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Friday, February 3, 2012


Now that Willard "Mitt" Romney seems to have slimed Newton Leroy "Newt" Gingrich into irrelevance by a tsunami of anonymously funded attack ads, I think it behooves me as a sometime commentator on the political circus to come to terms with Romney's most deeply and authentically held belief, his adherence to the Mormon faith.  As is so often the case, I look to Thomas Hobbes for inspiration, and in Chapter 6 of his great work, Leviathan, find this coruscating definition:
"Feare of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publiquely allowed, Religion; not allowed, Superstition. And when the power imagined is truly such as we imagine, True Religion."
All religious beliefs are nothing but fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind or imagined from tales.  If the tales are publicly allowed [by the State, one presumes], then we have religion.  If, however, the tales are not publicly allowed, but must be whispered fearfully in closets and secret gatherings, then we have superstition.
The practical effect of the U. S. Constitution's Establishment Clause [First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ..."] is to obliterate Hobbes' useful distinction between superstition and religion.  Catholicism, the various versions of Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology [originally Dianetics, until it was transmuted into a religion to take advantage of the protections of the First Amendment], Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Rastafarianism, and Mormonism have equal claims to be considered religions for the purposes of American public life and discourse.  All of them are rooted in "fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales," and thanks to the First Amendment, all of those tales are "publicly allowed."  [Don't start with me about Buddhism.]

Viewed from a sufficient distance [say, from Iraq, or Tibet, or Kyoto], Mormonism looks like just another Christian variant -- same Savior, Jesus -- many of the same divinely inspired texts -- The Old Testament, The New Testament -- but enough difference to ground the claims of the Church of Latter Day Saints that it is the one true faith.  But of course, in matters of religion, it is one's closest neighbors who are one's most excoriating critics.  To a Tibetan monk, Bethlehem may seem as exotic as Missouri, but the Mormon claim that Jesus visited earth in Missouri sets the teeth of Evangelical Christians on edge.  As does the claim the Joseph Smith was the recipient of an authentic and final revelation, in the form of gold tablets written in a mysterious language which he was able, by divine assistance, to translate.

Some of the Mormon practices are rather quaint and charming, like posthumous baptism, except when it leads to the posthumous baptism of several hundred thousand Holocaust victims, in which case it seems just a tad insensitive.  [To be fair, the Mormons say it never occurred to them that Jewish Holocaust survivors might be offended to learn that their murdered coreligionists had been baptised by busy Mormons, hustling about saving lost souls.  And one must keep in mind that according to the Mormon faith, those souls do have an opportunity, in the Mormon version of Purgatory, to accept or reject the blessing of posthumous baptism.]

Speaking as a philosopher, I am rather drawn to the Mormon view -- akin to that of Plato -- that God does not create the universe ex nihilo, but instead, like the demiurgos, simply organizes a chaos of pre-existing matter.

I have grown weary of the endless anatomization of Bain Capital and the details of Romney's tax status.  Who ever doubted that the super-rich get super-rich by writing favorable tax laws for themselves?  What good is capitalism if it cannot even protect the 1%!

So as the political season unfolds, I am looking forward to some searching examinations of the "tales publicly allowed" that constitute the essence of Romney's most deeply held beliefs.  Next to that, strapping a dog in a cage on the top of one's station wagon dwindles into insignificance.


Adam said...

Professor Wolff,

You've made me curious about your opinions regarding Buddhism. It has struck me as the least ridiculous of the above mentioned religions, and there are a number of philosophers who take it seriously as philosophy. May I ask what you think?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

To be brutally honest, I know very little about Buddhism. I threw it in to be syncretic, but I am aware that it might not fit Hobbes' matrix. Insofar as I know anything, it seems a more benign collection of "tales publicly allowed." However, I am happy to step aside and welcome to this blog anyone who wishes to write knowledgeably about Buddhism.

Don Schneier said...

The superstition that I'd like to see thoroughly debunked this year is the still prevalent belief that the 'invisible hand of the marketplace' is a dispenser of divine justice, following from which is the equally still prevalent belief that the possession, or lack thereof, of wealth is a reflection of moral worth. Unfortunately, the general public is unaware that that bit of fluff was just a passing whimsy from an associate of the most rigorous of Empiricists.

David Goldman said...

I'm no Hobbes scholar, so this might be wildly off-base—but is it possible that "publicly allowed" should be cashed out in terms of what's considered socially acceptable to express or avow publicly?

In which case we can hang onto the useful distinction today. Scientology seems pretty clearly to be a superstition (try telling your friends and officemates that you've converted), and in some social circles Mormonism might be in the same boat.

John S. Wilkins said...

Joseph Smith's literal interpretation of the Old Testament led him to think that "elohim" there, which is plural but used as a name for God, really did mean the plural. As a result he was not a monotheist. Ironically, modern scholarship indicates that he was right to do so as a matter of etymology, and that the older parts of the Old Testament were in fact henotheist, not monotheist, and the change in meaning was due to retrospective interpretation by later exclusive monotheists.

In a way that makes Mormonism a more "authentic" religion than Christianity, more like Hinduism; it is certainly more amenable in character to ancient west semitic religions than Christianity is.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David, in the world in which Hobbes was writing, I think it is pretty clearly that "publicly allowed" means "allowed by law" [without running the risk of being executed.] This is the period of the English Civil War, after all. Once we get into "socially acceptable," in contemporary America, the standards are very, very slippery, and wildly variable by community, but all are protected by the First Amendment.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

John, I rather like that bit of exegesis. Wouldn't it be fun to see a rip-roaring theological debate, full-bore, among Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich? I would pay to see that one!

GTChristie said...

A rip-roaring theological debate among politicians is something I would pay not to see.

As long as nobody tries to pass a law telling me what to eat on Friday, where to be on Sunday, or what I can do in the bedroom, I don't care what a politician's religion is. Anything that makes someone an ethical person is acceptable to me, even if it's voodoo. I don't care how anyone gets to goodness ... as long as it's goodness they get to. Just don't ask me to believe in the voodoo itself, which does not belong in the political arena.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I share your sentiments, GT. My desire to see such a debate is simply a sort of intellectualized version of the illicit attractions of mud-wrestling.

heydave said...

Mind you, if it's good mud wrestling, energetically engaged...

skholiast said...

A while ago I wrote a short take on some aspects of Mormon theology, which some might find interesting. I'm not sure how pertinent it would be to the American "political conversation," but then... what conversation? Is there a conversation?