As the 2012 presidential election nears, Romney’s Mormon religion has, by necessity, been taken off the table as an issue for most Christians. Thanks to the actions of the Obama administration — with our freedom so imperiled and our nation’s fiscal house so shaky — the troubling aspects of Romney’s religious affiliation, have faded into the background.
They were always irrelevant to some who perceived this religion as a non-issue with regard to fitness for the presidency. Russell Shaw seems quite sanguine at the idea of a Mormon president. I am less so, but not for the reason that gets advanced from time to time: the power and authority of the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called by adherents, “prophet, seer and revelator.”
The reason for raising the question of the authority of the Mormon leader is to challenge Mormon candidates regarding what they would do if the “prophet, seer and revelator” suddenly imposed upon all Mormons, and therefore upon the president, a new practice that was at odds with American law as their former practice of polygamy was. Would a Mormon obey his leader or the law of the United States that he was sworn to uphold? While an answer to this might be interesting, it is a question that is odds-on merely theoretical given that the two most famous uses of the power of the “prophet, seer and revelator” have been to outlaw polygamy among Mormons and to declare the spiritual equality of Blacks with Whites — both of which brought Mormon society more in line with the prevailing American culture. The idea that the Mormon religious leader might suddenly, upon the election of a Mormon president of the United States, declare that Mormons must practice polygamy, or must use cocaine as a sacrament, or must drive on the left side of the road, or create any other such conflict with American law is too far-fetched to be seriously considered.
So, if that is not a worry, what possible difference do any other theological issues make in qualification to be president?
I think those who are shrugging off the Mormon distinctives may be missing something pertinent. But I also think that the issue mentioned above does not get to the heart of the problem with Mormonism and with the possibility of a Mormon president, which is directly related to their doctrine of God.
(Note: In the discussion below, I will use dual terminology referring to Mormon “gods” because the beings they consider gods are gods in the same sense that we would call, say Thor, “a god” — they are not eternal, omniscient, omnipotent and possess none of the perfections of God and they are imaginary. I am also using “God” because it is important to understand that the Mormons make these claims about the God of the Bible.)
As oddly fascinating and even appalling a doctrine as their polytheism is, you have to get behind it to understand its implications. Behind it is something called “the eternal progression”: the god who created this world — the God of the Bible, they claim — was once a man living on a planet created by his father god, who was once a man living on his planet created by his father god and so forth. Now there is a philosophical problem with this: there is no beginning point — it is an infinite regress. But there can not be such a thing, because if you have to go back an infinite number of times, you never get to a beginning and without a point at which to begin, you never get to now and today. That is an insurmountable philosophical (logical) problem.
But more pertinent to the political question is the moral problem it generates. According to Mormon doctrine, the way that each god gets to become a god is by following the “law of the gospel.” To Mormons, law (not the gods, or God) is eternal and law is prior (although “prior” has no real meaning when one is talking about an infinite regress). God has not created law, it is not “of Him” or “from Him,” rather, “law” — impersonal and uncreated — has made the gods gods (made Him God).
This is not merely a radical departure from the Judeo-Christian concept of God, it is a radical deformation of the concept of law, both natural law and the positive (promulgated) laws that flow from it:
The natural law, the Creator’s very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature (CCC 1959).
Behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stands precisely this Judeo-Christian concept of natural law as the participation of the human conscience in the eternal law of God. It is eternal because it “is the work of divine Wisdom” (CCC 1950), and has as its source an eternal Being, God. It is this concept of natural law from which positive law (ecclesiastical and civil) derives its just authority and its appeal to human reason. Furthermore it is exactly this concept of law that allows us to insist that no law can ever make abortion or euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research lawful. A law that purports to do so is not a law at all because it intrinsically contradicts the proper function of law, as St. Thomas explained:
A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence (STh I-II, 93, 3, ad 2).
Which brings us back around to the possibility of a Mormon being elected president. Their appeal to some Catholics and other Christians is certainly based on so called “social conservatism” and considering the encroachnments the culture of death has made in the past 3 years, that is no minor consideration. But what kind of case can a Mormon make to the nation for the cause of the murdered unborn? What kind of case can he even build in his own head? If “law” is prior to and above (ontologically superior to) even the gods (or God), then on what basis do we claim that law ought to serve the good of persons? If law is ultimately not the product of a Personal Being, as it is according to the Declaration of Independence, how can human reason make judgments regarding law and how can the human conscience be bound by law? Doesn’t it all come down to arbitrary decree? And isn’t arbitrary decree (read: usurpation of legislative function by the Supreme Court) exactly why we are in this mess?
Considering that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required reason to make its case against arbitrary decree at the founding our country, the possibility of electing to its highest executive office someone who must hold as a tenet of faith such a different, and unreasonable, conception of law gives me pause. It is a pause, after which, I will vote for him — only because the alternative is unthinkable.
(A version of this article was originally published Aug 12, 2011)