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A hard look at Scientology: 7-30/31-11

The description of Scientology that Janet Reitman offers in her compelling new book, Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, is a disturbing picture of religion gone bad.

Inside-scientology Almost anything you might think of that would be part of a toxic religion -- abusive authority, rigid doctrine that members dare not question, hidden assaults on members and employees, tremendous pressure to conform to groupthink -- is included in Reitman's description of Scientology in this well-researched and documented book.

And yet what is perhaps most remarkable about this book is its neutral tone, its refusal to degenerate into an anti-Scientology polemic (though no doubt that's what Scientologists will consider this to be). Indeed, Reitman finds a few Scientologists who are willing to speak freely to her and who continue to find value in the religion started in the 1950s by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard (pictured at right).

Indeed, the book ends with quotes from such a person.

That said, Reitman's description of the origins and continued operations of Scientology show an organization with an appalling lack of a moral compass, particularly under David Miscavige, who became the movement's leader after Hubbard died in 1986. And this faultline can be traced back to the beginning, when Hubbard, who had dreamed up personal counseling techniques that challenged psychiatry, decided that it would be more profitable (in all senses of that word) if he played what he called "the religion angle" and positioned Scientology not as a self-help business but as a religion. Eventually, after enormous legal pressure, the Internal Revenue Service declared Scientology to be a tax-exempt religion. (Other countries continue to struggle with that question.)

Hubbard was a strangely driven man with out-of-the-mainstream ideas, including the notion that we've all lived countless lives and that our bodies are simply the dwelling places of "thetans," apparently spirit-like entities who move from body to body. Even though all this may sound like science fiction, Hubbard, who wrote some quite engaging material in that genre, insisted it was factual. (The idea that we've lived many lives and will live many more is the apparent basis for members of Scientology's "Sea Organization" to be required to sign one-billion-year contracts to join.)

L-ron-hubbard_2 Over the years, various critics of Scientology have deconstructed it in devastating ways. Reitman, for instance, reports that in the 1960s the Australian Medical Association and its Mental Health Authority issued a 173-page report "thoroughly denouncing Scientology and its founder." Here is some of what that report concluded:

"If there should be detected in this report a note of unrelieved denunciation of Scientology, it is because the evidence has shown its theories to be fantastic and impossible, its principles perverted and ill-founded, and its techniques debased and harmful." And this: "Scientology is a delusional belief system, based on fiction and fallacies and propogated by falsehood and deception. . ." In the end, this Australian report called Scientology "a crazy and dangerous edifice." (I believe this is the report Reitman cites, but, if not, it's very similar.)

Much of Reitman's book bears out that 50-year-old conclusion. And that includes a description of a Scientology's "Operation Show White," which, Reitman says, was "revealed as the largest program of domestic espionage in U.S. history." Several people received prison sentences for the operation, though Hubbard himself was just named an "undicted co-conspirator."

One thing that makes this distressing book so engrossing is that Reitman tells the story of many individuals and their lives within Scientology -- often because they later escaped the religion and have become vocal critics of it. These stories add credibility to Reitman's words and put human faces on some of what goes on behind closed doors in Scientology, which they describe, in Reitman's words, as a "permanently hostile and intimidating environment."

From time to time Kansas City even enters the picture, first when a Scientology leader named Alan Walter opened a Scientology mission here. There's a Scientology operation today at 39th and Main in Kansas City. For its Web site, click here.

Even though over the years Scientology has attracted such high-profile members as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Reitman concludes that the operation faces a "daunting" task if it hopes to "both survive scandal and deflect many hard questions."

In the end, says Reitman, Scientology "is and always has been a fundamentalist faith. And like other fundamentalist groups, it will have its factions and its apostates. Whether it will endure in spite of that rests on whether its basic mission. . .remains vital to its flock and to their children."

Healthy religion creates a supportive atmosphere in which one is free to ask hard questions. Clearly that has not been Scientology's history. On the other hand, it may be too much of a stretch to call Scientology a religion at all, given that its members are required to pay increasing amounts of money to be taught Scientology's next level of self-help secrets.

In any case, Reitman has done the world a service by offering an insightful and believable picture of a troubled and troubling movement.

(The only serious complaint I have about Reitman's book is the footnoting procedure. There are lots of good footnotes at the back of the book, but as you read the text you have no idea what is being footnoted. Rather, you must flip back to the notes and see if a particular word or phrase that you've just read is expanded in a footnote. It's a silly and annoying way to handle footnotes.)

Oh, and here's a link to a Reuters interview with author Janet Reitman.

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Because I've proposed teaching a class at Ghost Ranch next summer about the complex questions surrounding forgiveness, I'm on the watch for interesting writing about that subject. Which is how I ran across this challenging piece about forgiveness and what the Bible really says about it. If you don't read it I'll forgive you but you'll be missing something worthwhile.

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P.S.: Richard G. Tripp, founder of "Care of Poor People" in Kansas City, has an excellent and really cheap idea for how all of us can help homeless people in this brutally hot weather. Listen to Richard describe it in a brief YouTube video. Then let's all do it.

Seeking blame in Norway: 7-29-11


As you might expect, the murderous actions in Norway -- and the alleged perpetrator's statements that he's a Christian trying to save Europe from Islam -- have stirred up a lot of controversy about who influenced Anders Behring Breivik.

Religion News Service has done this pretty good compilation of some of this.

That piece raises the question of whether it's right to blame Breivik's violent acts on people who have been pushing an anti-Islam agenda in various ways.

Well, look. Life is complicated. One man does not dream up his politics, his ideology, in a vacuum. So no doubt there were others who influenced his thinking.

But let's be really careful about the blame game.

It's much too easy to conclude that there's a direct connection between this or that individual or group with anti-Islam views and the raw violence Norway suffered. Not only is establishing such a connection terribly difficult, but simple answers are unfair, given how many sources of influence may have affected the perpetrator.

Yes, it's possible to create an atmosphere of hostility and hate that moves people to despicable actions. But it's also possible that Breivik is a prisoner of mental illness whose sources are simply unknowable.

All that said, I can think of no good reason for anyone to be denigrating an entire religion -- either Islam for the actions of Osama bin Laden's disciples or Christianity for the violence in Norway. In both cases people acted way, way outside the boundaries of the religion's teachings.

(For an Australian newspaper's photo gallery of shots showing the ways in which Norwegians are mourning, click here.)

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Farewell to the Rev. John Stott, one of the more articulate and thoughtful evangelical Christian voices, now dead at age 90. Other evangelicals could learn from his approach how to be both committed to the their version of the faith and friendly to others who see things differently.

9/11's psychological damage: 7-28-11

As I prepare for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's impossible for my mind not to take me back to the kinds of emotional and even psychological damage my family suffered because my nephew was a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center that day.

9-11-lights Indeed, in many ways that event plowed a huge truck into the dynamics of our family relations, and we had to work in various ways to rebuild relationships.

I thought about all of this again this week when I read that the American Psychological Association has published a special edition of its journal, American Psychologist, that describes in various ways the trauma that the country suffered on 9/11.

As this introduction to that special issue says, "The attacks of 9/11 did far more than destroy buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. They interrupted routine patterns and tugged at our social fabric, not simply in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but across the country as
well. They shattered a sense of security and perceptions of invulnerability among residents of the United States and the Western world."

That introduction also reminds us that "the goals of terrorism are inherently psychological in nature. Terrorists seek to create disruption by instilling fear and anxiety that leads to wide-ranging social, political, psychological, and economic consequences."

It's not surprising that terrorism rooted in religious extremism should work in this way because, of course, religious extremists pledge allegiance to systems that are inherently coercive and that require the use of fear and anxiety.

So the 9/11 ripple effects simply go on and on.

By the way, to obtain free (but required) tickets to Kansas City's 10th anniversary 9/11 memorial service (to be at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11, at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St., Kansas City) click here.

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OK, time for a bit of satire. Not great satire, but satire nonetheless. reports that people upset with New York's new law legalizing marriage for same-sex couples are so upset that they've sued God for not stopping it. If God has to testify, will this be the end of the oath: "So help Me Me'?

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it click here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I've just added this page under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. It lists the boards on which I serve just in case that interests you.

Places to find ourselves again: 7-27-11


PITTSBURG, Mo. -- I spent the first two days of this week here at the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center on Lake Pomme de Terre.

But I wasn't exactly on a retreat. Rather, I was gathered for the annual meeting of the non-profit center's board of directors -- wonderful people who believe it's important for there to be a place in the world to which one may go to breathe again, to slow down one's heart, to daydream about God, to set at a distance all the pressures of life.

For a blog entry I wrote about being at the center last fall with my wife, click here. (I took the photo here today on that trip.)

The man who lives here at the center and oversees its operations is W. Paul Jones, who spent most of his professional life teaching as a United Methodist clergyman teaching at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City but who today is a Catholic priest and Trappist monk.

He's a wonderful heart (and a great writer), and some years ago I had the privilege of co-teaching a weeklong class with him at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico on doctrines that divide the Christian church.

My point in raising all this today is simple: I encourage you to find a place of retreat. There are many choices available offered by many different faith communities. And, of course, there are simple secular resorts you can use, too. But we will simply lose ourselves if we don't find ways to breathe deeply, think carefully and simply be for a time. The first question in the Westminster Cathechism asks what the chief purpose of human life is. And the answer is to glorify and "enjoy" God forever.

The Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center is one of the places you can do the enjoying intentionally.

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Driving back from Lake Pomme de Terre yesterday I heard radio clips of a pastor at a NASCAR event praying a prayer of thanks for his "smokin' hot wife." I laughed. I hope you'll laugh, too, and not get bent out of shape. This is the NASCAR version of Celtic Spirituality, I think.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it click here.

Debating India's caste system: 7-26-11

As some of you know, I lived in India for two years of my boyhood. And although even then the caste system was officially banned, it was clear that it was used it many ways.

Caste-system-2011-9 This was particularly distressing for a young American boy who had grown up with the idea that all people are created not just equal in value but also children of God. I had trouble understanding what it could mean to be an "untouchable."

It's now been nearly 65 years since India achieved independence from Great Britain, but the caste system remains a bone of contention.

Just recently, in fact, the Hindu American Foundation issued this report damning the caste system's continued use and insisting that it violates the foundational beliefs of Hinduism.

You can read the whole report at the Web site to which I've linked you, but here, in words taken from that Web site, are the six basic themes the report seeks to advocate:

  1. Caste-based discrimination and a birth-based caste hierarchy are not intrinsic to the Hindu religion.
  2. Caste-based discrimination does exist in many parts of India today.
  3. Caste-based discrimination fundamentally contradicts the essential teaching of Hindu sacred texts that divinity is inherent in all beings.
  4. Contemporary Hindu spiritual leaders are actively promoting authentic interpretations of Hindu sacred texts, affirming that the solution to caste-based discrimination lies in an adherence to core Hindu teachings.
  5. Representative democracy, government policies, and urbanization/economic liberalization have wrought a sea change in caste equations in modern India, but the matter is complicated by the emergence of caste-based politics.
  6. Caste-based discrimination is being exploited by multi-national evangelical and missionary organizations whose ostensibly humanitarian and development goals are too often intertwined with predatory proselytization and conversion. Also, caste-based discrimination is an issue that the sovereign state of India and its people have addressed and continue to do so, thus interference by any external agency in India’s internal affairs is unacceptable and unwarranted.

It also turns out that my best friend in India, Markandey Katju, who serves on the country's Supreme Court, has written this piece about the caste system (making some of the same points as the HAF makes). I just happened to find Markandey's piece as I was looking at this HAF report. It's worth a read.

In some ways this is an internal Hindu/India controversy. But, of course, it has far-reaching implications, including, as Markandey and HAF both note, in Indian politics, which ultimately affects the whole world. In that way, it's not unlike the internal Islamic debate over whether terrorism is a justified tool, though in that debate the ripple effects are much greater and more costly.

(By the way, the illustration here today shows "gods" at the top. And although Hinduism is widely considered a polytheistic religion, it's really monotheistic. But that's a subject for another day.)

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Ireland's prime minister has stood up for children abused by priests in the Catholic Church there, and in response the Vatican has recalled its papal nuncio for consultations. It's the right move by Pope Benedict XVI, indicating a lack of confidence that the nuncio has handled things well there. But, of course, none of this makes whole the children who have been damaged.

Creation stories galore: 7-25-11

One of my sisters is good friends with the author Carolyn North, whose writings I have enjoyed over the years.

In the Beginning But I hadn't seen Carolyn's 2009 book, In the Beginning: Creation Myths from Around the World, until my sister sent it to me the other day. It's quite attractive, with art work by Adrienne Robinson. In it, North looks at creation-of-the-world stories from more than a dozen traditions, re-telling those stories in her own engaging words.

Now, people who want to insist on a literal reading of Genesis (there are two creation stories in the first book of the Bible) may not be pleased with the liberties North has taken in her reshaping of the stories from this tradition, but I found that it opened up the story of creation in fresh ways.

You can get the book and read and review it for yourself. I want to use the gift of it to me to remind both you and me that almost every culture has imagined some kind of creation story. What's surprising is both how much they are alike but also how different they are.

As I say, North's book renders more than a dozen of these stories, but there are many more. To sample some of them, click here.

Some people object to the use of the term myth to describe creation stories, assuming that myths aren't true. Well, myths can carry lots of truths even if they can't be verified as historical events. And because no human being was around to witness the creation and record all of its aspects, creation stories necessarily are myths.

But they tell us something important about the human condition. They tell us that we are seekers, never quite satisfied with current theories of how we got here. Having restless hearts is a good thing. Such a condition makes us explorers at heart. And it's this desire to find ourselves, our home, our beginning and, finally, our future, our destiny, that drives us. That's precisely the drive to which religion seeks to respond.

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It is now the task of those of us who are Christian to do what many people demand of Muslims after acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam -- denounce acts of terrorism performed in the name of religion. The long manifesto written by the man accused of murdering all those people in Norway says the acts were done as a call to start a Christian war against Islam in Europe. So let me say that in his manifesto, Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect, does not speak for Christians and has acted wildly outside the bounds of what Christianity allows and teaches. His actions are an outrage to all religion and to Christianity in particular. No sincere follower of Jesus would have done such heinous acts and if Breivik is found guilty he should be punished to the full extent of the law. The World Evangelical Alliance has spoken out in a similar manner.

Rising fear of U.S. Muslims: 7-23/24-11

At first this seems counterintuitive:

Icofa-4 A new Ohio State University survey has found that more (not fewer) Americans feel threatened by Muslims in the U.S. after the death of Osama bin Laden than before Navy SEALS killed him in Pakistan.

As the press release describing the survey's finding notes, ". . .in the weeks before bin Laden’s death, nearly half of respondents described Muslim Americans as 'trustworthy' and 'peaceful.'  But only one-third of Americans agreed with these positive terms after the killing."

Let's think about why this might be.

First, we have to acknowledge the sad truth that many Americans know little or nothing about Islam, and that what they think they know often turns out not to be true. Survey after survey reveals this. (And Americans' ignorance about religion extends far beyond Islam, as I noted in this recent blog posting).

Next, we're moving closer to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and there's increasing media coverage of not just that murderous day but also what's happened between then and now. No doubt this renewed focus on terrorism plays into American fears (some of which are justified).

Erik Nisbet, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State and one of the survey leaders, is quoted in the press release as saying much the same thing about the bin Laden death itself: “The death of bin Laden was a focusing event. There was a lot of news coverage and a lot of discussion about Islam and Muslims and Muslim Americans.”

But beyond that, Americans continue to hear bigoted views about Islam from many sources, including hate-mongering from radio talk show hosts and fear tactics from such politicians as Herman Cain, a GOP presidential hopeful who recently said Americans should have the right to ban mosques in their communities. (So much for the Constitution.)

Combine all that with the ridiculous controversy over a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero and with a quite natural fear that al-Qaida will try to do what it can to take revenge on the U.S. for killing its leader and the findings of this survey aren't surprising or counterintuitive at all.

They're sad. That's for sure. And Muslims, interfaith leaders, politicians and others must do what they can to reverse this trend toward fear of American Muslims. But given all these other realities, the survey results should have been expected. (For the full survey report, click here.)

(The photo here today is one I took a few years ago at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., at Friday prayers.)

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Speaking of Muslims, the TLC cable channel this fall will start airing a reality show about the lives of Muslim families in Dearborn. Sometimes I'm reluctant to admit it, but it's often shows like this that can break down prejudices and educate people in ways that simply aren't possible through lectures and other more formal avenues. Hope this one does that.

Studying female terrorists: 7-22-11

We've all noticed the sad reality in recent years that a growing number of suicide bombers are women, and we've wondered what in the world drives them to this outrage.

Female-bomber A scholar from Southeastern Louisiana University has been studying this phenomenon and says this:

“The decidedly un-Islamic introduction of female suicide bombers is hardly surprising in current terrorist groups, for they simply reinterpret and manipulate religious doctrine to legitimize acts that are strategically and militarily utilitarian. Female suicide bombers are not Islamic martyrs nor any other manifestation of orthodox religious faith.”

Margaret Gonzalez-Perez, who did the new study, is a professor of political science at Southeastern and author of the book Women Terrorists: Female Activity in Domestic and International Terrorism.

The introduction of women into this madness makes no more sense than does anything else about it. Once a group has adopted a bad idea, there's not much to prevent it from spreading that idea to all kinds of people -- especially the vulnerable.

As the press release to which I've linked you in the second paragraph above quotes Gonzalez-Perez as saying, terrorists "recruit women by exploiting vulnerable females, including those with mental health issues and girls as young as 14. The common profile of female suicide bombers is that of a woman trying to survive in the aftermath of a war with no social, political or economic security. This new study, “The False Islamization of Female Suicide Bombers,” appeared in a recent online issue in the journal, Gender Issues.

The conclusion about women suicide bombers is the same as the conclusion for all terrorists: Islam forbids such acts. Those who do them do so in violation of Islam.

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Good for the pope. On Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to his native Germany, he plans to meet with both Jews and Muslims. They may not agree on all matters (why would they?) but continued contact like this helps prevent isolation that leads to ignorance that leads to prejudice that leads God knows where. So keep talking, folks.

Explaining doctrine sensibly: 7-21-11

Sometimes people of faith don't understand why people outside of their faith tradition simply are baffled by what they hear coming from religious leaders.

Chaput Those of us within a faith tradition tend to speak an inside-baseball language that means little or nothing to those outside and is, indeed, one reason they choose to stay outside.

But other times it's that religious leaders seem contradictory and lost when they try to explain their tradition's position on something.

I read a really good example of that this week when John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter did this interview with Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput (pictured here), whom the pope just been named to lead the archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Being the thorough, fair and insightful journalist that he is, Allen asked Chaput about his thinking on the issue of gay marriage. Chaput's answer showed not only a religious leader defending a position now essentially abandoned by society (because of its obvious denial of basic civil rights) but also a man who seems, at least on this issue, to be unable to articulate a position that can be reconciled by gay people.

Chaput begins by overstating the importance of the question of gay marriage. "This," he said, "is the issue of our time." Really? Oh, it's a hot-button issue to be sure. But why in the world would it be "the issue of our time" for the church? Isn't the gospel always the issue of our time? And, after that, what about poverty, hunger, homelessness, education, environmental degradation, race relations, women's issues, ecumenical and interfaith matters, the priest abuse scandal? I could go on.

Then Chaput adds this:

"The church understands marriage as a unique relationship, with a unique definition, which is the faithful love of a man and a woman for each other, permanent, and for the sake of children. As children, if we don't know that our parents love one another, our lives are very unstable. That's why I think every child deserves a family where the father loves the mother, and the mother loves the father. For us to redefine marriage as anything else undermines that notion. I think it's very important that the church keep insisting on this."

And then he immediately says:

"It's also important to say that we're not against gay people."

Imagine how gay people must hear those two paragraphs.

Next Chaput said something that, were I Catholic, would affect me directly:

"The church does believe that human sexuality has a meaning in itself, that it's about love and procreation. Any other sexual relationship is contrary to the Gospel."

My wife and I (who are Presbyterian, not Catholic) were married at age 51. Our life is about love, to be sure, but not about procreation. Not only was she past child-bearing age when we got married but previous surgery on both of us would have made procreation impossible. So our own sexual relationship "is contrary to the Gospel"?

Perhaps had I sat in on the interview and challenged Chaput on what he said he'd have offered an answer that would have made sense. But I didn't and this answer doesn't.

Religious leaders always must be aware of how their words might be taken. I'm certainly not suggesting they abandon their faith's doctrine just to conform with society (for social norms often are wrong). But I am suggesting they find cogent, compassionate and compelling ways of explaining doctrine as opposed to ways that simply drive people away.

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Oh, my. Here's another example from of prejudicial media coverage of religion. It's about someone with Fox News making fun of Mormonism and about another Fox person who declared that Mitt Romney, because he's Mormon, is "obviously" not a Christian. No wonder religion is so often misunderstood and vilified.

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P.S.: Free -- but required -- tickets now are available through this site for the 10th anniversary 9/11 memorial service (featuring a large orchestra and chorus) scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11, at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St., Kansas City. Order yours now so you don't miss what promises to be a wonderful event.

Why theologians matter: 7-20-11

I know you don't have a lot of time to read this today because, no doubt, you'll soon be off somewhere celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth on this date in 1886 of Paul Tillich (pictured here).

Tillich If you're already lost, don't feel alone.

More than a year ago I wrote this Presbyterian Outlook column expressing my surprise that some members of a pastor search committee on which I served had never heard of this 20th Century giant in the world of theology.

I didn't expect them to know his thinking in detail, but I was shocked that several had no clue that any Paul Tillich had ever existed.

Tillich, whose opposition to Hitler led me to leave his native Germany in 1933 and head to the U.S. (where he taught theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York), was a fresh thinker. He's perhaps best known for describing God as the "ground of all being."

For tons more about Tillich, click here.

I mention Tillich today not because I think he's the most interesting or important theologian in the world but because in each religious tradition, clergy are influenced by particular minds. And it can help to know how your religious leader has formed his or her views about theology and its implications based on the theologians of that tradition.

A preacher who is marinated in Tillich or Karl Barth is going to be much different than one whose primary influence is John Nelson Darby.

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GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain now says Mitt Romney's Mormon religion will prevent him from winning. Well, unlike Cain's recent nonsense about how American communities should be free to bar the construction of mosques, in the case of Romney, Cain is simply reporting probable reality and not making bigoted observations. The bigotry comes from all the people who think Momonism is a cult or demonic faith that will cause Romney, if elected, to do strange things.