On the weekend after the Republican National Convention, “Mormon” congregations from New Hampshire to California and Florida to Alaska testified that the GOP convention had been a great showcase for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and what it believes. The Republican Party presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, is a Michigan native, former one-term governor of Massachusetts and multi-millionaire Mormon venture capitalist. As Romney seeks the presidency, he must know that every facet of his career (and his life) will be examined and analyzed—his wealth, business experience, ideology, political positions and, of course, his religion. With each new day, it is obvious that Romney and his political beliefs are on electoral trial, not his religion.
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For residents of the Mountain West, this presidential race has an unusual significance. According to the 2010 Census, more than two-thirds of Utah residents, one-fourth of Idaho residents and 12 percent of Wyoming residents share the Mormon religion. Although all Mormons are not Republican, the perception is that these states are Republican and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is their candidate.
Romney is the first of his faith to secure a presidential nomination. While fewer than three percent of the nation’s voters are Mormon, the religion receives considerable publicity and enjoys some degree of national influence. Writers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Harold Bloom brand Mormonism, “The American Religion.” Still, its U.S. adherents are found primarily in the Mountain West, with large populations in California and Arizona. Polls show that most Americans still know little about Mormonism and continue to think of it as a Utah-based cult. Mitt Romney has twice lived in Utah, Mecca of Mormonism, once as a student at church-owned Brigham Young University and again as head of the Salt Lake Olympics Organizing Committee during the 2002 Winter Games.
During the lead-up to the Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida, TV networks and major magazines and newspapers inundated their listeners and readers with stories about Romney and his religion. The convention tried to answer the question, “Who is Mitt Romney?” Both Romney and his wife, Ann, participated in these efforts to examine their family, politics and religious beliefs. The national media came to the realization that the public cannot even pretend to “know” Romney without understanding his religion and its integral role in “who he is.” Although Romney sought the presidency for more than five years, it was only on the eve of his actual nomination that these inquiries gained national media attention. A week later, at the Democratic Convention, national news outlets repeatedly focused on the LDS Democrats to illustrate that not all Mormons accept the Republican Party as an extension of their church.
The consensus is that in this presidential year, religion does, indeed, matter. In fact, religious belief may be as significant in this election as in any election since John F. Kennedy’s rise in 1960. Ridiculously, critics have questioned President Barack Obama’s Christianity because of his Kenyan father, his middle name, and his former Chicago minister. Other critics, in turn, question Mitt Romney’s Christianity due to the uninformed insistence of many clergy that Mormons are not Christian. Republican descendants of the “Moral Majority” simply distrust Mormonism. Ironically, both Vice President Joseph Biden and his challenger, Paul Ryan, are Roman Catholic, with politics as diverse as those of Romney and Democratic Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, also a Mormon.
The authors of the Constitution felt that religion should not matter in the selection of leaders of our nation. One of the most radical concepts in the Constitution was the creation of an elected citizen as chief executive. Then, in an interesting move, the founders created a complicated Electoral College that distanced the choice from a direct popular vote. Over the course of 224 years—55 times—America has chosen its president by following that process. The 56th election, in 2012, may be one of the most intriguing ever, in part because of religion, but also because of the vast amounts of money being spent for those electoral votes in “swing” (or battleground) states. Mormons have contributed significantly to the Romney campaign.
In the 2008 GOP presidential primary race, one of the problems Romney faced was that Governor Michael Huckabee and his followers painted Romney’s governorship as too moderate and his Mormon faith as suspicious as a branch of Christianity. The reality is that Mormonism is questionable to many religious leaders of all faiths. One of the main reasons is that Joseph Smith, founder of the religion, proclaimed a clear mandate from God to restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ. According to Smith, the existing religions in 1820 did not possess the truth. From Joseph Smith’s day to the present, Mormon missionaries, including Mitt Romney and his sons, have spent at least two years of their lives telling others that the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is again upon the earth, as represented by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their quest has always been to bring individuals into the faith of this Christian fold.
A religion that became a people
As the Mormon religion evolved into what Bloom describes as “a religion that became a people,” nearly every member can share a conversion experience. For many, it is their own story; but in addition, almost everyone can tell of an ancestor (i.e., in England, Denmark, Brazil, etc.) who joined the church and gathered to Zion, in the mountains of the Great Basin. In Ann Romney’s case, she is a first-generation Mormon convert who has primarily lived outside of the West. Many ministers and believing members of other religions are unhappy with the Mormon message, especially when someone from their congregation converts to Mormonism. Consequently, a political alliance between a Mormon candidate and the Christian right cannot negate the fact that Mormons proselytize among other faiths.
Why does this make a difference politically? Romney must overcome fundamental religious prejudices in much the same way that President Obama has done with race. Romney has begun to talk about how his religion shaped him and how a church with a lay ministry, dedicated to volunteerism and humanitarian service, can teach service to others. His experiences as a missionary and lay leader in his church provide examples of how small communities with shared goals work together to solve problems for the common benefit.
Unfortunately, Romney recently chose to tie his religion to the volatile concern about his tax returns. By stating that donations to the church were private, he unfairly thrust the LDS Church into the tax debate. Romney’s tax returns are important because of the extent of his wealth and also where he invested his money to shelter it from American tax law, not because of the amount donated to charities, including the LDS church. Deductions are not the main point of interest, although they could be, as was the case with President Richard Nixon during Watergate. IRS tax forms do not require itemization of donations to religions or other charitable organizations. In the case of the Mormon Church, donations might be tithes, humanitarian assistance, missionary funds or educational aid to students.
Romney should be proud of his contributions. They are not an embarrassment to himself or his church. As a member, he is asked to contribute beyond a ten-percent tithe, and his 2010 and 2011 tax returns indicate he did. If he wanted to argue that his religious contributions are private, Romney could have drawn that line in the sand many months ago. The amount an individual donates is his or her decision, and what the church does with the donation is its decision. Although contributions are a private matter, the release of tax returns by presidential candidates has become a tradition with considerable merit.
Being Mormon is not easy. It requires sacrifice and commitment beyond worship services. Not only does a person agree to tithe, but also to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, hot caffeine and other addictive substances. Members are asked to avoid pornography and pre-marital sex. Honesty and obedience are prerequisites to service. These commitments are essential for the success of the organization. An active member cannot be a spectator. From den mother to scoutmaster, from teacher to custodian, everyone is asked to participate. In order to be a member in good standing and qualified to attend temple services, each member meets annually with his or her bishop, a lay leader, and declares him- or herself a full or partial tithe payer. In addition, every two years, individuals have an in-depth interview that delves into personal behavior relative to belief, conduct and obedience. Romney has served in the role of both interviewer and interviewee.
Priesthood and key leadership positions at most levels in the church are given only to men; although, women serve in a variety of essential capacities, including important leadership roles in some organizations. The reality is that a patriarchal system and the training and participation of Mormon men within that atmosphere can shape views about women. Politically, that may become a larger issue for Governor Romney than his tax returns.
Mitt Romney’s world experience, both within his church and in his professional business life, has come about in very masculine environments. If, at times, he seems out of touch with very human gender issues, it is understandable. His party has enough problems with gender without an in-depth look at how Mormonism operates, but an examination of how his church functions does contribute to an understanding of a man who spent more than a decade in church leadership, surrounded primarily by white males.
Religion and politics
Romney’s political record and religious idealism were compromised by two lengthy and very expensive primary processes. Catering to the hard-core, dedicated GOP activists in order to secure the nomination, Romney moved far beyond his previous record as a governor or as a 2008 candidate. Mitt Romney of 2012 does not resemble the 2003 to 2007 governor of Massachusetts; much of what his opponents to the right advocated in 2008 has, in this election, become central to his campaign and to the 2012 GOP platform.
Countless true believers within Romney’s party do not seem to care about the Affordable Care Act or the unemployment rates. Their lightning rods are abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, contraception, school vouchers and other social issues. Many of his fellow Mormons and national Republicans are more concerned about overturning Roe v. Wade, and believe that if they succeed, most problems would disappear. The LDS church is much more moderate and cautious, and is usually reluctant to enter these political frays. (However, in 2009, the church strongly supported California’s ultimately successful Proposition 8, though the contest left many members uncomfortable with the church’s participation more than its position.)
Neither Mormonism nor Mitt Romney should frighten voters. One of the Mormon Articles of Faith declares that members should be obedient to the laws of the nation where they reside, and since half the members live outside the U.S., this has international implications. For instance, when Romney asserts that President Obama is trying to “Europeanize” America, this may be offensive to European Mormons who are very comfortable with their homeland. Tolerance, understanding and empathy are qualities strongly supported by the church. However, heated partisan politics in the 21st Century has many of Romney’s co-believers at the forefront of state and national efforts targeting immigrants, gays, women and minorities as enemies.
The LDS church has taken moderate positions on these social issues; however, by endorsing the 2012 GOP platform, Romney has accepted a new party line. Perhaps more important, Romney’s silence on certain events is more telling than his vocal position. For example, it would seem that the son of George Romney, a passionate advocate of franchise extension, should philosophically advocate adherence to the Voting Rights Act, the 15th Amendment and the Poll Tax amendment. Republican-dominated legislatures and elected officials are currently engaged in a blatant attack on voting. These efforts are reminiscent of the creation in the South of poll taxes, literacy tests and white primaries in order to circumvent the 15th Amendment after the Compromise of 1877. If Romney wants to lead the nation, he should speak out for all of the people and tell his party at all levels to expand opportunities to vote.
In 1890, when Idaho became a state, its Constitution included a clause that disenfranchised anyone who believed in the practice of plural marriage. That same year, Mormon Church President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto that ended plural marriage. He realized that Utah could never become a state nor members of the religion achieve full citizenship as long as polygamy was part of the doctrine.
A history of persecution and discrimination lies at the core of the Mormon experience. Members know that their progenitors were driven from New York through Ohio, Missouri and Illinois before landing in Utah. Citizenship and voting as a minority was very important to them. Most LDS consider the hard-earned right to vote a valued privilege and responsibility. Utah women were among the first in the nation to receive that right and this is part of the political heritage.
The 2012 election should not be about race or religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has worked for a century to be accepted as a mainstream Christian faith. Win or lose, Mitt Romney’s candidacy helps in that effort. Mormons must carefully weigh and objectively conclude that neither a Romney loss nor victory is the consequence of his religion. As a citizen, Romney chose to engage in a process that ultimately requires candidates to open up their lives and tell their stories in order to persuade voters that he can lead. That is Mitt Romney’s continuing challenge and it has little to do with his religion.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.