Saturday, October 15, 2011

Prophets, Presidents, and Public Policy

Since there are two Mormons in the Republican primary race, questions about Mormonism are coming up in public discourse. The response in the media and by public figures has generally been to condemn any religious-based discrimination as irrelevant to a candidate's eligibility, which is right. But there is also a need for explanations of the specific charges and why they are not problematic.


One such claim is that Mormons believe that there is a living prophet (currently Thomas S. Monson) who speaks for God, and that if a devout Mormon such as Mitt Romney or (less plausibly) Jon Huntsman were president, he would never disobey the prophet. Therefore, if Monson got it into his head to meddle in foreign or domestic policy, the President would be at his bidding, religiously obligated to set aside his own misgivings and have faith that he ought to do whatever the prophet says.

The typical response is to point out that people said the same thing about John F. Kennedy being Catholic and the pope therefore being able to use him as a puppet, and none of those fears materialized. (Nor does it appear that Pope Benedict XVI actively intermeddles in the affairs of any of the dozens of countries, outside the Vatican itself, which officially identify as Catholic.) But let’s try to answer the question from within Mormonism, and not merely by analogy to Catholicism.

The truth is that any Mormon devout enough to feel obligated to obey the prophet, and intelligent enough to be the President, would know that Mormon doctrine specifically prohibits any such intermeddling.

1) We do not claim that the Prophet is infallible. Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 286 or 278 depending on the edition; see also this link.)
2) Mormon scripture states, “We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.” (D&C 134:9) Another passage reads, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned[.]” (D&C 121:41)
3) Official Church policy states, “The Church does not: Endorse, promote, or oppose political parties, candidates, or platforms … [nor] attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader.” On certain rare public issues that have moral and religious implications, however, the Church will adopt an official stance.
4) When the prophets speak, it is not expected that the members of the church unthinkingly obey. Rather, it is incumbent upon each church member to seek his or her own confirmation from God that the prophet was, in fact, speaking in accordance with God’s wishes. See this link.

The fact that people of such different political views as, for instance, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and far right-wing media personality Glenn Beck can both be devout Mormons shows that the LDS Church must not be exercising much control over their politics. Mormons have a long history in politics, and although their religious beliefs influence their views, I am unaware of a single instance of even a mere allegation that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had attempted to coerce a Mormon politician in his political decisions. (This article has its inaccuracies, but collaborates this point in the last three paragraphs.)

Let’s pretend that Mitt Romney becomes the President of the United States. Even if the Mormon prophet, President Monson, were to call him up and give him instructions on how to run the country—which he would never do—Romney would be under no obligation to obey. Pr. Monson would be acting contrary to Mormon scripture and longstanding official church policy, and Romney would conclude that he had therefore not been acting as a prophet and consequently ignore it. Something Romney said back in 2007 goes for any Mormon politician in any office and of any political party: "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

In summary
Claim: If a Mormon became President of the United States, he would be a puppet of the Mormon prophet, who could dictate decisions to him, claiming that it was the will of God.
Answer: Mormon scripture and official church policy prohibit church leaders from using their ecclesiastical positions to tell public officials how to perform their duties. The Church has never attempted to tell Mormon politicians what to do or how to vote. If the prophet were to do so, he would be deemed to have not been acting as a prophet, and his directions considered mere personal opinion.

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