Friday, August 24, 2012

Romney's faith and my vote

A month or so ago I made a comment on Facebook about a campaign ad by Obama for America. At the time I felt that the Obama campaign attempted to call attention to Romney's religion in the phrasing of the ad. This sparked a rather lengthy discussion over the rest of the evening, during most of which I slept. After some initial good discussion of the actual point I made, the comments rapidly degenerated into a general discussion of Obama vs. Romney along party-line talking points. I should have expected that, but when I woke up the next day I had neither the time nor the energy to address the feedback. Now I do.

I'll start with the original comment. My colleagues from the University of Utah immediately pointed out how much of a leap I had made, and I admitted that fairly quickly. My main concern was that this represented a oblique line of attack going forward. It appears that the concern was misguided. More significantly, it appears that the Romney campaign is using the "belief" heavily in its campaign. If Romney wants to "believe in America," I think it's fair for Obama to talk about Romney's core beliefs as they relate to America. There is still some nuance there, but I expect the official rhetoric to stay clean on the aspects of religious beliefs.

That lead's to the question of what significance a candidate's religion should play in a political race. Does it matter what Obama's preacher teaches from the pulpit? What does it mean that Romney is a Mormon? I think that the answer to both of those questions depends on an individual's religious convictions. How I feel about it may not be the way others feel about it, and it definitely doesn't necessarily represent the way people "should" feel about it. Below I'll discuss my thoughts.

Really, the comforting side in most conspiracy theory arguments is the one claiming that anyone who's in power has any plan at all.
This all comes from this Facebook discussion. While several points were made that I will probably touch upon, the main comment which provoked this post is this one by Dave:
Does Mormonism have a theological viewpoint on wealth distribution issues such as universal healthcare? Does the Mormon community have any apprehensions regarding the extent to which Romney's beliefs are in alignment with Mormon doctrine? As a Mormon, do you feel that Romney should be looked to as a good representative of the Mormon religion, or just as a politician who happens to describe himself as a Mormon? Does the Mormon religion have a theological viewpoint regarding extreme wealth such as Romney's $300 million? In regards to this, where does the Mormon religion come down on the famous "sooner pass through the eye of a needle" quote? Is there an ethical problem with one man expending resources on a car elevator while others' lose their homes to foreclosure and live in tent cities?
The line of questioning shows some insight into how others approach Romney's religion, but it also invokes some of the indignation I have as a knee-jerk reaction when my religion is misrepresented or misunderstood. A lot of the issues raised cannot be answered with one-liners, and people (in general) don't want to read things which don't fit in 140 characters. I'll try to answer them, nonetheless.
  • Does Mormonism have a theological viewpoint on wealth distribution issues such as universal healthcare?
    Yes. In fact, it has very clear doctrine concerning this outlined by the ancient Prophet-King Benjamin in Mosiah 4:16-27. The church has not indicated the social or political constructs with which to implement those principles in our day. Social injustice due to class, education, or wealth forms a dangerous motif of warning in the Book of Mormon, often discussed in Mormon theology as the pride cycle.
  • Does the Mormon community have any apprehensions regarding the extent to which Romney's beliefs are in alignment with Mormon doctrine?
    The section of the Mormon community which aligns itself with the Republican party-line has little to no apprehensions. Although that probably covers a majority of Mormons in the United States, the others (like myself) feel some apprehension.
  • As a Mormon, do you feel that Romney should be looked to as a good representative of the Mormon religion, or just as a politician who happens to describe himself as a Mormon?
    This is TBD. So far, Will's point holds: it has thus far been unclear what he stands for, other than not-Obama. Republicans should note that the "not incumbent" approach didn't work so well for Kerry in 2004. Right now he just seems like a (rather lame) politician, trying to get votes. Not a representative of anything. 
  • Does the Mormon religion have a theological viewpoint regarding extreme wealth such as Romney's $300 million?
    I'll combine this with the next one.
  • In regards to this, where does the Mormon religion come down on the famous "sooner pass through the eye of a needle" quote?
    Like most sound bites, scriptures make more sense with context. The full quote:
    Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
    In other words a rich man can get into heaven, but he needs God's help (just like everybody else). One interesting thing to note here is that the disciples were probably a little concerned here, since they weren't exactly poor. For example, Matthew was a tax collector, and Peter ran a profitable fishing business (he even owned boats and hired men). This did not just apply to others of their faith.
    Mormon oral history subscribes to the idea that the "eye of a needle" refers to a gate in Jerusalem. Wikipedia editors have, for some reason, felt it important to attempt to discredit that idea. Even if the date didn't exist, the idea still holds true. In order to get into Heaven, the rich must lower themselves like a camel crawling through a small door. Not impossible, but not easy either.
  • Is there an ethical problem with one man expending resources on a car elevator while others' lose their homes to foreclosure and live in tent cities?
    Yes, but there isn't a person in America not guilty of the same thing. I cannot relate to why Romney needs a car elevator, but people in Africa probably cannot relate to the way I waste water. This argument is a red herring. We live in a society where our political leaders do not and cannot practice asceticism.
Before I continue talking about Romney and his faith, I will take a break to talk religious issues as they relate to Obama. To begin with, people sling so much blatantly untrue (and contradictory) mud at Obama that it gets very difficult to find the truth. Over half the state of Mississippi still thinks he's a Muslim (Eric pointed to that in the Facebook conversation). For some reason I still don't fully understand, Jeremiah Wright played a large role in the 2008 election. To me, religion is a non-issue for Obama. He's a man of faith and not a fanatic. Check. Move on.

Religion plays more prominently in my analysis of Romney because he and I share religions. I know what it means that he served as a Bishop and a Stake President. I have some inkling of what it was like to serve for thirty months as an LDS missionary in France. In fact, Romney was my Bishop and Stake President when I was too little to remember (I lived in Belmont while my dad went to school). I am old enough and mature enough (I think) to have some understanding of the kind of sacrifice required to serve in those positions. Most importantly, I know that those callings come through inspiration to men God wants to serve. Others may not believe that, but that's part of my theology. At one point, God called Romney to serve as a missionary, Bishop, and Stake President. That does not imply any sort of infallibility. It does not imply that he has maintained the expected faithfulness since then.  It just means that during at least three points in his life, he knew how to receive revelation from God and act on it.

That's what things come down to with Romney and I. If, over the next two months, I think he will align himself with the party line and do whatever the political hacks determine he needs to do as President, the fact that he's a Mormon means nothing to me (other than a little embarrassment). If, on the other hand, I think he will seek divine revelation to do what's right in the intense situations he will face, Obama doesn't stand a chance of getting my vote. Let me be clear, I am not saying that Romney should get direction from church leaders as President. In fact, I would expect him to steer far clear of even that perception. I would expect him to have a direct line to God and know how to use it.

I couldn't figure out a way to write that last paragraph that didn't sound a little crazy. The good news is that if you think I sounded a little crazy then everybody else agrees with you, although for probably some different reasons. The idea that I could possibly vote for a Democrat if Romney disappoints probably puzzles most Mormon Republicans. The best explanation I've seen for this comes from Pete Ashdown's website. Pete ran against Orrin Hatch for a senate seat from Utah a while back, and a part of his campaign had to be explaining why Democratic ideals weren't against the state's dominant religion. So, look it up. Non-Mormons will think my emphasis and faith in personal revelation strange. I do not really have a defense for this; either you drink the Kool-Aid, or you don't.


That about wraps it up. I have more I could say, but I need to go to bed (again). I have kept putting this off because I don't normally like to think about politics. I think that the information shell-game which goes on in our current democracy is inscrutable and ridiculous. I yearn for the Republic set up in our Constitution, but am too cynical to really hope it will come back. I wanted to get this off before the Republican National Convention next week. I hope Romney can make a good showing. I hope he does an "Etch-A-Sketch" to some degree, because so far he just looks to be following the right-wing crazies.

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[Update 8/24/2012 @ 10:44 pm EDT: Updated title from working title]
[Update 8/24/2012 @ 10:52 pm EDT: Removed some blank lines and fixed a typo in the above date]