Personally, while I'm intellectually curious about Mormonism - the topic du jour because of Mitt Romney's big religion speech this week - I really can't get worked up about the topic.
Romney says that his faith informs his values, and I believe him. I also think he's generally right about the importance of faith in a free society. But, ultimately, I don't much care why he's a decent guy; I just care that he's decent.
In fact, I think we get too hung up on motivations, particularly when it comes to religion.
For example, many Christian conservatives support Israel and look kindly on Jews because they believe they have a holy duty to do so. The Messiah will not return, according to the book of Revelation, until the Jews restore the Kingdom of Israel.
Evangelical Christians believe that when the Messiah returns, things won't go too well for the Jews - two thirds die, one third convert. Gershom Gorenberg, author of "The End of Days," once complained to "60 Minutes," "As a Jew, I can't feel very comfortable with the affections of somebody who looks forward to that scenario."
Well, boohoo. In the horrible annals of Jewish problems, the fact that a whole bunch of Christians love Jews for the "wrong" reasons has got to rank pretty low. Besides, since presumably Jews don't believe in Christian prophecy, what's the problem? If it's not true, then no harm, no foul. If it is true, well, who are we to argue with God? My guess is God's response to the morally decent Jew who gets really worked up about this would be something akin to "Don't worry, I've got you covered."
Of course, that's not a terribly sophisticated theological argument. But, historically, theology hasn't mattered that much to Americans. Mormons are a good example. Americans didn't want Utah to become a state because Mormon men took too many wives. Mormons dropped polygamy and - bada bing - Americans dropped their objections to Mormon statehood.
Irving Kristol has cited the fight over Utah's statehood as a quintessential expression of how America practices theological pluralism while insisting on moral conformity. It is the American way to care about what people do, not about what they think. Every religion's theology has some wacky stuff in it, not only from the atheist's perspective but from the perspective of pretty much every other religion. It's impossible to know how much this or that theological tenet guides a person's actions. All we can judge is the person's actions.
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