Posted by Mark Paredes
“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” — Jonathan Swift
Judging from NYT columnist Maureen Dowd’s latest column (“Anne Frank, a Mormon?”), Joseph Smith was an Einstein. In her pathetic attack on Mitt Romney’s faith, Dowd includes anti-Mormon rants from two avowed atheists, Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens, as she questions “magic underwear” and “baptizing dead people.” She also shamelessly invokes Anne Frank’s name in an attempt to stir up Jews against a Mormon candidate. Considering the source of this bigotry, I’ve never been prouder to be a Mormon.
Truth be told, the LDS Church got off lightly compared to Dowd’s own. In yet another ridiculous article, she once compared the Catholic Church to Saudi Arabia, a place where “women’s rights were strangled…[in] an inbred and autocratic state.” Dowd does not take her own faith seriously, as she is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and disagrees with official Catholic teachings on many other issues (e.g., birth control, ordination of women). It’s not hard to see why she has a problem with a candidate, especially a conservative one, who accepts his faith’s teachings and lives by them. Which candidate would the pope prefer, a faithful Mormon or an unfaithful Catholic? I think even Maureen Dowd knows the answer to that one.
I searched in vain for a Dowd hit piece on LDS Christianity when Harry Reid became the Senate Majority Leader, one of the most powerful positions on Capitol Hill. I guess Reid’s support for liberal positions that are clearly contrary to Mormon teachings (e.g., support for Planned Parenthood abortion funding and the Nevada gambling industry) must have caused her to ignore what kind of underwear he was wearing. What is unforgivable to Dowd is not where Mitt goes to church on Sundays, but the fact that he professes fealty to the principles of his faith, which happen to coincide in most cases with those teachings of the Catholic Church that Dowd rejects. Her appeal to arguments made by two anti-religion atheists to make her case shows just how flimsy it is. I’m prepared to listen to critiques of my faith from people like Richard Mouw who take their faith seriously, but I find it hard to listen to people who hate religion or who are unfaithful to their own faith tradition.
Dowd is either ill-informed or dishonest when she implies in the headline and the article that Mormons are converting the dead to their faith. I have blogged twice on this topic, and don’t feel a need to say much more. However, one bedrock LDS belief bears repeating: If Anne Frank does become a Mormon in the next life, it’s because she will have chosen to be one, not because anyone on earth has the power to force her to join the church. Any assertion to the contrary is false.
It’s not Mitt’s fault that Dowd has replaced Catholic beliefs with liberal ones and decided to attack her church at every turn. It’s not his fault that he’s a happily-married, faithful husband and father who belongs to a family-centered church, while she has ignored her church’s teachings and at 59 has yet to find a man who wants to marry her. In a well-known Book of Mormon story, men and women who are doing their best to stay faithful to God’s commandments are subjected to the “mocking” and “scoffing” of well-dressed, prideful people in a “great and spacious building.” It’s obvious to Mormons to which group Maureen Dowd belongs.
Historically, Jews and Mormons have looked to a candidate’s values, not his theology, when voting. Given the small size of our communities, that’s almost a necessity. What kind of underwear Mitt wears is as relevant to his political philosophy as an Orthodox Jewish candidate’s tallit is to his. In this election season, surely we can come up with more relevant criteria with which to evaluate candidates.
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October 16, 2011 | 3:35 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Every year the question of preaching politics from the bimah arises just before the start of Rosh Hashana. This year it was radio host and author Dennis Prager’s turn to criticize the practice, which he believes is promoted exclusively by liberal rabbis. While I have not heard enough sermons to be able to judge whether liberal rabbis are the only offenders, as an interested outside observer I agree wholeheartedly with Prager’s assertion that rabbis who use the pulpit to push their political views are doing their congregants and Judaism a real disservice.
This issue does not resonate with average Mormons, who never expect to hear politics preached from their pulpits on Sundays. With the exception of gay marriage and the Equal Rights Amendment (both of which were viewed by Mormon leaders as threats to the divinely-ordained traditional family), the LDS Church hasn’t taken unequivocal public stances on political movements in my lifetime. While faithful Mormons can and do hold strong views on immigration, global warming, and Obamacare, it would be highly inappropriate to share them during worship services. LDS bishops, who head congregations, are responsible for ensuring that weekly worship services are spirit-filled and politics-free.
In fact, my objections to rabbis preaching politics from the bimah have little to do with Mormonism and everything to do with Judaism. Based on my experience, Judaism is grossly distorted by this regrettable practice, which has the added disadvantage of producing Jews who know and care more about abortion and gay marriage than they do about Jewish learning. I have witnessed examples of the conflation of political, especially social, issues and Judaism in a way that leaves one speechless. Three will suffice here.
A feminist Jewish activist who worked for a national Jewish organization insisted that abortion was the most important Jewish issue. When she was then asked to choose between a female Democratic candidate who was pro-choice and anti-Israel, and a female Democratic candidate who was pro-life and pro-Israel, she said she would “have to sit this one out.”
A Reform rabbi in the Midwest who proudly admitted to preaching his political views from the pulpit was asked in a public forum what affirmative obligations a Jew has according to the Abrahamic covenant. His response? Not to eat mammals.
A gay rabbi declared to a group of LDS and interfaith leaders that his parents had survived the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp so that he could marry another man. [I was so outraged by this statement that from that day I have been unable to use his title, preferring instead to call him by his first name.] He then went on to sign a rabbinic petition condemning Glenn Beck for – you guessed it – inappropriate references to the Holocaust. I’m pleased to report that this “rabbi” no longer has a pulpit from which to preach such nonsense.
It’s been my experience that congregants in these activist rabbis’ synagogues know less about Judaism than their counterparts in synagogues whose leaders concentrate on teaching Torah, Talmud, Jewish history and philosophy. I’d love to conduct an experiment in Los Angeles to prove my point: Prepare a 10-question quiz on Judaism, then administer it to 20 randomly selected members of Leo Baeck Temple (whose activist Reform rabbi publicly criticized Dennis Prager for his opposition to preaching politics from the bimah) and 20 members of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue whose senior rabbi refuses to mix religion and politics. I’d bet my salary that the average VBS congregant knows more about Abraham, Herzl, and the Vilna Gaon than his counterpart at LBT.
Of course, this dynamic is not restricted to Judaism. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California is a church with an active social justice ministry. I just finished reviewing its online adult education schedule for this month. Among the offerings are “The Basics of Tibetan Buddhism Through American Eyes,” “American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West,” and “South Africa: A Nation in Transformation.” It’s hard to believe that the church’s members are getting a solid grounding in the traditional texts and traditions of the Christian faith, though their knowledge of Buddhism and Indian spirituality is probably better than average. By way of contrast, LDS congregations in Pasadena will be studying the New Testament during Sunday School lessons this month.
The “prophetic tradition” in Judaism is often invoked by rabbis who claim that their political advocacy is in line with the writings of prophets like Jeremiah and Amos. This concept does not exist in the LDS belief system. For us, one has to be a prophet before one can speak as a prophet. The messenger is ultimately more important than the message. While Amos may have championed the disadvantaged, it was the fact that a prophet of God was saying those words, rather than the words themselves, that made them scriptural. There may very well have been others in Jeremiah’s day who were advocates for the downtrodden, but only his words have been preserved because he was God’s chosen messenger and they weren’t.
There is no question that rabbis with visions of bringing justice to an unjust world have brought to pass an enormous amount of good. We have a lot to learn from them. My only quarrel here is with efforts made by some of them to hold the congregation’s Jewish learning hostage to their personal political agendas. Abortion is not the most important contemporary Jewish issue, God did not order Abraham to be a vegetarian, and Holocaust survivors didn’t suffer for the cause of gay marriage. Rather than trying to convert congregations to their political agendas, it might be better for activist rabbis to convert their followers to the timeless texts and traditions of Judaism, and then let them decide for themselves how to think about contemporary issues.
Committed, knowledgeable Jews are a powerful force for good in the world. Conflating Judaism and politics is not a way to produce more of them.
October 9, 2011 | 9:20 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Several Jewish friends have contacted me this week to get my reaction to the latest broadsides leveled at my church by Evangelicals, this time from two pastors speaking at the annual Values Voter Summit. My reaction to these comments is to publicly thank the pastors for reminding everyone that what a regional ADL director once told me remains true: Many of yesterday’s anti-Semites are today’s anti-Mormons.
In remarks made to reporters after introducing Texas Governor Rick Perry to the gathering, Dallas-based Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress called the LDS Church a “cult” and stood by his comments in a sermon this morning, saying that he had a responsibility to warn people about the “false religion” of 14 million people, including presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. The good pastor also answered “No” in his on-the-record comments when asked whether Mitt Romney was a Christian.
Given that this is the same pastor who claimed that Oprah Winfrey is doing the work of Satan, the news media largely failed to jump on what I think was his most revealing statement at the press conference: “Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” I guess no Jewish politician will ever get Jeffress’ blessing if he’s running against Christians. This is in the same spirit as the pastor’s laughable assertion a few years ago that “Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism ... lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell.” He has also stated that the Catholic Church represents the “genius of Satan.” If LDS Christianity has run afoul of Pastor Jeffress, it looks like we’re in good company: 14 million Mormons + 1.5 billion Muslims + 14 million Jews + 850 million Hindus + 1 billion Catholics, all condemned by the 10,000 members of Jeffress’ megachurch in Dallas.
Mitt Romney’s speech at the summit was inexplicably followed by that of Bryan Fischer, a senior official with the American Family Association (and former senior pastor) who is one of the most prominent bigots on the American political scene. Just before the summit, he delivered a speech asserting that the First Amendment does not apply to Mormons because they are not Christians (he’s said the same thing about Muslims). Why was he not asked whether it applied to Jews? I think we all know what his answer would have been.
I honestly believe that the reason many of these Evangelical leaders devote considerable time and effort to criticizing and maligning LDS Christianity is because they view it as a threat. Based on both anecdotal evidence and statements made by some Evangelical pastors, it appears that more Evangelicals convert to the LDS Church, at least in the United States, than members of any other faith. With spiritual leaders like Jeffress and Fischer, it’s not hard to understand why.
Like most Mormons, I don’t really care what Evangelicals think of our theology. I don’t believe that they are the arbiters of who is a Christian, and bigoted pastors like Jeffress and Fischer come across to Mormons as presumptuous, self-anointed blowhards. When they call down hellfire upon the heads of Jews, Mormons, and most of the world’s people unless they accept Evangelicalism’s Jesus, Mormons find it hard to take them seriously. We simply don’t care enough about their doctrines to respond in kind.
However, I do think that our friends in the Evangelical community could do a little more to emphasize similarities in our belief systems rather than differences, especially when speaking to fellow Evangelicals. Hugh Hewitt, a prominent Evangelical talk show host and attorney, is very friendly to Mormons and has built many bridges to the LDS community. It was therefore a little painful to hear him remind listeners during an interview earlier this year with an LDS apostle that he had previously told another apostle “we don’t agree on anything theologically.” How about the Ten Commandments? The Bible as scripture? Support for Jews? Belief in God? Belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ? God’s Grace? Charity? To me, it was as if a Conservative rabbi, prior to interviewing an Orthodox colleague on the radio, had inserted the disclaimer that they didn’t agree on anything. I’m willing to bet that if Hugh Hewitt and the apostle had written down all of the religious principles that they believed in, at least 90% would have matched.
This is a free country, and Evangelicals are free to apply whatever religious litmus test they want to politicians seeking their votes. If they don’t want to vote for Mormons, that’s fine. I would have no problem voting for a candidate of a different faith if he or she shared my values. However, I do take comfort that, from an LDS perspective, pastors who preach intolerance are directing their remarks to both main divisions of the House of Israel, Jews and Mormons. There is no doubt in my mind who will ultimately prevail.