Monday, January 09, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Marietta

A certain segment of the blogosphere lit up late last week in response to some anti-Mormon and anti-Muslim comments made by a local state representative from Georgia.  Here's the relevant bit, as reported in The Marietta Daily Journal:
"I think Mitt Romney is a nice man, but I’m afraid of his Mormon faith,” Manning said. “It’s better than a Muslim. Of course, every time you look at the TV these days you find an ad on there telling us how normal they are. So why do they have to put ads on the TV just to convince us that they’re normal if they are normal? … If the Mormon faith adhered to a past philosophy of pluralism, multi-wives, that doesn’t follow the Christian faith of one man and one woman, and that concerns me."

Now, I'd never heard of Representative Judy Manning before this quote started percolating through the internet. Even though she's apparently been in office since 1997, I haven't had a lot of reason to follow the state politics of states I've never lived in. Although I not only disagree with her position on Romney, and find her comments more than a little disturbing, I'd rather not jump on the bandwagon of criticism too hastily. It's less that I want to justify her comments (for which she's already apologized, if perhaps not for the Muslim part), and more that I think they're worth exploring and considering where they come from.

Manning is a self-professed Christian. Her official bio says that she and her husband "are devout members of the First Presbyterian Church," by which I assume it means the First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, which is indeed a part of my own denomination, the PC(USA).* This tells me a few things. For example, even if FPC is (as I suspect) a fairly conservative congregation, they have not yet seceded from the denomination over recent changes in our denomination's ordination processes. They may well be unhappy with those changes, but they are committed to maintaining their commitments to denominational unity for at least the time being. That's not something I take lightly. It tells me of a group that is willing to work through difficulties and disagreements, and if Manning is at all representative of her congregation, it speaks well of her.

Why, then, would Rep. Manning say such harsh things about a fellow Republican (to say nothing of how she apparently views Muslims)? Well, at least part of the answer is obviously rooted in Christianity's claim to truth (or more specifically, that we believe non-Christian religions are not true), and our call to share that truth with others. This obviously presents a problem when talking about those who follow other religions (for the sake of argument, I'll accept the premise that Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormons would dispute this, but that's a debate for another time), especially if we feel that those other religions are somehow harmful. Whatever else is going on here, Manning is by her own admission afraid of what Mormonism teaches. This is not a situation where I would expect that a more complete knowledge of the tenets of Mormonism would be all that helpful. Even if she were to know the teachings of Mormonism fully and accurately (perhaps she does, but I don't know one way or the other), she would likely still be afraid of them for the ways that they differ from her own beliefs. If she believes, for example, that having multiple wives is bad for society (I would be inclined to agree), that particular piece of Mormonism's past (if not its present) would remain troubling. At this point, Manning is simply being honest.

This is, of course, where we getting into the real problem with her statements. Her honesty betrays an apparent lack of willingness to work through her fears. She asks about the other religions' need to advertise to demonstrate their normalcy, with an implicit assumption that if they really were normal, there wouldn't be such a need to advertise. That's really kind of ridiculous. They need to advertise because we don't think they're normal, and this is where a more complete knowledge—perhaps not of the religion's teachings, but of the people who follow those teachings—could be helpful. Manning doesn't seem to be willing to learn and grow in her relationships with these other people.

And that brings me to my fear. I fear that Manning believes that tolerance is a bad thing. I fear that she considers tolerance something akin to the idea that acceptance of those whose beliefs are different than hers might be to accept that her beliefs may not be the right ones. This need not be so. We can hold to the rightness of our own beliefs while at the same time accepting that others maintain the right to hold to theirs. I would hope that Manning might recognize that there's a part of our U.S. Constitution's own Bill of Rights, the first part, in fact, that requires that we accept such rights in those with whom we differ religiously.

*It's true that it took me a bit of digging to verify this information, as FPC does not make it obvious on their web page, as many PC(USA) churches do. They may well be somewhat embarrassed by the affiliation. The point I'm making here is, even if that's true, the fact that they haven't left is important. A great many other churches have already left over these specific changes, and still others left for various reasons quite some time ago.

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