The January issue of Perspectives has two articles about the possibility of a Mormon president. Jack Van Der Slik, emeritus political science professor from Illinois-Springfield writes “A Mormon President?” and Chad Ray, philosophy prof at Central College offers “Clumsy Comments and Mormon Stereotypes” Since the publication of that issue, Jon Huntsman has dropped out of the race, but Mitt Romney is still a frontrunner.
There is something in me, I hope it is not blind bigotry, that resists voting for a Mormon. Please allow me to try to unpack that. I fear I’m skating on thin ice. If it cracks and gives way, please feel free to tell me. If I fall into ignorant chauvinism, rescue me.
My intuition tells me that I can’t imagine voting for a Mormon simply because I have never found or seen or met a Mormon that I would vote for. This might be called the “incarnation principle” (nothing to do with Christology directly, or maybe it is?). Seeing in the flesh matters, perhaps especially to Christians. People couldn’t believe a Messiah could come from Nazareth until they met him. People are opposed to women in ministry until they hear a woman proclaim the Word of God with power. People are dubious about the full inclusion of LBGT persons in church until they meet one who is radiant with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So maybe, I need to see and meet a Mormon that I could vote for. As of now, that has not happened.
I ask myself, “Why would I find it easier to vote for a Muslim than Mormon?” Here I admit I’m a bit flummoxed. Let me take a stab at an explanation. Islam is one the “world’s great religions.” I’m using that category—“world’s great religions”—more as a historic or sociological term than a theological category. I’m not a pluralist putting Islam on par with Christianity. But I do recognize that Islam has stood the test of time. It has deeply shaped global civilization. Yes, it has its fair share of dangerous fundamentalists, but what religion doesn’t?
In contrast, I view Mormonism as a mutated offshoot of Christianity. There is nothing classic about it. Mormonism is not one of the benchmarks in world religion or culture. Perhaps in a thousand years it will be, but that will do me or Romney little good. No expert on Mormonism am I, but I remember it once being described this way, “If a committee of marketing experts were to design a religion that would best tap into the American psyche, they would come up with Mormonism—family, hard work, you-can-be-a-god, good is rewarded, a unique role for America.” This same anti-Mormon voice attributed Mormon success in cross-cultural missions to the desire in the converts to gain access to the American dream—“become a Mormon and you too can be a shiny, happy person.” Is that a fair characterization of a “lesser” religion or I have slipped into bigotry? I’m not sure. Is that reason enough to say categorically that I would not vote for a Mormon? I’m not sure.
The more substantial issue is not the characterization or evaluation of Mormonism. It is the way this issue is regularly framed—in terms of public and private. Van Der Slik points out how Romney harkens back to JFK’s well-known words to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. "I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office." At the risk of sounding like Rick Santorum, I do not see Kennedy’s speech as the arrival, at-long-last, of shining civilization and the triumph of open-mindedness. Instead it is more like the symbolic tipping point, the mainstream acceptance of the public/private dichotomy, especially the assertion that religion is a private affair.
Kennedy’s proposal, which of course goes back way before him, is to relegate religion to the private and inward. Note JFK’s use of the word “impose.” That is what religion is presumed to do—intrude, foist, and force. No doubt religion has too often done those things and so it must be confined to the private and the inward. Only when religion is shorn of all its particularities, truth-claims and archaic idiosyncrasies can it stop imposing and finally be a helpful prop in the public square. Yet a “private-only” Christianity is a feeble, deracinated thing, perhaps even counterfeit. The same could probably also be said for any of the other great world religions.
The entire private/public schema is problematic for Christianity—might we even say “imposed?” To reject JFK’s (and modernity’s) public-private split is not, despite some dire warnings, typically a path toward theocracy. The claim that Christianity is always and unavoidably “public” doesn’t mean I vote only for Christians, let alone Protestants. There is a good possibility I would vote for a secularist, or an adulterer, or a Muslim, perhaps even a Mormon. But if I ever do vote for a Mormon, I don’t want to do so by saying “Their religion is just a private affair.”