Mormons, Politics and Extra Ordinaries
14 October 2011 (updated 11 December 2016)
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Thanks to Hank Pellissier for the opportunity to share my views on the subject of Mormonism and politics, and for the candor in his closing remarks on the article, “A Mormon? For President? Who are these people?”. I have many friends who are atheists, and although I’m a theist, their concerns resonate with me. Religion and theism, even those with which I identify, have too often been abused. Religion is a social technology, probably the most powerful of them, and like all powerful technologies, it can be used both for good and evil.
As Hank points out, religions do tend to make extraordinary claims and engage in divisive politics. Trained in philosophy, with an emphasis in philosophies of science and religion, I know the value of critical analysis and seeking disconfirming evidence, as well as the value of divergent thinking and epistemic humility. Mormonism exercises in me, sometimes to the limits of my abilities, each of these activities. I value both the practical consequences of working toward its vision, and the practical consequences of working out the tensions and conflicts its history and politics raise in me and with others. I sometimes disagree with the majority of my fellow Mormons (such is the case with our political activities related to Proposition 8, mentioned by Hank), but I still love and identify with them. I am, perhaps irredeemably, Mormon.
On the other hand, Transhumanists, with whom I also identify, also make extraordinary claims and engage in divisive politics. Of course, Transhumanists will argue, rightly in many cases, that their claims and politics are better justified by contemporary science and technological trends than are those of most religions. However, too many Transhumanists are failing to acknowledge that our claims and justifications are compatible with many religious views. Too many fail to recognize that our long term expectations have probabilistic implications regarding our past. It’s either naive or arrogant for us to aspire to the status of Matrix Architect, so to speak, without also acknowledging the probabilistic implications of such status. We almost certainly would not be the only or first. Where there are Matrix Architects, the extraordinary loses some of its extra.
Below are my original responses to Hank’s interview questions. He needed to edit them for length requirements on the IEET web site.
Hank: Two Mormons are running for President as Republicans. Can you explain why Mormons are invariably Republican?
Lincoln: Actually, in the nineteenth century, most Mormons were Democrats; and today, although most Mormons in the United States are Republicans, we’re not monolithic. At the denominational level, members the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in the United States tend to be Republicans, while members of some smaller denominations such as the Community of Christ and Reform Mormons tend to be more diverse or Democratic leaning. At the individual level, even the LDS Church harbors some diversity. For example, one of the highest ranking Democrats in the US government, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a member of the LDS Church; while 77% of Mormon Transhumanists are also members of the LDS Church, only 7% identify as conservative in cultural politics; and I’m both a member of the LDS Church and a left-leaning independent. I attribute Mormons’ current Republican inclination to the late twentieth century political influence of some prominent conservative LDS Church leaders, such as Ezra Benson, who was highly critical of the civil rights movement and the Democratic party before becoming president of the church, at which time he became less vocal about his political views. More recently, the LDS Church has taken up the practice of regularly reminding members of its political neutrality, while encouraging us to engage in partisan politics without implying any endorsement from the church.
Hank: Which one - Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman - has the most support from Mormons, and why? Is one more “Mormon” than the other?
Lincoln: Among Mormons in the United States, Mitt Romney is more popular than Jon Huntsman. One reason for this, along the lines you suggested, is that most members of the LDS Church perceive Romney as being more serious about his Mormonism, exhibited by regular participation in church services and programs. Another reason is that Romney, like the majority of Mormons, currently positions himself further right on the political spectrum than Huntsman. This latter difference, however, may reflect their current political strategies more than enduring personal convictions, as Romney appears to have been more moderate as the governor of Massachusetts than he is as a candidate for the US presidency. I suspect Romney, if elected, will prove to be a moderate president.
Hank: Jon Huntsman has spoken out against “Obamacare.” Is there something about Mormonism that is opposed - in principle - to universal health care?
Lincoln: There is nothing in Mormonism, either on the whole or as taught by the LDS Church, that is opposed in principle to universal health care. To the contrary, it is easier to use Mormon scriptures to make a case for universal health care than it is to make a case against it. Our scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, are replete with exhortations to care for the poor and the sick. Almost any Mormon you ask would be in favor of universal health care in the broadest sense; however, we disagree among ourselves regarding whether any government can or should be the provider of that health care, and to what extent. You’ll also find that Mormons will often express concern that governments should not compel individuals to participate in or support most social programs, but rather individuals should enjoy broad freedom of choice. A significant reason some Mormons may not perceive the need for government-run universal health care is that the LDS Church runs worldwide financial and education welfare programs, established on principals of both opportunity and responsibility, that effectively supplement whatever government programs are already in place.
Hank: Both candidates portray themselves as highly-qualified on economic issues. Utah (under Huntsman) recently had the best state economy, and Mormons are a wealthy demographic. Is there something about Mormonism that espouses economic practicality? A balanced budget? Sensible investments?
Lincoln: Mormonism is a practical religion. Faith, for us, is an action word. In LDS Church meetings, at global and local levels, we regularly advocate hard work, emergency preparedness and financial responsibility. As mentioned previously, the church runs successful welfare and education programs for members, as well as private universities with highly ranked financial and business programs. Local congregations gather financial donations to redistribute among themselves as needed, and engage often in service projects for each other. In my local congregation, we’ve been holding regular seminars on financial management and investment, so that members with more experience in these areas can help others with less experience.
Hank: Mormons are joining the mainstream. But don’t they perceive their values as uniquely different from other Christian groups?
Lincoln: Mormons do generally perceive themselves as different from other Christians, although we also share commonalities. Like other Christians, we consider ourselves followers of Jesus Christ, and aspire to trust in and live according to his teachings. We revere the Bible, but unlike some Christians, we do not require literal interpretation or confine ourselves from revering additional books as scripture. Also unlike some other Christians, we teach that our trust in Jesus Christ should lead us to share in the identity of Christ, worship through emulation, and become increasingly like God (theosis), which some other Christians consider heretical. Consequently, some Mormons, seeking improved relations with non-Mormon Christians, have downplayed our doctrine of theosis. I consider that a grave mistake, and a focus of my work with the Mormon Transhumanist Association has been to establish a stronger voice for advocacy of theosis.
Hank: The American Left is very frustrated with the anti-gay agenda of the Mormons. Why are Mormons homophobic? What’s in the Book of Mormon that condemns gays? I assume Mormons think gays are going to Hell. Can they change their mind on this?
Lincoln: Not all Mormons are homophobic. At the institutional level, the Community of Christ (the second largest Mormon denomination) recently extended full membership privileges to homosexuals. Also, the LDS Church has in recent years reformulated its positions on homosexuality, for example, no longer characterizing homosexual thoughts as sins, expressing support for various non-marriage legal rights for homosexuals in Salt Lake City, and actively reminding members not to harbor or express hatred toward homosexuals. On the other hand, the LDS Church certainly has been highly active in combatting the legalization of gay marriage. Why? Perhaps surprisingly, there is nothing in the Book of Mormon that condemns homosexuality, although the book does condemn sexual promiscuity generally. It may also be surprising that most Mormons actually don’t think homosexuals are going to hell in the conventional sense; most Mormons consider hell to be a temporary spiritual state that we may all experience to some extent, leading eventually to varying degrees of heavenly glory, to be enjoyed almost universally by all but those who do not desire any degree of heaven. I think the main reason Mormons generally have been more active than other Christians in combatting gay marriage is that we have highly developed and deeply revered unique doctrines related to marriage that most consider to be utterly irreconcilable with gay marriage. Could that change? Most Mormons will tell you that they cannot imagine that changing. However, a 2009 poll of Mormon Transhumanists indicated that half disagreed with the proposition that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, and more than half agreed that Mormon doctrine can accommodate homosexuality. Personally, while I don’t know whether the LDS Church position on this issue will ever change, I suspect it would change only subsequent to homosexual reproductive technologies becoming effective and commonplace, and non-promiscuous committed homosexual relations becoming commonplace. Such changes would make it easier to see potential for reconciliation between Mormonism and homosexuality.
Hank: It is becoming increasingly well-known that Mormon women have one the highest rates of anti-depressant usage in the USA. Can we infer from this that Mormon women are depressed? If so, why? And why can’t women be “Presidents” of the Mormon Church?
Lincoln: Although the subject is controversial, because anti-depressant usage may have an inverse correlation with smoking and other activities that Mormons avoid, I suspect there’s some truth to the observation that Mormon women have higher than usual rates of depression. There may be both environmental causes, such as a correlation between rates of depression and high altitudes, and social causes: Mormons do tend to have high expectations of themselves and others, and too often these expectations are insufficiently tempered with patience. Do the social causes of depression among Mormon women include the LDS Church’s constraints on women’s authority? I know that’s a concern for some women, but my informal observation is that they are the minority. For example, the fact that women cannot hold the same positions of authority as men in the LDS Church appears to concern me far more than any of the women in my own family. We do have many women leaders in the LDS Church, both at congregational and worldwide levels; however, they are all directly or indirectly supervised by men. The reason for this is that the LDS Church requires persons in the highest leadership positions to be ordained to the priesthood, and only men are permitted to be ordained. This may be more of a cultural issue than a doctrinal issue. The Bible sets precedents for women in priesthood roles; a prominent early Mormon, Eliza Snow, set a precedent for a woman acting under the title of “high priestess”; Mormons sing about our Heavenly Mother; and Mormon women officiate in temple ceremonies. I expect this matter will continue to evolve with time.
Hank: Jon Huntsman speaks Mandarin and was ambassador to China. Mormonism is an international religion. Does Mormonism make a genuine attempt to understand other cultures? If so, why proselytize? Sending missionaries somewhere suggests that the indigenous culture is wrong, is lacking, and needs Mormonism to perfect itself.
Lincoln: Mormons work hard to understand and appreciate cultures worldwide. The Book of Mormon, available in 82 languages, teaches that God speaks to and through all peoples - not just Mormons, Christians and Jews. LDS Church leaders have regularly affirmed that idea, expressing conviction that God has inspired the founders of many major religious and non-religious ideologies throughout history, and that the work of God is too great to be completed by any one people alone. The LDS Church also encourages members to respect and promote their local cultures. For example, members in Israel observe the Sabbath on Saturday, male missionaries in some tropical island locations wear skirts, and the church operates a formidable Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. Of course, Mormonism may not be compatible with all aspects of all cultures, and members of the LDS Church worldwide make promises to act and not act in ways that may be incompatible with some aspects of their local cultures. Does this mean Mormons think other cultures are wrong or lacking? Most Mormons are not moral relativists, so we may express concerns when we see a cultural aspect that we deem immoral. More importantly, though, we do generally believe that we have something valuable to share with others, not even necessarily to replace what they have, but at least to complement what they have. When training missionaries, the LDS Church encourages them to learn to love the peoples and cultures they’ll seek to serve. Sometimes we fail, but my own experience is that it can work remarkably well: my father was a missionary in France, I became a missionary in France, I since married a French woman, and we speak French in our home with our three children. Finally, I’ll just mention that the LDS Church also assigns missionaries to serve in Utah, and puts an even greater effort into its internal missionary program known as “home teaching”, illustrating that we consider ourselves to have needs like those of external cultures to which we send missionaries.
Hank: There’s a high rate of technological and engineering expertise among Mormons. Can you explain this? Is there something in the creed’s tenets that encourages tech, science, computer knowledge?
Lincoln: Mormonism has always emphasized education and technology, reflecting founder Joseph Smith’s teaching that “the glory of God is intelligence”. The Book of Mormon contains an intriguing story about a man named Lehi, who in ancient times sought guidance from God while journeying in the desert with his family to find a new home. One morning, upon opening the door of his tent, he discovered on the ground a fine brass ball of “curious workmanship”. On inspecting the ball, Lehi saw that it contained two spindles, and soon learned that one of the spindles would move to guide him through the more fertile parts of the desert. From time to time, messages also appeared on the ball, providing additional assistance during the journey. When Lehi and his family arrived at the sea, his son, Nephi, climbed a nearby mountain to seek further guidance from God. He was inspired to make tools and build an unusual ship, the likes of which he had never before seen. When completed, the ship served to carry them across the sea to their new home. For me, this story epitomizes the importance of education and technology in the Mormon worldview. Mormons do expect inspiration from God, but we do not expect God to do what we can do for ourselves. We can learn and we can build, and so we do. Like Lehi, we expect education and technology to be part of our journey to a new and better home.
Hank: The American public has probably formed many of their ideas about Mormonism based on two media productions: the book “Under The Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakhauer, and the TV show “Big Love.” How do Mormons feel about these cultural depictions of their religion?
Lincoln: Most Mormons don’t identify with these productions because they focus on Mormon fundamentalism, which is practiced by a small percentage of Mormons - perhaps vanishingly small, given that the LDS Church has been excommunicating persons practicing polygamy for about a century. The media productions do make for exciting stories, but they’re probably as likely to confuse as help you in an effort to understand a Mormon neighbor.
Hank: Mormonism is suspected by many Americans as being very racist. Can you explain these passages in the Book of Mormon? “Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with black skin and have been denied the privilege of Priesthood and the fulness of the blessings of the Gospel. These are the descendants of Cain” (p. 101).
Lincoln: This quotation is not from the Book of Mormon. It’s from a book by a former president of the LDS Church, and it’s not recognized by Mormons as scripture. However, there are a few passages of the Book of Mormon that I do consider racist, in that they attribute dark skin to a curse from God, which is something most Mormons reject today. The Book of Mormon also contains passages such as this: “[God] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” Such passages don’t justify the racist passages, but they do illuminate a fuller picture. It’s also worth repeating that Mormons don’t necessarily hold to scriptural literalism or inerrancy. Brigham Young, who led the Mormon pioneers after Joseph Smith’s death, once said the following, which resonates with my own view of scripture: “Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiff-necked, the Lord can tell them but little.” On the subject of racism more generally, the LDS Church does unfortunately have some institutional racism in its past, and that was resolved in 1978 when the church extended priesthood to blacks. Since that time, the church has added blacks, as well as increasing numbers of other non-caucasians into leadership roles, at both local and global levels. I confident we’ll continue to improve in this area, along with the broader culture.
Hank: The life of Joseph Smith - founder of Mormonism - has come under scrutiny by historians. Many accuse him of fraud, of being a conman. He was supposedly arrested for charlatanism by swindling people out of money with “magic stones.” Also - to outsiders - his claim that he was given golden tablets by an angel, but that he later lost them, seems highly dubious. How do Mormons refute, or ignore, these charges?
Lincoln: Joseph Smith was human, and I don’t agree with everything he said or did. However, he was acquitted of those swindling charges, and he actually claimed that he returned the gold plates to the angel (still dubious perhaps, but hardly the most extraordinary claim he made about angels). Where I think Joseph is most vulnerable to moral criticism is in his marital relations. He should have been more honest with his first wife before engaging in polygamy. His moral failings, whatever they may be, clearly concerned him too, as illustrated when he mentions his own need to repent in writings that are today part of Mormon scripture. In contrast, though, and without intending to justify any moral failings, I’ll add that I consider Joseph Smith a prophet, if ever there was one. A few sentences won’t do justice to my reasons, but basically his words and actions on the whole inspire me. Throughout human history, some persons have managed to articulate an esthetic that moves and shapes us, emboldens and ennobles us, invokes in us the strenuous mood toward benevolence and creativity beyond human capacity, toward the divine. Joseph Smith is one of those persons, for Mormons and even for non-Mormons, as expressed by Harold Bloom, a Jew and professor of humanities at Yale, who observes: “A literary critic necessarily is more at home with Emerson than with Joseph Smith, though I would name them both (with Walt Whitman) as our authentic American prophets.”
Hank: A Rasmussen poll named Mormons as the 3rd least-electable belief system in the USA behind Muslims and atheists. Do you think this is false, and what can Mormons do to counteract it?
Lincoln: I haven’t examined the process quality of the Rasmussen poll, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s accurate. Many persons are suspicious of Mormons, mostly because they don’t know much about us. I think if you polled only persons that personally know Mormons, you’d get more positive results, as you would with persons that personally know Muslims and atheists. The LDS Church is doing a number of things to help others better understand and trust us: member profiles published at mormon.org give others insight into our personalities and interests beyond religion; media information published at newsroom.lds.org addresses common misunderstandings and clarifies official positions. At an individual level, most Mormons welcome the opportunity to talk about our religion, as I’ve enjoyed doing with you. Sincere questions won’t offend most of us, so ask! I wager you’ll end up agreeing that Mormons should be as electable as any other commonly respected ideological group.
If you like these thoughts, you might also like “Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on Reconciling Faith.”