Romney and Religion
Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy has brought Mormonismâ€”and the role of religion in politicsâ€”into the spotlight in some interesting ways. His candidacy is revealing of some of the fault lines both in Mormon culture and in the American political environment.
The Mormon church has long had a confused approach to its identity as the only true church. Obviously, the belief that God told Joseph Smith that all other religious sects were abominations in his sight is something that’s not going to sit well with people of other faiths. You can’t really get around this particular problem, since the story of Joseph’s first interaction with God the Father and Jesus Christ, referred to by Mormons as the “First Vision,” is sacrosynct, essentially the core of the religion. What you can do is attempt to smooth it over with ecumenical nicety and soothing words about shared goals.
Early in its history, stinging from persecution and having fled to the “wilderness,” Mormons relished and celebrated their differences from the rest of the world, religious and otherwise. When the continuing westward migration caused the saints to again be surrounded by gentiles, the fledgling theocracy was forced to deal once again with the realities of sociopolitics, including the literal threat of invasion, and pragmatism prevailed, then and ever since. In private, you can badmouth the rest of the world. In public, you can try to convert them, but you have to play nice and at least go through the motions of getting along. That private/public schizophrenia has stayed with Mormons ever since, and has been brought to the forefront once again with Romney’s candidacy. Aren’t you the people who insist on being totally different from other Christiansâ€”a peculiar people, with peculiar views and a peculiar set of scriptures? Oh no, we’re just like you, Brother. Praise Jesus!
Politically, Romney’s Mormonism has renewed the debate about whether a candidate’s religion is a suitable topic for public discourse. Romney’s “religion” speech was widely compared to JFK’s speech about the role Catholicism would play in his presidency, but there was one very significant difference: Kennedy’s answer was simple: none. There will be no overlap between my religious views and my political career, Kennedy insisted. Romney’s answer was considerably more convoluted, because he claimed that religion absolutely will be an important part of his political view, just as it is an essential part of his personal view, but just not in any of the bad ways you evangelical Christians fear. I’m just like you, Brother. Praise Jesus!
Privately, many Mormons are, if anything, slightly annoyed that Romney feels the need to put any distance between his religious convictions and his political views (they assume, probably wrongly, that he, like they, needs no such distance, at least internally), but they’re willing to cut him some slack, recognizing that most Americans have long been skittish about religions they don’t understand, which is nearly anything that’s not mainstream Protestantism. Mormons are willing to put up with a little intrusive, and even insulting, public inspection if it serves the greater good: the (inevitable, in their view) ascendance of Mormonism, a rising tide that will be lifting their boats as well.
Unlike some observers, Mormon and non-Mormon, who think that far too much has been made of Romney’s Mormonism, I think that his faith is not only fair game as a topic of political conversation, but very significant. Surely if a politician’s foibles are worth examining (and they clearly are, historically speaking), then core convictions are all the more so, as they inform and guide a candidate’s choices more than anything else. Of course, some things matter more than others, when it comes to public discourse. The doctrinal particulars of one’s beliefs are relevant only where they touch on matters of public policy. Mormonism really has very little to say about fiscal policy, for example, but a great deal to say about matters of social equality, particularly for women and anyone who favors anything other than monogamous heterosexuality. Mormonism also has a tainted past and some difficult-to-explain scriptural content on racial matters as well. To the extent that Romney is unwilling to put some distance between himself and his church on these matters, they’re good reasons to be concerned about his social policy.
Another concern I have about Romney, however, and his association with the Mormon church, its history, doctrine, and culture, is the strong authoritarian bent Mormons have always cultivated. Mormonism has evolved from a charismatic sect, centered on personality, to something much more bureaucratic in nature, centered on absolute and unquestionable authority. “Obedience is the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest,” wrote one of the church’s pre-eminent theological forces, Bruce R. McConkie. This tendency in Mormon culture bothers me not because I think that Romney will be beholden to the leaders of the LDS church, in the way that people feared that electing a Catholic might make us a country subject to the whims of the Pope, but because it’s a mindset that lends itself to abuse. A government led by someone who is accustomed to following and being followed, depending on one’s place in the hierarchy, is one far less likely to be operated on the principles of openness and accountability. After all, Mormons don’t question their leaders, much less ask to look under the hood of the organization, unless they wish to risk being expelled from the society that makes up so much of their everyday lives.
Unfortunately, my fears about Romney, and the kind of government he would preside over aren’t just based on idle speculation, either. In a survey given to all the candidates about the scope of presidential power, the Romney campaign laid claim powers that go well beyond even those pursued by the Bush administration, which has pushed hard against all possible boundaries of presidential power, aided and abetted by the climate of fear created after the 9/11 attacks. In essence, a Romney administration would be one, according to his own answers, almost completely unfettered by law, treaties, or congressional oversight, as long as he felt he was pursuing the aims of the office in protecting the interests of the people. Mormonism is not a religious tradition that’s particularly kind to rational discourse. Sure, you can say your piece, but once the prophet has spoken, the conversation is over. Would the same apply to the president if the office were controlled by Romney? It’s a question that’s worth asking.
If there’s any ray of sunshine in all this it’s that a) Romney is unlikely to get the Republican nod, and even if he were, is unlikely to get elected, given the current political climate, now that the Bush administration’s approval ratings have dipped so low; and b) in the unlikely case that Romney could both win the Republican nomination and the general election, he’s a person of such low integrity that it could be difficult to predict what he might do, since what he says and what he does not infrequently bear only a passing resemblance to one another; when a candidate promises to be an intolerant and tyrannical president and then wins, the best you can hope for is that he’s prevaricating, or at the very least exaggerating.