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At a Distance
December 21, 2007

The Cultist in the Public Square
by Chilton Williamson

At the core of Governor Romney’s well-written and intelligent address on December 6, 2007, at the George Bush Library and Museum in Collegeville, Texas, was a desperately devious attempt to discourage voters, commentators, and other politicians from making potentially devastating inquiries into his theological beliefs and what he described as “unique doctrines” of his church. Romney is hoping those doctrines in particular that relate to the nature of Jesus Christ — which, he conceded, “may not be all the same as those of other faiths” — will escape discovery by the gentiles, that is, non-Mormons. (The Beehive State of Utah is the only place in the world where a Jew is a gentile.)

Indeed, they are not the same. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, although it says it believes Christ is the Son of God, in fact teaches that he is really “a son of God,” in the same way that Chilton Williamson is a son of God. It is a well-known fact that Mormons are not Trinitarians. What seems far less well known — so little known, in fact, that I have yet to read of it in the press or on the web — is that Mormons do not believe in the divinity of Christ. Jesus Christ, for them an important prophet in a line of prophets, is of lesser stature than Joseph Smith, the founder of their religion. In truth, Mormons are not Christian heretics, as worried evangelicals have been claiming. Mormons are not related theologically to Christians at all.

Otherwise, Romney’s talk was a dignified and intelligent piece of work. Unsurprisingly, it drew an undignified and unintelligent response the day after on the editorial page of The New York Times. The gist of the address was simply the common-sense proposition that “while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it is usually a sound rule to focus on the latter, on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course.”

While insisting that he did not define his presidential candidacy by his religion, Romney wished his hearers to know that, as a man who adheres to “the faith of my fathers,” as president he would not attempt to separate the country from “the God who gave us liberty.” The Founders of the United States, Romney said, did not intend to eliminate religion from the public square. In recent times, the doctrine of the separation of church of state has been taken too far, to the point where religion is treated as a purely private matter and secularism has been raised to the status of a religion.

American moral values, Romney asserted, are not unique to any single church or denomination. Rather, they belong “to the great moral heritage we hold in common.” And Romney pledged not to try to separate the country from that heritage, while implying that he would, indeed, seek to bring the two together again.

According to The New York Times, “Even by the low standards of this campaign, it was a distressing moment....” The editors professed to be shocked by the spectacle of “a presidential candidate cowed into defending his way of worshipping God by a powerful minority determined to impose its religious tenets as a test for holding public office.” “Religious testing,” the Times claimed, “has gained strength in the last few elections.” But Governor Romney did not sound in the least cowed. Indeed, he invited voters whose disagreements with him were irreconcilable to vote for someone else. Nor does the demand of a constituency to know where a candidate stands, on religion or any other issue, amount to a “test.”

Presumably, liberals who contemplate voting for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama wish to feel assured that these candidates really are liberals. As it happens, the whole of the primary season thus far has been about which Republican candidate is the most conservative of them all, and which Democrat the most liberal. What is wrong with an aspirant to office who wants a religious constituency to know where he stands on religion? A religious test is a legal qualification to stand for office, as imposed by the Test Act passed by the English Parliament in 1673 that required holders of public office to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation and take communion in the Anglican Church. One presumes the editors of the Times understand that.

The Times complains that, unlike the Founders, Governor Romney in particular and conservative Christians in general fail to understand, as the Founders did, “the difference between celebrating religious faith as a virtue, and imposing a particular doctrine, or even religion in general, on everyone.” But the burden of Romney’s speech was precisely that he had no intention of imposing doctrine on anybody.

His argument really comes down to this: The public square is not just for politics, if only because politics is always about so much else, including religion. As far as the poor agnostics and atheists are concerned, they are the victims of their own self-imposed separation from the human mainstream going back hundreds of thousands of years. Individuals may survive, and even flourish, as atheists. Societies, however, cannot — more important, they will not. Governor Romney, to his eternal credit, has said the thing that has needed saying for a long time in the upper echelons of American politics.

Still, we have the Mormon business before us. In the weakest, most evasive, most dishonest paragraph of his speech, Romney astonishingly took a leaf from what would be The New York Times’s brief against him. “There are some,” he said, “who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the Founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith.” If I were running for the office of president of the United States, I certainly would not care to have it known that my church believed that Christ, though carnally begotten by Our Heavenly Father, was not divine. Nor that Satan and Jesus are biological brothers. On the other hand, if I did truly believe in the faith of my fathers, I wouldn’t attempt to hide my beliefs by arranging an elaborate media event to deter people from finding out about them.

Mike Huckabee — by stopping just short of calling Mormonism a cult — called Mormonism a cult. Is it?

Some years ago, when I was living 90 air miles from Salt Lake City — in the shadow of the Mormon Temple, so to speak — a friend told my wife and me a story. This friend had a Mormon acquaintance who was preparing to give birth to her 15th child. (The Church urges every Mormon family in good standing to produce 12 children.) The woman had nearly died giving birth to her 14th and had been warned by her doctor against further pregnancies. Shortly before the child was due, our friend, in conversation with a Mormon lady who was a friend also of the expectant mother, expressed concern for the outcome of her labor. “Oh,” this woman replied reassuringly, “if Mrs. X dies, the Church will find Mr. X a new wife.”

I wonder what the Huckabee-for-President crowd would make of that story?

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