Jacob Weisberg’s recent article in Slate continues Slate’s assault on reason in order to justify religious bigotry. Weisberg rightly notes that voters are correct to disqualify candidates for fanatical religious beliefs. Then Weisberg goes on to claim that Joseph Smith was an obvious con-man, and concludes that literal belief in his prophetic mission makes a person patently irrational. From this surprising non sequitur, Weisberg concludes not only that it’s OK to vote against Romney because he’s Mormon, but that rational people should vote against Romney because he’s Mormon.

Weisberg tries to confront the typical comparison between Mormon miracles to other religious miracles head-on:

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational — what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Latter-day Saints [sic] is expanding rapidly and liberalizing in various ways, but it remains fundamentally an orthodox creed with no visible reform wing.

But Weisberg’s reasoning is fallacious, and his justification makes a few category mistakes.

Weisberg wants to say that belief in Joseph Smith is irrational, because Joseph Smith is an unmitigated, transparent fraud. But in the examples that Weisberg sites as mitigated, irrational beliefs, there is no identifiable person whose reputation really hinges on whether the stories are true of false. The proper comparisons to make would be with Moses’s claim to have seen God in a burning bush, or with Jesus’s claim to have changed water into wine and to have seen Moses on the mount of transfiguration. If Moses and Jesus made such claims, then they are, according to Weisberg’s standard, transparent con men.

The passage of time doesn’t change this. Weisberg seeks to distinguish the Mormon view of Joseph Smith from the Christian view of Moses and Jesus by sighting the transformation of “myths into metaphor.” But most Democrat and Republican presidential candidates appear to believe in the truth of the actual myth of Moses and the actual myth of Jesus — not some metaphorical substitutes. The fact that some Christians may adhere to a metaphorical interpretation of key scriptures is beside the point. Some Mormons also adhere to a metaphorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon (thus the “reform wing” about which Weisberg admits being blind) — Mormons read the books published by Signature at much higher rates than non-Mormons.

Furthermore, the LDS church is not comparable to Christianity, because the LDS church is not a broad category of religious tradition, and it never will be. It is a specific denomination within Christianity, one of the splinters that Weisberg identifies as evidence of the maturity of Christianity.

Predictably, Weisberg makes his all-too-familiar move of branding all those who disagree with him as intractably unreasonable by pretending that reasonable people cannot disagree about the veracity of Joseph Smith’s story:

…I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827…. If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography No Man Knows My History.

Fawn Brodie’s brilliant, ground-breaking biography is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about Joseph Smith, and I know many other Mormons who think so. Weisberg fundamentally misunderstands Mormonism if he believes Brodie’s book decisively establishes Joseph as a fraud (I know that some Mormons suffer from the misconception that the Brodie’s bio is inaccurate, or that Nibley somehow laid a finger on it in his preposterous response “No Ma’am, that’s not History,” but the more Mormons read the scholarly biographies by faithful Mormons like Donna Hill or Richard Bushman, the smaller that crowd gets). On the contrary, Brodie’s book decisively establishes Joseph Smith as a man of great energy, imagination, and courage — a figure altogether worthy of the church he founded. It also decisively establishes him as a religious genius, as is noted by others (e.g., Harold Bloom).

On the topic of whether or not Joseph Smith was a charlatan, there are certainly two schools of thought, and Brodie makes no bones about which one she favors and why. But Weisberg seems to (a) confuse Joseph Smith’s biography with LDS church history, and (b) suppose that Brodie’s opinions (as reasonable and well-argued as they may be) are adequate proxies for incontrovertible facts. (It is, I believe, doubtful that Weisberg has actually read Brodie. It’s more likely that he’s read Krakauer, who sites Brodie, but is a lousy source. My response to Krakauer can be found here.)

By the end of his article, the only concrete criticism that Weisberg manages to field is that Romney hasn’t distanced himself from “the church’s overt racism and priestly discrimination” that didn’t end until 1978. This is akin to faulting Romney for not objecting to the church’s overt sexism and priestly discrimination for not ordaining women to the priesthood. If some people get the priesthood and not others, then there is some form of discrimination going on. But that doesn’t make it agenda-driven, and it is not objectionable per se. One thing is clear: Weisberg does not find Mormonism to be objectionable because he sees racism; Weisberg sees racism, because he finds Mormonism objectionable.

In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Weisberg is little more than an old-fashioned religious bigot who’s adopted an uninformed and poorly reasoned stance on a religion about which he shows no evidence of a reasonable understanding.

Weisberg is the anti-Mormon Archie Bunker for The Left.