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Theology 101 with Lawrence O’Donnell

Tuesday, December 11, 2007
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HH: Joined now by MSNBC political analyst, panelist on the McLaughlin Group, Lawrence O’Donnell. Lawrence has been on a number of times. Lawrence, welcome back, always a pleasure.

LO’D: Great to be back, Hugh.

HH: Now you’re Class of ’77 at Harvard, right?

LO’D: Yeah.

HH: Now were you a member of the Porcellian?

LO’D: No, I was there for years before I knew that those fancy clubs existed. I didn’t have any idea they were even there.

HH: You didn’t join any of the finals clubs?

LO’D: No, no.

HH: That’s good.

LO’D: I didn’t know what they were.

HH: Are you Catholic?

LO’D: I was born, I was baptized in Roman Catholicism in my first week of life.

HH: And are you still practicing?

LO’D: You know, it’s a religion that people have varying, have very elastic relationships with. You’ll notice this in Catholic politicians like Mario Cuomo, who…and Rudy Giuliani, for that matter, with his three marriages and his multiple divorces, and his favoring abortion. Rudy claims he’s a Catholic still, and I think I know what he means, which is most Catholics have a relatively flexible relationship to what they were taught from the Catechism when they were in elementary school. So you know, I don’t think there’s a very simple answer to the general public about who…

HH: I’m just asking you. I mean…

LO’D: …about who is or who isn’t a Catholic.

HH: …do you go to Mass?

LO’D: I have a very flexible relationship to Catholicism.

HH: Does that include Mass occasionally?

LO’D: Yes, I would say occasionally.

HH: Okay. Are you a misogynist?

LO’D: What is a misogynist? What do you mean? Oh, no, I don’t think so.

HH: Well, they don’t, women aren’t allowed to be priests.

LO’D: No, I think that’s a big mistake. I think that’s a really…

HH: Well, you’re a part of the Church.

LO’D: I think that’s a huge mistake. I think it’s a sexist choice made centuries ago. It’s also, Hugh, an economic choice. The Catholic Church cannot afford to have priests get married, for example. They have a tremendous difficulty right now funding the priesthood just as single men with no dependents. They can’t afford to allow for marriage. Now I think that’s…

HH: Is it wrong for them to exclude women?

LO’D: Pardon me?

HH: Is it wrong for the Church to exclude women from the priesthood?

LO’D: Yes.

HH: Then I assume you are condemning Biden and Leahy and Kennedy and Kerry for being part of a sexist organization which they haven’t condemned?

LO’D: No. They’ve got the same flexible relationship to it that I do. You know Kennedy. You know Teddy’s in favor of abortion rights, he’s for…

HH: Well, no, he hasn’t come out and condemned the Church. We should be demanding they condemn the Church.

LO’D: No, no, no. They all have to live, you know, they live with this very uncomfortable…the Catholic…Democratic liberal politicians who are Catholic, and you know there are many coming out of the Northeast, Italian Irish Catholics, they have an extremely uncomfortable relationship with the Church, and they’re kind of always ducking, because there’s always that possibility that a Cardinal somewhere will call them on the abortion issue, as one did during John Kerry’s run for the presidency, with John Kerry. And you know, there’s a bob and weave that all Catholic politicians who are pro-choice are doing all the time. But that…

HH: But shouldn’t they have to stand up and defend what they believe, and condemn, or at least leave the Church of which they are a part?

LO’D: No, Catholicism, as I told you, is extremely flexible, and the Church doesn’t say you have to leave. Rudy Giuliani doesn’t leave…Rudy Giuliani, there was a time, you know, in Catholicism, in the 50’s, for example, in the kind of pre-divorce explosion in the United States, where if a Catholic got divorced, it was considered automatic excommunication. Now all the guys we’ve mentioned, with the exception of Mario Cuomo, have been divorced. And they continue to consider themselves Catholic. The Catholic Church doesn’t say they’re not Catholic. It’s, you know, there’s a 21st Century version of Catholicism. There’s a late 20th Century version of American Catholicism that allows for all sorts of things that were not allowed, and not believed in the first half of this century, including, by the way, the notion, prior to 1950, that if you weren’t a Catholic, you would not go to Heaven. That was a universal…

HH: Well, is the Catholic Church today anti-gay?

LO’D: Yes and no. I have had, I have had priest and Catholic theologians take the position that the posture that the Catholic Church takes from Rome, in its tilt here and there on the issue of sexuality, all come from manmade, you know, sort of manmade rules and laws out of Rome. And I’ve had Catholic priests say to me, who were, by the way, not gay and not molesters, say to me that they don’t think that there is an actual Catholic teaching against homosexuality. So it’s a very, you know, it’s a very, it’s very similar to Judaism, where as we know in Judaism, there’s orthodox and there’s reform, and there’s a bunch of different grades of Judaism, and they kind of label themselves as such. Catholics have never formally done that. We just use this word Catholic. And…

HH: Well, shouldn’t all these Catholic politicians, though, Lawrence O’Donnell, shouldn’t they come out and challenge their Church on being anti-gay and anti-woman? I mean, why are we allowing, why are they allowed to be silent in the face of this discrimination?

LO’D: Well, because they don’t really, I mean, we’re going to get to the Romney thing here. They don’t put themselves in that position where they ever find themselves speaking for their Church. I think if you could somehow force…I’d love to see you get them on the show, Hugh, and I’d love to see what they’d do.

HH: I’d never, ever ask them this…

LO’D: No, I know, but I’d love you to, because I think what you’d see is some kind of dodge. Yes, the Catholic Church in its pronouncements from Rome is anti-gay. But the Catholic Church is a harder thing to define than people think. It’s not like the United States Congress. It’s not like the presidency. The Pope…

HH: Lawrence, what I’m looking for, obviously, is…

LO’D: The Pope is ignored. Let’s just get this straight. The Pope is ignored on most things by most Catholics. That’s the really…

HH: It doesn’t change what the teaching…but I think if you take that view, I don’t know how you go after Romney the way you did on the McLaughlin Group. I’m looking for the principle. Maybe there isn’t one. But let me ask you this first. Was this whole thing…

LO’D: Oh, right here. It’s easy, Hugh. It’s easy. Romney said…

HH: No, wait, wait, wait. Was this whole thing just a big ratings thing for Big Love? Did you blow up just to draw attention to Big Love?

LO’D: No. It was all to get back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

HH: I knew there was an agenda there.

LO’D: The only way I get on the Hugh Hewitt Show is if I say something that outrages you (laughing), and suddenly, I get the call.

HH: I’m not outraged. I’m just curious as to what the principle…if it wasn’t a ratings grab, what’s the principle behind your demanding that Romney is responsible for what his Church taught when he was 18-30, but John Kerry and Joe Biden and Patrick Leahy are not responsible for their Church’s today.

LO’D: Because Romney said he was.

HH: Are you saying that they’re not really Catholic, they’re hypocrites?

LO’D: No, I’m telling you that Catholic is a much harder thing to define than you want.

HH: No it’s not, Lawrence.

LO’D: Now…okay, let me do it this way. No, it is.

HH: No, it’s not. What do you mean, Catholicism’s hard to define?

LO’D: Are you…

HH: What do you think? We just woke up?

LO’D: Are you a Catholic, Hugh?

HH: Yes, I am.

LO’D: Okay, you know, you’ve seen the polling, you know that in the United States of America, abortion rights are favored, Roe V. Wade abortion rights are favored by…

HH: Yeah, but that doesn’t change what the Church teaches. It just makes people…

LO’D: Hold it…

HH: …out of conformity with the Church.

LO’D: But do this. I’m going to just do an illustration, then you and I are going to find a semantic way to agree on this, okay? The point is that a majority of Americans are in favor of Roe V. Wade. A slightly larger majority of Catholics are in favor of Roe V. Wade. Now I’m not here to say to you they are no longer Catholics the second they agree with Roe V. Wade. I can’t say that. But if you want to say to me…

HH: But you know that the elder Romney…

LO’D: If you and I want to agree on a definition of Catholic, which is a Catholic is someone who follows religiously every single dictate from Rome, then I will say absolutely, there’s not a liberal Democratic Catholic elected official in the country. Not one.

HH: I’m saying that George Romney marched in civil rights actions in 1962, ’63, ’64. His young son was with him on that, and that it’s silly to attribute to Romney a racist bone in his body on the basis of whatever the teachings of the Mormon Church were, and you know it’s silly, and that’s why you’re trying to give wiggle room to your Catholics who don’t want to buy into everything and not make them leave the Church.

LO’D: No, let me make my case about Romney and racism, and Mormonism and racism.

HH: Go ahead.

LO’D: It’s a very simple case. The Church that Romney is a part of, which he said in his speech, you know, he said, you remember, he said the line he’s, people like me, by the way, which is true, you know, Lawrence O’Donnell and others, would like to hear Romney say what he does not believe in the Mormon faith. That’s what I’d like to hear him…

HH: You’re in favor of a religious test for office. I’m not, but go ahead.

LO’D: No, no, no.

HH: Sure you are.

LO’D: Let me get this straight. I would vote for Romney in a second. I would vote for the head of the Mormon Church for president in a second if I agreed with the policies. In a second, I would. There’s not any religion that bothers me at all in the president…

HH: Oh, man, listening to your McLaughlin tirade, Joseph Smith was a…

LO’D: No, but back to, Hugh, Hugh…

HH: What?

LO’D: Go back to the transcript, and find the line that is in any way inconsistent with what I’m about to say.

HH: We’ll play it when we come back from break. Go ahead.

LO’D: I would vote for anyone of any religion for any political office if I agreed with the policies that they were representing.

HH: That doesn’t go to whether or not you’re a, you went on an anti-Mormon, racist, bigoted tirade, though, Lawrence.

LO’D: Yes, I did. No, yeah. Well, what I did was, I started to talk about what you guys, I don’t know, I haven’t listened to the show, Hugh, so I don’t know about you. And I know you talk about religion more than anybody else, and in a learned way, because as far as I can tell, you know more about it than most people talking on the radio. But I did not hear in any of the coverage of Romney’s speech a single person on television, or on the radio, and I didn’t expose myself to all of it, and I didn’t see any in print as of Friday and Saturday that raised one question about what Mormons actually believe. Not one word was said about oh, by the way, this is what they believe. They believed black people were inferior until 1978.

HH: They don’t now, and I’ll be right back with Lawrence O’Donnell, and that’s what I’m getting at. I mean, we don’t expect Joe Biden to defend the Catholic Church’s teachings or practices, because it’s America. Lawrence O’Donnell wants to throw America overboard, America.

– – – –

HH: Lawrence, I want to take a call before we go much longer, because this is Mark in Los Angeles, who tells me he’s a black Mormon official. Is that correct, Mark?

Mark: That is correct, Hugh. Thank you for having me on.

HH: What do you want to say to Mr. O’Donnell?

Mark: Well, I want to tell him that the 9th Commandment still applies. You’re not supposed to bear false witness against people. Since you’re a Catholic, I’m going to basically briefly review the priesthood in Scripture. In ancient Israel, the priesthood was severely restricted not only to Israelis, the ancient Israelites, but it was restricted to male Levites. And frankly, it was restricted to the direct descendants of Aaron. So it was severely restricted in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Christ specifically said that He did not come to preach to the Gentiles. Was He a racist? No. The Gospel was taken to the Gentiles after Peter’s vision in Acts, Chapter 10. And the first beneficiary of that revelation was Cornelius, the centurion.

HH: You’ve got to run it along here, Mark. Get to the point.

Mark: Okay, the point is that there is no record in the Scriptures of the priesthood being given to blacks in the Old or New Testaments. Blacks would not have been given the priesthood in the Old Testament. The revelation came in 1978. It was the happiest day of my life, because I was able to join the Church.

LO’D: (laughing) And you believe that?

Mark: And I think that for Larry to say that we’re racist…

LO’D: You believe that revelation happened in 1978?

Mark: …I’d like to know whether he thinks the ancient Israelites were racist, and whether New Testament Christians were racists.

LO’D: Yes, I do. Of course I do. Yeah, of course.

HH: Okay, but I…

LO’D: And Hugh doesn’t believe that revelation in 1978. He thinks that was done solely to preserve the tax status of the Mormon Church.

HH: Thank you, Mark. No, I don’t.

LO’D: Hugh doesn’t think there was a real revelation in 1978.

HH: No, I don’t. I think that Mormons have their own understanding of what revelation is.

LO’D: Hugh, you’re with me. You know there was no revelation. You know there’s never been…

HH: Lawrence, I do not, because I don’t get into religious tests, and I’m not going to tell people what they believe.

LO’D: …a Divine revelation. You know there has never been a Divine revelation to any Mormon ever.

HH: I’m not God.

LO’D: Ever.

HH: I want to ask you if you believe, that you said on the…

LO’D: There’s no one in your audience who isn’t a Mormon who believes that a single Divine revelation has ever occurred to any Mormon, least of all Joseph Smith, the criminal, adulterous, rapist founder of the religion.

HH: I want to ask you, Lawrence. You mentioned on the McLaughlin Group that Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather’s polygamy was an issue. Can you explain to me why?

LO’D: No, well, he…remember the line in the speech, this is the faith of my fathers, not just the…

HH: do you believe by that he meant…

LO’D: …not just George. Did he mean his great-grandfather?

HH: Do you think he did? You asserted that he did.

LO’D: Yup, I do.

HH: You…

LO’D: I do think…if I said that, I’d mean my great-grandfather.

HH: You believe that Mitt Romney was endorsing polygamy in his speech?

LO’D: I wouldn’t cut it off with my great-grandfather. No, I don’t think he endorses polygamy. I believe he’s a member of a completely political religion that made a political decision in 1890…

HH: No, wait. But you specifically…you…

LO’D: …to get rid of polygamy, because the Hell they were getting from the rest of the country about it was too much, and they wanted to make Utah a state. They didn’t do it for Divine reasons.

HH: You specifically said…

LO’D: This religion is a joke when it comes to changing its direction.

HH: You specifically said…

LO’D: It changes its direction purely for politics.

HH: Lawrence, Lawrence, you said specifically that Romney’s great-grandfather’s polygamy was an issue. I just want to know why.

LO’D: No, I said, I said, he talked about the faith of his father. What about the faith of his great-grandfather who had five wives? I didn’t say it’s an issue.

HH: Well, yes you did. Lawrence, that’s disingenuous. If you bring up his great-grandfather’s polygamy…

LO’D: Show me…read the sentence, read the sentence, Hugh, where I say it’s an issue. It’s not an issue to me.

HH: Well, let’s listen to it. Let’s listen to the two clips. Go ahead, play them, gentlemen:

LO’D: There’s a big problem. Look, I’m not a Mormon, but I do play one on TV.

JM: Are you a Christian?

LO’D: On Big Love, the HBO series, that has been a real headache for Romney. Here’s the problem. He dare not discuss his religion. And he fools people like Pat Buchanan who should know better. This was the worst speech, the worst political speech of my lifetime, because this man stood there and said to you, this is the faith of my fathers. And you, and none of these commentators who liked this speech realize that the faith of his father is a racist faith. As of 1978, it was an officially racist faith. And for political convenience, in 1978, it switched, and it said okay, black people can be in this Church. He believes, if he believes the faith of his fathers, that black people are black, because in Heaven, they turned away from God. In this demented, scientology-like notion of what was going on in Heaven before the Creation of the Earth.

PB: Are you saying that his Mormonism disqualifies him from being president of the United States?

LO’D: I’m saying he’s got to answer…when he was 30 years old…

PB: He does not have to answer..

LO’D: …and he firmly believed in the faith of his fathers that black people are inferior, when did he change his mind? Did the religion have to tell him to change his mind? And when he talks about the faith of his father, how about the faith of his great-grandfather, who had five wives?

PB: Well, look. My great-grandfather had slaves. And I don’t believe in slavery.

HH: Let me break in here. Now Lawrence, given your standard…

LO’D: Yeah.

HH: Are Catholics responsible for the anti-Semitism in the Church’s past?

LO’D: Yes.

HH: They are?

LO’D: Oh, current Catholics? No. No, not current Catholics, no.

HH: Well, do current Catholics need to step up and explain that when they say they’re…

LO’D: I don’t think Romney’s responsible for his great-grandfather.

HH: Wait a minute. Lawrence, you’re dodging now.

LO’D: I think he’s lying about his great-grandfather.

HH: I just want to follow through. You laid down a principle, and I want to follow through. As recently as…

LO’D: I think Romney’s a liar about his great-grandfather. That’s what I think.

HH: As recently as 1904, Pope Pius the X, a good man in many respects, said that to sanction Jewish wish to occupy these sites, we cannot do. And many people attribute to the Jews, to the Catholics of that time anti-Semitism. It’s only 103 years ago.

LO’D: Oh, it was rampant. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Catholicism.

HH: And so should Catholics…should we assign to Catholics…

LO’D: Hey, Hugh, anti-Semitism has been rampant in Catholicism during my lifetime.

HH: And so given that, should every Catholic have to say, when they discuss their Catholic faith, when I refer to my Catholic faith, I am of course not referring to our unfortunate exercise of anti-Semitic prejudice in the past?

LO’D: If a Catholic stands up and says I accept every position of Catholicism from the founding of the religion. That Catholic has a lot of crimes to answer for, including the Inquisition.

HH: Yeah, but if a Catholic stands up and says I’m proud of my Catholic faith, it’s the faith of my fathers, and I’m standing by it, does that mean they’re anti-Semitic?

LO’D: That depends on who their father is.

HH: Oh, come on, Lawrence. It’s stupid. You’re too smart for this. They don’t mean that.

LO’D: No, no, no. Hey, wait a minute. Listen, this guy got up there, Hugh, come on…

HH: (laughing)

LO’D: I didn’t put the words in his mouth. He defended every tenet of Mormonism in the speech. He didn’t have to.

HH: No he didn’t. He said this was the faith of my fathers, I’m proud of my faith.

LO’D: He could have done what Jack Kennedy did, but he wasn’t courageous enough to do that.

HH: He defended the Mormon faith of 2007, and you’re just…you know what? You guys are afraid of him, aren’t you?

LO’D: No. Oh, I’d love to see him get nominated. I don’t think he has a chance.

HH: Yeah, you’re just, you guys are…

LO’D: He’s the biggest flip-flopper. Come on, he makes Kerry look like the most consistent politician in history, come on.

HH: You guys are scared to death of this guy because of that speech, and so you came out swinging.

LO’D: Oh, no, no, no.

HH: And I think it’s illustrative, but I want to give you the last word, Larry. What’s your big…why are you so bigoted against Mormons?

LO’D: I’m not. I didn’t suggest giving the speech. He didn’t have to give the speech to me. He had to give it to conservative Evangelical Republicans.

HH: No, he didn’t.

LO’D: I can vote for anybody of any religion. I can vote for atheists. I can vote for anybody, and I don’t care what their religion is. All I care about is their policies. He chose to give the speech. I think he lied in the speech. I don’t think he believes everything in the Book of Mormon. I think he’s lying about that. It’s an insane document produced by a madman who was a criminal and a rapist.

HH: Do you believe everything in the Bible, Larry?

LO’D: He comes from a long line of extreme rapists of teenage children.

HH: Larry, do you believe everything in the Bible?

LO’D: No, of course not.

HH: Okay. And do you believe, would you say the same things about Mohammed as you just said about Joseph Smith?

LO’D: Oh, well, I’m afraid of what the…that’s where I’m really afraid. I would like to criticize Islam much more than I do publicly, but I’m afraid for my life if I do.

HH: Well, that’s candid.

LO’D: Mormons are the nicest people in the world. They’re not going to ever…

HH: So you can be bigoted towards Mormons, because they’ll just send you a strudel.

LO’D: They’ll never take a shot at me. Those other people, I’m not going to say a word about them.

HH: They’ll send you a strudel. The Mormons will bake you a cake and be nice to you.

LO’D: I agree.

HH: Lawrence O’Donnell, I appreciate your candor.

End of interview.

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