Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dissenting Thoughts on Warren Cole Smith and Mitt Romney

Recently the Bloggernacle has included some interesting reactions to a Patheos article by one Warren Cole Smith. Smith's article, "A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church", was part of a collection of articles (the "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservativism" symposium) published at the Patheos site dealing with various Evangelical and Roman Catholic perspectives on the religious ramifications of a Mitt Romney presidential campaign. The collection also included "Yes, Christians Can Vote for Mormons" by J. E. Dyer, "In Defense of Mormons" by Jeremy Lott, and "The LDS Church Walks a Tightrope on Public Policy" by Nathan B. Oman. Still, the inherent controversial nature of Warren Cole Smith's perspective has ensured that his article has stood out as almost *the* Evangelical voice on the matter.

LDS author Joanna Brooks has since done an interview with Warren Cole Smith. LDS blogger Dave Banack reacted to Smith's article with a Times and Seasons post titled "Evangelical Incivility", while LDS blogger John F. reacted with a By Common Consent post titled "Where Does It End? The Real Danger in Warren Smith's Perspective". More recently, LDS Church Head of Public Affairs Michael Otterson wrote a response to Warren Cole Smith, titled "Evangelicals, Mormons, and the beliefs of the president", as noted by LDS blogger Gerald Smith ('rameumptom') in his recent Millennial Star post titled "Michael Otterson - Mormon of the Week". Among LDS responses I have seen, Otterson makes the most effective appeal to other Evangelical voices and is the least prone to paint Warren Cole Smith as somehow generally representative of Evangelicalism as a unified whole, though as shall be seen some of his points miss the mark. His civil tone in direct reply to Warren Cole Smith is also quite commendable. Warren Cole Smith's article has also been criticized by David French, a co-founder of Evangelicals for Mitt, in his Daily Caller article "Evangelicals Can (and Should) Support Mitt Romney", and also in his own Patheos post "A Mormon President: Are Souls at Stake?". Most recently, Warren Cole Smith has offered a somewhat general reply to several criticisms in a Patheos interview, "A President's Faith Matters: An Interview with Warren Cole Smith", conducted by Timothy Dalrymple. Dalrymple further provides an excellent three-part critique of Warren Cole Smith's positions in his Philosophical Fragments posts "Is It Bigotry to Oppose a Candidate on Religious Grounds?", "Would a Romney Presidency Fuel the Growth of Mormonism?", and "Would His Mormon Beliefs Make Romney a Bad President?" The subject is also touched upon in a recent episode of the Mormon Matters podcast, "Why Are Mormons Seen as 'Dangerous' by Some Evangelical Christians?", which features an outstanding panel.

As an Evangelical Christian with moderately conservative political stances and a somewhat classical liberal bent, I must dissent from Warren Cole Smith's view. I could not in good conscience hesitate to vote for a Latter-day Saint candidate simply on religious grounds. I would, I admit, be hesitant to vote for Mitt Romney in the primary, but that has everything to do with his political record and nothing to do with his religious outlook. The same goes for Jon Huntsman, about whom I know quite a bit less as of yet. (Then again, I can't see any Republican candidates currently on the field who seem significantly more promising, alas...) Were either of them to win the primary, I might conceivably give them my vote in the general election, though probably not happily. Then again, I confess that this controversy has given me cause to do a reappraisal of Romney as a candidate, which may result in a more favorable stance on my part.

With that out of the way, what exactly does Warren Cole Smith say? John F., following Joanna Brooks, has essentially distilled Smith's case under the four headings of "unreliable", "errant", "weird", and "validation". I'm not convinced that John F.'s treatment quite accurately captures Smith's case, and indeed Smith objected strenuously to Brooks' distillation upon which John F. has expanded. Warren Cole Smith contends that the first major obstacle is the belief in continuing revelation. Smith himself seems largely to develop his objection along the line of new scripture and policy at the institutional level at the church. On the other hand, Otterson and some of Smith's other critics have pointed out that Smith's own examples of actual reversals of church policy (plural marriage and the priesthood ban on blacks) were not unpredictable, frequent shifts on a moment's notice, but were rather infrequent moves that each came after a lengthy process of deliberation and searching - neither of which lends itself to a strong analogy with the image of the 'flip-flopping politician'. Smith charges that the LDS belief in continuing revelation makes LDS politicians inherently unstable. Smith ties this in to allegations of Romney's 'flip-flopping' on certain political issues, though Smith of course is unable to give any grounds for such an association. While Smith's analogy here has an extremely superficial appeal, it breaks down quite promptly upon investigation. There is no indication whatsoever that policy or even doctrinal shifts at the institutional level of the LDS Church have any effect on the frequency of shifting political stances of LDS politicians.

Second in John F.'s analysis is the charge of "errant", namely that Latter-day Saints dissent at quite a few highly critical points from what Evangelicals see as the fixed standard of biblically acceptable teaching. (Naturally, John F. gives this a strongly LDS spin in his treatment, without any apparent attempt to sympathize with the Evangelical perspective.) The problem is, of course, that while this may well be theologically or soteriologically quite significant, it fades into utter insignificance in terms of the political realm. Smith does not give this point much space at all in his article, though in the Brooks interview he argues that any falsehood is dangerous ("Anything false is dangerous. Falsehood leads to danger"). In terms of capacity for effective political leadership, however, false opinions on certain issues are irrelevant and hence not at all dangerous with respect to the duties of the office. I care little whether or not the President of the United States of America is a Platonist or an Aristotelian or a nominalist! It matters little to our nation practically what the president thinks of Thomas Aquinas. To put things another way, I care a lot less about whether the president believes a machine could pass the Turing test than about whether the president could him- or herself pass the Turing test! (And with some of our past choices, I'm really not all too sure.)

In point of fact, America has had presidents whose personal views differed quite more widely from historic orthodox Christianity than either Romney or Huntsman is likely to, and the union is still here. Smith offers no reason why Romney's non-Trinitarian view of God or his views about salvation (whichever set of LDS options those happen to be) would have any significant impact on his performance in office. In the Dalrymple interview, Smith shifts almost seamlessly from the relevance of religious beliefs to the president's role in providing "moral leadership", though Smith does not further elucidate the meaning of this term or why he thinks a Latter-day Saint president would be in any way impaired in providing it.

Third is the "weird" aspect, which Smith chooses to flesh out in terms of (what he perceives as) drastically false LDS views about history. In particular, Smith charges that belief in the Book of Mormon narrative shows an utter disconnect from historical reality, and it is this disconnect that severely problematizes an LDS candidate's ability to fulfill the duties of his or her office. I think that John F. has incorrectly labeled this charge as that of 'weirdness'; rather, it is an accusation of historical disconnect. Smith never, of course, provides any reason to suppose that belief in the Book of Mormon is even so much as coincidentally connected with an inability to engage with the historico-political realities of, say, the Middle East. It would prove quite surprising if there were any such link. While I certainly have met my fair share of Latter-day Saints whose hyper-fideistic attitude evinced an utter disregard for history and reason at all levels (and, to be fair, I know a disheartening number of Evangelicals in the same boat), it is undoubtedly false to characterize either Romney or Huntsman as believing, as Warren Cole Smith put it, "that history is something you can 'make up as you go along'".

The first three points that Smith makes are all rather poor; the fourth ("validation", as John F. describes it) requires greater thought. Smith's implicit argument appears to run much as follows:

  1. Evangelicals should avoid engaging in actions that would be inclined to lead to greater numbers of people joining 'dangerously false' movements. [premise]
  2. Normalization of a 'dangerously false' movement will result in greater numbers of people joining that 'dangerously false' movement. [premise]
  3. Therefore, Evangelicals should avoid engaging in actions that would normalize a 'dangerously false' movement. [from 1, 2]
  4. Actions that place members of 'dangerously false' movements in public positions serve to normalize those movements. [premise]
  5. Therefore, Evangelicals should avoid engaging in actions that would place members of 'dangerously false' movements in public positions. [from 3, 4]
  6. Mormonism is a 'dangerously false' movement. [premise]
  7. Therefore, Evangelicals should avoid engaging in actions that would place Latter-day Saints in public positions. [from 5, 6]
  8. Voting for a candidate to achieve a national political office is an action that would place that candidate in a public position. [premise]
  9. Therefore, Evangelicals should not vote for Latter-day Saint political candidates. [from 7, 8]

Needless to say, Latter-day Saints will first challenge point (6), and frankly I question its verity as well, at least so baldly stated. There is also a rather limited sense in which (4) is true, at best, and it is this point of Smith's argument that Otterson and others seek to challenge by pointing to the religious persuasions of past presidents, such as John F. Kennedy (Roman Catholic) and Richard Nixon (Quaker). In fairness to Smith, neither of these movements is quite so active in proselytizing Evangelicals as are Latter-day Saints. Nor does Otterson provide statistical evidence showing that the election of these presidents had no significant impact on conversion rates to those group; however, neither does Warren Cole Smith give such evidence showing that there in fact is a significant positive impact on conversion rates, as he fears.

Smith repeats in the Dalrymple interview that "the election of a Mormon president would be a tremendous step toward normalizing Mormon beliefs" and would be "a tremendous shot in the arm for Mormon evangelism around the world", but Smith does not attempt to build a precedent-based case for this or, more pertinently, for his view that a Latter-day Saint president would positively affect the rate of conversion. As David French aptly says, "The workings of God on the human heart are infinitely more complex, miraculous, and mysterious than Smith's simplistic formula of successful Mormon president equals more successful Mormon religion." Indeed, as Aaron Shafovaloff notes, the intense media scrutiny of the LDS faith that would accompany a Romney candidacy or presidency could, given the bent of the American media, actually be detrimental to LDS missionary efforts.

Premise (1) might be true in itself, but this is hardly an overriding obligation; I think it could easily be outweighed. If the structure of Smith's argument is upheld, grave problems follow, insofar as then Evangelicals ought to, for example, avoid shopping at large businesses owned or operated by Latter-day Saints, since benefiting their financial situation might place them more prominently in the public eye. Or again, Evangelicals should avoid actively supporting a sports team with LDS members or movies with LDS actors or books with LDS authors, since this too would be precluded under (5)!

Furthermore, for someone with Smith's mindset, the arguments used to defend (6) would likely be suitable for supporting some (6') wherein virtually any non-Evangelical religious outlook is substituted for Mormonism. So then, if Smith's argument is valid, then Evangelicals ought to avoid voting for Hindu candidates, or Buddhist candidates, or atheist candidates, or Unitarian candidates, or Muslim candidates, or even Jewish candidates. Joanna Brooks raised just this point, in response to which Smith refused to give a clear answer, instead remarking, "I'm not prepared to talk about Judaism", save to remark that Judaism is merely incomplete Christianity. How this makes a significant difference with respect to the question at hand is, to say the least, unclear. Surely if Smith is fully up-front, he must acknowledge contemporary Judaism to be a 'false' and 'dangerous' religion since it denies that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Should not Smith be worried about the implications of further 'normalizing' Judaism?

When asked about Roman Catholicism, Smith seemed to accept them under the ecumenical umbrella of Nicene orthodoxy - and I certainly do think he was right to do so - but this would likely be anathema to many of his more fundamentalist compatriots, for whom Roman Catholicism is an idolatrous system that perverts the gospel and puts its adherents in grave spiritual danger in much the same way that Mormonism does in Smith's eyes. And dare we even ask about non-Chalcedonian believers? Should Smith fear that, say, an American president affiliated with the Assyrian Church of the East would 'normalize' Nestorianism and result in people around the world falling away from orthodoxy?

Essentially, then, Evangelicals can only vote for Evangelical (and possibly other orthodox Christian) candidates. The patent ridiculousness of this conclusion should be sufficient to call into question the validity of several of Smith's key premises and the force of any net obligation that Smith might somehow successfully highlight. Additionally, given the difficulty in finding an even remotely suitable candidate without such an added restriction, the likely consequence would be to severely limit Evangelical involvement in politics. This would be an unfortunate conclusion for Smith, who when interviewed by Brooks contended that "active involvement in politics is an important part of the expression of our faith". Furthermore, it is worth noting - as David French does - that Warren Cole Smith's line of reasoning here bears worrisome similarities to that used by some hardline secularists who would regard Evangelical Christianity to be a 'false' and 'dangerous' movement that should be increasingly marginalized to whatever degree possible, and which renders its adherents unsuitable for public office. Smith could plausibly object that Evangelical Christianity is not false and might put forth arguments to that effect, maybe even good arguments, and this would admirably move the debate past a mere hurling of slogans and bald assertions. Perhaps a handful of Latter-day Saints would in turn do the same, mutatis mutandis, and perhaps some metaphysical naturalists would push back with earnest attempts to defeat both sets of arguments. The point, however, is that the fragmenting of the American electorate along religious lines is not good for the country.

None of Warren Cole Smith's arguments for his position seem very good. In truth, there is no inherent reason why an Evangelical should so much as hesitate before voting for a Latter-day Saint candidate, or a candidate of virtually any other religious persuasion, so long as that candidate is - apart from the issue of religion - the right man or woman for the office. A Latter-day Saint candidate does not seem to be inherently likely to have unstable political views; a Latter-day Saint candidate does not seem to harbor any politically relevant dangerous beliefs, at least not simply by virtue of being a Latter-day Saint; a Latter-day Saint candidate does not seem to be inherently likely to be disconnected from historical reality in any way that would affect his or her performance in office; and voting for a Latter-day Saint candidate does not seem at all likely to seriously imperil the spiritual welfare of the populace, at least not in any way that justifies an overriding prohibition on casting such a vote. For those Evangelicals who believe that Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman or any other LDS politician is the right person for the job, there need be no religiously based reluctance to cast a vote for Romney or a vote for Huntsman or a vote for anyone else. Evangelicals can support Romney, Huntsman, or any other LDS candidate without needing to be 'made comfortable' that such a candidate "shares [our] fundamental beliefs and views on history".

That said, and moving on to a few critical remarks on Smith's critics, I must also disagree with some of Dave Banack's treatment and those of some commenters on his post. I ultimately don't have a problem with Warren Cole Smith expressing his view, given that he holds it; I object to the view itself. Smith's perspective is a harmful, unfortunate position, and he ought to reconsider his position, not simply hold it privately and act on it in the voting booth, or spread it secretly among other Evangelicals out of view of the public eye. It is not merely the public expression of the opinion that is offensive; it is the opinion itself. I disagree with Banack's statement that Smith's statements result in greater "animosity that does not dissipate after an election" than many of the other statements common in our politically diverse discourse that similarly challenge "civil unity". It is good that Banack inserts a brief note that "it is only some, and not all, Evangelicals who have that bias or who state it publicly"; that Warren Cole Smith does not speak for all Evangelicals should be clear from the other essays included in the symposium. Still, the succinct title of his post does give the impression - apart from that brief disclaimer - that Dave Banack is criticizing Evangelicals or Evangelicalism in general. (And, it must be admitted, there are plenty of Evangelicals who harbor quite unfavorable views of Latter-day Saints - sometimes on good grounds, sometimes on bad grounds.) There were also a few comments that made similar generalizations about Evangelicals and Evangelical voters in general. And that's simply unfortunate, because to a great extent it smacks of an underlying attitude not wholly unlike that of Warren Cole Smith himself. Indeed, one commenter at By Common Consent said, "I would think long and hard about voting for any outspoken evangelical because I'd be concerned how much anti-Mormonness she'd ingested along with her other beliefs".

Additionally, while some critics of Smith - e.g., Otterson - have made appeal to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, arguing that Smith's case flies in the face of the constitutional provision that there may be no religious test for office. This appears to me, however, to be a misuse of the Constitution. Otterson and others who go this route are making a fundamental error. The government cannot require any elected official to subscribe to any particular religious tenets, nor can they exclude elected officials of any given religious persuasion. This is not, however, what Warren Cole Smith was advocating, as Otterson himself grants ("...you aren't calling for Mormons to be legally barred from the highest office in the land...") and as Smith points out in the Dalrymple interview. His was an appeal to Evangelical voters to not vote for Latter-day Saint candidates for office, not an appeal to the government to prohibit Latter-day Saints from taking office - a road we've been down before with the B. H. Roberts and Reed Smoot cases anyway. Smith explicitly states that "[r]eligion cannot be used by the state as a qualifier or a disqualifier for office. What this means, and what I affirm, is that Mitt Romney or anyone else has the right to run".

Voters are perfectly free to vote as they wish on whatever grounds they wish - even when their grounds for not wanting a given candidate to take office are also grounds that do not constitutionally prohibit said candidate from holding that office, should that candidate be elected through the proper processes. There is no constitutional or legal stipulation whatsoever that prevents a group of voters for engaging in legal behavior in the voting booth with an aim to, in Otterson's words, "effectively marginalize Mormons and make it impossible for them to [successfully] run for office". Thus, it is simply not true that Smith is attempting to get Latter-day Saints to "concede a fundamental right granted to all Americans", as no Latter-day Saint candidate for office has a 'fundamental right' to the vote of any given voter or group of voters - and hence no right to the votes of Evangelical voters, even when the lack of such votes would prevent any Latter-day Saint candidate from succeeding in his or her political campaign. Voters are free to make their decisions based on horribly bad reasons, as in this case, and not run afoul of any provisions in the U.S. Constitution. As Dave Banack noted, "There is no law against opinionated, uninformed, or even bigoted voting"; and one commenter at By Common Consent remarked that the U.S. Constitution "doesn't prohibit citizens voting against somebody based on their religious belief". Smith himself declares in the Dalrymple interview that "every voter has the right to take a candidate's views, religious and otherwise, into account in his or her vote", and this is undoubtedly correct.

Similarly, LDS voters are perfectly free to vote for Romney or Huntsman on the simple basis that they are LDS candidates. Like Warren Cole Smith's proposal to Evangelical voters, it seems like a poor plan and a strategy not very conducive to the well-being of the nation, but nevertheless one that those voters are constitutionally free to pursue. While Smith disclaims the notion that his approach is in any way 'bigoted', I must disagree. While the reflexive and immediate hurling of epithets such as 'bigot' in some responses to Smith has unfortunately obscured thoughtful critique that could have otherwise been made, there is no principled reason why one may not conclude that Smith's view is no less bigoted than that of a person who would refuse to vote for an Evangelical on analogous grounds, or than that of a person who would declare women generally 'unfit to serve' on the grounds that women in politics must presumably be feminists and therefore have an objectionable political philosophy, or than that of a person who would make a similar declaration with regard to African-Americans by assuming that they must surely adhere to some sort of black liberation ideology and hence could not possibly be as fit for leadership as, say, a white Protestant male.

While it may well be the case that Smith's values do not cohere with the 'American ideals' of the Constitution, as several critics have charged in connection with the 'religious test' criticism, this is certainly no crime; neither do the values of a significant number of our current elected officials. On that point - a fairly minor point - it seems to me that several criticisms of Smith have gone awry. For this reason, Otterson's quibbles about who defines 'false' and 'dangerous' are similarly off the mark. Smith is not advocating for an official government agency designed to sniff out 'false', 'dangerous' religions. Rather, he is addressing himself to a subset of voters whom he assumes will agree with his own notions of what religions are 'false' and therefore 'dangerous', and urging them to behave in certain ways based on those notions. As hopefully elucidated above, Smith's case for his rather objectionable position can be undermined without appeal to specious applications of constitutional provisions. Warren Cole Smith is entitled to his opinion and entitled to apply his opinion to his decisions in the voting booth however he sees fit, but his opinion is not only incorrect but harmfully incorrect, and for that reason I hope that the number of those who share it will steadily decrease until voters in general are able to base their decisions on a candidate's actual qualifications and political stances, rather than on the basis of his or her religious beliefs.

[Last updated: 20 June 2011]


  1. Thank you for your extended thoughts on this which make a valuable contribution to the discussion. I'm afraid I was so flabbergasted by Smith's piece at Patheos that I could do little more than share my view that such thinking is evidence of evangelicalism's continued inability to exist comfortably in a pluralistic public square. You have addressed the issue, and my responsive deficit.

  2. “… LDS voters are perfectly free to vote for Romney or Huntsman on the simple basis that they are LDS candidates.”

    True, but I don’t know a single Mormon who would cast a vote on that basis alone.

    “While Smith disclaims the notion that his approach is in any way 'bigoted', I must disagree. While the reflexive and immediate hurling of epithets such as 'bigot' in some responses to Smith has unfortunately obscured thoughtful critique that could have otherwise been made, there is no principled reason why one may not conclude that Smith's view is no less bigoted than that of a person who would refuse to vote for an Evangelical on analogous grounds, or than that of a person who would declare women generally 'unfit to serve' on the grounds that women in politics must presumably be feminists and therefore have an objectionable political philosophy, or than that of a person who would make a similar declaration with regard to African-Americans by assuming that they must surely adhere to some sort of black liberation ideology and hence could not possibly be as fit for leadership as, say, a white Protestant male.”

    Mr. Dalrymple argues that Mr. Smith’s position is not “bigotry per se” (my phrase) because religion is not an immutable characteristic, as are (for example) gender and race. While I agree with this assessment as far as it goes, I would argue that Mr. Smith’s position certainly seems like bigotry when one considers that politically-conservative Mormons such as Mr. Romney are very likely to share the views of a great many evangelicals on moral and social issues, yet Mr. Smith essentially argues that an evangelical’s response in the voting booth should be, “Yes, I know, but he’s—‘Mormon’.”

    Just as I believe most all Mormons would hesitate to vote for someone simply because s/he’s a fellow Mormon—for example, Senator Harry Reid is certainly entitled to his views, but I doubt he’d get much support among politically-conservative Mormons if he were running for president—I also believe that Mr. Smith’s implication that Mr. Romney would use the presidency’s “bully pulpit” to advocate for Mormonism is off-base because most Mormons (even as missionary-minded as we are) would consider that use of the presidency to be a very bad idea.

  3. This is a diaolog a long time coming. As a devout Mormon, who works for a Catholic entity and once shared property with a Baptist church and neighbors, I am convinced that much good will come from finding common ground. The future of Christianity will be determined by all of us working together. Shouldn't we be a little more focused on our differences with those who don't even profess a belief in Christ? The future will hold Christian v. Anti-Christian conversations and we will need each others support.