Damon Linker’s book blog may be defunct, but he can stir up blogging like few others with his articles. His original TNR article on Neuhaus and the “theocons” generated quite a lot of discussion, his debate with Ross Douthat certainly provoked me to do a fair amount of posting and his latest on Mormonism is getting a good deal of attention. This is probably a function of the overreaching and occasionally wild-eyed claims that he makes in the course of an argument.
At the Mormon group blog, Times and Seasons, Nate Oman is none too pleased with Linker’s article. In his post he makes many of the same objections I did, and adds a few more:
Yet in all of this they are, for better or for worse, acting much more like a Protestant denomination than like a religious state in embryo. It takes an enormous amount of historical obtuseness (or religious paranoia) to see the current political activity of the Mormon Church as covert theocracy building.
And yet Damon Linker is sounding the alarm in the pages of the New Republic that “under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would truly be in charge of the country.” To be sure, Damon raises a nice point of Mormon theology: Under what circumstances is a good Latter-day Saint entitled to ignore the words of a living prophet? Over the years, Mormons have given various answers. Joseph Smith insisted that a prophet was only a prophet when speaking as a prophet, although he didn’t provide a clear way of determining precisely when that is. Joseph F. Smith, James E. Talmage, and others who testified before the Smoot Hearings on behalf of the Church insisted that prophetic counsel was only binding when submitted to the Church for a vote. Joseph Fielding Smith taught that the (admittedly always expandable) canon provided guidance to the authority of prophetic statements. J. Reuben Clark insisted that prophetic statements only acquired prophetic authority for a believer when the Spirit bears witness to him or her of their truth. My own view, articulated in detail in some forthcoming articles, is that Mormon doctrine and revelation is always in part an interpretive process where both history and the independent moral judgment of the interpreter play a decisive role. This is an important theological discussion, and to the extent that an accusation in one of America’s respected opinion journals that Mormons are unfit for public office forces us to think about this question, we are indebted to Damon.
That said, however, his political concerns are ultimately ridiculous. Politics is a practical arena in which questions of what might or might not be theoretically possible are subordinated to what is actually likely to happen. Once we move from the world of ideological speculation to the realm of practical politics, history and experience are much more reliable guides than theological logic-chopping. What history teaches us is that Mormon leaders today will not try to dictate to Romney, nor would they use a Mormon in the White House to create an LDS theocracy. To be sure if Romney is elected President and Gordon B. Hinckley calls the White House, Romney will take the call, but it will not contain his political marching orders. As for the Mormon hierarchy’s retained right to speak on “moral” issues, it has almost certainly already had whatever influence on Romney it is going to have. The Mormon prophets are socially conservative. They are hostile to liquor, gambling, most (but not all) kinds of abortion, and gay marriage. Romney, as an active Latter-day Saint, probably shares these basic instincts. His record, however, shows that he is willing to waffle and compromise on all of them. Furthermore, thus far his waffling and compromise haven’t resulted in any formal or informal ecclesiastical sanctions. This comes as no surprise to students of Mormonism. One might not realize it from reading Damon’s piece (or CES curriculum), but there actually is a history of good Mormons ignoring Church counsel on “moral” issues when it turns political. An good example of this is Utah’s vote to overturn prohibition despite the pleadings of then-church president Heber J. Grant.
So Linker’s fears of prophetic political meddling are unfounded and find no precedent in Mormon history. (In fairness, he does not say at any point that Mormons are “unfit” for public office, but he does seem to give strong reasons why non-Mormons should not want them to hold public office or should at least put them through the third degree before accepting them as candidates.) Like most of his fears of takeovers by the supposedly theocratically-inclined, who are usually not theocratically-inclined at all, these fears of Salt Lake City calling the shots in the improbable event of a Romney Administration are baseless. They’re so obviously baseless that Mr. Oman wonders how it has even become an issue:
I suspect, however, that a large part of what we are seeing in Damon’s article is the half-submerged memory of “Popery.” Four hundred years of fear and loathing is not easily forgotten. The image of zealot subversives in our midst acting on orders from shadowy religious hierarchs has much older roots than 9/11. In the nightmares of some Americans, the echoes of almost forgotten political tropes can still be heard. In these dystopian dreams, Mitt Romney is cast as Guy Fawkes, and Gordon B. Hinckley is Pius V. The irony, of course, is that Damon is not an anti-Catholic. Far from it. He is at pains to laud the Catholic natural law tradition, and as far as I know he is an observant member of the Roman Church. Indeed, I suspect that the appeals to Catholic natural law are made precisely because Damon realizes that he is playing off of old fears about “Popery.” Or perhaps not. After all, Damon recently authored a book about a Catholic priest at the center of a vast conspiracy to undermine the foundations of the country. It is a story line that, whatever its substantive merits in the case of Damon’s Theocons, has deep roots in Anglo-American history. It is also, alas, a prefabricated plot line in which Mormonism seems destined to be crammed.
It is true that Mr. Linker is not exactly anti-Catholic. He is, as near as I can tell, anti-pre-Vatican II Catholic. No debate in which he participates passes without his mentioning something about the supposedly politically retrograde nature of the old Catholicism before its accommodation with “liberal democracy.” The political Catholicism of another era and the anti-liberal Catholicism of the 19th century are apparently for him more damnable than Mormonism ever will be, because they represent an invasion of the secular sphere by the claims of Christianity and represent a kind of pollution of political life with the inflexible requirements of revelation to a much greater degree. Mormonism may have its flaws in Linker’s eyes, but old Catholic anti-liberalism is unforgivable.
Today, the “theocons” have transgressed against “liberal democracy” with their insertion of Catholic natural law teaching into political discourse, since this is for Linker not much better than an attempt to make Catholicism the basis for public discussions about moral and political questions. If Linker’s article about Mormonism gives a whiff of the old accusations of popery (and let’s not forget everybody’s favourite, priestcraft), it is because the old arguments about popery are woven into the fabric of Western liberalism since the 19th century: both represent a common liberal fear of religious authority and established religion, as these things represent mortal threats to the kind of society freethinkers (Freisinnigen) want to have. For these people, authority itself tends to be a bad word or at best something to be questioned rather than acknowledged and followed. That fears of such things in the Anglo-American experience have typically been the fruits of hysteria and panic does not dissuade liberals from making these same kinds of arguments time and again. Should there ever be a conservative Orthodox Christian running for national office, we will hear much the same thing and all the old canards about Orthodoxy and Tsarism or Caesaropapism will be rehashed and circulated anew.
Razib at Gene Expression has an unusual take on Mormonism: it is popular because it is false and obviously falsifiable, which makes it more accessible. Um, okay. Somehow I don’t think the Mormons would take this as a compliment.
Nick Gillespie at Reason‘s Hit and Run blog offers a Mormon round-up in response to Mitt Romney’s official entrance into the ’08 fray.
On a lighter note, this blogger thinks Damon Linker writes for The National Review (what else could TNR stand for, right?)–-Rich Lowry, call your office!