Romney’s Mormonism Redux
TNR has a cover story by Damon Linker which takes a detailed look at Mormonism and how that may affect the candidacy of Mitt Romney for president.
Within days of stepping down as governor of Massachusetts on January 4, Mitt Romney is expected to announce his candidacy for president. Shortly after that, Romney will almost certainly need to deliver a major speech about his Mormon faith–a speech in the mold of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address to the Baptist ministers of Houston, Texas, in which the candidate attempted to reassure voters that they had no reason to fear his Catholicism. Yet Romney’s task will be much more complicated. Whereas Kennedy set voters’ minds at ease by declaring in unambiguous terms that he considered the separation of church and state to be “absolute,” Romney intends to run for president as the candidate of the religious right, which believes in blurring the distinction between politics and religion. Romney thus needs to convince voters that they have nothing to fear from his Mormonism while simultaneously placing that faith at the core of his identity and his quest for the White House.
This is a task that may very well prove impossible. Romney’s strategy relies on the assumption that public suspicion of his Mormonism–a recent poll showed that 43 percent of Americans would never vote for a Mormon–is rooted in ignorance and that this suspicion will therefore diminish as voters learn more about his faith. It is far more likely, however, that as citizens educate themselves about the political implications of Mormon theology, concerns about the possibility of a Mormon president will actually increase. And these apprehensions will be extremely difficult to dispel–because they will be thoroughly justified.
Radicalizing traditional Protestant worries about corruption in the historic church, the religion founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in upstate New York has understood itself from the beginning to be a “great restoration” of authentic Christianity after an 1,800-year “apostasy” that began with the death of the original apostles. That this restoration took place in the United States was no accident, according to Mormon theology. Smith produced a 500-page document, The Book of Mormon, containing the record of an ancient civilization, descended from the biblical Israelites, that supposedly lived, flourished, and collapsed in the Americas 1,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Jesus Christ visited these people after his resurrection in Jerusalem, spreading his gospel in the New World and planting the seeds of its rebirth many centuries later by Smith himself.
In later revelations, Smith went even further in placing the United States–both geographically and politically–at the focal point of sacred history. The Garden of Eden, he claimed, was located in Jackson County, Missouri. The American Founders were “raised up” by God in order to establish a free government that would allow the restoration to occur and the LDS Church to spread the restored gospel throughout the nation and the world. (Accordingly, all 30,000 undergraduates at LDS-owned Brigham Young University (BYU) are required to take “American Heritage”–a course that teaches the “American system of government and institutions in the context of the Restored Gospel.”)
The centrality of the United States to Mormon theology extends beyond the past and present to encompass the end times as well. Like many of the religious groups to emerge from the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, Mormons are millennialists who believe themselves to be living in the years just prior to the second coming of Christ; hence the words “latter day” in the church’s official title. Where the LDS differs from other communities gripped by eschatology, however, is in the vital role it envisions the United States playing in the end times. The Mormon “Articles of Faith” teach that, when Christ returns, he will reign “personally upon the earth” for 1,000 years, and LDS interpretations of a passage in Isaiah have led some to conclude that this rule will be directed from two locations–one in Jerusalem and the other in “Zion” (the United States). This belief has caused Mormons to view U.S. politics as a stage on which the ultimate divine drama is likely to play itself out, with a Mormon in the leading role. Joseph Smith certainly thought so, which at least partially explains why he spent the final months of his life–he was gunned down by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844–running for president of the United States.
Mormons differ from mainstream Christians in another respect as well: their emphasis on the centrality of prophecy. Christianity in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions holds that direct revelation ended many centuries ago, before the scriptural canon was closed in the late fourth century. Numerous heterodox movements have made contrary claims, of course, but Mormonism is unique in the emphasis it places on prophetic utterances. Not only was the religion founded by a self-proclaimed prophet who brought forth new works of scripture (The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price) and even rewrote (“retranslated”) passages of the canonical Old and New Testaments in light of his personal revelations; but the man who holds the office of the president of the LDS Church is also considered to be a prophet–“the mouthpiece of God on Earth,” in the words of Mormon theologian and Apostle Bruce McConkie–whose statements override both scripture and tradition.
Now, Romney has had a long public career, including a stint as a state governor, without raising questions about his sanity or grip on reality. Still, I agree with Linker that it is perfectly fair to ask Romney to explain where he stands in relation to the teachings of his church.
The concluding scene of the classic “South Park” episode, “The Truth About Mormons,” which lampoons the doctrines of that sect, has Gary (the new Mormon kid in town) telling the gang, “The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice, and helping people, and even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it.”
If that’s Romney’s interpretation–that he’s a “cafeteria Mormon,” if such a thing can be said to exist–then he’ll get a pass from me on his theology. If he actually believes in the literal truth of LDS teachings, though, I’ll dismiss him as a nut.
Whether the 43 percent who say they’ll never vote for a Mormon are similarly persuadable, I can’t say. My guess is that Romney is too much of a dark horse, that other candidates have a much easier path to victory, and that Mormonism is likely the least of his problems. As Jonathan Cohn argues persuasively in another TNR piece, though, too much emphasis is given to the “electability” issue. While the primary system is front loaded, it’s still awfully early to write off anyone above Dennis Kucinich in the food chain.
UPDATE: Errick Errickson supports Romney while admitting that “I am one of those southern evangelicals who has deep qualms with Mitt Romney being a Mormon. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. And while everyone is talking about whether it will matter or not, I think I should chime in and say that yes it will, but no it shouldn’t”