How Mormons feel about Islam

Muhammad receiving revelation from the angel GabrielJoseph Smith receiving the gold plates from the angel Moroni

A couple of weeks ago, I had the misfortune of watching parts of the hate-filled anti-Muslim film made in the United States and promoted by Pastor Terry Jones—the spark that set off the recent flames of anti-Western rage in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Jones, in case you don’t remember, is the same bigot that planned to burn copies of the Qur’an on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The film is horribly offensive. There have been offensive films made about Mormons, too, but nothing quite like this. It is truly trash, both artistically and as an expression of hate against Muslims.

Mormons have much in common with Muslims, and were subject in the 19th century to much of the same kind of ridicule as Muslims. Therefore, I think that Mormons are less likely than many evangelical Christians to join in Muslim-bashing. Also, there are many differences between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity that might tend to make Mormons more tolerant of Muslims.

First, unlike evangelicals, Mormon do not believe that Muslims are destined for hell unless they convert to Christianity and accept Jesus as their savior. To be clear, Mormons do believe that Mormon theology represents an exclusive path to the highest heavenly realm. However, in 1836, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith said that he had a vision in which he was told, “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it had they been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.” (D&C 137:7). “This gospel” refers to the doctrines of Mormonism. Thus, according to Smith’s 1836 teaching, any Muslim who was not familiar with Mormonism, but would have accepted it had they known about it in their lifetime, would be automatically saved in the heavenly kingdom. Statistics would suggest that there ought to be far more Muslim-born people in that kingdom than Mormon-born.

A few years later in 1840, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of baptism for the dead, by which Mormons could be baptized as proxies for those people, including Muslims, who had died without Mormon baptism. Mormons today understand that in the afterlife, such people will have the choice as to whether or not to accept that baptism done on their behalf.

In Mormonism, all people including Christians are required to accept a Mormon baptism as a condition for salvation. Thus, as far as salvation is concerned, Mormon theology does not fundamentally distinguish between someone who died as a Muslim and someone who died as a Methodist.

Second, although Mormons believe that the “keys” to an effective baptism have been entrusted only to Mormon priests, they are not in generally opposed to the idea of non-Mormon or even non-Christian prophets. Mormon theology teaches that God “is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in.” (Alma 26:37). A very influential early 20th century Mormon scholar and leader named B.H. Roberts wrote in 1907 that Mormonism:

“is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend. … All the great teachers are servants of God; among all nations and in all ages. They are inspired men, appointed to instruct God’s children according to the conditions in the midst of which he finds them”

Muhammad would have been one of these non-Mormon prophets to whom God revealed his truth. In 1978, the LDS Church issued an official statement that Muhammad and other great religious leaders “received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.”

Therefore, there is not much excuse within Mormon theology for Islamophobia, and there are enough outward similarities between Islam and Mormonism that one would not expect Mormons to be overly intolerant toward Muslims. Anti-Islam sentiment undoubtedly exists among some Mormons, as in any group, but I really believe it to be rare.

Is Romney the “face of Mormonism”?

In-fighting among Mormon politicians has erupted over an article by Gregory A. Prince, a well-known Mormon biographer. In the article, Prince claimed that Romney was “not the face of Mormonism.” Prince had been a Romney supporter prior to 2007, when Romney was a moderate. However, Prince became dismayed when Romney lurched to the right in his 2008 presidential campaign. and was baffled by Romney’s infamous “47% video.”

Prince argued that Romney’s dismissal of the “47%” was a betrayal of everything that Romney stood for as a Mormon lay pastor. A pastor who is a “good shepherd” goes after the lost sheep: even if one sheep in a hundred is in jeopardy, the pastor is to leave the fold and recover it. Also, Mormons were early champions of reaching out to the disadvantaged and providing social safety nets such as the Latter-day Saint Welfare Program. According to Prince, writing off 47% of the American population as a moocher class does not seem consistent with Mormon leadership principles or compassion.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has entered the fray, stating that he agrees with Prince. Reid and Romney have been at odds with each other before, but this time, it is about Mormonism itself.

To be honest, Romney probably is the face of a certain class of well-known Mormon industrialists, among them J.W. Marriott, Jon Huntsman, and the late Larry H. Miller. Perhaps these are some of the more visible faces of Mormonism. And men who walk, talk, dress, and look like Romney inhabit the upper echelons of the LDS Church hierarchy. But I could not imagine any of these church leaders writing off the needs of what the far right views as the “moocher class,” as Romney appears to have done in the video.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Mormons on average have become increasingly conservative. But Mormon leaders have periodically reined-in that conservatism to counter dismissiveness or lack of respect and empathy towards the poor, immigrants, and the disadvantaged. Mormons by and large have not adopted the most belligerent postures of the far right. Therefore from a Mormon perspective, Romney’s dismissive attitude might seem surprising and out of character for a Mormon who has been a lay pastor devoting years to serving the neediest under his care. Perhaps that is what Prince and Reid are reacting to.

There is another possibility: that Romney’s “face” is merely a mask, and that in dismissing the 47%, he is telling his wealthy conservative donors exactly what they want to hear, rather than what he truly believes. But that, too, is decidedly un-Mormon. A Mormon article of faith is that “we believe in being honest.” A current LDS Church manual quotes Brigham Young in stating, “If we accept salvation on the terms it is offered to us, we have got to be honest in every thought, in our reflections, in our meditations, in our private circles, in our deals, in our declarations, and in every act of our lives.” I wonder what Young would have thought about a candidate misrepresenting himself to a private group of donors—if that is what Romney did—in order to get campaign money.

A better face of Mormon honesty might actually be Jon Huntsman, who was ridiculed during the 2012 Republican Primaries for his consistently moderate views. He refused to lurch to the right as a political expediency, the way that Romney seems to have done. Like Romney, Huntsman was also born into a wealthy family, and therefore he is also probably a bit removed from the concerns of average struggling Mormons, but based on his views and consistency, he might have a little better claim for representing Mormon idealism than does Romney.

But perhaps it is incorrect to think that anyone could be the “face of Mormonism.” Mormons are more diverse than most non-Mormons think. There are single parents, undocumented immigrants, liberals, gays and lesbians, libertarians, and out-of-touch industrialists, all happily sitting next to each other on the pews of many Mormon congregations. Sometimes each of them is not completely honest, or compassionate, or tolerant, but they are all Mormon. Thus, ultimately I agree with Greg Prince’s observation that Romney’s video was not a good representation of Mormon ideals; however, I think that Romney has as good a claim to be the face of a flawed Mormon as any other Mormon does.

Mormonism and Ayn Rand

Art Deco design of an Ayn Rand postage stampObjectivist writer Ayn Rand has been in the news recently because in 2005, Romney VP pick Paul Ryan said that Rand was “[t]he reason I got involved in public service.” Although Ryan has recently tried to distance himself from Rand, by all indications, he was a Randite as late as 2009, when he argued that “Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.” As far as I can tell, nobody knows whether or not Mitt Romney agrees with Rand’s “moral” view of capitalism, but it is worth considering whether there is any place for the ideas of Ayn Rand in the Mormon worldview. I don’t think there is.

In many ways, Ayn Rand’s views as a whole are incompatible not just with Mormonism, but with all religion, as she was an atheist who rejected all forms of religion and altruism. Her philosophy was self-centered: the only morality, in her view, was the promotion of heroic self interest. She earnestly embodied the philosophy expressed by Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street that “greed is good.”

Despite the presence of anti-Christian elements within Rand’s philosophy, right-leaning Christians such as Paul Ryan and many others have overlooked Rand’s anti-altruism and strident atheism to embrace the “greed is good” part of her philosophy as a moral justification for capitalism. Undoubtedly, Mitt Romney is an altruist, as evidenced by his years of unpaid service in the LDS Church. I have no reason to think that Paul Ryan is not altruistic as well. But it is possible to be an altruist in specific circumstances yet also believe that as a general principle, the rational pursuit of individual gain and self interest is a form of morality.

Although Rand’s philosophy does not seem to have made a huge impact among Mormons, there are undoubtedly at least some Mormon Randians. Interestingly, it appears, based on partially-redacted data available on the LDS church website new.familysearch.org, that some of her fans have probably proxy baptized her into the Latter-day Saint faith. I suspect that some Mormons may be drawn to Randianism because a large fraction of Mormons happen to be conservative libertarians, and Rand provided a kind of “theology” for this corner of the political spectrum.

But it seems difficult to square Rand’s philosophy with Mormon scripture. The faith’s founding scripture, the Book of Mormon, frequently condemns those who “set their hearts upon their riches.” (Hel. 13:20). The book warns, “But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.” (2 Nephi 9:30). The pursuit of wealth, and the class pride of the wealthy over the poor, are repeatedly cited as the reason for religious apostasy, environmental disaster, and military defeat. The book envisions an ideal, utopian state as one where “they had all things in common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor.” (4 Ne. 1:3). Nothing seems further from the anti-collectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, who wrote, “This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before! I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of spirit.” (Anthem).

Arguing that Mormons will be offended, Idaho bans “Five Wives” vodka label

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According to the Utah-based Ogden’s Own Distillery, the state of Idaho has banned the company’s vodka label on the ground that the concept “is offensive to a prominent segment of our population.” That segment is, obviously, Mormons. The label is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Mormon polygamy in the 19th century, a practice which was discontinued by the main body of Mormons around the turn of the 20th century. Part of the label’s humor is the irony that pious Mormons do not drink alcohol.

The fact that Idaho can ban labels like this, without violating the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression, is an interesting historical fluke. Normally, government entities can ban labels only for things like obscenity, deceptive trade practices, and public health or safety. The fact that some members of a prominent religion might not get the humor is not usually grounds for censorship.

But in the area of liquor regulation, there is a giant loophole. The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the one that repealed Prohibition in 1933) gave states the right to regulate the importation of alcoholic beverages in a discriminatory way. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the 21st Amendment not only repealed Prohibition, but with respect to the importation of alcohol, it repealed the Commerce Clause and the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. That means that in the area of liquor regulation, the First Amendment does not apply to states. So, with few exceptions, states have pretty much authoritarian control over the importation of liquor within their borders.

The ban is undoubtedly a fantastic public relations coup for Ogden’s Own Distillery. Idaho has unwittingly given the label prominence and free publicity that the distillery never could have dreamed. Thus, while the label might be officially banned from Idaho, we should expect its sales in Utah and elsewhere to rise.

Romney vs. Obama on religion: will we see it?

A pro-Romney Super PAC has reportedly floated, and then sank, the option of attacking Barrack Obama over his former membership in a church pastored by Jeremiah Wright. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, ABC News investigators discovered that Wright had once implied that the September 11 attacks were an avoidable consequence of U.S. foreign policy mistakes, and in another instance had uttered the shocking words “God damn America!” after a discussion of the country’s racial history. Obama and his family resigned from the church during the 2008 campaign, citing disagreement with their their former pastor’s inflammatory statements.

Obama has one other religious liability, which is the fact that despite his lifelong Protestant background and church attendance, 16% of voters believe he is a Muslim or crypto-Muslim. Romney is smart enough, politically, not to overtly associate himself with such conspiracy theories. So at least for now, the issue of Obama’s religious background is off the table.

Obama, as well, has taken the possibility of attacking Romney’s Mormon religion off the table. Most commentators seem to agree that a backlash is likely to ensue should Obama ever be seen to attack Romney’s religion. The criticism for such a move would be directed back at Obama.

But does anybody really believe that religion will not be an issue in this election cycle? Like it or not, as a result of the Citizens United case, this will be the first modern presidential election in which there will be unlimited and unregulated money from corporations, opinionated tycoons, labor unions, and maybe even foreign countries. This money and the resulting explosion of TV ads cannot, at least in theory, be controlled by the candidates themselves. Citizens United aside, neither of the candidates can control the actions of the press.

If such a religious fight breaks out over the TV airwaves, Romney has a distinct disadvantage. Obama’s religious issues were well-aired by the press four years ago, and it is hard to imagine what new damage they could cause now, four years later. By contrast, only a slim majority of voters are currently even aware that Romney is Mormon. Romney has far more potential to be hurt when his religious views are placed open to criticism.

If Romney were to become President, he would be the first nontrinitarian to hold that office since the 19th century, and he would be only the second non-Protestant. Thus, the issue of his religion is newsworthy and important. But will the media and Super PACs treat the subject of Romney’s Mormonism with a level of serious and accuracy that it deserves? And will care be taken to note that there is diversity within Mormon thought?

Harry Reid: the most prominent Mormon to back same-sex marriage

Following President Obama’s announcement that he now supports same sex marriage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced his own support for same-sex marriage, thus becoming the most prominent Mormon to back equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Reid’s position is somewhat nuanced. Though he supports same sex marriage as as a legal matter, he notes that his “personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman.” That “personal belief” is certainly a religious one, and it echoes the opinion of leaders of the LDS Church to which he belongs. In September 2008, just before the vote on California’s Proposition 8, which amended the California constitution to ban same sex marriage, the LDS Church issued a public statement encouraging its members to support political efforts to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married. By supporting equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, Reid is expressing what appears to be a disagreement with his church leadership on matters of policy, while still agreeing with the church on matters of doctrine.

There was a significant political backlash against the LDS Church’s political effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. The effort led to bad press, and has contributed to at least some defections from the faith by LDS Church members. Since then, the church has been much less aggressive on the issue. The LDS Church is sensitive about avoiding the appearance of giving “orders” to Mormon political leaders. Therefore, it would be uncharacteristic for the church to issue any statement that might be interpreted as a rebuke of Reid. For that reason, I expect the LDS Church to remain silent on the issue for the time being.

Why are so many modern Mormons conservative (Part I)

A recent Pew poll found what was no surprise, that Mormons are as a whole a highly conservative demographic. They are more likely to be conservative even than white evangelicals. As many as 66% of Mormons identify as conservative, and 74% identify as or lean Republican.

The reason why is a bit of a historical anomaly. Mormonism has its roots in 1820s New England and the frontier regions of the western United States in the 1830s and 40s. Its founder, Joseph Smith, was by no means a conservative. Indeed, he was a
religious communalist. His 1830 publication of scripture, the Book of Mormon, proposed and described an ancient, utopian society of Native Americans who “had all things in common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:3) In the 1830s, Smith attempted to establish voluntary communalistic orders in Ohio and Missouri. But ultimately, Smith did not have the right political formula to make such economic structures work in antebellum America.

Smith also had little regard for the social and familial conventions of his day. In the 1840s, he quietly introduced the practice of polygamy, himself marrying as many as 30 or more women. While someone in the 21st century might think of polygamy as a conservative institution, in the 1840s, it was considered a form of libertinism, and a threat to the conservative social order. Though Smith lived before the advent of organized feminism, Smith was something of a protofeminist for his era. Though his faith inherited the patriarchal social conventions of his day, by the 1840s, Smith had invited women to join the Anointed Quorum, his closest group of spiritual advisers, as priestesses on an equal basis as men. He also organized a female fraternal and organization, with dreams of making it a parallel, female Mormon priesthood.

It is difficult to imagine what more Smith could have done to upset the conservative social order of his time. And Brigham Young, his successor, took Smith’s radicalism to the Utah territory in 1847. There, Young tried (and sometimes succeeded) to establish communistic or anarchistic economies, and Mormon women managed and published feminist church publications (e.g., the Woman’s Exponent), and agitated for civil rights and the right to vote.

So how did the average modern Mormon become so conservative? I will explore the answer to that question in Part II.