The Trial of Christopher Hitchens

It’s here– the next big attack you’ll be reading about everywhere. This time it’s no less an intellect/polemicist than Slate’s Christopher Hitchens, whose intelligence and polymathy are matched only by the palpable rancor of his rants. (For those keeping score, this makes the fifth religious attack on Romney’s faith appearing in Slate’s pages in the last year, counting this, this, this, this, and the present article. Why is that, Slate?). Hitchens has already outed himself as no friend to Mormonism, or to religion in general, by way of his too cutely titled new book God is not Great. (You can read an excerpt on the “ridiculous cult” of Mormonism here. Note while you’re there that while the book purports to attack all religion, Slate only had the gumption to publish excerpts attacking Islam and Mormonism. No good picking on anyone that might be able to fight back in numbers, right?).

Hitchens picks up his current tirade where he left off in that last edition, making enormous assertions based on glaring mischaracterizations of Mormon history and belief. Not to fear, he’s writing in a very prominent online magazine, so Hitchens can rest assured that his readers will assume he’s been fact-checked and vetted, and will walk away from the article believing they’ve just heard all they need to know about Mitt Romney’s crazy religion. It’s one thing to go on a tear in some small evangelical magazine, and another to post a dirty, mendacious diatribe in a visible forum viewed by tens of thousands of intelligent Americans. Sadly, something below that number will view this response, so regardless of the actual truth of these matters, Hitchens has already won. If Hitchens can sanctimoniously concoct the trial of Henry Kissinger for alleged crimes against humanity, surely he ought to stand trial himself for these glaring crimes against decency and truthfulness.

But enough hand-wringing. Let’s pick up some of the worst of Hitchens’ claims and show the world how pitiful they are in the light of truth, shall we? As Hitch might say, do let’s. There’s so much here that we’ll dispense with our normal snappy segues and paragraph structures. It’s bullet point time.

  • Hitchens starts by discussing Romney’s video response to the recent push polls in Iowa and New Hampshire attempting to tie Romney to a number of controversial Mormon doctrines. To Hitchens, the video is model of “revolting sanctimony and self-pity,” and is also part of an affirmative strategy for Romney to gain politically by defending himself. I recommend viewing the video to judge the level of sanctimony and self-pity, because I don’t see it. In fact, if you’ve ever been attacked on the basis of your religion or another out-of-bounds characteristic, you’ve probably gotten a lot more exercised than Romney does here. But then, it’s possible Hitchens never watched the video, because he feigns ignorance about why Romney brings up the timing of Thanksgiving- even though Romney clearly explains that “this is a time when we’re preparing for Thanksgiving. A time when we get to celebrate the fact that this nation was founded in part to allow people to enjoy religious freedom.” See the connection yet, Hitchens?
  • Hitchens goes on to cite a “very well argued” NRO article by Mark Hemingway for the spurious notion that Romney’s campaign is behind the push polls. Hemingway’s article has been widely debunked, disclaimed, and directly discredited by all of the main actors in the story, and has even prompted a quasi-correction from NRO editor Kathryn Jean Lopez as well as a mea culpa from the author himself. All of that happened before Hitchens posted his piece, but the Hemingway article remains there at the top of the story. Why? Would Jack Shafer, Slate’s journalism watchdog, think it acceptable to cite and rely on stories that have been effectively retracted by their own authors? Hitchens and his editors apparently think it’s fine.
  • Hitchens is put out by Romney’s self-serving two-step policy of not answering specific questions about his religious beliefs and calling foul when someone slurs him. He formulates the idea as if these are two contradictory stances, when they’re actually perfectly consistent- “leave my religious beliefs out of it.” Hitch does not make an actual case for why this approach is bad, but one suspects that no explanation of Romney’s faith would do for Hitchens, so it’s likely just another case of a journalist begging Romney to bear testimony to the world so that the media can prove he’s a dangerous idiot.
  • Hitchens piles on with the above point, castigating Romney for telling Bob Schieffer to go ask the Mormons about specific Mormon beliefs. My wife asked me about this one, so it’s got a little power. The skinny: Romney’s approach when asked about specific beliefs has often been to say that he’ll answer questions about his own religious values, but he will refer questions regarding specific Mormon beliefs to the Mormon Church itself. He always joins this with a strong statement that he will not distance himself from his faith (you can see this strategy in long form here). Again, Hitchens expresses disdain for this approach, but refuses to explain what’s wrong with it.
  • Hitchens says Romney is all the more suspect because he’s not just a member of the Mormon Church, but has been a leader therein. Here’s a winning sentence: “His family is, and has been for generations, part of the dynastic leadership of the mad cult invented by the convicted fraud Joseph Smith.” Dynastic leadership? There is no such thing. Romney’s highest position in the church was as Stake President, of which there are many hundreds in the United States. I believe Mitt’s father George never rose beyond the position of Bishop, which is the leader of one small congregation. This hardly qualifies as part of a dynasty given a U.S. membership of about six million. (It’s also not very fair to say that Joseph Smith was a convicted fraud, without giving a little context).
  • Hitchens argues that because of Romney’s leadership positions, he is especially responsible for Mormon practices like their prohibition on giving the priesthood to black men until 1978. This is an interesting bit of spin, given that Romney did not rise to a leadership position until 1982. Regardless, Hitchens invokes China’s Communist Revolution, asserting that “we need to hear [Romney’s] self-criticism” over the Church policy. How about three small facts: (1) Romney’s father famously championed civil rights, coming to loggerheads with prominent church leaders over the Church’s racial policy in the 60’s. (2) Romney has absolutely no record of racism or discrimination whatsoever. (3) Most religious Americans of Romney’s age once belonged to racist churches which were later converted through the civil rights movement. Given the huge breadth of racism in this country’s past, do we really need self-criticism from every person that once belonged to a non-racially-progressive organization? Or is it just from the Mormon ones?
  • As Hitchens notes, yes, some early Mormon teaching attempted to explain the differences between the races. If you belong to a religion, will you please raise your hand if your church didn’t have a few racist doctrines in the 1830’s? Anyone? No one? Hmm. If there’s any question that Romney is a racist today, please let’s hear it. His connection to a church that had racial policies 30 years ago, to which his father publicly objected, is not good enough.
  • Hitchens alleges that Mormon founder Joseph Smith railed against abolition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Joseph Smith ran for president on a strenuous policy of abolition, and Mormons were widely opposed to slavery from the start, finding themselves expelled from Missouri based in part on that position. This slur by Hitchens is inexcusable.
  • Hitchens goes on to accuse the Mormon Church of adapting its stances based on public pressure, to conform to the American mainstream. (Mormons strongly reject this view, but let’s assume he’s correct.). In a strange twist, Hitchens goes on to argue that “[t]he Mormons claim that their leadership is prophetic and inspired and that its rulings take precedence over any human law. The constitutional implications of this are too obvious to need spelling out, but it would be good to see Romney spell them out all the same.” The logic of this two-step is baffling. First, Mormons are pathetic because they always adapt their beliefs to stay within the American mainstream. Second, we could never trust a Mormon president because he would follow his church leaders outside of the American mainstream. The LDS Church is both suspiciously malleable and conformist, and staunchly inflexible and asocial. It’s a contradiction Hitchens appears not to see, but he could never make it work if given the chance. (And note how Romney’s membership in this organization, that has twice adapted itself to avoid conflict with America, makes him “Un-American.” Because Hitchens, the former socialist, atheist, British religion hater knows so much about what it means to be classically American). Hitchens concludes that Romney cannot be trusted as an American because his church has already had to choose twice between its own doctrines and American values. And yet, Hitchens contends that in both instances, the Church opted for American values! (Again, this narrative of opportunistic conformity is emphatically rejected by Mormons). Hard to see a threat here.
  • Also, we expect self-criticism from members of the Ku Klux Klan, so why not members of the Mormon Church? If Hitchens can’t see the difference between an evil institution that exists solely to promote racist hate, and a Church that purports to save souls and teach the gospel of Christ, but which also held racially-tinged policies some 30 years ago, he’s not worth explaining it to. You can’t be a member of the Klan and have any good motive. You can be a member of the 1960’s era LDS Church and have plenty of good intentions, despite the racial policy of the time, given everything else the Church stood for, and the overall milieu of discrimination in America at the time. By Hitchens’ logic, every organization that once held racist beliefs is equivalent to the Klan. The comparison is incendiary and utterly out of place.
  • Finally, Hitchens thinks Romney should submit to questioning about whether he wears Mormon undergarments, given that others have answered the “boxers or briefs” question. Again, it’s a ludicrous comparison. Romney demurs not because he’s overly shy about underwear in general, but because the topic of Mormon undergarments is held to be sacred by those of his faith. The suggestion that religious candidates should be compelled to answer questions not only about their faith, but about the most sacred, private parts of their religious practice is simply unsupportable. It’s inconceivable that Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jewish Senator, or Father Robert Drinan, the late Catholic Priest/Congressman were ever subjected to such interrogation about their sacred clothing.

There are a few things to note in summary. First, you may not agree with every point above, but honest people will agree that most of the premises Hitchens presents as fact  are at least controversial, if not blatantly incorrect. We should expect much better from a magazine like Slate, and a brain like Hitchens. Second, even if you accept all of these premises, they still do not support Hitchens’ thesis, which is that Romney must answer questions on the specifics of his faith. Nowhere does Hitchens explain why those beliefs are pertinent to Romney’s eligibility to serve as President.* It’s a perfect polemic, trying its darndest to make Romney look weird, and hoping that’s enough to make him explain himself to us.

In truth, Romney’s beliefs are no more weird, racist, or theocratic than those of most Americans. However, his qualifications to serve as president far outstrip those of most Americans. The question is whether that latter fact, or the former one, is most salient. Let’s hope Hitchens doesn’t get to decide for us.

*The sole exception is Hitchens’ assertion that Mormon authority will be used to pressure a President Romney in the White House. We’ve already rebutted this fallacious hypothesis here.

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