The test of a religious fanatic

The test of a religious fanatic

I have been close to Mormons ever since Michael Taft Benson – whose grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, was the prophet of the Mormon Church at the time – joined the L’Chaim Society at Oxford University. Thus began a lifelong friendship that continues until today, with many visits to lecture for Mike at Southern Utah University and other mostly Mormon academies of higher learning in the majority Mormon state.

Truth regardless of consequences I have thus watched with mild amusement as the debate surrounding the beliefs of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have gained steam. Are Mormons weird fanatics? Should we trust people with such strange beliefs with high office?

This is an interesting question coming from my evangelical brothers and sisters, who believe that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of God; that he died on a cross, only to be resurrected three days later; and that he soon will walk among us yet again. With all due respect, this is not the most rational belief, either. It is equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself, who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked, and the sun stood still on command.

It is equally strange, however, coming from such evolutionists as Richard Dawkins, who have said, without a single shred of evidence, that life on our planet may have been seeded by space aliens. Even those evolutionists who reject Dawkins’ faith in extraterrestrial life have a belief system of their own, namely, that intelligent life somehow evolved capriciously and accidentally from inorganic matter, even though the possibility of complex organisms evolving without guidance is a mathematical near impossibility.

Consider how Julian Huxley, who emerged from the world’s most famous family of evolutionary proponents, put the probability of the evolution of a horse: “A proportion of favorable mutations of one in a thousand does not sound much, but is probably generous…and a total of a million mutational steps sounds a great deal, but is probably an understatement….With this proportion, we should clearly have to breed a million strains (a thousand squared) to get one containing two favorable mutations, and so on, up to a thousand to the millionth power to get one containing a million….No one would bet on anything so improbable happening….And yet it has happened!”

Even men of science can believe things that others may construe as highly irrational.

Do I believe that Joseph Smith found ancient tablets written in reformed Egyptian in upstate New York, or that Jesus appeared in South America as recorded in the Book of Mormon, or that when a Mormon dies he becomes a god and gets his own planet? Respectfully, I do not. Yet, it is not what a person believes that counts. It is what he does that is important.

It took four years for the current Dalai Lama to be identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor in a process that to Western eyes can appear highly arbitrary. Yet, the Dalai Lama remains one of the most respected men alive because of his commitment to world peace and good works.

Misguided attacks on groups such as the Mormons stem from a willful desire on the part of many to fraudulently identify people of a different faith system as fanatics. A brief discussion of religious fundamentalism thus is in order.

The most confusing story of the Bible involves God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. God would later declare that all human, and especially child sacrifice, is an abomination, so what was He thinking?

A most insightful commentary on this comes from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory, who said that the key to the story is to see Isaac not as an individual, but as a religion. Isaac was Judaism, Schneerson said. He was the one who would continue Abraham’s belief system. With his death, everything that Abraham had taught in terms of his rejection of paganism and the belief in one God would be lost.

The test, therefore, was this: Would Abraham follow God’s commandment to kill off his religion, or would he put his religion before God’s will?

The religious fanatic is the person who puts religion before God, who turns faith into yet another false idol. Religion is the vehicle we use to bring us into a relationship with our Creator. When it becomes a substitute for God, it becomes soulless and fanatical, and even quite dangerous. We know only too well how some fundamentalists would ignore God’s express commandment not to murder in order to strike a blow for the glory of their faith.

It does not matter if a candidate for public office is Jewish, evangelical, Mormon, or Muslim. What does matter is whether his or her faith is focused on relating to God and, by extension, caring for all of God’s children, or whether he or she sees that office as a vehicle for promoting a particular belief system. It is easy to identify the difference.

People who are in a relationship with God are humble and do their utmost to refrain from judging others. Their proximity to a perfect being reminds them of their own fallibility. Their experience of God’s compassion leads them to be merciful and loving.

On the other hand, those who worship a religion are arrogant in their faith and dismissive of other people’s beliefs. The rabbi in Israel who recently suggested that soldiers should face a firing squad rather than listen to a woman sing is a classic example of such heresy.

Those who put religion before God evince the classic characteristic of cult members. A real faith system is empowering and makes one strong and capable of operating outside the faith community. Cult members can only identify with other cult members and require the environment of the cult in order to function. They do not have beliefs; they follow orders.

There are no such cultish characteristics evident either in Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman – or any of my countless other Mormon friends. All of us should be judged by how we live our lives, not by in which house we worship.