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Sunday, June 3, 2012

On Romney’s Mormonism and Religious Tolerance

Strap yourselves in, because this is going to be a long one.

One morning I tweeted a thought that had been tossing around in my mind for a few days.  It went like this:

Anyone notice that libs hardly ever put down Mormonism when Harry Reid was the most prominent Mormon in politics?

And it and a few reactions got me thinking it was time to put into words some thoughts I had about what religious tolerance really means.

What we have been seeing recently is a great number of attacks on Mormonism as a faith.  And it’s not that I think that it is wrong to denounce Mormon theology or doctrine.  In my humble opinion Mormonism is one of the less plausible answers to the great questions in life.  But this recent criticism is very selective: Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is held against him, but not Harry Reid’s.

And that is a good place to start.  I have said before that I am a Presbyterian and my wife is a Catholic and that we didn’t do the “compromise conversion” thing where the couples convert to a “compromise faith” in order to go to the same church.  Instead sometimes we go to a Presbyterian church, and sometimes we go to a Catholic one.  Frankly we more often go to the Catholic church because Catholics are supposed to take mass ever week (or pray the rosary), but for Presbyterians church going is less important than a deep relationship with God, so my faith allows me to be a little more flexible about actually going to a Presbyterian church.

Well, one Sunday we were in the Presbyterian church and the minister was explaining to the children what each part of the Nicene Creed meant.  If you are not Christian, here’s how it goes (with slight variations):

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.  And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

And the minister was explaining what the part about “one holy catholic and apostolic church” meant.  She explained that this didn’t mean we were part of the Roman Catholic church but instead it meant a universal Christianity.  And she took a moment to point out that there were some differences between Catholicism and Presbyterianism, most obviously in the fact that we do not follow the Pope.  I mean she didn’t go into some diatribe against the Pope or anything like that.  She simply said something like “we don’t follow the Pope” and moved on.  It was very matter-of-fact.

Well, afterward, my wife said that this part offended her.  She said it was “anti-Catholic.”

And I said to her, something like this, “Well, we aren’t Catholics.  We don’t follow the Pope.  We don’t believe he is Jesus’ representative on Earth.  We think he is just a guy, a nice guy but just a person.  You can’t expect Presbyterians not to believe what they believe and not to tell people what they believe, especially in their own church.”

Okay, I probably wasn’t that eloquent, but there you go.

Or I remember a long time ago Ann Coulter was being denounced for saying something to the effect that she hoped to see all Jews be converted to Christianity.  And I defended the remarks at the time, saying that most of the world’s religions believe they are the one true correct religion and hope to see everyone else convert to their faith one day.  And so long as it is done by gentle persuasion and not by governmental or private violence, there is nothing wrong with that.

There is nothing wrong with the idea that your faith is better than others.  It’s called believing in something.  If I didn’t believe my faith was the one true correct answer, I would look for a new faith until I found one that fit the bill (including Atheism, if I thought it did).  And I think it would be uniquely selfish of me to believe I have the one true correct answer on these things and not hope that others find their way to it, too.  I don’t go around trying to convert people all the time, but if you want to come over I am one of the people who will greet you with open arms.

Religious tolerance isn’t about pretending that there are no differences between the faiths or that those differences don’t matter.  Religious tolerance, at least in part, is accepting the fact that we all believe very different things, and that’s okay.  That’s not to say that you can’t want to make everyone else believe what you believe, but you understand that the rules of the game is that you can only gain converts by persuasion—and all things being equal, try not to be too pushy about it, either.  But you do not win it by governmental or private coercion and especially not by governmental or private violence.

And this is where anti-blasphemy laws or even anti-blasphemy customs go horribly wrong.  The reality is that virtually every faith is blasphemous to another.  This is especially true because every faith involves both positively believing certain things and rejecting the beliefs of other religions as false.  So the Jews and Christians believe in God, Genesis, Moses, etc.  But Christians and Jews differ on what to make of Jesus.  Thus Christianity blasphemes against Judaism by believing that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God, who died for our sins and rose from the grave.  And Judaism blasphemes against Christianity by rejecting all of that.  Likewise Islam blasphemes both faiths by claiming that Mohammed is God’s greatest prophet, that God is actually called Allah and they also deny the Christ is the son of God (which is almost necessary if you believe that Mohammed is the greatest prophet of God, because how could any mere prophet be greater than the son of God?).  And likewise Christians and Jews blaspheme Islam by denying Mohammed was any kind of prophet at all.  And Buddhists reject pretty much this entire spectrum of faith and atheists reject all faith, thus blaspheming in their own way.  So the answer isn’t to say by law or social custom that there can be no blasphemy.  It just doesn’t work.

Indeed, the right to blaspheme—the right to offend another person’s religious sensibilities—is vital to freedom of religion itself.  I have said it before, but the syllogism is simple.  Consider, for instance, why freedom of speech is considered absolutely vital to democracy itself.  It goes like this:

1.         The right to vote means that we have a right to freely choose among candidates.
2.         In order to make an intelligent choice between candidates, we must be able to freely receive information about each candidate.
3.         We cannot freely receive information about each candidate unless the people are able to speak freely about candidates.
4.         Therefore, the right to vote implies the right to freedom of speech—at least on political subjects.

Likewise, freedom of religion implies freedom of religious expression, even if that expression is blasphemous. That syllogism goes like this:

1.         Freedom of religion implies we have the right to freely choose our faith.
2.         In order to make an intelligent choice between faiths, we must be able to freely receive information about each faith.
3.         We cannot freely receive information about each faith unless the people are allowed to freely express facts and opinions about each faith.
4.         Therefore, freedom of religion implies the freedom of religious expression—that is the right to speak freely on matters of faith.

And let me give you a practical example.  I once communicated by email with a self-identified Muslim from Pakistan.  I won’t disclose his name because blasphemy is a capital offense in that country.  But the first time he wrote to me he said he was a Muslim, and the second time he wrote me he said he was no longer a Muslim.  Well, just because I am curious about people (one of my fascinations is figuring out how other minds work) I politely asked him to explain what changed his mind, and he explained it was two things.

The first was he learned that originally the Koran was kept solely in oral form, and then all the people carrying it in their minds were killed, so that he felt it was obvious that the Koran today was not the Koran actually given to Mohammed.  I had never heard that before, and I cannot verify whether that is a reasonable interpretation of the historical evidence, but that’s what he believed the evidence showed.

But the other thing he said is something I had heard before: the story of Mohammed’s wife, Aisha.  You see Mohammed married Aisha when she was six years old.  Now, you might reasonably say, “Well, maybe he just married her, maybe he didn’t consummate until she was older.”  And you would be right.  The same traditions maintain that he did in fact wait to consummate the marriage... until she was nine.


And learning of those two things broke this man’s faith.  In the case of Aisha, he felt that there was no excuse for that kind of conduct.  Last I talked to him I had no idea where his spiritual journey would end, just that he had decided that he was never going to be a Muslim again.  I remember saying to him something to the effect that wherever his spiritual journey ends, he should know that my God loves him and I did too.

So for this self-identified ex-Muslim the ability to investigate his faith, and even to blaspheme it was vital to his ability to exercise his freedom of religion.  He learned something about Islam that he considered so noxious that it broke his faith and led him on a spiritual journey for a new one and thus exercise his most sacred right contained under the rubric of freedom of religion: the right to choose a new faith.

And yet a no-blasphemy rule would almost certainly suppress those ideas.  Indeed, he is to this day frightened of my revealing his name because he lives in a country where blasphemy is a capital offense.  The man called Mohammed a pedophile.  He said the Koran was not received from God.  So if he was truly shielded from all blasphemy, it would have made it impossible for him to legally make that journey from being a Muslim.

So the criticism of faith, and of figures within that faith, is a vital part of freedom of religion itself.  It should not be branded as bigotry against members of that faith.  Of course it is possible for hatred of a religion to translate into hatred of its adherents.  For centuries the chief complaint against Jews is their refusal to recognize Christ as their savior, a critique of their religion that too often turned into a hatred of its adherents, and from there to pogroms, persecution and discrimination.  But it doesn’t follow that a declaration that Christ is our savior and the Jews are incorrect in failing to follow him is going to lead to discrimination and persecution.  You can simply say, “believers in [insert religion you disagree with] are wrong, but they are no better or worse than anyone.”

One thing I never mentioned before I “came out of the closet” as Aaron Walker, is that I published a student note back when I was in law school.  And in it, I compared and contrasted two different approaches to the anti-discrimination principle, writing:

To understand any theory of equal opportunity, one must first understand how discrimination is justified.  Logically, in order to discriminate between two groups, one must make two determinations, one factual and one philosophical.  First, one must determine that there is a significant difference between the groups in question.  It is not enough that there is a difference; the color of a person’s skin is technically a difference, but it is not a significant difference.  Second, one must determine that this difference justifies unequal treatment.  It is one thing to believe, as Justice Bradley did in Bradwell v. Illinois, that women are not suited for the practice of the law; it is another matter to believe that one is justified in acting upon that belief.

Therefore a person could justify equal opportunity either by arguing that the groups in question are equal, or by arguing that even if the two groups are not equal, this does not justify the discrimination contemplated.  Thus Kenneth Stampp began his examination of slavery by saying that “innately Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins,” (and “Caucasians [are] black men with white skins”) indicating that it was important to Professor Stampp to believe that the races were equal.  By contrast, Owen Lovejoy, an abolitionist, justified his position as follows: “[w]e may concede… that [the black race] is infirm; but does it follow, therefore, that it is right to enslave a man because he is infirm?”  To Lovejoy, the question of equality was beside the point.

Aaron J. Walker, Note: “No Distinction Would Be Tolerated”: Thaddeus Stevens, Disability, and the Original Intent of the Equal Protection Clause, 19 Yale L. & Pol'y Rev. 265 (2000) (footnotes removed).

What I believe, but can’t quite prove, was that on most topics this was precisely the divide between how the anti-discrimination principle was approached for most nineteenth century opponent of discrimination versus the modern opponent of discrimination.  The modern advocate of equality of opportunity is anxious to say that there is no difference between the groups in question.  The nineteenth century advocate of equality of opportunity, however, would usually concede the general inferiority of one group but still say the discrimination was not justified—that race, gender, etc. should not be used as proxy for another trait, such as intelligence—that these people should be judged on an individual basis, not as part of a larger group.  As one of my constitutional heroes, Thaddeus Stevens said when introducing what became the equal protection clause “no distinction would be tolerated in this purified Republic but what arose from merit and conduct.”

And there are lots of interesting differences between the implications of the modern approach against the nineteenth century approach.  But in the case of freedom of religion, we really don’t have any choice but to apply this approach.  We cannot pretend that whether a person considers Mohammed or Joseph Smith to be a prophet or not is not a significant difference.  To most people these issues of faith do matter.  So we must say that this difference in faith doesn’t justify discrimination in favor of or against Muslims or Mormons.  And it doesn’t.

I think in a real way, my feelings about Mormonism or any other faith I disagree with is actually extremely well summed up by the episode on South Park when Stan gains a Mormon friend named Gary.  During the entire episode Stan learns about Mormonism and concludes that the religion is a complete crock.  And this leads him to stop being friends with Gary, but not after Gary gives Stan a tell-off for the ages.  I would embed it but my computer is giving me headaches with Flash Player right now.  So just go here and watch.

And that is precisely right.  There is nothing wrong with Stan disagreeing with Mormonism, but to make it so much of an issue that he stops being friends with someone was just idiotic.

So disagree with the faith if that is your inclination.  But keep things in perspective.  Recognize that just because you disagree with a person because of their faith, doesn’t mean that they are bad people.  And likewise recognize the converse: just because a person disagrees with another faith, doesn’t necessarily mean that they dislike adherents to it.  Religious disagreement doesn’t have to be, and indeed shouldn’t be, religious bigotry.


Follow me at Twitter @aaronworthing, mostly for snark and site updates.  And you can purchase my book (or borrow it for free if you have Amazon Prime), Archangel: A Novel of Alternate, Recent History here.  And you can read a little more about my novel, here.


  1. You're back!

    I was worried we wouldn't hear from you until November. How are you holding up? Let me say as one of your token liberal readers that what happened to you sucks, and should be covered more widely then it is where's Rev Al when people other then TM are getting there Civil Rights violated?
    By the way you're right on all counts, I think most liberals are just scared Obama will loose in November. Looks like the entire party just got blown off the moral high ground.

  2. Ten Facts About Mormon History and Theology that You will Never Hear from ice holes.
    1. 1833 - Joseph Smith receives a revelation that would become section 101 of Doctrine & Covenants. Verse 79 states "Therefore it is not right that one man should be in bondage to another."
    2. 1838 - Mormons are expelled from Missouri under threat of extermination (Executive Order 44). A petition against them says nothing about polygamy but complains that Mormons invited "free negroes and mulattos" to join them in Missouri.
    3. 1844 - Joseph Smith runs for president with a plan to free all slaves by 1850. He is murdered 4 months later.
    4. 1869 - Utah gives women the vote. Up to this time only Wyoming has female suffrage.
    5. 1887 - The federal government takes the vote away from Utah women (Edmunds-Tucker Act).
    6. 1978 – The governor of Missouri, Kitt Bond, formally rescinds and apologizes for executive Order 44.
    7. 1995 - The location of NHM is discovered in Yemen less than one degree from due west of an uninhabited oasis now called Khor Karfet that meets the description provided in the Book of Mormon.
    8. 1996 - Genetic research reveals that when using an observed mutation rate of 2.1/1000 (Weber & Wong), most American Indians are descended from a guy who lived in 151 BC (Underhill 1996)
    9. 2004 - Genetic research reveals that 15% of Yemenite Jewish males have Y-chromosomes belonging to a subclade of a lineage group now called Q1a3. (Shen 2004) Most Native Americans belong to a subclade of Q1a3.
    10. 2007 - Genetic research by Ugo Perego fails to find a single descendant of Joseph Smith through any woman other than Emma Smith. Emma had always declared that Joseph had no other wife than her.

  3. Way to go!.. When the going gets tough in political blogging, then take up religion. Way to get back on the horse. I was thinking you'd start easy, with say the view from the kitchen window or your opinion of the(non-climate change)weather.

    What a great read, you've put into words some things I have been thinking about for years.

    I personally hate the word tolerance. As you lawyers would say it assumes facts that are not in evidence. In order to be "tolerant" one must presume that their is some underlying derision to begin with. The mere fact of noticing differences, acknowledging that you have a different opinion/belief is not necessarily underlying derision. Ergo there is no need to "tolerate" unless there was "hate" in the first place.

    I much prefer the "content of character" model.

    Thanks again Aaron.. keep up the good work. Got me thinking for the morning.

  4. So how wrong must a religion or ideology be to reject the friendship of someone who fully believes in it?

  5. You asked: "Anyone notice that libs hardly ever put down Mormonism when Harry Reid was the most prominent Mormon in politics?"

    Well, anyone notice that presidential candidates are scrutinized/vetted way, way, way far broader and deeper than those running for lesser offices, such as members of Congress?

    Next time you set up a strawman, try using straw with enough structural integrity that it actually will stand up for you to knock it down.

    1. i don't beleive aaron posited a strawman.

    2. Aaron's argument isn't a strawman, but Alvin, yours is. Aaron's argument is about the astounding hypocrisy of the political left, and it is indeed valid.

  6. The way I think about tolerance is to stop and think about my beliefs; then I wonder, "What must people think if I told them this is what I think is true?" A lot probably think I'm wrong; but being wrong on some things doesn't make someone bad. Just like being right doesn't necessarily make someone good. It's a decent perspective to remember and enforce in one's thinking.

  7. eh, sorry for being so long in releasing these comments. Right now if I let someone say one bad word on this site, i could theoretically be arrested, hence the moderation. I hate it as i am sure you do, too.

    These are all good comments, even if you disagree with me, and thank you for that.

    Btw, feel free to nudge me on twitter or by email if i have left a comment in limbo too long.

  8. At elected positions less than the presidency Mormonism generally gets a pass. At the presidential level it doesn't. It's as simple as that.

    Obama certainly didn't get a pass on religion. Going to the same church for decades was widely viewed as some sort of calculated and devious plot and some decried, "He's a Muslim."

    By the way, welcome to the United States. :)

  9. Straight on double-plus right, sir...

    Many (most?) religions preach and teach that theirs is the one true path to all good things (however they define that), and many go further and say that those who don't follow their particular path will never get there... While it's possible for such beliefs to lead to bigotry--especially when governments or other institutions of power (including certain religious institutions themselves, ironically) get involved--the beliefs themselves are not bigoted.

    I have this hippie dippy book called Das Energi, by Paul Williams (whattaya want, I'm a lib) that talks about the ability to discriminate as being key to the ability to see and perceive, and suggests that we draw our lines between people with disappearing ink. See the differences between people (be they religious, political, ethnic/heritage, ...), sure, but don't take them beyond the situations where they actually matter.

    There comes a point where it has to be ok for other people to be completely wrong about something--because they're not the same religion or denomination as you, or vote for candidates in the other party, or like mushrooms on their pizza--and still treat them as fellow citizens and worthwhile human beings deserving of respect.

    (On that other thing... You was robbed and wronged, and I hope you get your rights back very soon. While I have issues with the partisan bent and allegations of collective guilt that some in your corner are trying to put on the thing, I unequivocally support free speech for all, even folks I probably don't much agree with... The best (and only) answer for speech you don't like or agree with is lots more speech... 'nuff said.)