Sunday, January 07, 2007

Mormonism in Public Life

In light the pending presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney, Damon Linker has penned a provocative treatise in the New Republic, questioning whether it would be healthy for the country to have a Mormon president. While I am not going to comment on that particular question, he does raise some of the problems presented by Mormon theology. When I break it down, is seems a mix of different dubious ideas, chiefly Gnosticism, American exceptionalism, and voluntarism.

First, Gnosticism. This is not something Linker deals with in great detail, but it is there nonetheless. The premise of Mormonism is that historical Christianity is an apostate Church, and that the real truth was revealed to a small number of people (Joseph Smith and his family and friends). Moreover, the Mormon conception of God is not an uncreated Supreme Being who created everything from nothing, but "a finite being who evolved into his present state of divinity from a condition very much like our own and then merely 'organized' preexisting matter in order to form the world." And good Mormons get to inherit their own planets after death, so becoming in the future what God is today (denying a discontinuity between God and creation is a core tenet of Gnosticism). As noted by eminent scholar N.T. Wright, a danger with Gnosticism is that it plays up individualism, which can easily morph into narcissism.

Gnosticism certainly contributes to the notion of American exceptionalism that emanates from both Mormonism and certain strands of Protestantism. Gnostic elitism often views America as unique, especially blessed by God, and not constrained by the same rules and constraints as other countries. More dangerously, the dualism that underpins Gnosticism feeds the dualism that operates in much of recent American foreign policy, dividing the world into good and evil. Mormonism is especially prone to this kind of thinking, because--as Linker shows clearly-- it grants an exalted role to America. As Linker notes:

"Smith produced a 500-page document, The Book of Mormon, containing the record of an ancient civilization, descended from the biblical Israelites, that supposedly lived, flourished, and collapsed in the Americas 1,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Jesus Christ visited these people after his resurrection in Jerusalem, spreading his gospel in the New World and planting the seeds of its rebirth many centuries later by Smith himself. In later revelations, Smith went even further in placing the United States--both geographically and politically--at the focal point of sacred history. The Garden of Eden, he claimed, was located in Jackson County, Missouri. The American Founders were 'raised up' by God in order to establish a free government that would allow the restoration to occur and the LDS Church to spread the restored gospel throughout the nation and the world."
Even more than this:
"The centrality of the United States to Mormon theology extends beyond the past and present to encompass the end times as well. Like many of the religious groups to emerge from the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, Mormons are millennialists who believe themselves to be living in the years just prior to the second coming of Christ; hence the words 'latter day' in the church's official title. Where the LDS differs from other communities gripped by eschatology, however, is in the vital role it envisions the United States playing in the end times. The Mormon 'Articles of Faith' teach that, when Christ returns, he will reign 'personally upon the earth' for 1,000 years, and LDS interpretations of a passage in Isaiah have led some to conclude that this rule will be directed from two locations--one in Jerusalem and the other in 'Zion' (the United States). This belief has caused Mormons to view U.S. politics as a stage on which the ultimate divine drama is likely to play itself out, with a Mormon in the leading role."

This is scary from the point of view of American foreign policy, to say the least.

And then there is voluntarism. Voluntarism is the contention that God should be seen as a force of pure will, not intelligence or reason, and that God's purposes are essentially arbitrary. In contrast, the Catholic view is that God is rational (Logos), which means that God is truth and infinite Intelligence. I've discussed the influence of voluntarism on Protestant fundamentalism and Islam on this blog before. Pope Benedict's questioning about whether the voluntarist spirit in modern Islam leads to misplaced compulsion and violence in religion was what handed him in hot water a few months ago.

Although Linker does not use this term, one of his chief criticisms of Mormon doctrine is that it is suffused by voluntarism. Not only does Mormonism follow Islam and Protestantism by seeing a book as the source of revelation, but its peculiar approach to prophecy makes it stand apart. In a nutshell, the leader of Mormonism is regarded as a prophet of God. As Linker notes: "Mormonism opens the door to prophetically inspired acts and innovations, the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way." There is simply no rationalist tradition to "check the veracity of prophetic pronouncements." Moreover, the nature of the Mormon God suggests that "there is simply no room for a natural morality in Mormon theology, since Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose." Linker himself relates a frightening personal story from the days when he taught at Brigham Young University: when he asked his students how they would respond if the prophet in Salt Lake City commanded them to commit murder, numerous Mormon students said they would do so without question. Now, that is voluntarism.

I am not suggesting that Mormonism is currently a threat to the United States or to the world. But these questions certainly deserve attention if a Romney candidacy gains traction. And they are far more relevant than whether or not Romney truly believes gay marriage should be banned or not.

1 comment:

HiveRadical said...

There are some grave errors in both the stated nature and the expression of Mormon doctrine.

First off is the perpetuation that we believe in a finite God. This is not true. We believe that God is eternal. Even his status as at one time being a mortal man does not exclude his actual being from having always existed.

Secondly you are incorrectly labeling LDS openess to divine command that defies humanities finite logical constructs as "voluntarism." It is no such thing. We simply hold that God, being omniscient, has access to the highest of logics. And just as 'tunneling' in Theoretical Physics is a phenomena that seems to exist without us (or any physicists at present) knowing exactly and fundamentally why, so are the commands received of God, they are not fundamentally based on emotion or will and especially NOT disregarding ultimate logic. Since these divine commands are dictated through litteral revelation from God they have ultimate rationality behind them, man's finite and impotent rational capacities notwithstanding.