Mocking Religious Beliefs: The Grandfather Clause

What makes Mormon beliefs fair game for mockery in the minds of some journalists?

A local Fox News reporter decides to ask random voters whether they’d vote for a candidate “who believes that if he’s a good person in his religion he will receive his own planet” (in the afterlife). He follows up with a question about locating the Garden of Eden in Missouri. One of the voters dutifully replies that he finds the beliefs “a little nutty, a little fruity” and wouldn’t vote for such a candidate.

Both of those beliefs are, supposedly, tenets of Mormonism. I don’t know Mormon theology, but I haven’t seen the assertion challenged. Whether actual Mormons literally believe such things is another question to which I don’t have the answer.

In any case, the beliefs are supposed to make Mitt Romney (and presumably Jon Huntsman) ineligible for the White House.

What makes locating the Garden in Missouri any less plausible than locating it in Asia, at the headwaters of the Euphrates and three other rivers, one of which encompasses Ethiopia? What makes an afterlife on one’s own planet more risible than a celibate afterlife somewhere in Heaven (that is, the sky) with God and all the angels?

Since we don’t actually know anything about what happens to individual consciousness after death, it’s hard to see how any given belief on the topic could count as more absurd than another; once you’ve swallowed the camel of the flame continuing to burn after the candle is gone, why strain at gnats?

And neither of these (supposed) Mormon beliefs approaches the pure silliness of “young-earth” creationism, which implies not only that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time but that the entire visible cosmos can’t be more than 6000 light-years across, and that therefore photographs of other galaxies represent what cannot exist. Moreover, beliefs about geology, biology, and physics are in fact relevant to public policy, while beliefs about the nature of the afterlife are not.

Yet no reporter would consider asking voters whether they would regard Sarah Palin’s (apparently) literal belief in young-earth creationism to be a disqualification for the Presidency. Why, then, should Mormon beliefs be fair game?

Part of the answer, obviously, is simple numbers. Of two equally weird beliefs, the one believed by the smaller group will seem weirder. Another part is age: the Book of Mormon was written more recently than the Book of Genesis. Neither really provides an adequate moral basis for abandoning the principles of toleration.

My own view is that candidates’ “Sunday beliefs” should be off limits unless and until a candidate decides to carry them over into discussion of public issues. (Anti-feminist or gay bigotry doesn’t get a pass just because it claims biblical roots.) That is, I’d make “no religious test” a rule of discourse as well as a rule of law. But if Mormon, or Islamic, beliefs are fair game, then Catholic and Protestant and Jewish beliefs should be on an equal footing.

Better not to go there.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.