Mormonism, Romney, and wanting it both ways: A few thoughts about being in the world but not of the world
This is not an easy post to write, because it is going to seem critical of my fellow Mormons (and myself). Nothing could be further from my intent. Instead, writing as a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I want to describe a conflict with which most of us struggle, whether we realize it or not. Simply stated, it is that on the one hand, we proclaim our difference from “the world,” while at the same time hoping for the world’s acceptance. I think this is an entirely understandable problem, not one for which we should apologize at all. I do think we need to recognize and come to terms with it.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is respected for its Mormon Tabernacle Choir and pop singing groups, dancers, pro football players and competence in times of disaster.
And, yet, said Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, “in return for qualified esteem, the public reserves the right not to take [it] seriously as a belief system.”
Terryl Givens is a serious Mormon thinker and writer. (I highly recommend his “By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.“) In the BYU symposium referred to in the article, he calls this Mormon conflict “schizophrenia.”
Givens has a point. We Mormons tend to be very proud and happy, for example, when one of our own achieves great success: Steve Young in professional football, David Archuleta on American Idol, and yes, Mitt Romney in public service and government. At the same time, we celebrate our distinctiveness — both doctrinally and culturally. We believe our faith is restored Christianity and that all other faiths, while containing much truth and goodness, are fundamentally wrong and cannot fully save their adherents. We also adhere to personal standards of behavior (e.g., drinking, smoking, sexual relations only within marriage) that are quite different from what most “others” believe to be acceptable.
Perhaps the clearest example is the athletic programs at Brigham Young University: BYU fans and Church members are justifiably proud of the high personal standards maintained on that campus, and flatly reject the world’s criticism of those standards. And yet at the same time, most BYU sports fans seem to crave recognition and acclaim in that same world’s ranking and championship systems. Some become resentful when the Cougars don’t seem to get the respect they deserve, and especially when observers seem to hold BYU students to a higher standard of behavior than they expect of students at secular universities – even as Mormons justifiably express great pride in BYU’s own higher standards of behavior!
This tendency does have an impact on Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. Gov. Romney and pretty much all of his supporters want recognition for his beautiful family, long marriage to Ann, and his long upright life of success and service — all of which we attribute to his Mormon beliefs and background. He’s different, by golly! At the same time, we don’t want Romney to be treated as different.
This is not realistic, and we need to get better at being comfortable in our own skin. We want to be different. We are different. Our beliefs are unquestionably different – and they make us who we are. In this regard I don’t think Mormons and Evangelicals are all that different.
We Mormons need to get used to the idea that we will never have theological “respect” from most other faiths – and we shouldn’t expect it. After all, we reject their beliefs, don’t we?
Both Mormons and our theological and doctrinal competitors need to figure this out in the political arena. The schizophrenia is unhealthy. We need to celebrate the similar ideals and common ground — clean living, marital fidelity, strong families, service to mankind. But as we are doing that we also have to accept the existence of our theological distinctives as realities that will not — and should not — go away. After all, that’s what makes us who we are, whether Evangelical, Mormon, Catholic, or Jewish.
The new Gerson/Wehner book, “The City of Man” which I have just begun. begins itself by pointing out exactly this tension for Evangelicals – in fact Christians of all stripes. I have not gotten far enough to tell you their solution to the tension, but it is obvious that the tension is, as Lowell notes, shared by Evangelicals and Mormons – not to mention Catholics and mainlines.
There are two problems here really. Most creedal Christians do respect the character of Mormons – they just believe that character to be based on false premises. Some creedal Christians therefore think that character unreliable. That, frankly, is a problem inside Evangelicalism, and this post is not the place to unwind it, let alone propose solutions for it.
What is amazing is that most Evangelicals are under attack from the secular left for essentially the same thing, save that the secular left often just does not believe good character to be worth pursuing. The secular left looks at the great scandals of Evangelicalism, or even the lesser ones, and cries that religion is a “lie.”
And all of this misses the essential point – good character is difficult to come by – it is hard work to obtain, whether by the path of a Mormon or a creedal Christian or a secularist. What is under assault is not really what we believe, but the character that it produces. By assailing good character we coarsen public discourse and we loose sight of what really matters in governance. Thus we cannot convict terrorists in our public courts and we “feel-up” little old ladies in airports for fear of offending someone that might hurt us.
What we need to learn to stand for is character – we should be proud of our efforts to develop it. Our education system should work to develop it, for by achieving it do we “feel good about ourselves.” And that, in the end is the point.