I see Rod Dreher beat me to the punch in commenting on Andrew Sullivan’s attack on Mitt Romney for not being willing to say his church had been “wrong” for preaching white supremacy for generations until 1978.

Dreher asks:

The Mormon church has repudiated its racist teaching. Romney himself says he opposes the racist teaching, and was glad to have it rescinded. What more can Sullivan expect of him? Is a man supposed to reject entirely the religion in which he was raised because of one ugly teaching? Most of us struggle, one way or another, to believe certain things our faith proclaims. If Sullivan still remains a Catholic, even though the Catholic Church teaches doctrines he finds hateful and bigoted, then why won’t he give Romney the same grace and understanding he expects for himself?

But Sullivan isn’t asking Romney to repudiate his faith. He’s asking him to disagree with it publicly – or, rather, to say not merely that he’d glad his church changed, but that before the change his church had been wrong:

Look: every religion has these stains in its past. My own church committed the Inquisition and, in my view, began the demonization of the Jewish people that killed and terrified and marginalized so many for centuries, leading to the Holocaust. Its continued systematic discrimination against women is a scandal. Its criminal rape of children makes it the most flawed current Christian institution on earth. And if you asked a Catholic candidate whether it was wrong for the Church to have treated Jews as cursed and sub-human for so long, I cannot imagine any Catholic politician not saying yes. Unequivocally. Is there a mite of evidence that Mitt Romney ever challenged the white supremacism in his religion and its active racism while it was in existence and he was still a missionary and member for 31 years of his life?

Listen again to the last question and answer in the Russert interview:

Russert: But it was wrong for your faith to exclude [African-Americans] for as long as it did?

Romney: I’ve told you exactly where I stand. My view is that there is no discrimination in the eyes of God and I could not have been more pleased when the decision occurred.

Why could he not just have said “yes”?

So, if Sullivan is wrong in expecting Romney to do that, it’s got to be for another reason than simply that Romney should reasonably be expected to retain affection for the church he was raised in, and not want to call attention to its historic or continuing flaws.

Part of the answer to Sullivan’s question – why could he not just have said yes – is that Mormons believe in continuous revelation, and the head of the LDS church has the status of a prophet. A believing Catholic might well say that this or that Pope got something wrong, but I have a harder time picturing him saying that Jesus got something wrong. Revelation has a different status than interpretation, and an attack on the validity of a religion’s revelation is very close to an attack on the religion itself. Which is why, if you recall, Salman Rushdie ran into so much trouble over that little book of his.

Which is why “I don’t know” is really the only answer to expect to the question, why did (from an LDS believer’s perspective) divine revelation change on this point. The Mormon missionary movie, “God’s Army,” touches on this point explicitly. Among the missionaries in Los Angeles is a black Mormon youngster, and at one point he and his fellow missionary try to convert a black couple. And it doesn’t go well: the couple are horrified by the LDS church’s historic spiritual racism, and they pretty much view the black Mormon as a brainwashed Uncle Tom.

So, later, the black missionary reflects on his own grappling with the historic doctrine of his church, and he says, basically, that he thinks God puts some things into revelation specifically to test the quality of our faith, and this was his personal test. Could he embrace the truth even if it required him to believe something he found personally insulting and offensive? And what got him through that spiritual crisis was visiting the jail where Joseph Smith was imprisoned, seeing his shackles, and connecting Smith’s suffering with his own ancestors’ suffering under slavery. In other words, he abandoned logic, and used one emotional truth to trump another.

Convincing? Not really – not to me, anyway. And I note that the writer/director of God’s Army is no longer a believing Mormon. But I recognize the kind of reasoning this fictional missionary is engaged in. It’s the kind of reasoning believers in any religion tend to engage in to get around stuff they can neither accept nor reject.

If that kind of reasoning is wrong, then the way most serious believers relate to their religion – any religion – is wrong. And Sullivan might believe that – but I don’t think he does. I think he believes there’s something peculiar about the LDS church that is a consequence of the idea of continuous revelation, that there is something particularly creepy and Orwellian about learning to “think with” a church that publicly affirms that it can change its mind.

This is the argument that Damon Linker made in his big TNR article, “The Big Test,” from several years ago. In that piece, he basically argues that what’s distinctive about the LDS church is that it combines the creative theological freedom of liberal religious denominations with the authoritarianism of the Catholic church. The Pope is constrained by the words of scripture, by the authoritative interpretations of the early church councils, by the history of canon law, etc. But when he speaks ex-Cathedra, you have to think with him – you can’t dissent. The head of the  Unitarian Universalists (assuming there is one) can say whatever he or she likes, but nobody is obliged to listen. But the head of the LDS church is formally unconstrained, and can command obedience.

Is that something to worry about? I don’t know – and I don’t know how Sullivan or Linker can know. I’m personally inclined to privilege sociology over theology in these matters. Pope Urban II wasn’t constrained much by Jesus’s words in launching the First Crusade. Holy War to conquer the physical Jerusalem strikes me just as transparently contrary to Christianity as the restricting of the priesthood to favored races. And, on the other side of the ledger, nobody is obliged to follow the dictates of a particular rabbi or imam – there is no “head” of traditional Judaism or Islam – but that hasn’t prevented charismatic authoritarians from gaining a large and obedient following within those faiths. (Ditto for Pentecostalism within the Christian tent.) And, finally, there are Mormon fundamentalists who have retained the principle of progressive revelation, but rejected the actual progress, holding fast to 19th century teachings like polygamy and the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood. They turn out to be a pretty small number compared with the mainstream LDS church. Isn’t that a good thing?

None of which should be construed as an apologetic brief for the LDS church, or the suggestion that it’s some how “out of bounds” to criticize them. Have at it, with gusto. That’s the point of living in a free country: I can say that what other people believe is whackdoodle nonsense and they are free to ignore me and call me a bigot and neither of us can shut the other one up. But unless we really enjoy shouting past each other, it’s probably a better idea to try to understand a phenomenon than to focus on whether or not its worth denouncing.

Relatedly, I find the modern enthusiasm for pissing on our ancestors profoundly unseemly. We should all of us be aware that future generations may regard us as obedient little Eichmanns – and the people who will judge us may well be judged similarly. And none of us can be sure what we shall be judged for, what we missed that, in retrospect, is so obvious. We should even be alive to the possibility that our generation’s conviction that racism is the archetype of all evil will be viewed by a future generation as comically absurd.

As for the comparison with Obama’s church, I said what I had to say about that at the time. I still believe that the window for these kinds of defenestrations should be placed really, really high. Maybe it’s just that politics bores me, but I’d really like the party to go on.