Last week, there was quite the discussion around these parts, levered off of the now infamous Joel Belz “Mormons lie” contention from last cycle. We have not covered it extensively, but Belz was buried with bigotry charges after he published it. But like a trouper he came back for more the next month in his magazine, defending his analysis and contending that it was not bigotry. We had thought his argument so weak that refutation was not required, but given the discussion of last week, we figure that a refutation is now in order.
The first part of Belz’ argument:
Or suppose that Christopher Hitchens, the popular and often appealing atheist who has taken some quarters of the nation by storm, decided he wanted to seek the presidency. It’s pretty clear that his candidacy, if he had been born in the United States, could not (and should not) be opposed on legal grounds. But to say that individuals and groups of individuals would be guilty of bigotry if they argued openly against an atheist as president is wrongheaded on the face of the matter.
So if it’s legitimate to oppose (but not legally preclude) a candidate because he or she is a committed Muslim or atheist, I conclude we may do the same with someone because he or she is a Mormon, a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, or goodness—even a Presbyterian! And in none of these cases are we automatically guilty of bigotry.
First of all, that’s not an argument – it’s an assertion. Would I oppose a Hitchens candidacy? Yes, I would – but not on the basis of his atheism. More on that in a moment. Why is it “wrongheaded on the face of the matter?” If Belz had a real argument here, he would have made some attempt to answer that question as he asserted his point. Instead, he just waved his hands and said, “Voila.” (Back in my days of studying science and math we called this the “it is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer” argument – it typically warranted the loss of a letter grade if the assertion was correct and an automatic ‘F’ if it was used out of laziness, or wrong.)
As to the legality/legitimacy argument, well, that sounds remarkably like Jim Crow. From the Civil War well until into the 1970′s blacks using their franchise was widely and openly opposed, and claims of legitimacy were attached to such activities. Of course, people can claim that religion and race are very different things – but it seems to me that in a very real sense both are shapers and maintainers of culture, or at least sub-culture. And in the end that is what we are discriminating against – sub-culture – and in the melting pot that is America such is not legitimate along any lines.
But let’s look at Belz’ “argument” a bit deeper. He argues
Indeed, his very thoughtfulness makes me want to be very careful when I raise the question: How does a person’s Mormonism affect his or her possible role as president of the United States?
But just because I’m obliged to ask the question carefully doesn’t mean I’m out of bounds in asking the question. I applauded when Romney stressed: “[Some] would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do.” Nor should he; that is part of his personal character.
But this integral and holistic nature of the person is also exactly what makes it not just right, but necessary, to ask—even in detail—just how what this man believes “religiously” affects all the rest of his behavior.
When we linked to this piece in our review of 2008, we said this about it:
I am going to sound very much like a civil rights attorney here, but this justification for bigotry is bigoted on its face. It presumes a view of religion and its effects on a person and their character that is distinctly evangelical, and one that another religion may not, and many do not, share. I will not speak for Mormons on this matter, that is for them to do, but what I will say is that we cannot measure another religion by our religion’s yardstick. Needless to say, no religion other than our own will “measure up” under such circumstance.
Further “fisking,” there are two key words in Belz’ argument – and we highlighted them for you, “person” and “behavior.”
Whether it be Mormonism, or any other religion, how that religion would affect an individual person’s role as POTUS, or anything else, is going to be individually unique. I am very different from any other Presbyterian I know. My Presbyterianism affects me very differently than it does my pastor, or the other elders in my congregation. One cannot draw a conclusion about how being a Presbyterian will affect another persons role as say, blogger, based on how it affects mine. In the blogroll section of my religious blog there is a ‘ring’ of Presbyterian bloggers. Anyone who doubts my contention here needs but to read through that ring. You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse group.
Thus, how religion affects behavior is highly individualized. So while we might, in the case of a single individual, be able to analyze how their faith affects there behavior, the real question becomes why do so? What do we gain out of such analysis that we did not already know? We cannot conclude, based on that analysis, anything about the behavior or belief of any other adherent to that religion. To do so would, in fact, be religious discrimination and bigotry.
The issue boils down to simply, behavior. Fortunately, behavior is something we can judge based on physical, real evidence, not simply beliefs. Beliefs are the means by which people who behave badly justify that behavior to themselves, but there are many many people of the same belief, even the same evil belief, that never can actually bring themselves to behave badly.
My father is dead, and I hate to speak ill of the dead and I loved the man more than virtually anyone but my wife; but my father had an amazing streak of bizarre thought in him. There were times, around the dinner table, when you would have thought my father was a Nazi. He certainly implied more than once that many of the Jews that died in the concentration camps of WWII deserved their fate. And yet, when it came to his behavior, my father was a kitten. He routinely did business with Jewish people – some of whom showed up at his funeral. I never saw my father speak an ill word to anyone to their face, and frankly never behind their back about someone specific – it was always just awful, ugly generalities.
My father’s beliefs about Jewish people never translated into behavior. My father was an “anti-Semite” in speech only and then only to people with whom he felt safe somehow. So much so that most of the Jewish people he actually encountered considered him a friend (none of the them considered him an enemy) – even the legitimate “jury” could not bring itself to find my father guilty. In the end, those of us closest to my dad, most importantly my mother and I, concluded that dad was not anti-Semitic at all, but rather someone that just liked to say outrageous things in certain social settings when he thought they were boring or he wanted attention.
The point is that we can infer nothing about a persons behavior based on their proclaimed belief, we can only infer about their behavior based on their behavior – real, physical evidence. That is to say we infer character from action, not declaration.
Thus, if Belz wants to argue that Mitt Romney is a liar, all he need do is bring forth evidence of Romney lying. He does not need to bring up Romney’s faith for we can conclude nothing reliable from it. In bringing up Romney’s faith, Belz can accomplish only two things. For one, he can play upon the prejudices of his readers. If his readers are suspicious of Mormons, by bringing up that Romney is one, he plays on those suspicions and they will tend to view evidence insufficient to prove his contention as if it does actually prove it. That is, I believe, called “false witness.” Secondly, he tarnishes all Mormons, which in a religiously competitive environment he may want to do. But that first of all is simply wrong, because as we have seen, not all Mormons are the same regardless of the characteristic under discussion – so even his competitive argument is not true (again “false witness”). But further he affects the candidacy of an individual for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the election at hand. This has the potential affect of robbing the nation of the best choice in that election when judged on the things that do matter. The same could be said by liberal efforts to disqualify Huckabee based on his tenure as a Baptist preacher.
In the end, there just really is little need to bring up the religion of a candidate. Their behavior and character is in actual evidence – and that evidence is what matters.
What We’re Reading . . .
Last week was the lightest week we’ve seen in a while, so we’ll just pass it on as bullets.
- Belz does have some people that agree with him, although they are a bit kinder about it.
- There are also some very ugly people that try to play on the same prejudices that Belz does. Frankly, this is a third effect from Belz’ invocation of Romney’s faith – it divides those of us on the one side of an issue therefore aiding the opposition. (BTW, can any of our Mormon readers explain why a phone call from Romney to the CJCLDS leadership would matter any more than any other Mormon’s call on matters of doctrine?)
- You have to love this – someone gets into the latest Beck business and never mentions that he is Mormon, in fact lumps him with “regular” Christians.
- This is a difficult political puzzle – especially when religion gets into the mix.
- The rumors, turned whispers is now pretty much out loud talk.
- In re: Romney – CNN tries to make a mountain out of a molehill — he still has good friends — and allies.