Category: Religion


For my op-ed about Mormonism, I read a book by a mountain-climbing expert!

moroni.jpg Maureen Dowd wants you to know that she’s read Jon Krakauer’s book about Mormonism. She’s really proud of this tidbit, and she cites the book — a lot — in her Sunday column . By all appearances, this is the only book about Mormonism that she’s read so far. But hey, she gets her mileage out of it, quoting Krakauer extensively on topics like polygamy and underwear and Joseph Smith as a hypnotically charming salesman. That was ten dollars well spent at the airport bookstore.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Krakauer. Into Thin Air — Krakauer’s bestseller about the fatal Mount Everest climb — was a great read. And why wouldn’t it be? Krakauer has decades of experience as an outdoors writer, he’s got an undergraduate degree in environmental studies, and he’s written prior, well-received books about survival in the outdoors.

Also, he wrote one book about Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven — and as we now know, Maureen Dowd read that book.

Of course, a skeptic might suggest that Dowd should have considered interviewing other sources. A few of her colleagues even seem to have adopted that approach themselves. David Brooks, in his own article on the Romney speech, cites to established religious scholars like Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus, and (careful, he’s Mormon!) emeritus Columbia historian Richard Bushman. (Bushman is also a Bancroft prize winner, which cancels out at least 62% of his Mormonness). Meanwhile, over in the NYT Week in Review, writer Laurie Goodstein offers a nuanced and interesting article that quotes from theologian Richard Mouw, President of the (non-Mormon) Fuller Theological Seminary.

Dowd, though, sticks to her guns: She cites Krakauer, and then for confirmation, she interviews Krakauer.

Our skeptic could also argue that Dowd should have checked out a few books in addition to Krakauer’s magnum opus. For instance, the highly regarded Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, by Indiana University historian Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon who has written about Mormon history for forty years. Or perhaps one of the biographies or studies by Richard Bushman (warning: may contain Mormon content), the Bancroft-winner whose status as a Mormon history superstar was again confirmed with his recent appointment to chair a new Mormon Studies program at (non-Mormon) Claremont Graduate University. Or maybe the short bio by (non-Mormon) star Jacksonian-era historian Robert Remini of the University of Illinois. Or even some of the Oxford-published work by (careful, he’s Mormon!) University of Richmond prof Terryl Givens. The list goes on, and on; it’s not like there is a shortage of really well-researched, well-regarded studies of Mormon history.

But then, those kinds of books — dry and boring and well-researched — are probably less likely to contain one-liners like Krakauer’s (and now, Dowd’s) “[Joseph Smith] could sell a muzzle to a dog.”

Hmm. Perhaps that’s the point?

Image source: Wikicommons.


A Quick Response to Douthat

Over at Atlantic Monthly, Ross Douthat responds to my post on Mitt Romney and Mormonism, writing:

[Oman’s] analysis makes a lot of sense; I only object to note of self-pity at the end. Just because evangelicals (and Catholics, to a lesser extent) are using Mormonism as a marker to legitimize their own theological compromises doesn’t mean it isn’t a reasonable marker to use. It isn’t only about Oman’s religion, but it is about it to a great extent: Mormonism is a useful marker of how far ecumenism can go (and how far it can’t) precisely because there are much, much deeper theological commonalities between, say, the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention than between either body and the the LDS Church. And while it’s true that Mormons get more attention, and hostility, than other similarly-heterodox strands of American religion, they’re at least partially victims of their own success. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses, say, were doing as well as the Mormons are at winning converts, their tenets might be playing the same sort of “here’s where the Great Tradition stops” role in debates over ecumenical cooperation. But they aren’t, so they don’t.

Ross is right to call me on the tone of self-pity that creeps in at the end of my post. (Growing up on tales of anti-Mormon mobs, murdered leaders, and federal prosecutions tends to hardwire a certain persecution complex into the Mormon psyche, I suspect.)

I do, however, think that his response breezes rather quickly to the issue of theological difference and ecumenism. I would be the last to deny that there are real and important theological differences between Mormonism and Protestantism or Catholicism. However, it is not simply these theological differences that account for the strange political salience of Mormonism as an issue for some non-trivial segment of the Republican base. Rather, I think that the fact that the details of Mormon theology matter so intensely as a political issue for some voters comes from their need to assert — if only to themselves — their theological integrity in the face of political compromises. It is not Mormon theology but the strange series of historical accidents that pushed conservative evangelical protestants and conservative catholics into alliance that is causing most of Romney’s “Mormon problem,” a development that Mormonism had very little to do with. Furthermore, the fact that this same non-trivial chunk of the Republican base believes that the theological marker for ecumenism is also a valid reason in principle for rejecting a Mormon candidate is simply a graphic illustration of the problems of conflating ecumenism and political coalition building. It also illustrates that at least for some, Mormonism’s status as a religious outsider is sufficient reason to relegate Mormons to the status of outsiders within the political community as well. Supporter of a basically liberal political order (and member of the Mormon tribe) that I am, I find that a bit disquieting.


Saving the planet via polygamy

There’s a really bizarre article in today’s Washington Post. Under the title, “Divorce Found to Harm the Environment,” the article states:

Divorce is not just a family matter. It exacts a serious toll on the environment by boosting the energy and water consumption of those who used to live together, according to a study by two Michigan State University researchers.

The analysis found that cohabiting couples and families around the globe use resources more efficiently than households that have split up. The researchers calculated that in 2005, divorced American households used between 42 and 61 percent more resources per person than before they separated, spending 46 percent more per person on electricity and 56 percent more on water. . . .

Married households use energy and water more efficiently than divorced ones because they share these resources — including lighting and heating — among more people, said Jianguo Liu, one of the paper’s co-authors. Moreover, the divorced households they surveyed between 1998 and 2002 used up more space, occupying between 33 and 95 percent more rooms per person than in married households.

This is certainly a novel use of statistics, and likely to see much use in intra-family discussions this holiday season. I foresee the use of this statistic as another arrow in the quiver of passive-aggressive matchmaking parents everywhere. (“I don’t see why George can’t just find a nice girl, settle down, and save the environment.”) But really, the stats seem to prove too much, don’t they?

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Thoughts from the Anvil: Mitt, Mormonism, and American Religious Politics

meet_mitt_romney.jpgA couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion on “Mormonism and American Politics.” The big question at that conference was whether or not presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was going to make “The Speech,” in which he would deal with “the whole Mormonism issue.” At the time, I wanted to post some of my thoughts on Romney’s Mormon problem, and since it looks as though Romney has opted for “The Speech,” now seems like a good time to put them up.

I suspect that on Thursday Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will perform the function that Mormonism has been fulfilling in American politics for a century and a half: It will be an anvil on which this mainly Protestant nation hammers out the place of religion in public life.

In 1856, the Republican Party was founded in opposition to the twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery. By 1862, the GOP had enough political power to start putting some legal muscle behind the campaign slogans, passing the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. Four successive waves of legislation, prosecutions, and high-stakes litigation followed, until the church issued the Manifesto in 1890 and Utah joined the Union as a state. In the thirty odd years between the first Republican platform and the Manifesto, Protestant America used the Mormons to articulate the limits of religious toleration.

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Misappropriation of Religion

There have been almost 3000 news stories on the bizarre Teddy Bear affair in Sudan. The AP notes that “Sudan’s Islamic government, which has long whipped up anti-Western. . . hard-line sentiment at home, was balancing between fueling outrage over the case of Gillian Gibbons and containing it.” Given the diversity of implementations of Sharia law, the case appears to be yet another sad example of religion misappropriated to crass political ends. Law prof Haider Ala Hamoudi makes the following point:

[W]ould a medieval jurist know what a teddy bear even was? Does it matter at all to the conventional wisdom that the crime under Article 125 of the Sudanese criminal code is NOT blasphemy, it is “publicly cursing or insulting, any of the religions or their religious customs or its sacred matters . . . ?” Does anyone believe that medieval jurists actually cared about protecting the “religious customs and sacred matters” of religions other than Islam as this law at least purports to? Would medieval jurists of any religion have phrased anything so ecumenically? Does anyone at all reporting on the shari’a crime of blasphemy care in this absurd case about this actual law, under which this poor actual woman is being judged, instead of some academic construction of what is happening based on sources the Sudanese judges and lawyers aren’t reading? . . . . [Given the] disinterest of respected religious scholars in supporting the Sudanese verdict, I tend to conclude nobody thinks the shari’a, as opposed to Sudanese politics, has very much to do with any of this.

In other news, in an upcoming conference on Christian legal theory, “Judge Michael McConnell will deliver an address with the provocative title ‘Asking Muslims to be Moderate.'”


Enlightenment 2.0 (Updated)

blake_resized.JPG Last week, the New York Times ran this piece by an English professor about the haunted house in which she grew up. The first line is, “The house in which I grew up was haunted by a cloud of cold mist, a mysterious woman in white, and an entity we called ‘the conductor,’ since he walked around wearing a mourning coat and carrying a baton in one hand.”

I get it: it was Halloween. Yet, the story is presented as non-fiction and the author seems quite earnest about her belief in ghosts (though possibly retreating a bit at the end of the story). I doubt that the New York Times would run a similar piece by a person who thinks that he was abducted by space aliens or that George W. Bush orchestrated the attacks on 9/11. Perhaps belief in ghosts receives special license. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 37% of adults in America believe in haunted houses. Even with a biased sample, that’s a high number.

The prevalence of supernatural beliefs was a major theme at a conference that I spoke at last week at the Salk Institute entitled, “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.” The conference was broader in scope than it was last year, presenting a variety of perspectives on the role of reason in the formulation of our beliefs. Participants included Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Pat Churchland, Jonathan Haidt, Jeff Hawkins, V.S. Ramachandran, David Sloan Wilson, and many others. Here’s a link to the conference website, where video from the conference should eventually appear.

UPDATE: Here is a link to an article about the event at New Scientist.


Law Talk: Oman on Civil Cases in Church Courts

Last week I attended the annual meetings of the American Society for Legal History in Tempe, Arizona. It was a great conference and compared, say, to the AALS meetings all of the presenters had clearly actually written and thought out their presentations before hopping on the plane. In this week’s episode I am broadcasting my own presentation at the conference. In early America many religious denominations tried to move civil disputes between church members into church courts, and lately I have been going through the records of Mormon church courts to see how the dealt with contract cases. As part of that research, I’ve written a paper that looks at the development of the Mormon judiciary, why Mormons sought to bring civil litigation within the church, and why they abandoned the effort around 1900. (I put up a short, preliminary version of my paper on SSRN.) My ASLH presentation shares some of my conclusions from that paper, which will be sent off to the law reviews this spring.

You can subscribe to “Law Talk” using iTunes or Feedburner. You can also visit the “Law Talk” page at the iTunes store. For previous episodes of Law Talk at Co-Op click here.

Jeffries on SCHIP

My colleague Shavar Jeffries has been a powerful moral voice at BlackProf on a number of issues affecting children, including school vouchers. I found his take on the recent SCHIP debate extraordinarily compelling:

In the third presidential debate in 2004, the President reiterated that “[my] principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself . . . . And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And religion is a part of me.”

So I ask: Would Jesus have vetoed the SCHIP bill?

Of the over 43 million Americans lacking health insurance, about eight million are children. Not only does this mean that millions of children are unable to access the care they need to treat debilitating illnesses, it also means they cannot obtain the preventive care and counseling that protects against sickness and promotes wellness.


The congressional bill would have added $7 billion to the program in each of the next five years, enabling S-CHIP to cover an additional 4 million children. This, evidently, was too much for the President to bear. He vetoed the bill, claiming that it would cover too many middle-class families, would encourage those with private coverage to switch to S-CHIP, and would represent an unjustifiable step toward government-managed health-care. These rationales, however, are unsupportable.


So what would Jesus do? I think the answer is clear: “Whatever you neglected to do unto one of the least of these, you neglected to do unto Me.”

I admit that sometimes the application of religious principles to social problems can lead to a variety of solutions. And at least in Catholic social thought, the principle of subsidiarity may temper the desirability of any federalization of the system, as Susan Stabile notes in “Poor” Coverage: The Preferential Option for the Poor and Access to Health Care. Nevertheless, Stabile also notes that “We can not have adequate respect for the dignity of the human person without a system that ensures that all people have the ability to receive medical care when they need it.” SCHIP expansion would have been a step in that direction.

Gaining the Whole World

I want to respond to Ilya Somin’s claim that religious leaders need to learn (some version of) economics before opining on social justice. A curious editorial by Arthur Brooks provides a nice entree into the topic.

Mr. Brooks writes frequently on the WSJ editorial page on charity and religion. He lauds the charitable sector as superior to government-funded services, and offers survey evidence to demonstrate that religious people are both more charitable and happier than their secular peers. Brooks found the revelation of Mother Teresa’s profound and persistent sorrow a reason to re-emphasize that fact that, on average, the religious are statistically more likely to be happier than others:

The happiness gap between religious and secular people is not because of money or other personal characteristics. Imagine two people who are identical in every important way — income, education, age, sex, family status, race and political views. The only difference is that the first person is religious; the second is secular. The religious person will still be 21 percentage points more likely than the secular person to say that he or she is very happy.

On one level, I think this is important data: a classic premise of natural law is that submission to right belief and right action makes for genuine happiness. You only need to watch a few episodes of “Behind the Music” to get a sense of where untrammeled hedonism will lead.

However, the failthful also embrace the negative emotions associated with religious experience. A religious person may feel guilt or self-reproach at how little he’s done to relieve the world’s suffering. Penance is not a fun experience. Perhaps the Book of Ecclesiastes put it best: “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” As Kierkegaard critiqued a complacent Christendom, so too should the modern believer question any effort to facilely align personal/national prosperity and Christian teaching.

I thus question Brooks’s “validation” of religious faith by its statistical correlation to “happiness”–particularly the crude measures of that state common to survey instruments. Much of religious thought refuses to be contained in our ordinary notions of well-being or success, a point eloquently made in the series of paradoxes posed in the prayer of St. Francis.

These paradoxes also render suspect the many suggestions of market-oriented thinkers that church leaders need to conform social teaching to particular economic models.

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Polygamy: Is the slope really slipping?

Matt Yglesias thinks so. Quoting a NYT piece, he suggests that the slope is slipping — that legalized gay marriage is leading to . . . um, what?

Well, apparently it’s leading to some broader acceptance of the idea of polygamy between consenting adults. Is that really slope slippage?

Yglesias notes the article’s discussion of broader social acceptance for polygamy. In addition, as a number of articles and court cases have pointed out, anti-polygamy laws are not currently enforced for stand-alone violations. In this regard, they currently look a lot like the (now invalid) anti-sodomy laws, which were also, in recent decades, not typically enforced for stand-alone violations but as added offenses in other prosecutions. (See, e.g., Christoper Leslie’s Standing in the Way of Equality, 2001 Wisconsin Law Review 29 (2001).)

However, there are important areas in which the slope is definitely _not_ slipping. In particular, polygamy rights advocates have failed, so far, in attempts to decriminalize polygamy or to secure marriage rights. Recent cases include the 10th Circuit’s dismissal of Bronson v. Swensen (polygamists seeking a marriage license), and the Utah Supreme Court’s holding in State v. Holm (upholding criminal statute, post-Lawrence).

Public opinion may be changing, slowly. Enforcement has certainly changed in recent years. But for the moment, in important places, the slope isn’t slipping at all.