Monday, December 03, 2007

Mitt Romney and religious questions

I think Mitt Romney's upcoming "JFK speech" on his faith is likely lead to more discussion of the LDS church in the media and more questions for Romney about his faith. So, what should Romney say when reporters ask him about specific questions of Mormon doctrine?

Several months ago, George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney, "In your faith, if I understand it correctly, it teaches that Jesus will return probably to the United States and reign on earth for 1,000 years . . . Have you thought about how the Muslim world will react to that . . . . ?" Mitt's response was "Well, I'm not a spokesman for my church . . . that doesn't happen to be a doctrine of my church . . . Our belief is just as it says in the Bible, that the messiah will come to Jerusalem, stand on the Mount of Olives and that the Mount of Olives will be the place for the great gathering and so forth. It's the same as the other Christian tradition." Then ABC contacted an LDS spokesperson, who clarified the LDS belief: "One appearance will be to the new Jerusalem and another will be to the Jerusalem of the old world . . . It is our belief that the new Jerusalem will be established within the state of Missouri."

I know nothing about this doctrine or the accuracy of George's description of it. But given the LDS church's statement, Mitt's answer looks dishonest and evasive. If a Catholic politician were asked a basic question about a strange but well-established Catholic doctrine (say, transubstantiation), and he answered, "I'm not a spokesman for my church" or "We celebrate Christ's sacrifice in communion. It's the same as the other Christian tradition," I would be annoyed. Those answers suggest either ignorance or shame. It's a basic tenet of the religion--own it.

Now, I don't think issues like this affect a candidate's qualifications, nor do I think a candidate should have to be a spokesperson for his religion. But given that Romney is inevitably going to get these questions, how should he be answering them? Some options:

a. "If you want to talk about the specifics of my church, you'll have to ask the church."
[but can he really do this if he IS willing to talk about the easier-for-Protestants-to-swallow specifics of his religion, like the Mount of Olives stuff above?]
b. Answer honestly, explaining if necessary how the reporter has the doctrine wrong.
[but it could be politically risky]
c. "I'm not sure."
[my sense is this would work only for an obscure or debatable doctrine]
d. Evade and pretend that your doctrine is "the same as the other Christian tradition."
[makes you look like you lack integrity; plus, wouldn't this make LDS supporters mad? Also, if arguably the most publicly visible member of your church is saying it's just like other Christian denominations, why should anyone convert to it?]

Any thoughts?


arfanser said...

for the record, the church spokesman was correct.

arfanser said...

I also put something interesting to this conversation in the comments on my blog.

I actually think this is a perfect example of what is wrong with extrapolating church beliefs from the behavior of one individual. Romney is acting in a way that I personally don't like or respect. I think that he is not being true to the religion. On the other hand, that is not for me to decide, and at the worst, he is still a fairly faithful LDS person. Everyone makes mistakes, it si just unfortunate that in this case, what he says might be attributed to all members of that faith.

As for people wanting to convert, what the missionaries do (at least what they are supposed to do) is teach the people who are interested about the beliefs of the church. They then urge those people to pray and ask God if what they have been taught is true. If the person feels that God has answered his or her prayers and that what the missionaries have taught is true, then the missionaries invite them to be baptized. The individual should also pray about that and receive an answer from God. That is how things are supposed to go, not that they always do. It could have a negative effect, but I think it will have a positive effect in that people will be more interested in hearing what we really believe. Once a person makes a genuine decision to listen and pray, in my experience, it is extremely likely that they will pray and God will answer their prayers.

As for the point of the post, I am more attracted to genuine honesty (ie Obama) even if that person is less in line with my political preferences. People have asked me how I can support Obama, but be so opposed to Clinton when Obama is more left than Clinton. It is because Obama tells it like he sees it (I believe). I think if Romney were more honest with his religious beliefs, he would be more respected and poll worse.

Scarlet Panda said...

I think Romney is viewed as the representative of his church just because people know so little about it and his interview answer may be the only thing they ever hear.

A question: given that most people know virtually nothing about Mormonism (except maybe that involves not drinking coffee), do you think it would reduce anti-Mormon sentiment if people were made more aware of LDS beliefs in a systematic, mass-media sort of way?

I'm not talking about missionary work or anything the church itself would do, since anything the church did would be viewed as suspect by anti-mormons. I mean something more like an objective news source publishing an accurate guide what mormons do and don't believe, including (1)the commonalities with other Christian religions, (2)the more distinctive doctrines like eternal families and the stuff about Jesus in the Americas, (3) discussions of the real LDS position on theological issues frequently brought up by anti-mormons, (4) discussions of the difficult historical issues like polygamy and blacks & the priesthood, and (5) other useful things like the LDS positions on the separation between the church and politics that you described on your blog.

If such a thing were published (and assuming it was accurate), do you think it would reduce anti-mormon bigotry? Or would such information, coming outside the context of the missionary experience you describe, be ineffective and/or counterproductive to the development of faith?

arfanser said...

Here is the thing, a true understanding of the subtleties of LDS doctrine takes years to develop. So the only way for an objective news source to get that is either 1: send someone in to study it in earnest for an extended period of time (this tends to lead to conversion though so a little tough to do) or 2: get your information from the church, which suffers the same problem you mentioned, skepticism as to that it is really what LDS people believe.

It was mentioned on another blog about the LDS character on the show House, and while I thought they did a decent job, it still contained inaccuracies. So those are the obstacles that I see to what you propose.

As for the main question you asked, I do not think it would deter actual bigots, because nothing will actually do that. I do believe that it would be instructional to people who are interested but wary of meeting with the missionaries to learn more. I think that understanding something takes the fear away, so in terms of curing ignorance, I think it is a great idea.

Squishy Burrito said...

How do you suppose that this information on the LDS Church be given?

There was a 2 night PBS series (not church sponsored)last spring. I'm not sure PBS is what you would call mainstream mass media.

I just don't think that actual information from an unbiased source would change the bigotry. They would claim it was biased. Or they would find one small piece of information and conform it to their ideology of what mormonism really is.

Example: I was a missionary and one time while as missionary I was ambushed by a Evangelical preacher. It was horrible. No matter what I told this man he would not believe the true doctrine. He kept telling me "that may be what you believe but that is not what your church believes. You have been deceived." I finally convinced him that I was right and I know that he believed me but he never admitted that he was wrong. This man had spent most of his life not only preaching against the LDS Church but he spent 2 years in Utah to "reclaim the mormons". He wouldn't touch the doctrinal concerns once I addressed them but he would not admit that he was wrong.

No NBC/ABC/Barbara Walters/special is going to ever change this mans opinion on the church.

Scarlet Panda said...

arfanser and squishy, thanks for your comments. I agree that the people with serious bigotry wouldn't be affected by a neutral source of information. When fuzzy and I visited Nauvoo briefly, we came upon an establishment owned by an evangelical couple. They had moved to this tiny town from Chicago just to set up an anti-mormon operation, which srikes me as really insane. They, like squishy's preacher, have already made up their minds. (Also, their big display at the time was called "DNA and the Book of Mormon," which I found funny--it takes some nerve to believe the world is 6,000 years old yet appeal to science to prove that another religion is false).

Anyway, I was thinking more of the effect my hypothetical "guide" would have on the broader community--people who just don't know anything about the LDS church but maybe have a vague discomfort with it.

The PBS documentary is probably pretty close to what I'm talking about, though most people honestly aren't willing to sit through four hours of PBS. I don't know what form it would ideally take--probably something easier to consult at one's leisure and in small doses. Maybe sort of a wikipedia-type thing, but without wikipedia's credibility concerns and also from a source that can't reasonably be suspected to be spinning things one way or another. I also think the hyperlink structure of a wikipedia-type thing would work well.

If you saw the PBS documentary, I'd be curious to hear what you thought about it.