Ever since I started following the controversy over Harry Reid's claim that Mitt Romney didn't pay any taxes for ten years, I've had a feeling that deep philosophical issues relating to the validity of religious faith are involved.
Here's my attempt to explain why.
It's fascinating, really. Reid and Romney are both Mormons, which is a weird variety of Christianity. Or to some, Mormonism is an independently weird religion.
Regardless, Christians and Mormons believe in the Bible. The New Testament gospels were written by guys -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John -- with no direct knowledge of Jesus. So what they said about Jesus' life and teachings is hearsay.
Just like Reid's claim about Romney failing to pay federal income taxes for a decade. He won't reveal his source. Attention is being focused on moderate Republican Jon Huntsman (a fellow Mormon and Reid supporter).
So Reid got information from somebody who supposedly knows what's in the tax returns.
Thus Reid's knowledge has pretty much the same ontological validity as the Gospels. Anonymous sources reported they know Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. Likewise, an anonymous source reports he/she knows Romney's tax returns show no income tax paid for ten years.
Why, then, does PolitiFact give Reid's claim a Pants on Fire rating?
To be consistent, shouldn't PolitiFact give every Christian politician who refers to Jesus and the New Testament a Pants on Fire rating? If faith in anonymous sources is an admirable trait in religious believers, what's wrong with Harry Reid having faith in whoever told him about Romney's tax returns?
There's no independent demonstrable evidence that Jesus is the Son of God, other than what is written in the Gospels by people who claimed to know other people with direct knowledge of Jesus. There's also no independent demonstrable evidence that Romney failed to pay income taxes for ten years, other than Reid's statement that he talked with someone with direct knowledge of Romney's tax returns.
PolitiFact shouldn't give a Pants on Fire rating, which amounts to "you lie!", when there isn't any demonstable evidence on either side of a claim. Reid says Romney didn't pay any taxes. Romney says he did.
Why should either Reid or Romney be believed without evidence? What basis is there for calling Reid a liar, and not Romney? Neither has brought forward any firm facts to back up their claims.
Ah, you might be thinking, but Romney does know what is in his tax returns, because he filed them.
Yes, that's true. But this is analogous to someone knowing what happened in Jesus' last days. Why should what they say be believed without confirming evidence? There are good reasons for them to make up stories about Jesus' resurrection and other miracles.
The big difference between Christianity's truth claims and Reid/Romney's truth claims is that evidence does exist for the latter: Romney's tax returns. Romney has said he doesn't want to release any more returns because the Obama campaign would use information in them against him.
Which is more reason to be as skeptical about Romney's "I did pay taxes" as Reid's "He didn't pay taxes." Without demonstrable evidence, both statements have to be accepted on faith, just like religious claims are.
This morning I saw that PolitiFact had put out a Twitter Tweet on this subject:
We're hearing suggestions to create a new Truth-O-Meter rating for something like "unsubstantiated." Let us know what you think.
l think it's an excellent idea.
At the moment neither Reid nor Romney can substantiate their claims about Romney's tax returns. So it's a draw.
Both should get an "unsubstantiated" on the issue of whether Romney paid income taxes for ten years. It's unfair to give Reid a Pants on Fire for saying he heard that he didn't, when all Romney has done is say that he did.
I'd also like to see PolitiFact rate faith-based statements by politicians which bear on social policy. For example, if a politician says that an embryo or fetus has a soul, assess the evidence for this. Is that statement true or false?
Most likely, it would be unsubstantiated.
Usually religious claims rest on supernatural assumptions which can neither be proven, nor definitively rejected. The probability is just very high that those claims are false, based on the lack of evidence which seemingly should be evident but isn't (like miracles, which somehow stopped happening with the advent of scientific ways of studying them).
Personally, what I find most probable about Romney's tax returns is that he did pay income taxes most years, but at an embarassingly low rate.
For that reason -- and others like Swiss bank accounts, IRA gimmicks, high-priced dressage horse expenses, and such -- Romney doesn't want the truth about his finances to come out. Similarly, if religious believers knew everything that goes on behind the scenes of their favorite faith, my bet is that the truth also would shock them.