Following up on Charles’s post regarding Damon Linker’s New Republic cover story, one thing that I kept asking myself as I read through Linker’s piece was, “Where’s the evidence?” For those who don’t have the time (or TNR subscription) to read through the entire story, Linker argues that Romney will need to answer questions about Mormon theology because — in theory — his actions could be directed by Mormon church leaders.
The glaring problem with the argument is that we now have more than a century of history to guide us when evaluating Mormon political leaders, and this history shows something quite different than the picture Linker paints. I was going to write a brief summary, but Columbia University history professor Richard Lyman Bushman has done it much better than I ever could. Writing in TNR Online, Bushman begins:
Your anxiety about a Mormon politician knuckling under to a Mormon Church president replays the debate in 1904 over the seating of Apostle Reed Smoot in the United States Senate. Senators kept questioning church president Joseph F. Smith about his control of Mormon politics. Over and over, he assured the committee that he had no intention of dictating Smoot’s votes in the Senate, but the questioning went on.
Now, a century later, we can judge the actual dangers of the Mormon Church to national politics from the historical record. Have any of the church presidents tried to manage Smoot, Ezra Taft Benson, Harry Reid, or Gordon Smith? The record is innocuous to say the least. There is no evidence that the church has used its influence in Washington to set up a millennial kingdom where Mormons will govern the world or even to exercise much sway on lesser matters. It’s a long way from actual history to the conclusion that “under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country–with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong.”
Mitt Romney’s insistence that he will follow his own conscience rather than church dictates is not only a personal view; it is church policy. The church website makes this explicit: Elected officials who are Latter-Day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated church position. While the church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent. You are going against all the evidence of history and stated church policy in contriving the purely theoretical possibility of Mormon domination. Is that not the stuff from which all paranoid projections on world history have been manufactured?
Liberals must be particularly cautious in speculating about the political intentions of religious groups because of their fascination with fanaticism. Fanaticism is one of the most firmly entrenched stereotypes in the liberal mind. The fanatic is the polar opposite of all that the liberal stands for and thus constitutes a particularly delicious enemy.
Be sure to read the whole thing. I look forward to Linker’s response.