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

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 light shining on a hill –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 U.S., a confession of atheism can be the death knell for a political candidate. 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 cause 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 an awkward question: Do Mormons teach that God was once a man? “I don’t know that we teach it.” he tells 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 eleven 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 wellbeing. 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 on the net effect, for better or worse, 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 like 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” (Qur’an 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 of outsiders under specific circumstances. One such circumstance is when a Muslim fears bodily harm because of his religion. In the most restrictive interpretations of taqiyya, this is the only time deception has divine sanction.  However, sacred texts and historical precedent affirm deception in a broader range of circumstances:  To defeat enemies, to defend Islam itself, or to attain good things, like marital harmony. According to stories embedded in the Qur’an and subsequent records of Islamic jurisprudence, deception can be a virtuous weapon during religious conflict or 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 some forms of Islam, Mormonism crystallized under conditions of persecution, and like Muslims and Evangelical Christians, Mormons traditionally 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. Gordon Hinkley, the Mormon president who publically 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.”  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. The term “milk before meat” is sometimes used to mean that potential converts should be exposed first to teachings that are metaphorically easiest to swallow.  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 Mitt Romney is spiritually accountable.

The line between church and state has blurred in recent years. When J.F.K. 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. Mitt 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 PAC’s 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 policy making.

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.

An earlier version of this article was published at Truthout under the title, “Does Romney’s Religious Devotion Make Him More, Or Less, Trustworthy”, October 14, 2012. 

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at


About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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13 Responses to Does Romney’s Religious Devotion Make Him More or Less Trustworthy?

  1. Mark Mywerd says:

    If the question is: would I vote for a Mormon, the answer is no. I would consider voting vote for people who claimed to be one of the following (alphabetically): Agnostic, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian (except evangelical Christian), Episcopalian, Hindu, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Shinto, or Sikh. If you hold a different religious persuasion other than the ones listed, or Atheist, then I will not vote for you. The reason Atheist did not make the list is that they “know” there is no Deity – which is not a rational position for a human to take. The reason Agnostic did make the list is, depending on circumstances, we are all agnostic at some point during the day.

    Also – if I consider you to be a nutcase for any reason (e.g. evangelical, or sporting a nose ring), then it doesn’t matter what religion you are – no vote.

    So, in conclusion, you must be: a) one of the above and, b) I consider you not a nut case.

    Mr. Romney does not seem to be a nut case, however he claims to be Mormon and Mormon did not make my list.


    • n473b says:

      “The reason Atheist did not make the list is that they “know” there is no Deity ”

      Agnostic – without knowledge
      Androgynous – without gender
      Atypical – without type
      Apathetic – without feeling or interest

      A – Without
      Theism – Belief in the existence of a god or gods

      Atheism – Without belief in the existence of a god or gods

      Stating that an atheist denies the existence of a god or gods is disingenuous.


  2. Perry Bulwer says:

    In your previous article on 12 Mormon beliefs the last one you listed was Lying For the Lord. I commented then on a similar doctrine in the Children of God/Family International cult, which they call Deceivers Yet True, based on a deliberate misreading of 2 Corinthians 6:8 see:

    Later, I remembered a similar Catholic doctrine called mental reservation. From wikipedia:

    “Mental reservation is a form of deception which is not an outright lie. It was argued for in moral theology, and now in ethics, as a way to fulfill obligations both to tell the truth and to keep secrets from those not entitled to know them (for example, because of the seal of the confessional or other clauses of confidentiality). Mental reservation, however, is regarded as unjustifiable without grave reason for withholding the truth. This condition was necessary to preserve a general idea of truth in social relations. In wide mental reservation, equivocations and amphibologies are used to imply an untruth that is not actually stated. In strict mental reservation, the speaker mentally adds some qualification to the words which he utters, and the words together with the mental qualification make a true assertion in accordance with fact. …”

    Here’s a couple news articles where that doctrine might have been at play:

    “Catholic doctrine of “mental reservation” allowed senior clergy to lie and cover-up abuse without being guilty in the church’s eyes”

    …Church authorities used the concept of “mental reservation”, which allows senior clergy to mislead people without being guilty, in the church’s eyes, of lying.

    “Irish Bishops apologize to abuse victims, but deny doctrine of ‘Mental Reservation’ used to cover up evil”

    … In response to the many concerns raised about the use of ‘Mental Reservation’, we wish to categorically state that it has no place in covering up evil. Charity, truthfulness, integrity and transparency must be the hallmark of all our communications.


    • Remarkable! I don’t find it surprising that people end up going through mental contortions to align their desire for honesty with their obligations to patently false belief systems. What *is* surprising is how overt the theological machinations are that seek to make this possible.


    • Mark Mywerd says:

      I disagree with your interpretation of the Catholic view of “mental reservation”. I was taught that mental reservation is about an individual lying to protect themselves in the service of a higher good. For example: If someone shows up at Mary Jones’ front door carrying a gun and asks her if she is Mary Jones and Mary says “No, I’m not, she moved to Nome Alaska last week, would you like her address?” in an attempt to keep the person from murdering her, then that is mental reservation.


  3. The below is a terrific line. I spent some seven years participating in services and studies in all but two of the states and provinces…… and I finally needed to throw in the towel because:

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


  4. Tim Martin says:

    Great post, as usual.

    This is a tangent, but I for one don’t understand why organizations like UNAids and the CDC say that condoms are impermeable to HIV. Specifically, UNAids says here that “Laboratory studies show that male latex condoms are impermeable to infectious
    agents contained in genital secretions.” Which isn’t true, and the source they cite doesn’t even mention permeability. When Trujillo first made this claims about condoms, he cited his sources. A paper at the (well-respected) Guttmacher Institute also cites at least one of Trujillo’s sources, as well as several others showing that HIV may pass through condoms (quote, “HIV particles are smaller than sperm cells and may actually leak through condoms.”) Of course, claims by the Church that condoms “make the AIDs problem worse” are a lie, and probably not true (though I suppose it could theoretically be true if availability of condoms caused people to have *so much more sex* that it increased the incidence of AIDs), but I’d like to know where organizations are getting their evidence from that condoms are impermeable to HIV.

    Does anyone know any recent studies that address it?


  5. mriana says:

    IMHO, Rumnut is far less trustworthy, esp concerning women, than Obama is. I don’t know of any woman in her right mind who would vote for Rumnut. Of course any woman brainwashed into believing what Rumnut says, is not in her right mind.


  6. mikespeir says:

    Believe me, I won’t be voting for Romney. I’m scared of what his presidency might bring. But as things sit right now, there’s a fair chance he’ll win. So, to make lemonade, I can at least see as a good sign the fact that a Mormon could win, something unthinkable half a generation ago. That means conservatives, to include the Religious Right, have had to become more pluralistic to get their man (in this case) into office. We’d all like progress to proceed by leaps and bounds, but it rarely does. (And if you examine the cases from history when it did, they usually weren’t pleasant times to live.) So even a Romney presidency would be a sign that we’re grinding them down.


    • That’s an interesting comment. I have been thinking about that too. I read this week that Billy Graham took Mormonism off of his cults list. It is possible that by allowing politics and religion to mix, and then politics to trump religion, they will indeed find that some of their fundamentalist certainties and purities are harder to sustain.


  7. George says:

    When I was a card carrying Lutheran for 58 of my 62 years, there was changing personal theology occuring over a long period of time. My doctrinal assertions became less and less, questions and new understandings more and more. I think many in all religious cultures can go through this. Maybe even Mitt! There’s hope. ( has great stories.) As far as him showing his tax returns–that’s tangential to bigger issues. So he’s a man of means–big deal. Too many people will immediately castigate someone for having wealth. Poor, poor attitude. As far as his policy proposals–his numbers wonk, Paul Ryan, will at least push for a discussion in that realm. President Obama and the Dems had a two year majority in the House and Senate, yet not one iota of addressing the fiscal cliff we are approaching. Interesting how silent the country is on that. Taxing the “rich” (anyone who has more money than you) will only keep government going for a mere portion of the year. Then what? Anyone else worried about the spending spree?


    • I certainly am!! Neither party completely aligns with my values, but I am a fiscal conservative, which is one reason I am voting D at this point in life. (I know that may sound surprising, and let me say that there are two others–the Religious Right and my belief in taking a literally conservative approach to the planet.) But my clear impression is that Democrats have been more responsible about budget than Republicans over every administration since I have been an adult. This chart, for example, tells a pretty compelling story: The R’s talk about budget more than D’s, but it seems like a lot of hot air. Any budget is about income as well as outflow. It is about making wise investments that pay back in the future. Not all spending is equivalent in that regard. It is about stewarding your resources for sustained flow. At least my own personal budget has to take all of these into consideration. The R plan seems to ignore these factors. And from what I can tell the deficit growth during R administrations reflects that. It reminds me of their rhetoric around abortion, but the policies proposed don’t actually line up with the end goal.


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