Here at Via Meadia, we have written extensively about how reports of impending American theocracy have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, put into historical perspective, the religious forces acting upon American politics today are far gentler than those of generations past. But it appears that the New York Times remains unconvinced, as evidenced by a recent spate of alarmist editorials about the faith of Mitt Romney.
This is not about Governor Romney, and it is not about the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Via Meadia takes no view at this early stage about the merits or demerits of the various candidates, and our inveterate Anglicanism gets in the way of embracing the Mormon faith. But bigotry is something that needs to be fought in all its forms; unreasonable fears and prejudices based on religion will always be with us, but such fears belong in the gutter among the wackos, the haters and the tin-foil hat brigades on both the right and the left. When they rise from the sewers and the swamps into mainstream publications and can be casually uttered in polite company by distinguished professors, something is going very wrong, and people who believe in the American way need to speak up.
Few religions have received as much public attention as Mormonism has—in the form of religious polemics, award-winning Broadway musicals, and general political punditry—yet remained so poorly understood. Alas, the NYT editorial page has decided to exacerbate this ignorance rather than combat it. Thus, a piece entitled “Will This Election be the Mormon Breakthrough?” by esteemed Yale professor Harold Bloom insinuates that Romney’s rise may be more than Americans have bargained for, and closes with a dark premonition: “[W]e are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.”
As far as I can make out, Professor Bloom is more elitist misanthrope than bigot; his hatred and loathing for Mormonism is part of a broader and deeper disgust with almost everything that the common people think or do in the contemporary United States. The essay drips with condescension and disdain; he hates and fears the Mormons not because they are different from most of their fellow citizens but because they are like them. American Religion, as the professor calls the faiths that ordinary, non-elite Americans profess, is a toxic brew of death denial and mammon worship, and partly as a result American society is a grotesque oligarchical plutocracy. As the professor concludes:
Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.
Believing as I do that God is infinitely willing and able to forgive, I cannot disagree with this last assertion, but Mark Paredes, a Mormon and the LDS-Jewish relations blogger at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles was not in a forgiving mood after reading Bloom’s piece. In the course of a hard-hitting critique, Paredes demonstrates the difference between rational political argument and bigotry in action:
If he [Bloom] doesn’t like Romney’s policies or positions, he’s free to enunciate his reasons for opposing him without slamming the candidate’s faith. Raising the specter of a “strengthening of theocracy” in this “plutocracy” and “oligarchy” is both irresponsible and unworthy of a writer and thinker of his caliber. After all, many Mormons have served as governors, senators, and cabinet members. Surely the good professor can cite an example of a Mormon in high office who has attempted to use it as a platform to promote his religion.
Let us not, as that great Anglican heroine Queen Elizabeth I put it, make windows in men’s souls to see what is within. I say nothing about the motives of Professor Bloom or the New York Times. But so far as I know, neither has ever expressed any concern over the stout Mormon faith of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. If creeping Mormonism is a threat to our secular way of life, shouldn’t we be critical of those in both parties who are members of this allegedly terrifying church?
There are scores of other Mormon congressmen and elected officials from both parties who escape the censure of Professor Bloom and the Times. The only one who seems to worry them is the one who might end up getting the Republican nomination for president. In some circles, this would look like a cheap shot: stirring up religious bigotry to slime a candidate you feared. It would look like the kind of thing that any Yale professor would be ashamed to do, and the kind of piece that a great newspaper would refuse to run.
There is no doubt that Professor Bloom’s feline essay includes passages that promote bigotry. As he writes:
There are other secrets also, not tellable by the Mormon Church to those it calls “Gentiles,” oddly including Jews. That aspects of the religion of a devout president of the United States should be concealed from all but 2 percent of us may be a legitimate question that merits pondering.
“May be a legitimate question?” Professor: it is or it isn’t. If it is, you should have the guts to say so and stop hiding behind the qualifier. If it isn’t, you have no business mentioning it at all. Sly demagoguery demeans Professor Bloom and the New York Times. The innuendo continues a little farther down the page:
The 19th-century Mormon theologian Orson Pratt, who was close both to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, stated a principle the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never repudiated: “Any people attempting to govern themselves by laws of their own making, and by officers of their own appointment, are in direct rebellion against the kingdom of God.”
Secret doctrines, disloyal to democracy, theocratic plots? Interestingly, Bloom does not bother to introduce a single piece of evidence to show that Governor Romney is more dangerous than Senator Reid. He slimes the one and ignores the other for reasons that no doubt seem good and just to him and his conscience is untroubled and serene. He offers no evidence whatever to link Governor Romney to any theocratic conspiracy, or even to show that Romney agrees with Orson Pratt. (It would, by the way, be easy to find statements from Protestant, Catholic and Jewish theologians saying much the same thing as Mr. Pratt.) This is very, very low and it is more than surprising that the Times has permitted itself to sink this far.
Mitt Romney may or may not have what it takes to get the Republican nomination and be elected President of the United States. His religious faith is, in my judgment, wrong on key points. But the suggestion that he will turn the United States into anything like a theocracy is ludicrous. Last I looked, you still needed majorities in both Houses of Congress to pass laws, and super majorities in Congress and of the states to amend the Constitution. There are six million or so Mormons in the United States, and they don’t all agree about politics. Calm down, Professor Bloom; Mitt Romney isn’t going to make you wear special underwear or undergo secret temple ceremonies.
If anything, the fact that a Mormon is a leading candidate for the nomination of a party which captures most of the evangelical vote shows just how far from theocracy this country remains. America is full of strongly religious people, but the religions they profess are so different in so many key respects that theocracy simply isn’t a realistic option here. Evangelicals don’t want a liberal theocracy; Catholics don’t want a Protestant theocracy; African Americans don’t want a white theocracy and so it goes.
Mr. Bloom need not worry; the republic will survive Mitt Romney should an inscrutable Providence decide to place him in the White House. He will neither legalize polygamy nor ban coffee. And he will keep his secret doctrines and his temple ceremonies where they belong: in the sphere of private faith. Whether he or the party he hopes to lead deserve the White House is another matter, but like most Americans I have never voted for or against a political candidate for sectarian reasons and in 2012 I propose to continue doing exactly that.