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.


Mitt Romney Mormon in White House New Republic Cover 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”




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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LaurenceB says:

    Although I am not currently a practicing Mormon, I come (proudly) from a long line of Mormons. I was a Mormon missionary. I was married in a Mormon temple. My great-great-grandpa had three wives, etc, etc. So – having established my bona fides – let me say, unequivocally, that I am 100% certain that Romney is not a “cateferia Mormon”. I am absolutely certain he “believes in the literal truth of LDS teachings”.

    Having said that, I think it is a poor decision to “dismiss him as a nut” for these beliefs. When it comes right down to it, everyone’s religious beliefs are a little bit nutty. Aren’t they?

    But having said that, I think there is some cause for concern in what Linker has to say about Mormons and their belief in modern prophecy and the infallibility of the modern prophet. There is ample precedent where Mormon politicians have adapted their positions to conform to official Mormon Church positions (e.g. MX missile, ERA, stem cell research). Indeed, I suspect the evolution of Romney’s positions on gay rights are a reflection of a hardening of the Church’s position. In my mind, this is not an attractive attribute for a US President.

    Now, having said that, it is my opinion that these (valid) concerns are probably not anything to really get too worked up about. First, because the Mormon Church doesn’t often explicitly take political positions, and second because I suspect a Mormon President would be less inclined to toe the line of the Church than say, a Senator from Utah, who represents a largely Mormon constituency.

    Just two cents from someone who knows the Mormon culture. Take it or leave it.

  2. Sparticus says:

    I come from a similar background as LaurenceB but I still practice Mormonism and I understand the concerns that many have. Mormons have some modern beliefs of miracles and prophecies whereas most other churches have only biblical beliefs of those. That makes many people uneasy but they are still beliefs. The Mormon church doesn’t meddle with politicians. Last time I checked, Sen. Harry Reid is still Mormon and a liberal.

    I’m still looking for a specific answer to this whole predicament. What exactly do you think Mitt Romney will do that will hurt America? So far, the answer is full of rhetoric with no definite conclusion. No Mormon politician within the last century has ever promoted any type of a Mormon agenda so why would that change with President Mitt Romney?

    When I first looked at Mitt Romney I didn’t think he had a shot because he was Mormon and I think we’re a little weird. However, when I took a good look at him, I saw a brilliant leader capable of doing great things for our country. I could really care less if Mitt Romney was Mormon or not. Look at this man as a leader and not as a Mormon and you will be pleasantly surprised.

    P.S-I took that American Heritage class mentioned in the article. The slogan for that class is basically “One Nation under God.” It instilled a great sense of patriotism with America being the greatest nation this world has ever seen to all the students.

  3. jason says:

    I am a practicing Mormon also. Couple points,

    1. Mormons don’t perceive the prophet as infallible. Actually Joseph Smith himself taught that prophets are human, and the Book of Mormon all states in the original title page that there are mistakes in the text.

    2. I would like to here how the LDS took cues from the prophet on stem cell. All LDS US senators wrote a letter to Pres. Bush supporting stem cell research and Romney opposes it. I guess laurenceB can fill me in in case I missed something or have something wrong.

    3. Fact in the original article suggesting Mormons see a role for an LDS president as part of the event leading to Armageddon is nothing true to LDS beliefs.

    Despite that, peoples curiosity to a religion that they know little about is justified. I only hope that as they look into films like the one by south park, they realize that while nearly 100% correct, much is given out of context and with a chiding twist. In my mind it is not meant to present facts, but to persuade people to an opinion.

    Yet, in the end, I support Romney as strongly as I do for nothing concerning his religion, although that was an initial draw. I would not of course support Harry Reid, nor did I support Orrin Hatch. Mitt Romney is an extremely intelligent, bright and gifted person who ha pen to be Mormon.

  4. Steven Plunk says:

    A few thoughts from a non-Mormon.

    As far as prophecy and miracles go I recall Baptists speaking of modern miracles all time. I am sure Catholics believe in them as well. So why all the fuss about Mormons? The whole idea behind a person’s faith is just that, faith. Faith in something we can’t prove but believe anyway. Seems very normal to me.

    Prophecy is a little different but not that much. Certainly can’t be any worse than economists predicting what the economy will do or weathermen predicting what the next hurricane season will bring. We don’t call them nuts.

    The important thing to me is whether or not the man has principles and sticks to them. If his faith gives him that strength then how can you knock it.

  5. michael ramsey says:

    in my opinion Romney is a closet homosexual, speaks out of both sides of his face and like the murder Kennedy and the liar so called purple heart winner from that communist libral state not to mention the back stabbing “Dumpublican” feel free to use this phrase, from Arizona they do not a prayers chance in hell (mormon or otherwise) from achieving the goal of President.
    Michael Ramsey

  6. LaurenceB says:

    Sparticus and Jason,

    I don’t oppose Romney, neither do I support him, but the one valid opposition argument that I see (among many invalid ones) is that Mormons are far more likely to blindly (or faithfully, if you prefer) follow the word of their leaders. This is a fact. It is not necessarily a “bug” – in fact it may be a “feature” of the religion. But it is a fact. The fear is that this characteristic of Mormons would bias a Mormon President’s judgement in favor of the Mormon Church’s position on issues. For a clear historical case where this has indeed happened, research the isse of the placement of MX missiles in Utah a few decades ago. In my opinion, this is a valid concern, though – as I pointed out before – I don’t think its so important an issue that it should automatically disqualify Mr. Romney.

    Just to be clear – it is my opinion that Mormons can and should be elected to public office. But a statement from Romney declaring his independence from the leadership of the Mormon Church – similar to statements JFK made to that affect during his candidacy – would be welcome.

  7. floyd says:

    Everybody,by definition, follows their “leader”. Unfortunately, at this level, its usually some party hack. Wouldn’t YOU vote for Jimmie Stewart,if he ran, even if it meant having “Harvey the Pooka” for vice president?

  8. floyd says:

    P.S. remember teddy roosevelt?

  9. Christopher says:

    Typical liberal: Linker says that “as the candidate of the religious right, which believes in blurring the distinction between politics and religion”. Looks like Linker is the one with the blurring problem, not conservatives.

    LaurenceB: if you are not a practicing mormon, who the heck cares what you have to say? Your perspective comes from someone who has left the cult, so how is what you have to say important?

    The rest of you mormons: please, get deprogrammed. Soon!

  10. Kent G. Budge says:

    in my opinion Romney is a closet homosexual

    In my opinion, this is an actionable libel. Do you have any evidence whatsoever that this is so?

    The rest of you mormons: please, get deprogrammed. Soon!

    Do you actually know any Mormons at all well? If you did, you would know that they are not mindless zombies.

    The notion that Mormons are blind followers of their prophet has less basis in fact than you would imagine. Aside from the obvious examples of diverse views within Mormonism that have already been given — that Harry Reid is a prominent Democrat; that the Utah delegation is mostly Republican but includes a Democrat (Jim Matheson) — there is also the fact that Utahans as along ago as the 1930s, when they were even more overwhelmingly Mormon than today, supported repeal of Prohibition in spite of the pleas of their prophet.

    It may also be of interest that the Utah Legislature rejected a call for the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. The margin was neither close nor determined by Church affiliation; both proponents and opponents in the Legislature were largely active Mormons.

    Mormons believe that it is not just the prophet who has communications with God. They believe that God communicates with all human beings, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on their faithfulness. Even nonbelievers are thought to be in touch with God through their conscience, which Mormons sometimes call the Light of Christ. A member of the Church has the right to pray to God for confirmation of anything he is told by a Church leader.

    Furthermore, at least during my lifetime, the prophet has not made any ex cathedra pronouncement in significant disagreement with the Mormon scriptural canon or with longstanding tradition, with one possible exception — the decision to open the priesthood to blacks, made in 1978. (You are free to complain about Mormons blindly following their prophet on that one if you like, but I don’t think it really helps your case.) And since it was longstanding tradition that the Priesthood would someday be opened to blacks — though the timing was in dispute — I’m not sure even this qualifies as a great departure from established belief.

    What is your point, anyway? That believing Mormons, without exception, are “nuts” and cannot be trusted with high public office? It’s an uncomfortably small step from there to concluding that, if they’re all “nuts”, it is also okay to deny them other jobs, educational opportunities, housing, or even civil rights. There is ample historical precedent.

    I did not find the article very balanced. In particular, it leaned heavily on some quotes by Bruce R. McConkie. You should know that Bruce R. McConkie was unusually authoritarian in his approach to theology; this likely had value as a counter to the moral turmoil of the 60s and 70s, but I know of at least one time during the 80s where he was rebuked by the prophet, and ordered to offer a public apology, for questioning the faithfulness of Mormons who accept organic evolution. His opinion that blacks would not receive the Priesthood before the second coming of Christ (which he always acknowledged was a personal opinion) was proven false, though to his credit he accepted and supported the change. I do not consider his writings highly reliable theologically or a particularly good representation of Mormon temperament and thinking. In particular, his statements on the infallibility of the prophet seem to me to go beyond anything that can be justified out of Mormon canonical scripture. You might think he was a Catholic teaching the infallibility of the Pope, or something.

    Rather than engage in lurid speculation about what a Mormon prophet might tell the Church membership to do, it seems to me that you ought to look at what recent Mormon prophets have told Church members to do. You will find that there has been much talk about avoiding premarital or extramarital sex; on avoiding pornography and drugs; and on being honest in business and other dealings. This is not terribly different from what you would hear from many an Evangelical or Catholic preacher (though, since they share our belief that a Man rose from the dead two thousand years ago, perhaps you consider them “nuts” as well.) There has been very clear instructions to bishops to institute disciplinary proceedings, and expel from Church membership, members who engage in child abuse, along with instructions to take certain actions aimed at reducing the likelihood that a closet pedophile will have an opportunity to be alone with children.

    On the Iraq war, the prophet expressed a personal opinion — which he clearly identified as such, making it clear that it was not speaking ex cathedra — that going to war in self-defense is usually justified, and going to war to protect human rights is sometimes justified. He followed this up with a condemnation of imperialism. He concluded with the statement that Church members could disagree over the justness of the Iraq war but must not be disagreeable to each other.

    I know of no new significant doctrine promulgated by the current prophet, or any of his predecessors in my lifetime (with the one exception already noted.) There has not been much in the way of new programs under the current prophet, other than an increased emphasis on education, exemplified by the Perpetual Education Fund, which was set up to provide student loans to Church members in third-world countries. Church members in the United States blindly (or faithfully, if you prefer) contributed large sums to get his program going — more than the Church leadership seem to have expected. But perhaps folks like Christopher will see to it that they are deprogrammed into keeping the money for themselves.

    James, I do hope that, in the future, you will refrain from knee-jerk responses to religions you don’t know much about, based on characterizations by that font of truth and objectivity, the mainstream media.

  11. mike says:

    Dear Damon,

    Your anxiety about a Mormon politician knuckling under to a Mormon Church president replays the debate in 1904 over the seating of Apostle Reed Smoot in the United States Senate. Senators kept questioning church president Joseph F. Smith about his control of Mormon politics. Over and over, he assured the committee that he had no intention of dictating Smoot’s votes in the Senate, but the questioning went on.

    Now, a century later, we can judge the actual dangers of the Mormon Church to national politics from the historical record. Have any of the church presidents tried to manage Smoot, Ezra Taft Benson, Harry Reid, or Gordon Smith? The record is innocuous to say the least. There is no evidence that the church has used its influence in Washington to set up a millennial kingdom where Mormons will govern the world or even to exercise much sway on lesser matters. It’s a long way from actual history to the conclusion that “under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country–with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong.”

    Mitt Romney’s insistence that he will follow his own conscience rather than church dictates is not only a personal view; it is church policy. The church website makes this explicit: Elected officials who are Latter-Day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated church position. While the church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent. You are going against all the evidence of history and stated church policy in contriving the purely theoretical possibility of Mormon domination. Is that not the stuff from which all paranoid projections on world history have been manufactured?

    Liberals must be particularly cautious in speculating about the political intentions of religious groups because of their fascination with fanaticism. Fanaticism is one of the most firmly entrenched stereotypes in the liberal mind. The fanatic is the polar opposite of all that the liberal stands for and thus constitutes a particularly delicious enemy.

    Joseph Smith ran up against the fear of fanaticism almost from the beginning. It was the chief underlying cause of the recurrent expulsions the Mormons suffered. When non-Mormons could find no specific infractions to warrant prosecution in the courts, they resorted to vigilante action to drive the Mormons out. The Mormon presence was unbearable because they were so obviously fanatics. Quite typically, the fear of fanaticism led democrats into undemocratic extremes. Mormons were deprived of their property and the right to live and vote in a supposedly open society. In 1846, after a decade and a half of recurring attacks in Missouri and Illinois, a body of armed citizens forced out the pitiful remains of the Mormon population in Nauvoo by training six cannons on the town.

    The stereotype of fanaticism is essentially a logical construction. The seemingly airtight logic is that anyone who claims to speak for God must believe he possesses absolute truth with an implied commission to impose that truth on everyone else. Mohammed, to whom Joseph Smith was frequently compared, used violence. Joseph Smith, lacking the means, tyrannized his own followers and refused to acknowledge the truth of any other doctrines but his own. You assume that Mormon leaders, by the same token, will want to commandeer the United States government to advance their cause.

    Nothing Mormons can do will ever alleviate these fears. It did not help that the right of individual conscience in religious matters was made an article of faith, or that the Nauvoo city council passed a toleration act for every conceivable religious group including Catholics, Jews, and “Muhammadans.” Whatever they said, their neighbors could not believe that the Mormons’ ultimate goal was not to compel everyone to believe as they did.

    Your essay chooses not to look at the historical record, because specific facts are irrelevant in explicating fanaticism. It is the logic of revelation that counts. The Mormons have to be interested in world domination because their doctrine requires it of them. Furthermore, they are all dupes of the chief fanatic and will willingly do anything he requires. You cite as proof of this extravagant claim “more than one” undergraduate who said he would kill if commanded. No mention was made of students who said they would have refused. That method is in keeping with the management of the fanatic stereotype. There is no effort to give a balanced picture. Certain key facts or incidents are made archetypal. In unguarded moments or exceptional instances the true nature of the fanatic mind reveals itself.

    The unquestioned belief in the potency of fanaticism makes facts unnecessary. Readers know in advance what to expect just as they foresee the ending of a romantic movie far in advance. The art of writing in this mode is to mobilize all of the foreknown elements and arrange them to reach an expected conclusion.

    Damon, I thought you moved along judiciously through most of the essay, but you blew your cover in the paragraph of questions to Mitt Romney. There, you try to nail him on his beliefs about the church president being a prophet. It follows necessarily, you think, that, if Romney believes in current prophecy, the church will run the country under his presidency. That leap from assumption to conclusion in one bound is only possible if you are steeped in the logic of fanaticism. For Mormons themselves, it makes no sense.

    You are caught in the dilemma that ensnares everyone preoccupied with fanaticism. You describe Mormonism in a way that makes perfect sense to non-Mormons and no sense to Mormons themselves. This means, to me, that
    you are describing the inside of your own mind as much as the reality of Mormonism. Mormons will hear a lot of this so long as Romney is in the race, and it will baffle them every time.

    Richard Lyman Bushman

    Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor
    of History Emeritus at Columbia University.

  12. Jana says:

    I had no idea about some of the things mentioned in TNR piece.

    Hillary will destroy Mitt if he is the nominee. And the MSM will gladly help her.

  13. HiveRadical says:

    First off, I very much hope your decision regarding our faith is not founded on the likes of the South Park episode. Not only does it have some errors but it’s egregiously out of context and, I would hope, would never be seen as even a remotely intelligent analysis of our faith.

    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.

    I simply had to say the irony I saw in this. Not sure if you’re at all familiar with the militant secularist Sam Harris (author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”) but he demonstrates the oddity of those who don’t have a problem with people who don’t really believe in the litteral aspects of their faith yet still claim the faith. He decries such, generally those who call themselves religious progressives, as the camp with the least capital with regard to intellectual honesty.

    Here we have you saying that if a person is willing to pass what’s suppose to be their innermost sustaining belief set as based on fairy tales that THEY are some how MORE fit than a person who takes such at face value.

    To demonstrate a more open analogy of what you are doing–

    There’s “person A” who genuinely believes that there are aliens who are probing humans and the human race and thusly conforms his lifestyle and actions as best he sees fit in light of this belief.

    Then we have a “person B.” This person seems to make similar lifestyle choices as “person A” and claims loosely to a similar premise BUT when pressed openly states that they don’t care if there are really aliens, and possibly don’t even think the stories connected to the aliens are true, yet still maintain a specific claim to the specific group that propegates such a belief in alien medling.

    And, drawing the parallels you seem to be one that would rather elect a “person B” OVER a “person A.”

    I hope you’ll excuse my questioning. But why? What bit of logic renders a ‘cafeteria’ Romney a more logical choice over a true blue LDS/Mormon believing Romney? Who’s the nut? The one siding with the bonafide extra-terrestrial intervention adherent or the one siding with the “in name and some publicly visible practice only” “adherent”?