Does Romney’s Religious Devotion Make Him More, or Less, Trustworthy?

Are the devout more likely to speak the truth, base policy on objective evidence and demonstrate integrity in public life? It turns out, many religious have nuanced definitions of integrity, and some faith leaders have used that as a license to deceive.

Mitt Romney may be a member of a religious minority, but conservative Christians are working hard to think of him as “one of us.” Romney himself is hoping that they will take his religious devotion as a sign that he is a person of integrity, someone to be trusted even if he won’t share his tax returns or details of policy proposals. Does religion make people more trustworthy?

Most religious people like to think so. In fact, many Christians believe that when they are taken up to heaven and the rest of us are Left Behind, the world will descend into an anarchy of deceit, exploitation and violence. In the words of the New Testament writer, Christians are the salt of the earth, a shining and uplifted light – a beacon in an otherwise vast moral void. In this view, nonbelief is associated with moral bankruptcy, but the right kind of religious devotion makes people honest and good. In the United States, a confession of atheism can bias voters against a political candidate more than many other factors. By contrast, a Jesus fish in a business logo says, “We are to be trusted.” Even people who think that religion isn’t true often think that it’s a good moral influence. That is why Chris Rodda’s book title, Liars for Jesus, had a particular bite.

It is also why scenarios like the following can make maligned nonbelievers feel downright righteous:
  • A Catholic Archbishop in Kenya tells the laity that condoms help spread HIV, and priests spread the word that rubbers actually are laced with the virus.
  • Gordon Hinckley, president and prophet of the Mormon Church, faces a national audience and asks an awkward question: Do Mormons teach that God was once a man? “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it,” he told Time Magazine in 1997. A year later he tells Larry King that polygamy is “not doctrinal.”
  • A Pakistani Imam, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, wants Christian families to move out of the neighborhood around his mosque. He plants evidence and then falsely accuses a mentally challenged 11-year-old girl of burning a Quran.
  • An Evangelical historian, David Barton, determines to prove that America was founded as a Christian nation. His popular book, ironically titled The Jefferson Lies, gets pulled from bookstores by his publisher because it contains too many factual “deficiencies.”

Religious people lie about all kinds of things. So do the rest of us. But in each of these high-profile cases, a public role model was moved to lie in the service of religion itself. Each believed himself on a mission for God, one that could be achieved only by distorting reality. According to the dictates of dogma, lying was the lesser evil – less evil, for example, than contraception, public derision, diversity or secularism, and so faith became the impetus for dishonesty rather than a barrier against it.

The relationship between religion and honesty is, at best, complicated.

Most religions place a high value on honesty and on the concept of truth itself, which is seen as sacred. Religion scholar Huston Smith said that the world’s great wisdom traditions converge on three virtues: charity (meaning love or compassion), humility and veracity. Veracity is truth-seeking and truth-telling and the sublime objectivity that enables both. Medieval Jewish commentator Rashi said famously, “God’s seal is truth.” Muslims call Islam “the religion of truth.” In Christianity, the two defining attributes of God are love and truth, while Satan is “the father of lies.” In Buddhism, which is nontheistic, compassion is the highest virtue, but some say that truth is god.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that veracity is one of the world’s most universal ethical values. Whether or not we thrive depends on our ability to figure out the cause-and-effect relationships that govern our well-being. Which buttons do I need to push to get fed, to get money, to get sex? Getting the answers right can be a matter of life or death. In the short run, it may be nice to think whatever I want, but if I indulge in too much wish-thinking, reality can hit me pretty hard.

We also can get whomped if other people lead us astray, whether it is because they themselves have a poor grasp of reality, or they don’t care what is real or they have reason to trick us. As members of a social species, most of the information that we need in order to flourish comes from other humans, and so one of the most critical aspects of any relationship is trust. It is tremendously important that we be able to differentiate useful truths from hot air and deception.

While the jury is still out – for better or worse – on the net effect of religion in the modern world, some scholars (and research) suggest that religion functions to bind communities together, suppressing selfishness and encouraging shared beliefs and virtues that enable communal life. Consequently, religions have mechanisms for encouraging veracity, along with other virtues such as generosity and service. For example, truth-telling and truth-seeking are taught during religious training, from Vacation Bible School to seminary. Divine Truth is the focus of songs and art, while human dishonesty is cause for shame or confession. Religious communities expect members to be “upright” in their dealings with each other, and they sanction violators. In addition, theistic religions, meaning those with humanoid gods, leverage another form of social pressure. They cultivate the sense that someone is always looking over your shoulder. Like Santa, God sees you when you’re sleeping and awake, whether you’ve been bad or good. Researchers have found that, even in atheists, mentally activating the concept of “God” can elicit more scrupulous behavior.

The caveat is that religions also use the concept of truth in ways that encourage dishonesty and self-deception. Many start with a set of dogmas and ask believers to make any eternal logic or evidence fit the structure of the dogmatic belief system. Truth is, essentially, trademarked. It is what leaders or sacred texts tell you it is, and it is your job to revise or ignore any indication to the contrary.

This may not have created much of an integrity problem for believers in ages past, when the only available explanations for natural phenomena and human behavior were those derived from religion itself. In modern societies, though, adherents are confronted with a whole marketplace of ideas. The proto-scientific aspect of religion, meaning its value in explaining the natural world, is increasingly obsolete, as are its moral priorities. As religious teachings diverge further and further from what is known about the world around us and about the functioning of the human mind, the faithful can feel obligated to contort their own minds, suppressing evidence and distorting logic in order to maintain traditional beliefs.

In fact, sometimes they are exhorted to do so. An Evangelical Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, written by Gleason Archer, opens with the following words: “In dealing with Bible problems of any kind … be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists…. Once we have come into agreement with Jesus that the Scripture is completely trustworthy and authoritative, then it is out of the question for us to shift over to the opposite assumption, that the Bible is only the errant record of fallible men as they wrote about God.” Whew. Archer goes on to create a 400-page monument to the art of confirmatory thinking.

Religious teachings themselves can make honest inquiry feel unsafe. Threats of eternal damnation, shunning, or even the divinely sanctioned murder of apostates all provide strong incentives for the faithful to avoid looking too closely at received traditions. Threats like these create the conditions for what is called motivated belief, in which rationality provides post hoc justifications for beliefs that are subconsciously driven by emotion. A thoughtful but motivated true-believer may become particularly adept at logical fallacy and distortion of evidence – in other words, adept at the art of self-deception, something we’re all rather good at even without any help from religion.

Religious mixed messages about honesty can be quite overt. Islam, for example, teaches that believers should be honest. “Surely God guides not him who is prodigal and a liar” (Quran 40:28). However, the Shi’a branch, which emerged under conditions of conflict, also contains a set of teachings called al taqiyya that permit or even honor deception under specific circumstances. One such circumstance is when a Muslim fears bodily harm because of his or her religion. In the most restrictive interpretations of taqiyya, this is the only time deception has divine sanction, but taqiyya has also been interpreted to apply in a broader range of circumstances: to defeat enemies or to defend Islam itself. According to stories imbedded in the Quran and subsequent records of Islamic jurisprudence, deception can be a virtuous weapon in religious conflict and in the pursuit of Islamic hegemony. Since Islam is Truth, the moral negatives of deception may be outweighed by the benefits of right belief and sharia, which eventually bring joys and peace that trump all else.

Like Islam, Mormonism crystalized under conditions of persecution, and like Muslims and Evangelical Christians, Mormons believe that God wants them to convert the world to their form of belief. The combination means that Mormonism sends some mixed messages about honesty. Hinckley, the Mormon president who publicly denied knowledge of traditional teachings, also made the following statement: “In matters of honesty, there are no shortcuts; no little white lies, or big black lies, only the simple, honest truth spoken in total candor.”

“Being true is different than being honest,” said Hinckley. The contrast between this statement and his public dissimulation is stark, and it is a good reminder that people who deceive in the service of faith often are also people who highly value truth.

MormonWiki contains a section titled, Lying for the Lord, which “refers to the practice of lying to protect the image of and belief in the Mormon religion.” At other sites, apostate Mormons discuss the practice, although much of what they discuss is something more subtle than outright lying. One former Mormon reports, “When I was a missionary, the church’s official Missionary Guide instructed missionaries to avoid providing direct answers or solutions to investigators’ questions or concerns” (an investigator is someone who is considering becoming a Mormon). He goes on to say that most missionaries are doing the best they can in an untenable situation, and contrasts a Mormon missionary’s desire for integrity with the objectives of the religion itself: “I wonder if it might be fair to say that … the system which puts missionaries in the line of rhetorical fire without providing them with the information necessary to craft meaningful answers to legitimate questions about the church is a form of collective sophistry?”

There’s a reason some answers are to be avoided: they aren’t conducive to belief. Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer, the second-most-senior leader in the Mormon Church, had this to say: “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”

Boyd also has expressed sentiments very similar to those of Evangelical apologist, Archer:

It is a matter of orientation toward scholarly work – historians’ work in particular – that sponsors my concern. I have come to believe that it is the tendency for most members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the Church, its doctrine, organization, and history, by the principles of their own profession…. In my mind it ought to be the other way around. A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extended academic studies, to judge the professions of men against the revealed word of the Lord.

This is the mindset to which Romney is spiritually accountable.

The line between church and state has blurred in recent years. When John F. Kennedy ran for president as a member of a religious minority, he took great pains to assure the American people that he respected and would enforce separation of church and state. Romney offers no such assurance. Unlike Kennedy, who was merely a lay Catholic, Romney served as a bishop in the Mormon church, leading rituals and offering spiritual advice to lower-level Mormons, and wealthy co-religionists have poured money into PACs that support his election because they see him as someone who shares their worldview. Barack Obama grants regular White House access to the Catholic bishops and their proxies, and one has to presume that, should they want it, Mormon bishops might have similar access under Romney. Thus, it is reasonable to ask how Mormon culture and dogmas are likely to affect policymaking.

Many of us are hungry for data-driven policies and public servants who are willing to hear and speak hard truths. On both sides of the aisle, people are weary of politicians who calculate the likely effect of a statement rather than assessing its truth value. Should Romney be elected, many Americans will want to believe that having a devout Mormon in the presidency is one of the circumstances when religion increases integrity.

Unfortunately, in this regard, Romney’s religion offers little in the way of assurance. Mormon belief may suppress outright lies in social situations and foster trust between business partners, especially among the faithful. But when it comes to the matter of helping cherished ideologies and groups gain ground, Romney’s relevant seminary lesson may well have been that the means serves the end.