Has Mitt Romney's Mormonism Influenced His Views on Islam?

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Timothy R. Furnish, PhD (Islamic, World, African history) is an analyst and writer, US Army veteran and recovering college professor who consults for the US government and military. His website is www.mahdiwatch.org

Mitt Romney’s conservative credentials have been questioned on more than one occasion, probably best exemplified last fall when Rush Limbaugh decreed that the former Massachusetts governor was “not a conservative” because of that state’s “Romneycare” program and his apparent acceptance of the anthropogenic global warming thesis. But the most troubling Romney shortcoming in this regard is his seeming acquiescence to the “Islam is a peaceful religion” worldview. Andy McCarthy did broach this topic last summer, but little has been said about it since, either in print or in the legion of GOP debates—where Wolf Blitzer, John King, George Stephanopolous and Brian Williams are rather obsessed with alleged threats to abortion “rights,” the GOP candidates’ ranking within the “1%” and, most importantly, Newt’s bitter ex-wives.

It seems clear that Romney’s position on Islam is closer to Barack Obama’s than to the mainstream of his own party. In an interview with U.S News & World Report in 2009, he said this:

I spoke about three major threats America faces on a long term basis. Jihadism is one of them, and that is not Islam. If you want my views on Islam, it's quite straightforward. Islam is one of the world's great religions and the great majority of people in Islam want peace for themselves and peace with their maker. They want to raise families and have a bright future. There is, however, a movement in the world known as jihadism. They call themselves jihadists and I use the same term. And this jihadist movement is intent on causing the collapse of moderate Muslim states and the assassination of moderate Muslim leaders. It is also intent on causing collapse of other nations in the world. It's by no means a branch of Islam. It is instead an entirely different entity. In no way do I suggest it is a part of Islam [emphasis added].

More recently, in Iowa last December, Romney basically reiterated this same position:

Romney said radical, violent Islamists pose a threat to Americans and others around the world. However, he said, "they take a very different view of Islam than the Muslims I know." He noted that he was raised in the Detroit area, which has a large Muslim population. "They are peace-loving and America-loving individuals. I believe that very sincerely. I believe people of the Islamic faith do not have to subscribe to the idea of radical, violent jihadism" [emphasis added].

And just over a week ago, one intrepid blogger, via emails to and from the Romney campaign, noted that the candidate has, if anything, doubled down on his rather politically-correct view of Islamic teachings—at least according to one of his advisors:

[T]he Governor and decision-makers do not state their position based on theological grounds. They look at the threat and defines [sic] it. The threat that actually targets and organize [sic], and is moving forward is not theological texts. It is made of networks, finances, and political forces. He coins them [sic] as Jihadists. If you have noted he didn’t say Islam is a religion of peace or Islam is a religion of war. He said a majority of Muslims are peaceful, and that is a reality [again, emphasis added].

Besides a bit of trouble with English grammar and syntax, this Romney functionary seems just to be reiterating what she’s been told by more senior staff, such as Romney’s Middle East advisor Dr. Walid Phares, and possibly not totally understanding it. I know Dr. Phares from our common membership in ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa,  and I know full well that he grasps the nature of the Islamic threat to Western civilization. But advisors work for the candidate, not the other way around, and someone in the Romney camp is pushing the line that “networks, finances and political forces” sprang ex nihilo from the brows of bin Laden, al-Awlaki, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad. Saying “theological texts” are not the threat is like saying Mein Kampf was not a danger because Nazis weren’t literally throwing copies at our troops on Omaha Beach, or that The Communist Manifesto had nothing to do with the Comintern, the gulags or Stalin’s massacres. The Qur’an and the Hadiths (alleged sayings of Islam’s founder Muhammad) most certainly ARE the basis of the threats against us emanating from the Islamic world, wherever and whenever the violent passages therein are read literally. (Skeptics are welcome to read works by myself, Ray Ibrahim, Robert Spencer, Andrew Bostom—as well as the violent verses of the Qur’an and Hadiths themselves.) 

So whence come the Republican front-runner’s “All-American Muslim”-style views? From his own religion, it would seem. Although one of my good Latter-Day Saint (the formal and correct term for a Mormon) friends believes that “Romney is just spouting what he views as the kind of inoffensive pablum that will endear him to moderates,” I am not convinced. Ockham’s Razor demands that Romney’s membership in the LDS would have to have been instrumental in shaping his views on other faiths, including Islam.

The clearest and most complete elucidation of the LDS position vis-à-vis Islam can be found in an August 2000 article by James Toronto, entitled “A Latter-day Saint Perspective on Muhammad,” from Ensign—the church’s flagship monthly magazine. According to Toronto, the Book of Mormon teaches that “the Lord has provided spiritual light to guide and enrich [the peoples of the nations’] lives” and that “Prophet Joseph Smith often expounded on the theme of the universality of God’s love and the related need to remain open to all available sources of light and knowledge.” Based on these doctrines, “church leaders continually have encouraged members to foster amicable relations with people of other faiths by acknowledging the spiritual truth they possess….” Toronto says that “as early as 1855, at a time when Christian literature generally ridiculed Muhammad as the Antichrist and the archenemy of Western civilization, Elders George A. Smith (1817-75) and Parley P. Pratt (1807-57) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles delivered lengthy sermons demonstrating and accurate and balanced understanding of Islamic history and speaking highly of Muhammad’s leadership.” In fact “Elder Pratt went on to express his admiration for Muhammad’s teachings, asserting that ‘upon the whole,…[Muslims] have better morals and better institutions than many Christian nations.’” In this century, the LDS First Presidency Statement of 1978 “specifically mentions Muhammad as one of ‘the great religious leaders of the world’ who received ‘a portion of God’s light….’” Toronto injects his own views of the matter—sounding every bit like a liberal Episcopalian or Reuters journalist: “Contrary to Western civilization’s stereotype of Muhammad as a false prophet or enemy of Christians, Muslim sources portray a man of unfailing humility, kindness, good humor, generosity, and simple tastes.” Toronto does find a few points on which Mormons and Muslims disagree—such as “Islamic teachings that deny the divinity of Jesus Christ” and “the need for modern prophets”—but then engages in massive cognitive dissonance by stating that he is grateful to “belong to a church that affirms the truths taught by Muhammad....”

Granted, nineteenth-century Mormon leaders had little reason to like either the mainstream Christian churches or the U.S. government, so perhaps some of the early Mormon sympathy for Islam can be chalked up to thinking that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And, as my aforementioned Mormon friend also pointed out, this article was written before 9/11. But the LDS church  has not revised its scriptures or its founder’s utterances in the last decade, so both are still authoritative, regardless of the changed geopolitical landscape. Also, to be totally fair, in some ways, LDS teachings on Islam are reminiscent of those of the largest Christian denomination—the Catholic Church. Nostra Aetate, one of the Second Vatican Council’s (1962-65) major documents dealing with non-Christians, stated that:

The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one…the Creator of heaven and earth….They strive to submit themselves…just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan….Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor….Further, they await the day of Judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting.     

So why not accuse Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich—both Catholics—of Islamophilia? Two reasons: 1) neither has ever said that “jihadism is not part of Islam,” as has Romney; and 2) the Vatican’s teachings on Islam are nowhere near as exculpatory toward Islam and Muhammad as are those of the Mormon church’s leadership—especially considering they have been balanced by rather less glowing assessments of Islamic doctrines and history by the likes of Pope Benedict XVI. Efforts by maverick Catholic theologians like Hans Küng to have Muhammad deemed an Old Testament-style prophet for Catholic Christians went nowhere—quite a contrast from the status accorded Islam’s founder within Mormonism.

Mitt Romney’s church officials are on record as saying that Muhammad—a man who created violent jihad, who had at least 11 wives (one of whom was 9 when he consummated the marriage), who ordered the beheading of an entire Jewish tribe—was illuminated by “God’s light” and was one of the “great religious leaders of the world.” Rather like the situation involving Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright’s church, it beggars imagination that Romney has spent over six decades listening to LDS teachings and has not imbibed at least some measure of such beliefs.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I will vote for Mitt Romney should he be the GOP nominee—just as I did for Bob Dole and John McCain: blindfolded, with a(n unlit) cigarette dangling from my mouth. Unlike one of my previous pastors (a highly-educated Lutheran minister), I will not refrain from voting for Romney just because he is a Mormon—better a wise Turk than a stupid Christian, as Luther himself once said. But, on the other hand, I refuse to accept the conventional wisdom, peddled by by both the media and even some conservative thinkers, that Romney’s membership in the LDS church is off-limits to discussion—problematic only to “religious bigots” (most of whom are evangelical Protestant Christians, of course). If the GOP’s leading candidate for president has a historically and, yes, theologically inaccurate view of the world’s second-largest religion—and that view derivesin no small measure from his own church—then shouldn’t that church’s teachings be fair game forscrutiny, especially considering they might very well be relevant to vital issues of national security? Would a President Romney, already on record as stating that jihad has nothing to do with Islam, be willing to repeal the Obama administration’s gag order on discussing jihad in counter-terrorism training—even if such honest analysis portrays Muhammad as something other than a shining beacon of virtue and tolerance, as per LDS rubrics? Some will no doubt disparage such questioning as a religious “litmus test,” on a par with doubts in 1960 about JFK’s commitment to the U.S. over Rome. But the analogy fails. I am not passing judgment on Mitt’s theology, per se—as, ironically, this Catholic writer does—but rather simply asking how Mitt’s LDS-derived, rosy view of Islamic history and theology will be any different from Obama’s (willfully?) ignorant one. This is the supreme national security issue of our time, and neither Romney’s superior positions on other issues (taxes and the economy), nor ad hominem charges of “religious bigotry,” should blind us to that fact.

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