Romney and the missing Mormon issue

The silence of the liberals (evangelicals too): Can we talk about Romney's religion?

Romney's faith encourages followers to be
Romney's faith encourages followers to be "in the world but not of it.”

One of the most surprising things about the 2012 presidential race is the absence of religion as an issue.

President Obama is basically a nondenominational Christian who resigned from the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, of which he had been a member for more than 20 years, during the 2008 presidential campaign. That resignation came amid an uproar over what were perceived to be racially divisive remarks made by the church's pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Obama is currently unaffiliated, attending Sunday services at Camp David's Evergreen Chapel, as George W. Bush had done before him. News to you? My point exactly.

Mitt Romney, of course, belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, like generations of his family. His great-great-grandfather, Parley Pratt, was known as the Apostle Paul of the LDS because of his role in both forming and promulgating Mormon doctrine. Pratt was probably the third most important Mormon of the 19th Century, after Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

At odds with the government

The Mormon Church throughout its history has often been at odds— at times violently— with the U.S. government and with mainstream Protestantism because of its beliefs and practices. These are based on two sources: the Book of Mormon, a document that church founder Joseph Smith dictated from some golden plates that he claimed to have found, and continuing revelations vouchsafed to the president (head) of the church.

It was through revelation, for instance, that polygamy was first decreed and then forbidden. Similarly, the church's longstanding policy of racial discrimination was based on a particular reading of the Book of Mormon— and then, in 1978, finally abandoned based on revelation.

This reliance on non-Biblical scripture and continuing revelation place the Mormon church firmly into the "cult" category, from a social-scientific perspective. Sociologists of religion define a cult as a religious group whose theology is based on a source other than the primary religious traditions in the society in which it is found, and that consequently coexists in high tension with that society.


That tension is very much a two-way street. The larger society disapproves of the cult and often attempts to control the group and its members, both informally (by stigmatization and discrimination) and formally— by zoning, for instance, or through local ordinances restricting panhandling practices, public gatherings or household sizes.

At the same time, the cult protects itself from that disapproval by rejecting the larger society, often through self-segregation. We see this historically in the Mormon migration from upstate New York in the 1820s through Illinois and to Utah in 1847. After polygamy was outlawed by the U.S. government in 1882, many Mormons, including Romney's paternal great-grandparents, moved to Mexico, where Mitt Romney's father George was born.

We can still see echoes of this separatism in contemporary practice— for instance, in the tendency of Mormons to live in Mormon communities, whether in Utah or elsewhere, or in the complete exclusion of "gentile" (non-Mormon) visitors from Mormon temples.

(We can also see similar physical separatism in the rural communities created by, say, the Amish or by ultra-Orthodox Jews. But none of their followers is running for president.)

Avoiding gentile "'pollution'

Self-segregation can also be mental or psychological, rather than physical. Mormons whose jobs require frequent interactions with gentiles, for instance, are encouraged to be "in the world but not of it"— to keep themselves aloof from the potential pollution of gentile values or practices. (For more on this subject, see "Mitt Romney's Mormon Ghosts," Mikal Gilmore's excellent article in the October 25 issue of Rolling Stone, not yet online at this posting.)

The social-scientific use of the word "cult" thus rests on observable behavior of the members of the group, rather than any value judgment about the truth or falsity of the group's beliefs. Nevertheless, liberals have refrained from raising the significance of Romney's religion— even through a non-theological prism— as a campaign issue.

This strategy no doubt stems from the liberal enshrinement of the First Amendment, which has come to be seen as a firewall preventing any discussion of religion in the public sphere. But this posture stems from an over-generalization of the First Amendment's actual meaning.

(Full disclosure: in addition to holding a doctorate in the sociology of religion, I'm a lifelong Democrat, a hardcore liberal and a huge fan of the First Amendment.)

Biden and Ryan

Under the First Amendment, the government can't tell us what to believe ("establishment of religion") or what not to ("prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). But the First Amendment doesn't in any way limit what we say to each other about religion, our own or that of others— even in a forum that is connected with political issues or governmental power.

It's easy to lose track of where the lines are drawn. I was once called for jury duty and went through the voir dire process for a trial in a capital crime. The judge asked me about the basis of my opposition to the death penalty. I asked, "Am I allowed to say what religion I am?" (I'm a Quaker.) Yes, she told me, with no more than the hint of an eye-roll.

Liberal squeamishness about discussing religion doesn't necessarily serve them or the political process well. Denomination isn't destiny, as we saw in the vice-presidential debate. Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan are both Catholic, but they've chosen very different ways of approaching the political issue of reproductive rights, as they eagerly made clear when the issue was raised.

If it's OK to ask questions about a candidate's Catholic values, why not about Romney's Mormonism— not whether or not it's OK for him to be a Mormon, of course, but about how his religious background might affect his actions in office?

Charity toward Mormons

Romney has straightforwardly indicated that his social conservatism would inform his political objectives: he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and has declined to endorse the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, for instance. But other issues haven't even been raised.

For instance, what does it mean to be "in the world but not of it" when one is President of the United States? Is it significant that virtually all of Romney's stories of personal charity involve fellow Mormons? Might the secretiveness with which Mormons treat not just the activities in the Temple but the space itself spill over into other kinds of secretiveness?

As Gilmore points out, "Mitt Romney can't address the fact that he wants to be president of the nation that once tried to destroy his people." Is it unreasonable to ask Romney to address that point?

Billy Graham's shift

Aside from liberals, a second group has chosen to ignore Romney's Mormonism: conservative Christians.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's website, for instance, defines a cult as a group that accepts revelations outside the Bible, believes in salvation through good works, and holds unorthodox doctrines on the Trinity. The site lists Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, Spiritists, Unitarians, and members of the Unification Church (Moonies) as members of cults.

Until last week, that list also included Mormons. But the Mormon Church was removed from the list within a week of Graham's pledge to support Romney in his campaign for president. (For more details, click here.) Graham has also placed full-page ads in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and, on Sunday, Ohio's Columbus Dispatch, encouraging his followers to vote for Romney. (Click here.)

This is clearly a pragmatic decision based on Romney's position on social issues: He favors traditional gender roles and heterosexual marriage, and opposes gay rights and reproductive choice. Romney gambled that his move ever farther to the right on these issues would persuade social and religious conservatives to ignore his membership in a group that most of them consider a cult, in the pejorative sense. Romney's gamble seems to be paying off.♦

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