Thursday, April 12, 2007

Is Ken Woodward a Mormon bigot?

Ken Woodward, former editor of Newsweek on HughHewitt. They discuss Woodward's op-ed The Presidency's Mormon Moment.

Hewitt says the piece is bigoted. Some of his callers (all Mormons) think so, others not.

Woodward's piece is basically a call for Romney to make a JFK-like Houston speech when Romeny goes to give the commencement speech at Pat Robertson's Regent University in May.

Woodward details what he calls some common American perceptions about Mormonism that Romney could help clear up. The perceptions of Mormons are:

1.Clannish, hire their own.
2.Church is like corporation. "Has the soul of a corporation."
3.Secret rituals (i.e. no going into temples after they are consecrated).
4.Living Prophet of the Church.
5.One theological language for the outside, one language for the inside.

#4 is the real point of Woodward's piece. Romney should make clear that the Living Prophet of the LDS Utah Church nor The Apostles Council are going to dictate to Romney what he would do as President. Just as JFK said in Houston the Pope would not make decisions for him as President.

Hewitt says that if you substituted Jew for Mormon it would be considered anti-Semitic. I think Hewitt is right that Woodward's claim that "Romney has to be their [America's] teacher" is bogus. He just has to say like JFK did, that he will not take orders as president from a religious figure. Hewitt's right that the issue is that we are discussing Americans and the religion should be non-crucial to a political office.

Still I don't know if it is as much bigotry as perceptions more accurate probably to the 50s, 60, 70s.

My experiences with Latter Day Saints (I prefer that term to Mormons) has been that yes they married within their church, but that there were friendly open people. My dad worked with a LDS and we were invited over to their house for BBQs, etc. So I think clannish gives the sense of ghettoized. Which is not my sense.

Woodward does make one decent point which is no stereotypes come into existence without some grain of truth. I think that is true across the board ("no one is smart enough to be 100% wrong", "everyone is partially right"). At least in the sense of conscious racism/bigotry. Unconsciously possibly, but Woodward as you can tell by the interview seems to hold fairly monolithic views of a lot of groups, not just Mormons.

But I think Latter Day Saints themselves would be in a better position than me to make the call on bigoted or not.

I'll say that Woodward has Hewitt on point 4 about the Living Prophet. Hewitt tries to compare the LDS teaching that since there is a Living Prophet that can be contemporary revelation with the Papal Doctrine of Infallibility. This is theologically a losing argument. The doctrine of infallibility is that the Pope can articulate what the Church has always taught (the doctrine of the repository of faith). That is entirely different than new revelation. There is no new revelation in the Catholic Church. Which is why of course it can't accept the Book of Mormon to begin with as another scripture.

Woodward does repeatedly state he does not think that Romney would be controlled by his church in policy decisions and that he has Mormon friends. If it is bigoted, I'd say it's of a fairly soft variety. I think a lot of Woodward's statements are more ignorant than bigoted. When I think of bigoted I think of a conscious choice to slander a group.

So I think those (mis?)perceptions of Mormons Woodward points to are much stronger than Hewitt seems to think. I may be wrong about that.

I have in my own life experienced #5. I was talking with some young LDS missionaries in Micronesia (where I lived for a year). We discussed doctrine, church, etc. I asked about the Trinity and their understanding of God and the missionaries told me they believe the same things I do. But that's not the case.

Thus, when Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans a few months ago that Jesus was his “personal savior,” he used Southern Baptist language to affirm a relationship to Christ that is quite different in Mormon belief. (For Southern Baptists, “personal savior” implies a specific born-again experience that is not required or expected of Mormons.) This is not a winning strategy for Mr. Romney, whose handlers should be aware that Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals know Mormon doctrine better than most other Americans do — if only because they study Mormonism in order to rebut its claims. Especially at Regent University, Mr. Romney should avoid using language that blurs fundamental differences among religious traditions. Rather, he should acknowledge those differences and insist that no candidate for public office should have to apologize for his or her religious faith.
That I agree with--he shouldn't have to apologize for his faith but on the other he shouldn't tiptoe around the differences either....the differences between LDS and Nicene forms of Christianity. But all of that shouldn't matter relative to his running for political office.

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At 11:15 AM, Blogger Shannon said...

as someone who has been inaccurately called a Mormon, this op-ed piqued my interest. I think it is fascinating just how obsessively upset people get about Latter-Day Saints. I also think it is interesting, but in no way surprising, that there is a LDS among the US presidential possibilities. Joseph Smith, original prophet/president/charismatic leader of the LDS church, made an attempt at running for president too, so this is in no way the US presidency's first "Mormon Moment".

In reading the article, I don't find Woodward to necessarily come across as a bigot, I wouldn't call it that. Naive perhaps, unnecessarily critical, perhaps. Would we let a writer talk about, say, Islam in the same way he talks about "Mormonism"? I wonder.

From a theological reflection standpoint, if I were to think critically about the implications of a LDS president of the US I would be less concerned about the LDS views on salvation or the doctrine of God, and more concerned about their eschatology, more precisely the doctrines around realized eschatology. People hated Joseph and his followers when they were in Illinois in the mid 1800's because in their efforts to build a utopian community, they actually weren't doing too badly. They were actually sharing resources, had common storehouses (did you know that the freeze-dried food that is likely in your pantry is there thanks to LDS innovations?), and took care of their people: that made for a thriving town.

It's that building of utopia that keeps people actually involved in the LDS church, even, as many ethnographers have discovered, if those people don't actually believe in the church's doctrine anymore. People like to have a community to belong to, that will take care of them and support them. LDS aren't bashful about building the kingdom on earth, so having a Mormon president, then, is a step in the right direction.

That's the "Mormon" theological concept the US might actually might want to look at and think about, it's a much more seductive one, and might require some ambivalent thinking.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


Thanks for the extremely insightful comment. I hadn't thought of the kingdom-realized eschatology point. And your right I haven't heard anyone reference that element either (I did know about the freeze dried food).

In terms of Romney himself I don't know much other than he is from a highly patrician background. His father was a Governor of Michigan and ran (unsuccessfully) for the Republican presidential nomination. Also he is a very good businessman and almost singlehandedly (if reports are to be believed) got the Salt Lake Olympics back on track from near-disaster.

But he is running as a social conservative now--and I still see him as having no chance of either being nominated by the party much less President--so if he wants to promote such a vision I think it would have to be filtered more through the traditional American libertarian (non-governmental) strain of civic action, local support groups, churches, etc.

Utopian social government visions tend to come from the left in a secularized form in this country.


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