NATCHITOCHES, La., May 30, 2012 — Mitt Romney clinched the GOP nomination yesterday, an accomplishment of some historical importance. We’ve had a black major-party nominee, and a woman in serious contention. Now America has its first Mormon with a real shot at the White House.
Much more than other Christian churches, Mormonism is a way of life, not just a liturgy and a theology. Mormonism is about doing as much as it is about believing; devout Mormons are called “active,” not “faithful.” The community is modeled on the family, and the family is a microcosm of the Kingdom of God. Understanding his religion is much more important to understanding Romney than it was to understanding Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
Romney is a member of a religious minority that was once loathed, its members expelled from their homes and communities, an extermination order placed against them by the governor of Missouri, their founder assassinated by a mob.
Mormons remain a target of more distrust than almost any other group in America, religious or otherwise. A Gallup poll conducted a year ago showed that in a presidential race, Americans would be more willing to vote for a black (94 percent), a woman (93 percent) a Jew (89 percent), or an Hispanic (89 percent) than for a Mormon (76 percent). Only gays and lesbians (67 percent) and atheists (49 percent) were held in lower regard as presidential candidates.
Attitudes towards Mormons remain almost unchanged over the last four decades, actually getting a little worse. In 1967, 17 percent would not vote for a Mormon for president; in 2011, that had risen to 22 percent. This is the case even though Mormons are about as mainstream as you can get, steeped in the civic and business life of America and engaging in concentrated public relations efforts to emphasize that they are just like you.
And in most ways they are. Mormons, the colloquial term for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, have been ubiquitous in Washington for decades. Aside from western-state representatives and senators (Harry Reid, for example), they’ve served as presidential advisors and are well represented in the U.S. armed forces. They consider the Constitution to be divinely inspired, and they take civic responsibility seriously. American Mormons are as American as apple pie.
An old joke in Washington was that the three major intelligence agencies — the CIA, NSA and FBI — could be abbreviated “LDS.” Because of its missionary program, which every year sends tens of thousands of young Americans to serve two-year missions all over the world, the church has a huge supply of members who speak foreign languages (everything from Russian to Mandarin to Korean to Polish) and who have practical experience in foreign countries and cultures. They don’t drink, do drugs, or engage in other activities that make it hard to get a security clearance (that Romney “blandness” is almost the LDS ideal), and so they’re common at Fort Meade and in McLean.
The Harvard Business School had an LDS dean for ten years (Kim Clark, 1995-2005), and Mormons are well represented in Harvard’s MBA and law programs (Romney is an alumnus). Unusually industrious as a group (Utah’s state symbol is the beehive), Mormons often do extremely well in the business and legal worlds.
None of this buys love, and while LDS ideals and inculcated attitudes are often admired, they are not loved. The Romney family, with its happy, well-adjusted and successful offspring, draws both approval and comparison to a Stepford family.
The Romney candidacy has drawn sharp scrutiny to the LDS community, and that scrutiny will grow harsher. Whether the Obama campaign can avoid using his religion to attack Romney (as the governor of Montana tried to do when he attacked Romney as a descendant of polygamists), the temptation will be enormous. Much of what makes Mormons admirable is easily recast in negative terms, as is the case with Romney’s family.
Mormons are often deferential to authority. The LDS church is hierarchical in structure, and while members are encouraged to pray and think about things for themselves, they are also encouraged to follow their file leaders (“Follow the prophet! Follow the prophet!” goes a popular LDS children’s song) once a decision is made. “It is better to obey than to sacrifice,” and Mormons obey leaders who they believe are worthy and authorized to expect obedience. This is a trait that serves them well in the ranks of business, the military, and the CIA, and when they achieve positions of leadership, they expect it of those they lead.
Romney spent a bit over two years as a missionary in France, and decades as a lay leader in the LDS church. On the one hand, this experience would have exposed him to people of many different cultural and economic backgrounds, and he is certainly much less out of touch with the concerns and realities of regular Americans than most of his critics think.
On the other hand, Romney has been entrusted with the ecclesiastical and temporal welfare of thousands of members of the church. While he certainly remembers the warnings of LDS scripture against exercising “unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39), he would have been ineffective in his positions if he were not convinced that he could receive divine guidance for his flock. Thus if he were to provide members with advice on how to manage debt, he would expect it to be followed, and would probably not expect much discussion.
Mormons have an aversion to “contention.” It’s an aversion that can make them seem monolithic, attempting to keep all disagreements behind closed doors. Even in church, people will often avoid open disagreement with other members, preferring to go along and get along. Church leadership presents a unified public face that can be disturbing in an environment where constant debate and argument are the norm. It’s a habit that Romney has adopted, and the effect is to make his inner circle seem remote, closed and secretive.
Mormons are pragmatists. They believe in continuing revelation (God didn’t run out of things to say 2,000 years ago, and we’re in no less need of guidance now than people were then), and while they don’t believe God changes his mind, they draw a distinction between commandments and doctrines given for the here and now, and those given for the eternities. As parents’ rules for their children change as the children mature, so Mormon doctrine and practice can change with the times without causing Mormons any distress or doubt that the Gospel is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
If Catholicism is like a mosaic, each member contributing a distinct piece of the picture, Mormonism is like a holograph, each member containing a fuzzy copy of the entire picture. Romney’s business and economic views, the emphasis he places on organization and on closing the path by which campaign decisions are made from public view, and his unwillingness to allow access to his family or open up his own past to discussion (hence his inability to control the narrative around him) are very much a part of his Mormon heritage and upbringing. You can see the church in him, and you can see him in the church.
The Romneys tithe (and then some), and until this campaign they probably spent ten hours or more per week on church service (above and beyond regular worship meetings). Romney won’t necessarily hold political opinions identical to those of his church leaders, but his way of coming to answers won’t differ much from theirs. This historic candidate is as American as apple pie, but those apples are Mormon.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He lived abroad for ten years, two of them as a Mormon missionary. He then did the usual Mormon thing and got a security clearance. After checking out some things he’s said online, he’s pretty sure he couldn’t get one again. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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