Religious Test or Test of Judgment?

Sometimes I forget what a national treasure National Review is, and then I head over to NRO and remember. For example — my apologies if you already knew this; I didn't, and I think I'm a reasonably well-informed guy who … Read More

By / November 27, 2007

Sometimes I forget what a national treasure National Review is, and then I head over to NRO and remember. For example — my apologies if you already knew this; I didn't, and I think I'm a reasonably well-informed guy who reads a lot of online journalism — Kathryn Jean Lopez doesn't just write two or three-line mash notes to her latest crush, and two or three-line declarations of outrage about something sans any argument or context. No, in fact, she also writes columns now and then. Like this one, about how the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney (her latest crush) should not be a factor in one's presidential voting decisions.

I'm torn about this. Certainly, if someone said she would not vote for a Jew because Jews secretly control the government and the international financial system, we could presumably agree that that's a terrible basis for making a voting decision, and that the person in question has an epistemic obligation to adjust her priors. Likewise, when Bill Keller advises that "[i]f you vote for Romney, you are voting for Satan!" — not that Bill Keller, though don't you wish it were? — the right response is that this is an illegitimate (and disgraceful) attack that is neither here nor there in terms of assessing Romney's fitness for office. (At the same time, the legitimation of voting according to exclusively theological criteria is the horse the GOP rode in on, and if it splits the party and gets the other guys elected, well, that's tough.)

However, if a candidate for office were a sincerely believing Scientologist (to pick the obvious example) or Raelian, the fact that he or she believes the Hubbard legends or that humans were spawned by aliens is an indictment of that candidate's powers of judgment. I don't want elected officials who are that kind of credulous, and I'd be likely to vote against him or her. Same goes for flat-earthers, geocentrists, and followers of J. Philippe Rushton. And these last have nothing to do with religious professions, but merely absurd and demonstrably false beliefs.

By the same token, the fact that an individual is a sincere believer in the tenets of the LDS faith is a telling fact about that individual's ability to understand and interpret evidence, reason validly, and discriminate and judge among rival claims. These are all abilities that elected officials, let alone presidents, ought to have in some abundance. And pace K-Lo, the features of Mormonism that call into question the judgment of its believers have little to do with magic underwear or the hope of inheriting a personal planet to rule in the afterlife. Rather, the fact that the entire basis of Mormonism is a series of obvious and unsubtle archaeological and philological hoaxes is prima facie evidence that Mormons shouldn't be trusted to make decisions that affect the lives of others. (There are too many examples of such hoaxes to give an exhaustive list; my favorite is the simple fact that the Book of Mormon contains whole tracts plagiarized from the KJB, except that Joseph Smith and his subliterate co-swindlers didn't understand Jacobean grammar and frequently got conjugation and case endings wrong. Along the same lines, because so much of the BoM is a counterfeit KJB, where the KJB gets translations from Hebrew wrong, as often happened, the BoM repeats the error.)

This is why it's unsettling to see a presidential candidate who believes the BoM is true and/or divinely inspired, and why belief in the BoM goes beyond the absurdity of believing that Muhammad flew to heaven on a horse, or that Jesus turned water into wine, or that Moses parted the Red Sea. In the case of the old, established religions, there might not be a shred of historical evidence to support their claims, but at the very least, we are not in posession of concrete proof that all their claims are false.

The bottom line, then, is that there is no simple or universally applicable rule for deciding whether a candidate's faith can be taken as disqualifying. If one's reasoning is that members of a particular group are evil or heretics or something, that's illegitimate; if on the other hand, one reasons that the beliefs entailed by a particular creed implicate the cognitive skills of its believers, that's another story.

In the end, I don't think belief in Mormonism should disqualify anyone's candidacy because Mormonism has been around long enough that it has become a tradition passed along through generations such that it's possible to hedge on sincere and literal belief. People are quite capable of doublethink, and those who are raised Mormon but compartmentalize their beliefs to avoid considering the obvious problems of the Mormon creed probably aren't suffering from any general cognitive handicap. (This point is not true of converts, to be sure.) Which means it's likely only a matter of time before Scientology, too, produces otherwise sane people who are fit for public service.

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