Listening to the give-and-take on the talk shows in recent weeks about whether Mitt Romney's Mormon religious beliefs will hurt his chances for the presidency brought to mind a conversation I had with one of my brothers-in-law one afternoon last summer. We were talking about the same topic over the kitchen table, but from an angle different from the one that is getting play these days. It is one that you will not hear discussed on the talk shows.
The conventional wisdom is that Romney will have to do something to change the minds of a good number of the 37 percent of voters who told Los Angeles Times pollsters that they would never vote for a Mormon for president. Some of those polled were suspicious of the polygamy permitted in Mormonism until 1890; others were concerned about the possibility that the president of the Church of Latter Day Saints, who is considered a living prophet by Mormons, will have authority over Romney's decision-making in the White House. This last concern resembles the fears expressed in 1960 over the control the Vatican would exert over John F. Kennedy.
The consensus among the reporters and the television commentators is that Romney will be able to defuse these concerns; that few voters these days will take seriously the notion that Romney will be a puppet of religious leaders in Salt Lake City. The voters in Massachusetts who elected Romney governor in 2003 didn't worry about that happening. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democrat Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada are Mormons. If the president of the Church of Latter Day Saints is pulling their strings, he is a lousy puppeteer. They vote the opposite way most of the time.
My brother-in-law and I agreed with this line of thinking. We focused on something else about the Mormons that afternoon, something politically incorrect, but which, I suspect, many ponder in private. I have no intention of ever running for public office, so I'll admit to you what it was. Here goes: just for discussion purposes, I asked my brother-in-law whether he thought there is a limit to the voters' tolerance of the religious beliefs of a candidate for the presidency, even in these days of multiculturalism and non-judgmental attitudes.
I say there is, and rightly so. Let us state the obvious. Few of us, for example, would vote for someone who was a Wiccan, a Druid who prayed each spring at Stonehenge, a Hare Krishna, or someone who practiced religious rituals that he believed were given to him when he was abducted by extra-terrestrials. Most of us would assume that these beliefs cast doubts upon a person's judgment and emotional stability. Maybe we would buy our pastry from someone who believed these things, or permit them to work on our air conditioning system, but we would not want to put them in charge of national policy — even though we would find some other reason to give in public for our opposition to their candidacy, lest we appear intolerant and judgmental.
The question is whether it is fair to put Mormons in the same category. I say it is not. But that does not mean the question does not have to be dealt with. (You can bet the Clintons will find surrogates to raise it if we find Hillary running against Romney.) On one level, the reason the question is unfair is obvious. Orrin Hatch and the Romneys and the people who run Utah are poles apart from Wiccans and Hare Krishnas in every observable way. They are mainstream, successful, solid family people, industrious, usually conservative politically and culturally.
But the fact remains that they believe that an angel named Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith in upstate New York and handed to him God's revelation on golden plates, which Smith then transcribed for mankind. They believe this happened not somewhere in the mists of time, but in 1823, while James Monroe was in the White House and Davy Crockett was making speeches in the Tennessee legislature.
The question I raised with my brother-in-law is whether a rational person, fit to be commander-in-chief, can believe this golden plates story. My brother-in-law chuckled. "Why not?" he responded. "We believe that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and that Jesus walked on water and raised himself from the dead."
Do not misinterpret what my brother-in-law meant. He is a devout Catholic, a devotee of the Latin Mass, in fact. He was not comparing Jesus or Moses to Joseph Smith. He was only making the point that Catholics believe things that non-believers think irrational or superstitious. So do Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, Shintoists and members of every other religion.
"But those things happened over 2000 years ago," I said.
My brother-in-law laughed again. "Come on: that doesn't make any difference," he insisted. "You can't say it is rational to believe in a miraculous event on the basis of when it took place. A miracle is a miracle."
"No, it is different," I replied. "We believe that salvation history has a logic to it; that God intervened in the first century A.D. in a way He no longer does; that the Incarnation is a unique event, meant for all of mankind for all time. There is no ongoing Revelation. The things that Mormons believe happened to Joseph Smith in 1823 were not part of human history in the 19th century. We know that is not how the world worked at that time."
"Mormons disagree," my brother-in-law responded. "They say God sent an angel to intervene in history. Why should we think that someone who believes in that intervention lacks judgment any more than someone who believes that angels spoke to the women followers of Jesus outside the tomb on Easter morning?"
"Because," I answered, "at that moment in salvation history God was interacting with mankind differently, in a way He never has since then."
"O.K.," said my brother-in-law, "then what about Fatima and Lourdes. Most Catholics believe in those things even though the rest of the world thinks we are childish for doing so. You wouldn't think it fair if some reporter demanded that Rudy Giuliani publicly renounce any belief in the Fatima story before offering himself as a candidate."
I paused, not sure about how to respond. Time to punt.
My brother-in-law was on a roll. He pressed on: "And you realize, don't you, that non-Catholics think we are irrational for believing in Transubstantiation and Penance. Would you want people voting against Catholics because of that?"
I had to concede his point. I still do.
Remember, now, the question is not whether the Mormons are correct about what took place that night when Joseph Smith says he received the golden plates. I don't think they are. All we are talking about is whether there is anything uniquely "unreasonable" in strictly human terms about this belief, in comparison to the beliefs of anyone else who runs for public office in this country. I say there isn't.
I will admit that I find it hard to fathom how intelligent Mormon doctors and lawyers and CEOs of major corporations can believe in the story of the golden plates. Sorry, I do. But I also understand full well how a Mormon, a Baptist or a Jew might react similarly to my reverence for the stories about Our Lady of Knock that my grandmother told me when I was a boy. St. Ignatius Loyola once said, "Give me the boy and I'll give you the man." That works for other religions as well.
There are reasons not to back Mitt Romney. There might be good reasons not to vote for a Mormon. But it is not fair to hold that their belief in divine intervention in human history reveals a psychological weakness. We do not apply that standard to anyone else running for public office.