Mormon theology and politics

Last month I was a Fellow at the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. The Wheatley is dedicated to "strengthening core institutions" of American society, including the family, civil society, and the free market. Richard Williams, the institution's director, and other scholars there are eager to build bridges with like-minded colleagues around the country, and especially with Catholics who can share the wisdom of the natural law tradition. To that end, in recent years, my friends Michael Novak, Dan Robinson, Hadley Arkes, Robbie George, Helen Alvare -- and Catherine Pakaluk--among others, have visited BYU under the auspices of the Wheatley Institution.

Since about 98 percent of the faculty of BYU and 90 percent of the citizens of Provo are practicing members of the Mormon or "Latter Day Saints" (LDS) Church, I looked upon my visit, too, as a chance to gain an accurate understanding of Mormonism.

Of particular interest to me was the question of whether a candidate's professed Mormonism should provide a reason for Catholics to be inclined against supporting him. I probably went to Provo sympathetic to the view that it should, but I returned from Provo firmly convinced that Mormonism is, rather, a huge strength in a candidate.

Two main arguments have been raised by Catholics against a candidate's Mormonism, one springing from civic and the other from religious concerns.

The civic argument is that because Mormons believe in continued revelation, their official teaching can "flip-flop" -- as it did with polygamy ("plural marriage") and the ordination of African-Americans to the priesthood -- and that therefore candidates who embrace this faith are also inclined to flip-flop and deny the fixity of the moral law. The religious argument is that Mormonism is not Christianity, and so the prestige of a Mormon's being elected to high office would therefore amount to an endorsement of what some contend is a non-Christian religion.

There's a third argument too, I suppose, a kind of mixture of the others, which is that Mormonism is something alien to Christian America, and that the last thing we need now is another leader in high office with a deaf ear to traditional American culture.

Yet the flip-flop argument is a canard. Clearly, the firmness of the Catholic Church has been no bulwark against Catholic politicians' flip-flopping. Moreover, Protestant denominations have flip-flopped like crazy, so the argument would disqualify just about all Protestants more surely than any Mormons. Besides, someone looking on might say that the two instances mentioned were not flip-flops so much as changes for the better. Hence for Mormons, unlike actually most Protestant denominations, the historical record would lead us to expect further improvements.

The religious argument seems equally weak. I know of no one who converted to Methodism because of George W. Bush or Catholicism on account of John F. Kennedy's prestige. Given the current low esteem of politicians, and the inevitability that, in the era of alternative media, any holder of high office will become unpopular over time, one might better argue that a religion will likely lose credibility because it has visible representatives holding political office.

Moreover, if the beliefs of Mormons were to become the subject to public discussion because of a Mormon's candidacy -- then this would be a good thing, not merely because it would raise the level of public discourse (as Stephen Prothero at Boston University has recently argued), but also, for Catholics, because we would need to sharpen our theology.

To give only two examples: Mormons believe that God has a body, but how many Catholics have mastered enough speculative theology to argue convincingly that no being which has a body can be the highest cause, that is, can be God? Can we explain well the greater reasonability of Catholic doctrine? Or, Mormons think that the existence of evil in the world counts against a single, infinitely good God, but is no argument against the plurality of gods which they affirm. Is the average Catholic prepared with an answer in response? Are you?

We are brought then to the third argument, that Mormonism is somehow alien. Yet Mormonism is not an alien system of belief relative to Western philosophy. Educated persons will recognize its strong resemblance to some types of Platonism. I regularly teach the dialogue, "Meno," where Socrates opines that "the soul of man is immortal, and ... as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all." But I presume we would regard Socrates as a good candidate for president, at least, for winning the debates. Mormonism differs from Platonism mainly in its affirmation of the importance of the body, which is how historically Catholicism also has differed from Platonism.

So the arguments against a Mormon's candidacy are weak. The arguments in favor, I think, spring from the recognized traits of Mormon culture and character, forged through the trials of pioneers who helped open the West, such as self-reliance, organization, concern for religious freedom, and a sense of American exceptionalism. These are virtues distinctive of an America from past times. As an elder Catholic colleague summed it up after visiting Provo: "I loved the 1950s the first time I lived through them, and I love them just as much now."

Michael Pakaluk is Professor and Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Ave Maria University.