Reading my complaint about the unavailability of the article, Prof. Arben Fox was kind enough to send me a copy of Damon Linker’s TNR article on Mitt Romney and Mormonism.  Prof. Fox has written a valuable, extensive response to Mr. Linker at his blog in which he offers a strong critique, and as a Mormon himself he is far better informed and much more capable of answering many of the specific charges that Mr. Linker makes.  Those things that Prof. Fox doesn’t cover are ably addressed by Prof. Bushman’s response to the article.  According to Prof. Fox, Linker’s questions deserve answers, which he tries to provide, in spite of the fact that Linker has framed the argument in such a way as to make it much harder to give answers that will be understood by the skeptical non-Mormon.  Indeed, in today’s salvo Mr. Linker shows that he has not quite understood Prof. Bushman’s answers on behalf of Mormons.  According to Prof. Bushman, the description of Mormons and Mormonism Linker gives would be entirely unrecognisable to actual Mormons.  However, this general statement about the entirety of the piece is not enough–Mr. Linker wants a list of his errors (as if one overarching statement that he got it wrong were not enough).  Prof. Bushman’s first response is not unlike the response Mr. Linker’s attack on “theocons” has elicited from religious conservatives, who do not begin to recognise themselves in what he writes about them.  

As with all polemicists (including myself), Mr. Linker is tremendously logical while having much less interest in what his target has to say for himself (except insofar as that can be used to strengthen the polemic).  As with any heresiologist (and, yes, there can be secular liberal heresiologists of a sort), for Mr. Linker what the target says that he believes is not nearly as important as the logical implications of his assumptions as the heresiologist understands them.  Historians do not approach their subjects this way.  In fact, they approach them in almost the exact opposite way: theirs is the task of describing and understanding, and there is usually a desire to describe, as much as is possible, a group of people in the past in the terms that would have been intelligible to them.  Above all, the historian tries to understand how they understood themselves.  This is why many historians, especially secular historians, boggle at heresiology and doctrinal controversy.  As people trained to seek to understand what people radically different from ourselves believed and why, historians find the habit of mind of, say, a late antique or Byzantine polemicist embarrassingly heavy-handed and tendentious.  Can’t these people see what their opponents are saying?  Why do they insist on imposing an entire architecture of error on their interlocutors with which the latter categorically deny any connection?  Because that is what polemicists do: what you say is important only as a window into what you must really mean when you say it.  Pay no attention to the fact that Mormons have not been taking political marching orders from  the elders in Salt Lake City–they must take those orders and follow through on them, according to the secular polemicist, because that is what any serious religious believer must do, especially in a church that stresses the importance of new prophecy as a source of revealed truth.  The polemicist knows this because it follows logically from how he understands religious authority.  That is, someone under religious authority is obliged to follow the dictates of that authority, and must therefore be the authority’s willing instrument in all things.  To put such a person in power thus threatens us all with being controlled by that person’s religious authority.  This is especially true for the polemicist if the religious believer is an avowed advocate of deriving certain of his political values from his religious tradition, however indirectly or vaguely.  Never mind that all of this is specifically rejected by the person and the religious authority in question.  The perfect logic of the polemic has no need of evidence. 

It would appear that most of the heavy lifting in this debate has already been done.  However, there are still a few things that Linker does say that I would like to discuss a little bit more.  As I read it, Mr. Linker says that pre-Vatican II Catholicism was frightening because it was foreign and too hostile to modernity, democracy, etc., and Mormonism is frightening because it is too American and too closely wedded to our political system.  Here is Linker:

A very different, though arguably more troubling, set of questions and concerns are posed by the prospect of the nation electing a president who is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). In some ways, Catholicism and Mormonism present diametrically opposed political challenges to liberal democracy. With Kennedy’s faith, the concern was over the extent of his deference to a foreign ecclesiastical authority.  The genuine and profound loyalty of Mormons to the United States and its political system is, by contrast, undeniable [bold mine-Larison]. Indeed, LDS patriotism flows directly from Mormon theology. And that is precisely the problem.   

Talk about a tough audience!  Genuine and profound loyalty to the United States and its political system, which Mr. Linker does not even attempt to deny, is rooted in Mormon “theology” and is at the same time the source of Mormonism’s threat to “liberal democracy.”  I can only suppose from this that “liberal democracy” is not what Linker thinks the American political system is (technically, they aren’t the same at all, but in any conventional usage we would all agree that they are one and the same).  Further, it confirms that there is nothing that Mormons can do or say that will satisfy the defender of this “liberal democracy,” because their long-standing acceptance of the American constitutional order is not really in doubt and nonetheless Linker deems them a threat to that order. 

What troubles Mr. Linker, then, is not their threat to “liberal democracy,” which is non-existent, but their conviction that America plays a vital and ongoing role in sacred history to a much greater degree than any evangelical Protestant believes.  The whole “American Zion” idea, the Nephites and, well, the Book of Mormon make him nervous.  This stuff really bothers him.  This is not because it strikes him as one of those far-fetched, rather incredible aspects of Mormonism, or that, a la Weisberg, accepting such claims entails some unique gullibility that automatically disqualifies those who accept them from positions of responsibility in government.  The details of most of what Mormons believe do not trouble Mr. Linker as they trouble many a conservative Christian, myself included.  Instead, it is their belief that America has some providential role that worries him.  Why?  Well, he tells us in part here:

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.

Mr. Linker gets fairly sloppy here.  Both Christians and Mormons believe they are living in “the latter days.”  (Unlike the old Seventh-Day Adventists, none of us predicts the date of Christ’s return.)  To say that someone is a “millennialist” does not tell us very much about what he believes about Christ’s reign.  Everyone who believes that Christ will come again and rule is a millennialist of one sort or another.  Everyone who expected Christ’s return since at least St. Paul believed he was living in “the latter days” and there are frequent patristic references to Christ’s Incarnation taking place “in these latter days.”  What Mr. Linker succeeds in showing here is that, as far removed from orthodox Christianity as Mormonism is on many, many things, it is actually more conventional (at least for many Protestants) in its pre-millennialism than it is in many other points of theology.  As near as I can tell, the problem here is that Linker believes Mormons to be political millenarians as well: that is, he seems to be claiming that they believe that they can help usher in the end times through political action.  If that were true, it could be very worrisome.  Politically active chiliasts often unleash terrible evils upon the world.  But why is it that I have the hardest time imagining Mormons, who are personally much more on the milquetoast side than on the side of fanaticism, engaging in a power play to hasten the millennium?  Prof. Fox provides a possible explanation:

Mormon millenarianism is a fascinating topic, but it is also very much a background theme in the contemporary church [bold mine-DL], and while most Americans would probably instinctively think Mormon claims about these matters are nutty, they’d also have to acknowledge that they are mostly without specific political content, unless one chooses to seriously and unfairly strain one’s interpretations.

Very simply, Mormon beliefs about the United States and the end times come down to this: it is popularly (and to a degree doctrinally–more on that difference below) accepted in the Mormon church that the freedoms guaranteed in the United States, particularly through the absence of established churches, made the founding of our church possible, and that consequently we need to both see a divine purpose in the founding of this nation and feel a divine imperative to preserve the freedoms its founding guaranteed. (An imperative that I have felt more than a few Mormon legislators have failed to respect lately.) There is also a popular (though not so much doctrinal) belief within the church that Mormons in the U.S. will play an important role in the eventual fate of this country in the lead-up to the second coming of Christ. But–and this is the important thing for purposes of this argument–there is no clearly defined sense of what that role will be.       

In short, Mormons are moved by their religious commitment to…defend constitutional liberties, including the freedom of religion?  Now, that is scary!

What bothers Mr. Linker still more is the unsettled nature of Mormonism because of the potential role of prophecy in making significant changes to the religion and the authority accorded to prophecy.  As Prof. Bushman hinted and as Mr. Linker himself acknowledged, the few most recent occasions when prophecy was used to introduce new teachings that are formally binding on all Mormons have actually brought Mormonism more in line with contemporary social mores. Prophecy in Mormonism has historically had the very moderating effect on Mormonism that Mr. Linker says Mormonism lacks because of its reliance on prophecy.  (Leave aside for the moment the potentially more disturbing pattern of prophecy coming up with the “right” answer to solve a problem that Mormons were facing at the time–for instance, the official rejection of polygamy coming just in time to facilitate Utah statehood.)  

Were Montanists still kicking around somewhere, Mr. Linker would have the same fears of the claims of the New Prophecy.  Certainly, from an orthodox Christian perspective, Mormonism is as objectionable as Montanism was for the apparently changeable nature of its basic church teachings.  Then again, orthodox Christians would almost have to hope that there was some mechanism by which Mormons could effectively jettison their most absurd and theologically nonsensical beliefs (not that there is much chance of their doing this, mind you).  For some of the most die-hard critics of Mormonism, the possibility that Mormonism is “unstable” in this way and may become something doctrinally other than what it is is hardly something that makes Mormonism appear worse, much less threatening.  Indeed, one word that never comes to mind when I think of Mormonism today is the word threatening.  Except as a heresy (which is admittedly no small thing), it poses no threat whatever.     

It seems to me that it is quite one thing to note that Mormons are not Christians and for Christian voters to take that into account when judging a Mormon candidate.  It is quite another thing to conjure up rather far-reaching, implausible scenarios of Mormon domination when the historical record suggests that nothing could be further from the minds of the Mormons themselves.  But then far-reaching, implausible scenarios of domination by religious enthusiasts are Mr. Linker’s stock in trade these days, aren’t they?