Andrew Sullivan has launched an inquisition into the foreign policy of a President Romney through an interesting frame– Mormon teachings about the constitution. Sullivan’s piece, “Did Jesus Foresee the U.S. Constitution,” is a classic bit of muckraking, leveraging (rather than exploring) LDS teachings to lead him to a foregone conclusion. The chain of logic goes something like this: Mormons believe the Constitution was divinely inspired–> Mormons must believe that America is meant to dominate the world–>The potential foreign policy of a President Romney is really scary to think about–>President Romney may not give credence to any of the amendments to the Constitution.
Wow. Let’s catch our breath after that wild ride of whimsy and see if we can break down some of the fanciful logic at play. First, Sullivan’s frame for his story clearly marks out his intentions. While all of the language Mormons use in discussing their religious constitution is circumspect and reverential (“the Constitution is a divinely inspired document”) Sullivan’s headline casts the question in terms as ridiculous as he can make them, asking “Did Jesus Foresee the U.S. Constitution.” Ha! The idea that a figure whom Sullivan himself believes to the be the Son of God and the Savior of mankind could have guided events leading to the formation of the freest nation on earth is a little ludicrous, right?
Well, it is if it’s just the Mormons saying it. What Sullivan fails to point out is that the very speech to which he refers as his source for Mormon thought on this topic also includes some non-Mormon luminaries speaking to this point. Men like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Charles Pinckney. Sullivan doesn’t take on their statements testifying of providential guidance in the constitutional process. That would make the Mormons’ statements seem less ridiculous. Better to act as if only the Mormons believe God helped establish this nation and spatter in a few other funnily-phrased Mormon doctrines to effectively marginalize this set of fairly common American beliefs about the nation’s founding.
What is more interesting is what Sullivan attempts to do with these ideas, once he has established that Mormons do indeed believe that America’s origins were divinely assisted. Without any evidence at all, he jumps to the conclusion that
. . . such an understanding of America’s unique and divine status among nations has profound foreign policy implications. It means that America alone has divine permission to do what it wants in the wider world, that America is subject to different standards than everyone else (because we alone are divinely blessed), and that geopolitics is about the global supremacy of the modern world’s first divine nation (even if Iran and Israel might differ on which country is divinely blessed).
Wait, where is the support for these notions? Is it not possible that a person can believe the framers were inspired and also that America should play a humble role in the world? As Daniel Larison points out, it’s equally likely that adherents to this view may believe themselves (and America) constrained by firm principles of morality and therefore less likely to be violent or aggressive. There is no evidence of which I am aware that having religious ideas about America’s founding leads to a more bloodthirsty foreign policy. Sullivan offers none, simply assuming this to be the case.
Well, at least when it comes to a conservative republican. Sullivan readily admits that none of this speculation applies to sensible Mormons like Harry Reid or Jon Huntsman Jr. This is a deeply odd concession, since it means (and Sullivan suggests as much) that Romney’s politics might be informed more by his party and political ideology than by his religion. Which brings into doubt the entire purpose of Sullivan’s inquiry. If liberals and moderates like Reid and Huntsman will not be driven to extremism by their religious beliefs, why should we assume that Romney would be? Moreover, Sullivan is the same guy who argued passionately that JFK was able to see beyond his theological assumptions in creating a sensible global politics. Why again do we assume, without evidence, that Romney cannot do the same?
The best proof that Sullivan is simply abusing Mormon belief to fit a pre-conceived thesis is his elision of the real evidence of how Mormon belief affects Mormon politics. In the speech Sullivan cites, and which he claims to have read completely, former Mormon President Ezra Taft Benson laid out a set of very clear prescriptions that follow from the notion that the Constitution is divinely inspired. Did he say that America must triumph over all other nations? Did he express a preference as between Israel and Palestine? No. He says that those who believe God had a hand in America’s founding should (1) live righteously; (2) learn about and understand the constitution; (3) become involved in civic affairs; and (4) make our influence felt “by our vote, our letters, our teaching, and our advice.” Pretty creepy, right?
Once again, in order to speculate on a crazy Mormon president, you have to meticulously ignore the best evidence of how Mormons actually live their beliefs and discount any evidence regarding how the candidate himself approaches issues outside the frame of his religion. Sullivan’s essay serves as a model for what will surely be many similarly ridiculous pieces in the future.
- Sullivan is not correct in asserting that “the restoration of the gospel” means “the triumph of Mormonism over other forms of Christianity.” This phrase is never used with that meaning, and it’s hard to see how Sullivan could have drawn that conclusion. For Mormons, the restoration of the gospel refers to the work of Joseph Smith in forming the Church, bringing forth scripture, and otherwise putting in place the elements of ancient Christianity in the 1800’s. There is literally no connotation in that phrase referring to victory over the rest of Christianity.
- Yes, George Washington and many others of the founders have been posthumously baptized by the Mormon Church. This is not some special privilege accorded to those figures; rather, Mormons undertake this work for all of their forebears with the belief that all humanity should be given the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ and his Church. A good explanation of this practice is found here.