Where Does It End? The Real Danger in Warren Smith’s Perspective

Dave noted yesterday at Times and Seasons the inherent incivility of journalist Warren Cole Smith’s recent dismissal in Patheos of Mormons’ eligibility for the office of President of the United States precisely because of their religion. I found Dave’s analysis cogent and important. My concern with WCS’s viewpoint runs deeper than whether he and those who share his views have simply departed from the bounds of civil discourse.

A sound inference invited by WCS’s Patheos article is that he, and by extension those who agree with him, believes the religious beliefs of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) disqualifies them from playing any role whatsoever in the society that WCS envisions for the United States of America. This is, of course, fundamentally at odds with the ethos of what America means (and what it means to be an American) for most of its inhabitants: a land where the first freedom continues to be the freedom of religion/conscience.

Arguments about Constitutional interpretation aside, most Americans should and can agree that the First Amendment ingeniously guarantees this first freedom through the combination of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause — two essential components that most Americans believe (at the Founding as well as now) must be a part of the equation to guarantee freedom of religion as our first freedom. This combination creates the environment for a truly religiously pluralistic society to exist (especially after the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the First Amendment against state and local governments instead of just as a limitation on the federal government) by preventing religious organizations from mingling religious influence with civil government and in so doing fostering one religious organization or dogma over another. More importantly, by preventing religious organizations from mingling religious influence with civil government, the First Amendment is meant to and does prevent one religion from proscribing another in its spiritual privileges and denying the individual rights of citizens who happen to be members of a disfavored religion.

In the pluralistic society that this framework makes possible (a pluralism that is, in fact, indissociable from a democratic society), religion does not disqualify an individual from any public office or from performing their civic duties as citizens in any other capacity in society. WCS’s arguments in his Patheos article, however, trend in the other direction and should cause concern for Americans more broadly, not just Mormons.

WCS argues that Mormons are dangerous and therefore should not be eligible for President of the United States. But the same logic behind WCS’s arguments must apply to Mormons in any other capacity as well: Senators, Congressmen, Governors, Mayors, Police Chiefs, FBI Agents, school teachers, firemen — and there is nothing in WCS’s reasoning or logic that would prevent his view from extending into the purely private economy. Mormons should not be in positions as CEOs, industry leaders, partners at prestigious law firms or indeed any law firms, doctors, surgeons, professors at private universities, etc. WCS’s main reasons for concluding that Mormons are dangerous and therefore unfit serve as President of the United States include the following*:

  • Unreliable — Mormons believe in continuing revelation. Because Mormons believe that God leads his Church now as in ancient times through inspiration to leaders ordained and set apart as Apostles (including the President of the Church and his counselors in the First Presidency) who are sustained by church members as “prophets, seers, and revelators”, they are dangerous. “If the beliefs are false, then the behavior will eventually—but inevitably—be warped” (Patheos).
  • Errant — WCS points out that despite Romney’s and most Mormons’ ardent belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the World, as portrayed by the New Testament, Mormons generally do not subscribe to, and indeed explicitly reject as extra-biblical and unnecessary, the Nicene Creed. Romney (and any other Mormon candidate for President of the United States) therefore “has some explaining to do” (Patheos) because failure to “affirm the Nicene Creed” makes Mormons’ otherwise pious devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ “flawed and dangerous” (Religion Dispatches).
  • Weird — Mormons have “highly idiosyncratic views of history” (Patheos) that stem from their religious beliefs. For example, “Mormons believe Lost Tribes of Israel came to the Americas, and that Jesus came too” (Religion Dispatches). Despite a fairly large body of Mormon beliefs that a secular, atheistic society could legitimately deem “weird” (in addition to the Divine Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ, the miracles he performed during his Ministry, his Atonement including his Resurrection from the Dead, among others), it is interesting that in continuing to emphasize this point about the Lost Tribes of Israel (in the Patheos article and the Religion Dispatches interview) WCS focuses on something that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not and has not taught as doctrine in the past.† Believing, for example, that after his death and Resurrection in Jerusalem (and after his Forty Day Ministry), Jesus Christ visited people in the Western Hemisphere who believed in him as the sought-for Messiah based on Old Testament scriptures, is according to WCS too weird and ahistorical and could interfere with “negotiating the outcomes of conflicts with real histories that go back thousands of years” because “conflicts in the Middle East, in Asia, and elsewhere require an understanding of history and human nature that are not fabricated out of whole cloth” (Patheos).
  • Validation — Being President of the United States is a big deal. So if a Mormon is elected to that office, “there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy — whether or not this is his intent — will be to promote Mormonism. A Romney presidency would have the effect of actively promoting a false religion in the world” (Patheos). In fact, despite Romney’s clear record of actually living the life of a Christian disciple§ (as evidenced by the sum total of Mitt Romney’s existence, his actions, his family, his devotion — too squeeky clean, in fact, for anyone to be able to bring up any dirt on him in the 2008 election except precisely his pious devotion to Jesus Christ as a Latter-day Saint), Romney and all other Mormons are “unfit to serve” because in WCS’s opinion, and apparently in the opinion of an unquantifiable but arguably large number of primary voters, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a “false and dangerous religion” and a Mormon president could break down prejudices in people’s minds against Mormons resulting in, perhaps, more people joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The truly chilling aspect of WCS’s perspective is considering its ultimate implications for our pluralistic society in the United States. If WCS and likeminded people believe that these main reasons hold true when considering the capability of a Mormon to serve as President of the United States, then where does it end? We can very reasonably infer that the same list/reasoning applies in the minds of WCS and those who agree with him theologically when considering whether a Mormon (or other citizen who is a member of a religion that does not affirm the Nicene Creed) should be in almost any other position in our body politic, whether in the public or private sector. Particularly the last summary point about publicity/validation means that WCS and those who agree with him theologically are against Mormons in any high-profile position, whether in companies of their own creation and management or in government representing constituencies including WCS or those who agree with him theologically.

For most Americans, this whole idea should be very alarming and viewed as extraordinarily dangerous to the pluralism and good order that we enjoy today in our Constitutional Republic, the first fruits of which are to guarantee religious freedom and freedom of conscience. The society envisioned by WCS and those who agree with him theologically does not protect religious freedom in the manner conceived of in our Constitution by preventing religious organizations from mingling religious influence with civil government and thereby fostering one religious organization or dogma over another through government channels. To the contrary, the fruits of WCS’s society would inexorably be the proscription by adherents of one particular religious dogma of other religions/dogmas in their spiritual privileges and the denial of the individual rights of citizens who happen to be members of a disfavored religion. This might have been the standard operating procedure in the German Democratic Republic (where the state religion of atheistic party Communism proscribed the spiritual privileges and individual rights of all other religions/dogmas despite lip-service to religious freedom and equality in constitutional documents) or other totalitarian states but it is not what America is about.

Let us all work tirelessly to prevent this from happening and to promote a truly pluralistic society that is true to its first freedom in protecting the religious freedom of all of its citizens. The alternative is not only dangerous — for Americans, it is unthinkable.

* It should be noted that at Religion Dispatches Joanna Brooks recently concisely summarized WCS’s reasons as Mormons are “errant, weird and unreliable” (the same list I employ above as an accurate summary), which curiously drew an objection from WCS despite the fact that they are a distillation of the premises on which WCS’s argument rests. The above list fleshing out Joanna’s shorthand shows that her descriptors were indeed an accurate summary of WCS’s reasons for concluding that Mormons are dangerous and unfit for President of the United States. Nevertheless WCS bristled at Joanna’s shorthand, telling her not to put words in his mouth and claiming to have “tons of Mormon friends”. To WCS’s Mormon friends if it is true that he has some, I ask, do you realize that he views you not just as misguided theologically — despite your wholehearted acceptance of Jesus Christ as your Savior (perplexities arising from the Nicene Creed aside) and your full fledged efforts to live every day as disciples of Jesus Christ — but actually as dangerous to our body politic?

† Latter-day Saints generally believe that God led select groups of families from the Ancient Near East, particularly Jerusalem, to the Western Hemisphere at various times throughout recorded history, and it is the religious history of these people that Mormons believe is contained in the Book of Mormon. It is not claimed that these people constituted the Lost Tribes of Israel. If Mormons’ beliefs are so weird, why does WCS need to overreach in this manner and characterize immigrant groups as the Lost Tribes to make it sound weirder?

§ As opposed to a mere abstract belief in the Nicene Creed — this is lived religion we’re talking about here, where the rubber meets the road. “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).


  1. It should also be noted that Huntsman has drifted from a LDS perspective, I mean that he skirts questions about his beliefs and is vague in any answers he gives. http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/politics/51804534-90/church-define-faith-huntsman.html.csp

    Romney – I’m not exactly sure what he believes either.

    It seems to me most “LDS’ politicians are far from it and only “LDS” because they belonged to the church when they were younger.

    “By their fruits ye shall know them”…

  2. I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest that Jon Huntsman Jr. is anything other than a believing Mormon.

    I know for a fact that Mitt Romney is an active, believing Latter-day Saint. He is as good an example of an active, believing Latter-day Saint as you can find. Perhaps this is why people like Warren Smith are so threatened by him. As someone who really has it together and leads the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ, he could potentially disrupt the stereotype that has existed in people’s minds of Mormons being weird.

    If the ideal US citizen, neighbor, family father, businessman, parishioner (remember, a main criticism of Romney in 2008 was that he was too squeeky clean, that his was an Ozzie and Harriett existence, that he was too wholesome) happens to be Mormon, then that does say something about his belief system.

  3. Jon,
    Do you really have to throw innuendo at folks whose beliefs you don’t actually know? What does your comment have to do with the opening post at all?

  4. [ignoring Jon’s comment]

    The Smith article is ridiculous and dismaying. Thanks John (and Joanna Brooks) for providing such a thorough shellacking.

  5. Left Field says:

    The “Lost Tribes of Israel” story is popular among people who haven’t actually read the Book of Mormon and among people who merely parrot what other people (who also haven’t read the book) say about it. The Book of Mormon rather explicitly identifies the Lost Tribes as still being lost and as being other than the people chronicled in the book.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    “By their fruits ye shall know them”…

    yes, just as we know Jon is a hapless troll. On to the substance of John’s post: John, are you saying by converse argument that a candidate’s religion is invalid grounds for dismissing someone as a political candidate?

    It seems to me that WCS essentially makes the argument that Mormons are a tiny, bizarre sect, and I don’t want my country run by a member of a tiny, bizarre sect. However threatening to notions of American pluralism, this view strikes me as an entirely normal, even expected way to approach candidates.

  7. Michael says:

    The good news here is that the Constitution explicitly forbids the government from excluding anybody from office based on religious belief. The bad news is that it doesn’t prohibit citizens voting against somebody based on their religious belief.

    In other words, there can’t be a law prohibiting Mormons from holding office. (Although the Idaho state constitution did, for a long time, prohibit anybody believing in eternal marriage from voting or holding office, but it wasn’t enforced.) However, idiots are allowed to spout off any number of hateful and bigoted anti-Mormon diatribes to scare people into avoiding Mormons.

    I’ve long thought that Mormons are a political threat only if they believe the tenets of the Gospel. If they don’t actually believe it, they aren’t a problem. (Senator Reid is, in my opinion, a prime example.) Romney is therefore a problem. Hunstman, not so much.

  8. Really? You have some sort of inside knowledge about the status of Harry Reid and John Huntsman’s belief in the tenets of the Gospel? Don’t just impugn the character of people you don’t know; spill, internet troll, spill!

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Seriously, people: any further comments as to the good mormon/bad mormon character of Huntsman, Romney, or Reid will be lost in the moderation queue for a long time. Think long and hard before disparaging the faithfulness of a fellow Saint.

  10. Steve: the post tries to look deeper at what Warren Smith’s society would look like. Perhaps I have not succeeded if the takeaway for you was that I don’t think that people can legitimately vote against a person because they don’t like their religion.

    Michael, I don’t think there is any credible evidence that Jon Huntsman Jr. does not actually believe the tenets of the Gospel. His “it’s complicated” comment, silly as it might have been, is not useful in the query. As to Senator Reid, I happen to know for a fact that he believes very piously in the tenets of the Gospel. Your assertion that he does not brings your credibility into question, in my opinion.

  11. It seems people like Jon often apply the WCS approach internally and thereby make our “tiny, bizarre sect” even tinier and more bizarre, if that were possible…

  12. John, I think you’ve succeeded, just trying to drag things out a bit. Pluralism is tricky stuff, especially when religious hatred is one of the plurals we’re dealt with.

  13. I forgot to add, excellent OP.

  14. Excellent article, John F. I have several evangelical colleagues and since the publication of that article, I’ve been internally frustrated a little bit by the desire to know if that is how they truly see me, also. Do you think that WCS’s statements are representative of a broad swath of evangelical christians at the individual level? At the pastor/community leader level? (Note, I am not asking if evangelicals are generally mistrusting of Mormons–that isn’t a very interesting question. What I am asking is whether or not this same “errant, weird, and unreliable” summary is broadly applicable.)

  15. I think most of them at the lay or congregational level view us as merely errant and weird. The pastor level on up adds the unreliable issue based on continuing revelation.

    One wonders if certain groups in Old Testament times similarly looked at prophetic guidance (by living prophets) as a bug rather than a feature. I think it’s pretty certain that there were — they were the people the prophets were admonishing to repent and obey God’s commandments and voice.

    I think it is possible that a not insignificant number of Evangelical Christians, including possibly people you work with, actually do not want to be identified with the type of Evangelical Christian perspective espoused by Warren Smith. They would probably be appalled by what he has written and, if they think about it a little, they might share the view taken in this original post, namely how dangerous Warren Smith’s vision of society is for all American concepts of religious freedom and the enriching pluralism that results from a state of true religious freedom.

  16. Strong analysis, John.

  17. I’m kind of surprised Joanna Brooks didn’t ask the guy why his attitude wouldn’t lead to an Sunni vs. Shiite style democracy as demonstrated in Iraq. The only answer I can see is simply that there aren’t enough Mormons. Or evangelicals, for that matter.

    To be fair, I would think long and hard about voting for any outspoken evangelical because I’d be concerned how much anti-Mormonness she’d ingested along with her other beliefs, so I guess I’m sort of already down that path myself.

  18. Chris Gordon says:

    RE: Scott (14) and John F.,(15) I can only add my own anecdotal perspective as I have several evangelical friends (some close friends, some casual). I had to resist the urge to go on Facebook and informally poll my Christian friends as to whether they really feel that way about Mormons.

    My take from my interactions with my evangelical (and other Christian) friends is that the limits to their perception of our weirdness is pretty varied. I think they range from “Hey, every Mormon I’ve met has been a pretty solid person and wouldn’t affect my vote,” to “Hey, even though most Mormons I’ve met have been pretty solid people, but I don’t think I’d vote for one–there’s just too much there I don’t buy.” Pretty unscientific spectrum, I’ll grant.

    As it relates more to the premise of the OP, Elder Oaks’s recent defenses of the church’s right to engage politically on the basis of free exercise has touched on somewhat similar themes. I wonder if his argument would be stronger if it wasn’t so much, “Quit saying we should keep our noses out of gay marriage!” and more of this kind of rhetoric.

  19. Eric Russell says:

    I’d just like to note that a google search for the terms “J. Stapley” and “strong” returns 9,140 results. That is all.

  20. Chris Gordon,
    In what was probably a stupid move, I just put a poll on my FB page asking what Evangelical Christians think of that interview. (I only have a few friends who could possibly answer it, though, so it’s unlikely to gain any traction.)

  21. Eric, I’ve been trying to keep it on the down-low; but it is true. I am the one both mighty and strong.

  22. Eric,
    How does he do for “mighty”?

  23. “any further comments as to the good mormon/bad mormon character of Huntsman, Romney, or Reid will be lost in the moderation queue for a long time. Think long and hard before disparaging the faithfulness of a fellow Saint.”

    One of the things which soured me on Romney was when I saw him on C-SPAN a few years ago, ridiculing Harry Reid in front of a conservative audience. Not substantive criticisms of Reid, mind you, but cheap jokes. Maybe all is fair in love & war & politics, but it rubbed me the wrong way, his making a fellow Saint an “offender for a word”. Didn’t seem very statesman-like to me.

    (Hope this doesn’t go in the mod queue, Steve. I’m not criticizing his faithfulness, but his political actions.)

  24. Now how could I put the inventor of warp drive in the mod queue???

  25. Steve Evans, you are my hero for that one.

  26. Brian-A says:

    Stapley’s #21 fulfils ancient (well, 2006) BCC prophesy.

  27. Whoa.

  28. Chris Gordon says:

    @Steve Evans: you can’t. Though we did find out that Cochrane was a drunken womanizer, so maybe he would’ve been a troll.

    @Scott: No-Mo’s make up a good 2/3 of my friends list on Facebook. I’m not sure if I was more afraid that my Christian friends would respond honestly or that they wouldn’t respond at all (voluntarily) so as to not hurt my feelings.

  29. I appreciate your take on this. I do believe based on personal exp in the bible belt that a portion of the ev. population sees Mormons exactly as WCS does. Although usually their opinions lack the depth that his does.
    The big question is how big of a proportion of the Ev population is this? I would hope its small.

  30. It seems to me that WCS essentially makes the argument that Mormons are a tiny, bizarre sect, and I don’t want my country run by a member of a tiny, bizarre sect. However threatening to notions of American pluralism, this view strikes me as an entirely normal, even expected way to approach candidates.”
    I think this bypasses what has me gnashing my teeth about the essay. The author tries to have it both ways- the church is both a “tiny, bizarre sect,” AND a monolithic powerhouse. I think either of those claims are fair game for criticism and analysis but you.can’t.have.both. I don’t even know what the author actually believes- but I know he’s scared enough of you folks to hurl lots of crap and hope something sticks.

  31. Mark N. says:

    I have no evidence, but my gut feeling is that it’s the “validation” aspect of things that will keep lots of Evangelicals from voting for Mitt Romney.

  32. I’ve often wondered if people like WCS are willing to have their logic turned on them. Honestly I think most Americans are scared and put off my highly fundamentalist Evangelicals and their actions. Should any Evangelical (like say a certain Fox talk host who ran for President in 2008) be excluded on the same grounds WCS puts forth?

    The problem is that WCS and people like him fundamentally just reject pluralism. They might put up with Catholics and Jews. Not atheists of course. And people with doubts might be highly problematic. But fundamentally they think government should be run by more conservative fundamentalist Evangelicals. That’s why some are making things like belief in Evolution a litmus test.

    For anyone who cares about American democracy [i]that[/i] is scary and far more cult-like than anything any Mormon running for office espouses or could conceivably belief.

  33. Wraith of Blake says:

    Smith’s intended audience is fellow evangelicals, to whom he wants to have rally around a perception of the Mormon heresy as a threat to America’s religious life. And, yet, this isn’t terribly different from the type of position often found toward religious minorities in such places as rural Pakistan. As radio host and political commentator Hugh Hewitt (who happens to be evangelical and former Catholic) has recently argued–

    Especially as new regimes emerge in parts of the world where religious intolerance is the rule and not the exception, America has to live out its Article VI commitment, demonstrating that religious pluralism not only works but also provides the context in which genuine faith can flourish and can defend its truth-claims best and most persuasively.


  34. Marjorie Conder says:

    It looks like we haven’t really come very far in 100 years. The underlying idea of Kathleen Flake’s “The Politics of American Religious Identity” is not really about polygamy, but “whose America is it?”.The Protestants/Evangelicals have long assumed this is a “Christian nation” in their image. An increasingly pluralistic society (including the Mormons) challenges that on every side. These are the same groups who oppose both Mormon temples and Islamic mosques.

    Perhaps it is also an underlying thread in anti-immigrant sentiment. Most of the Latin immigrants (both legal and not) are Catholic and many are becoming Mormon. Both groups also have statistically larger families. From my perspective the “traditional Christians” may be running scared. They probably fear, and rightly so, that as demographics change, assumptions about their “right” to lead my also evaporate.

  35. Warren Smith’s mindset is the same as those who crucified Jesus Christ. Interesting that he considers himself a Christian when, if he lived at the time of Christ, he would be yelling “crucify him!”

  36. Article 6 of the US Constitution specifically forbids a religious test for federal office, making some of the logic here using the first and fourteenth amendment unnecessary. Here is a link to my take on Smith and his anti-constitutional sentiments. http://www.pluralistnation.com/content/religion/no-religious-test-shall-ever-be-required-for-the-president-article-vi-us-constitution/ and here is another one I did on the same topic titled “We Have More in Common, Than We are Different”

  37. Thanks — yes Article VI comes into play, no doubt. This post does not go into Article VI because we are not discussing a government-imposed religious test for prospective position holders. The post asks what the society that Warren Smith wishes for America looks like. The First Amendment lays the foundation for a truly pluralistic society and reaches this potential with its incorporation against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Warren Smith’s alarming perspective and vision for society trends the other direction. The danger that Warren Smith’s vision poses for a free and pluralistic society needs to be highlighted. I believe it runs against the grain of what America is meant to be about and what the First Amendment is meant to and does achieve.

    But Warren Smith is encouraging private individuals to vote based on religious prejudices that have been created in those individuals’ minds, not by anything inherent in Mormonism, but rather by the prejudicial preaching of fundamentalist Evangelical preachers. So it is not so much an Article VI issue so much as a prejudice issue, the effect of which is a strike against pluralism in society.

  38. Thanks for this article. I’ve been waiting for someone to focus on some of the more fallacious aspects of WCS’s article, rather that chasing the relatively minor reference to Article !V. For example, I’m glad you pointed out his nearly-unrecognizable mis-statements of LDS doctrine.

    The way I parse his logic, it begins with the application of a ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy by redefining Christianity to fit his narrow view, rather than one more acceptable to his audience such as “those people who believe in the divinity of Christ, his unerring example, and his role as Savior of the world.” LDS beliefs clearly fit within that definition, which for modern ecumenical purposes is unnecessarily strict.

    His second premise is even less persuasive, as he seems to argue that his definition of orthodoxy, which seems to be at least as narrow as those who profess the Nicene Creed, is correct. This is the fallacy of “Appeal to Popularity”. It’s application here is realized to be even more insidious by those who remember what lengths were taken in the 4th and 5th century by the proponents of WCS’s preferred creed to ensure that popularity. It’s well known that those who openly opposed the new creed, such as Arius, found their life expectancy, well, shortened. Presumably, they were judged “unfit” and “dangerous”.

    Even more perplexing is WCS’s reasoning in other sources, where Jews and other sects are given a pass from the “dangerous” label he reserves for Mormons, and where he expounds his categorical dismissal of Mormons’ historical beliefs in light of such artifacts as the Ohio Decalog.

    His conclusion (of Mormons’ lack of fitness and danger as political leaders) is so detached from his arguments, they are completely non-sequitur. WCS might have made a stronger argument by saying Romney could somehow transform into another Harry Reid, that is if WCS intended to convince an easily-spooked, unthinking audience such as those that overlook the flaws in his expressed reasons. The rest of us are left to infer his unexpressed ones.

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