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A statue of the founder of the Mormon Church Joseph Smith sits outside the historic Salt Lake Temple April 3, 2010 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
William Saletan’s recent commentary comparing racial and sexist bigotry with bias against Mormonism showed an admirable intent to remove prejudice from our national rhetoric. But his comparison conflated two very different topics—discrimination based on biological characteristic and discrimination based on a chosen system of beliefs. This conflation runs the risk of suppressing citizens’ obligation to evaluate a politician’s beliefs, based on the false premise that expressing concern about a religion’s doctrinal teaching is simply another form of bigotry.
Growing up in Mormonism, I felt uncomfortable with the religion’s teaching that people of African ancestry had failed to fight with Christ in the “war in heaven” that preceded the creation of the earth. This was taught to me as the reason such individuals were given dark skin, and that black men were not allowed to hold the Mormon priesthood. In 1978, the Mormon prophet reported a revelation from God allowing men of all races to hold the priesthood—but the doctrinal righteousness of the early race barrier was never denounced.
At age twenty, surrounded by my Mormon loved ones and as a condition necessary to be married, I took a secret oath in a Mormon temple to give all my resources, including my “time and talents” to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Despite my desire to do what was expected of me, I felt uncomfortable with this, secretly amending the wording in my own mind so that instead of the church, I swore allegiance to God. Years later, when I was more mature and had learned more about the doctrinal layers of Mormonism, which affirm the righteousness of early practices including polygamy and racial discrimination, I realized that to uphold my allegiance to God, it would be necessary to disavow my membership in the religion. I simply no longer believed what Mormons believed. To retain my affiliation would have said that I had no disagreement with doctrines or policies.
Mitt Romney was born into a Mormon family, but this is nothing like being born into a gender, a race, or even an ethnicity. Any adult has the freedom to examine the belief systems to which he or she belongs, and to make decisions to remain affiliated or to leave that system. I will defend Romney’s right to be Mormon to my last breath, but I don’t agree with his belief system. Belief systems underlie policy decisions. They not only can but should factor into voters’ judgments about which candidate to choose.
As a highly intelligent and informed man, Mitt Romney undoubtedly understands his religion’s teachings. As a member-in-good-standing of the Mormon religion, he too has taken a vow to devote all his “time and talents” to the church. While he may chose not to act in accordance with Mormonism’s worldview politically, voters should be aware of his group affiliation, and his continued choice to reaffirm his commitment to the beliefs the church espouses. He could eschew the church’s teachings, including historical and doctrinal racism and sexism, at any point, simply by choosing and stating a different belief. This is not in the same category as trying to change one’s race and gender.
Bigotry aims judgment and devaluation at characteristics that are part of an individual’s biological legacy. Religious prejudice attacks competing points of view as “sinful,” “heathen,” or “heretical.” But Americans who are free of bigotry and religious prejudice are still obligated to evaluate the belief systems embraced by candidates. Whether Mormonism is a cult or a mainstream religion is a sociological point (I have a doctorate in sociology, and I believe it is a mainstream religion). Whether Mormons are Christians is a theological point (I believe Mormonism is a branch of Christianity). But taking a serious look at a candidate’s avowed belief system—the religion with which he daily chooses to remain affiliated—is simply the responsibility of any voter who wants to make an informed and thoughtful choice.