them apostolic status as well as the power to administer ordinances, promulgate doctrine, and organize and lead the church.
Even if one thinks that Smith was profoundly mistaken (as I do), one cannot help but marvel at the religious genius of this project: It has all the advantages of Reformation Protestantism and nineteenth-century Restorationism ("Let’s get back to what Jesus and the apostles originally taught") with all the advantages of Catholicism and Orthodoxy¯an apostolic magisterium within the confines of a visible church. Smith has both a priesthood of all believers and a priesthood managed by a church hierarchy. He offers a new gospel unconstrained by centuries of theological precedent, yet it he could claim that it is as old as the apostles. He could, without contradiction, reject tradition while claiming to be the true guardian of an ancient message. It may be wrong, but it was brilliant.
It is now 2007, and this church, which began in 1830 with only a handful of American followers, has mushroomed to nearly thirteen million members worldwide, one of which, Mitt Romney, is running for the 2008 Republican nomination for president of the United States. In A Mormon In the White House? (Regnery, 2007), Hugh Hewitt does a masterful job of providing us with Romney’s compelling biography as well as addressing "The Mormon Question." Not only do we learn about Romney’s achievements as governor of Massachusetts (2003¯2007), we learn about his personal history, including his academic accomplishments at Brigham Young University and the Harvard law and business schools, as well as his relationship with his father, the late George Romney (former governor of Michigan and presidential candidate). Hewitt also provides appealing narratives of Romney’s work at Bain & Company, not to mention his legendary leadership in miraculously turning the scandal-ridden and poorly managed 2002 Winter Olympics into an amazing success.
Hewitt also touts Romney’s social-conservative credentials on the issues of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and marriage. He provides a convincing account of Romney’s apparent flip-flop on abortion, from pro-choice to pro-life. It seems to me that pro-lifers should not be too hard on Romney in this regard, since both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush changed their positions on the issue.
As for "the Mormon Question," Hewitt accurately presents LDS theology and does a fine job of shooting down the sorts of ridiculous bigotries that Romney will likely face during his run. Hewitt also offers clear and persuasive responses to several more serious objections to Romney’s candidacy¯for example, "A Mormon president will supercharge Mormons’ missionary work," "[Mormonism] is just too weird." Most important, Hewitt addresses what I call the Creedal Mistake.
This mistake occurs when a Christian citizen believes that the planks of his creed are the best standard by which to judge the suitability of a political candidate. For example, suppose a Presbyterian votes for one of Romney’s primary opponents solely on the basis of the governor’s rejection of the Nicene Creed. An elder who did this would not truly understand the purpose of creeds: to provide church members and the world at large a summary of beliefs that one must embrace in order to be considered an orthodox member of that body. Creeds are not meant to measure the qualifications of a political candidate in a liberal democracy. Not only does the formulation of Christendom’s most important creeds predate the existence of liberal democracies, their subject matter bears no relation to assessing those attributes that we consider essential to the leadership of a political regime. In practice, most Christians already fully grasp this truth.
For example, many evangelicals in the 1980 presidential election voted for Ronald W. Reagan over Jimmy Carter, even though Carter was clearly more evangelical in his theology and church participation than Reagan. For Reagan’s supporters, it was his policies and not his theology that was decisive for them. Although these evangelicals would have likely chosen Carter over Reagan to teach Sunday school, they preferred Reagan in the Oval Office because they believed that Reagan’s policies best advanced the common good.
If one believes that the common good is achieved when a political regime treats justly its citizens and the many institutions that help develop and sustain their virtue, a candidate who embraces these ideals, even if he or she is not a Christian, is a candidate that a Christian can support with a clear conscience. Hewitt trots out a number of historical examples to make this point.
Unfortunately, Hewitt does not address what I call the Kennedy Mistake, even though he mentions John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential race and the questions raised about his Catholicism. Many Protestant Christians at the time were concerned that Kennedy’s commitment as a Catholic to the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium on a variety of social, moral, and political issues would serve as his guide for U.S. domestic and foreign policy. In order to assuage Protestant fears, on September 12, 1960, Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and assured the attendees that nothing of his Catholic faith would play any role in his judgments as occupant of the White House.
Kennedy’s speech reads like a complete acquiescence to American mainline Protestant notions of privatized faith and anti-clericalism, as well as its stereotypical, outdated, and uncharitable ideas about the Catholic hierarchy and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Kennedy could have argued that his Catholicism informs him of certain theological and moral doctrines that will make him a thoughtful and principled president. He could have consulted and mined from the works of Catholic scholars who were able defenders of liberal democracy and the natural law that grounds it. But he did not. Kennedy’s speech was a terrible concession. For it played to his audience’s anti-Catholic prejudices while saying that his religious beliefs are so trivial that he would govern exactly the same if they were absent.
Romney, in order to pacify secularists and traditional Christians, may be tempted to emulate Kennedy and claim that his theology and church do not influence or shape his politics. But this would be a mistake. For it would signal to traditional Christians that Romney does not believe that theology could, in principle, count as knowledge; but this is precisely the view of the secularist who believes that religion, like matters of taste, should remain private. Yet if a citizen has good reason to believe her theological tradition offers real insights into the nature of humanity and the common good¯insights that could be defended on grounds that even a secularist cannot easily dismiss¯why should she remain mute simply because the secularist stipulates a definition of religion that requires her silence? Why should she accept the secularist’s limitations on her religious liberty based on what appears to many of us as a capricious and politically convenient understanding of "religion"? If Romney commits the Kennedy Mistake, it would give tacit permission to secularists to call into question the political legitimacy of not only Romney’s fellow religionists (including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) but also conservative Catholics and evangelicals.
If one does not support Romney’s candidacy, it should not be because he is a Mormon. It should be because one has good reason to believe he is not the best candidate for the office. That is the message of Hewitt’s book. It is one that would resonate with Martin Luther, who once tersely said, "I’d rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian."
Francis J. Beckwith is associate professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, and co-editor of The New Mormon Challenge (Zondervan, 2002). His website is francisbeckwith.com .