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In 2008, Will It Be Mormon in America?

From the June 6, 2005 issue: Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ponders a presidential bid.

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Romney's political experience is limited--two campaigns and two-plus years as governor. But he has a record on economic and social issues that should appeal to conservatives. And his service as a governor might work in his favor with voters generally--it often has for governors who run for president. There is this wild card, too: If the economy is in the tank, or government in some genuine crisis, Romney will plausibly be able to represent himself as the man who could turn things around. In sum, Romney would make an appealing candidate. He just might be "the right guy at the right time." Even though he is a Mormon.

THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS teaches a religion that is uniquely American. The church was founded in 1830 in upstate New York by Joseph Smith, who claimed to be a prophet of God. A key part of the church's scripture is the Book of Mormon, which provides an account of events in ancient America that the church says was written by prophets of old. Mormons believe that our government was divinely inspired, that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri, and that Missouri is where Christ will come again.

Nonetheless, Mormons found it rough going in America, even when they tried to settle in Missouri. Unable to find a place where they could live in peace, secure in the free exercise of their religion, they decided to leave the country after Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844. And so, in 1846, they began their difficult exodus west to the Great Salt Lake Basin, helping to settle the Mountain West. They called their gathering place Zion, and there they established cohesive communities under the ultimate authority of church leaders headquartered in Salt Lake City. Not incidentally, Miles Park Romney, Mitt Romney's great-great-grandfather, was one of the early Mormon pioneers.

Today, Zion is no longer deemed to be in Utah and nearby states, but everywhere the church is. As Elder Henry Eyring, one of the church's 12 apostles, told me during an interview in his headquarters office, "Zion is where you are. You'll have the protection you need wherever you are." In the United States and around the world, the church's membership is now above 11 million. As the Mormon diaspora has developed, the church, write Richard and Joan Ostling in their recent book, Mormon America, has become "a denomination like any other, accepting the life of a normal group functioning within the ordinary boundaries of the secular world." Yet to judge by the aforementioned survey results from 1999, which were consistent with poll results from 1967, and also by what Hatch says about his own experience as a candidate in 2000, a Mormon running for president may find his religion a handicap.

Apparently some people so dislike Mormonism, or find it so odd, that they wouldn't vote for a Mormon. You can speculate about why that is. Maybe it's the hierarchical character of the church--it's administered top-down from Salt Lake City by the men who comprise the General Authorities, the First Presidency (encompassing the president and his first counselor and second counselor), and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Or maybe it's the church's secrecy. The General Authorities disclose little about the operations or finances of the nation's richest religion per capita. And Mormon temples, where weddings and other ceremonies, including proxy baptisms, are performed, are closed to non-Mormons. Then there's polygamy, introduced by Joseph Smith (who had 49 wives) and practiced until, a century ago, the church finally realized that the federal government would not tolerate it. And there's church and state: Some people fear that, deep down, Mormons want to gain control of the government and turn the United States into their kingdom of God.

Some of those objections might fade if voters got to know a Mormon of compelling political credentials, and came to feel comfortable with him. Other objections might have to be answered directly. In regard to polygamy, for example, it would be unfair to hang that history around the neck of Romney, the husband of one and only one wife since their marriage 36 years ago.

As for church and state, Mormons don't seem especially threatening to the prevailing order. The church doesn't endorse candidates. It stays out of partisan matters, refusing even to let individual churches or their membership lists be used for partisan purposes. It does encourage citizens to vote: Before elections the church urges members to consider the issues and candidates, "and then vote for the people that best represent their ideas of good government," according to a spokesman. Like most churches, it participates in law cases raising religious liberty issues, often partnering with religious bodies of diverse beliefs. Here, in a friend-of-the court capacity, the church seeks to protect its ability to proselytize and to hire church officials and employees. The church rarely joins an Establishment-Clause case. It stays out of public aid cases as a matter of church doctrine, since it doesn't accept government funds to assist with any of its operations. It didn't participate in last year's Pledge of Allegiance case in which "under God" was at issue, or in the Ten Commandments cases heard by the Supreme Court in the current term.

The church does occasionally speak out on what it calls "matters of principle." In the 1970s and early 1980s, it helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. More recently it has affirmed the traditional definition of marriage and contributed to referendum drives banning same-sex unions. The church seems to distinguish ballot-measures from elections for office, seeing only the latter as partisan. In any case, the church's efforts in these respects have a common theme--protection of the traditional family. It is a defensive posture.

Again, if Romney runs, voters will be confronted not with Mormonism in general but with a particular Mormon. Romney grew up in the church and, as is typical, was baptized at age 8, joined the priesthood at 12, and became an elder when he was 18. In his early 20s, he served as a missionary in France. "Most of each day," he recalls, "was spent responding to: 'You are American, aren't you? Well, get out of Vietnam!'" Romney has served as a Sunday school teacher. He also tithes, as Mormons are expected to, and gives generously to those with special needs.

Romney hasn't felt compelled to regard the church's guidance to its members as sufficient in matters of public policy. He emphasizes his independence in assessing issues. He points out that he doesn't drink, consistent with what his church advises, yet he signed a bill permitting liquor sales on Sunday because "there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol if you do it properly and responsibly." He notes, too, that he doesn't smoke, again as his church counsels, but that it was public-health arguments that caused him to approve a ban on smoking in public places.

On a more momentous issue, abortion, Romney told voters when he ran for the Senate in 1994 that he was personally opposed to abortion but that abortion should be "safe and legal in this country," and that "we should sustain and support" Roe v. Wade because it had been law for 20 years. When Romney ran for governor in 2002, he maintained his position on Roe, but also indicated that he didn't want to be known as "pro-choice." He promised voters that he would honor a "moratorium," meaning he would not try to move state abortion law in one direction or the other, and he's kept his word. Romney speaks of the moratorium as an act of deference to "an overwhelmingly pro-choice state" and not as reflecting any commitment he might still have to a pro-abortion rights position. "I recognize the right for a state to choose its own course," he says. Romney describes himself as "pro-life," but his own moratorium has prevented him from moving abortion policy in that direction, were he inclined to do so. On abortion, Romney's church is in favor of life but permissive of abortion in cases of incest or rape or when the mother's life or health is threatened (that last a very roomy loophole). Suffice to say, Romney has not seen fit to advance his church's policy.

On the question of when life begins, Romney is actually to the right of some members of his church, since, invoking science, he says life begins at conception ("when all the genetic elements are in place for a human being to develop"), while some co-religionists say it doesn't begin until implantation occurs, because "there's no soul" until then. Romney's position on when life begins has shaped his response to the therapeutic cloning legislation just passed by the Massachusetts legislature. Romney says it would sanction "the creation of life with the intent of destroying it. For me, that's the line I draw. Other people, other Republicans"--including other Mormons--"draw the line in different places."

Romney's opposition to same-sex marriage is consistent with that of the General Authorities in Salt Lake City. But his arguments against same-sex marriage don't use religious language. And he makes an arresting observation. He says the disposition of the federal marriage amendment is likely to turn not on what people think about "individuals who are gay being married" but on how they regard an implication of accepting same-sex marriage, namely that schools will have to teach "indifference" as to whether parents of the same or the opposite sex will be raising children. "The area of focus will be . . . what is the ideal setting for raising a child and [whether] we are indifferent as a society about having a mother and father, and I don't think we are. I think most Americans will insist on maintaining that dual gender conception."

Regarding the passage in Mormon Scripture stating that the American founding documents were inspired by God, Romney says, "Yes, my own faith believes that." But he adds, "My guess is that most Americans think the same thing." As to the desirability of advancing freedom and democracy in other parts of the world, he said he regards the questions involved in that project as "geopolitical, not religious." Romney emphasizes how his faith is like "every other faith" in that it has "fundamental values that are quintessentially American." Observing, "I surely don't think that it hurts for an individual [running for president] to openly express the fact that they believe in God," he adds that it's "a good thing" that someone who did that in 2000 has, as president, gone to one church and then another and is "seen as embracing a wide array of faiths." Like Bush and many who preceded him in the Oval Office, Romney occasionally invokes Providence in speeches.

Most Mormons would be thrilled at the prospect of a Romney candidacy, and not just because Romney is a Republican and Mormons overwhelmingly vote Republican (they went 95 to 5 percent for Bush in 2004, up from 88 to 12 percent in 2000). While Mormons are dispersed throughout America and engage in the same professions and activities as non-Mormons, they by no means have forgotten their history and would tend to see Romney's election as a sign that they are accepted as full participants in the American experiment. In an interview at his office, Robert Millet, professor of religion at Brigham Young University, said, "It would be a statement that to some extent people have begun to treat Mormons as something other than an oddity."

ROMNEY'S PROSPECTS can't be fully assessed without coming to grips with this fact: Most Americans are affiliated with churches that--notwithstanding important differences among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelical Protestants--stand in the same line of historic or traditional Christianity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as its most articulate representatives will tell you, stands apart from that line.

Mormonism says that the early church fell away from the truth and withered for roughly 17 centuries and that "in the latter days" Christ has been restoring his church. He has done so through living prophets in receipt of continuous revelation that becomes Scripture and may guide interpretation of the Bible. Historic Christianity does not accept Mormonism's belief in the necessity of a restored church; or its understanding of modern prophets and continuous revelation; or its acceptance of an open canon of Scripture, which for Mormons includes the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.

There are more differences: Mormonism says that God has a material body and that he had a beginning in time, having himself been fathered by another God, but historic Christianity (and Judaism, too) says that God is a spirit and that there is none before him or after him--that he is eternal. Mormonism says that God created the universe out of existing matter, while historic Christianity (and Judaism, too) says that creation was ex nihilo. Mormonism says that God fathered every human being--we lived with him in "the preexistence" before our sojourn here on earth. Mormonism thus believes that God and man are ontologically the same--the same species, if you will. But historic Christianity (and Judaism) maintains a sharp distinction between God and man. Regarding man's destiny, Mormonism says that man may become (in Joseph Smith's statement) "what God is," a phrase that would seem to encompass all of God's attributes, but historic Christianity says that by grace man may become not God but like God, and that by no means will man acquire God's "incommunicable" attributes, such as omniscience and omnipotence.

Protestants and Catholics who are serious about their Christian faith are likely to see Mormonism as heretical in key respects, even non-Christian. The historian and scholar of Mormonism Jan Shipps has described it as not a part of traditional Christianity as such but "a new religious tradition." Would such perceptions of Mormonism lead voters to decide they couldn't vote for Romney? The question is especially relevant with respect to evangelical Protestants, for three reasons. First, in sheer numbers they are the largest group in the Republican coalition, as defined by church affiliation. Second, they tend to be quite active during the primary season and can influence outcomes, especially in the South where they are most numerous. Third, while no Christian body accepts a Mormon baptism as valid, evangelicals have tended to be more critical of Latter-day Saints doctrine than mainline Protestants or Catholics, with some evangelicals (and more fundamentalists) labeling the church a "cult." Millet says that "the greatest tension" has been with evangelicals, who have written "most all of the anti-Mormon stuff."

What do evangelical leaders active in politically conservative circles say about a Romney candidacy? Many I asked were reluctant to be quoted by name. As one of them told me, "We have to work with Mormons." Over the past quarter-century Mormons have made common cause with politically conservative evangelicals (and Catholics) on a broad range of issues involving marriage, family, abortion, stem cells, pornography, and religious liberty. Moreover, Mormons have worked alongside evangelicals for many of the same candidates at election time.

Someone willing to go on the record was Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship. Notwithstanding his "fundamental" theological differences with Mormonism, Colson said, "I could in very good conscience support Romney," calling him "a first-rate guy in every respect" and "a social conservative on most of the issues we care about." Colson obviously wasn't declaring for Romney, but simply indicating that he would not in religious principle, so to speak, be opposed to Romney and indeed could find political reasons to support him. Whether he would actually do so, of course, would "all depend on what the lineup is" and "where each person stands." The other evangelical leaders I contacted took the same view. Colson offered the likely correct forecast: Romney's appeal to evangelicals might slacken if a competent evangelical or Catholic with social views similar to Romney's were in the race; on the other hand, Romney's stock with evangelicals might go up if he were pitted against candidates holding more liberal social views, regardless of their religion. One evangelical leader offered this succinct take on whether Romney's faith would hurt him in the primaries: "Against Giuliani, no. Against Frist, yes. Against [Rick] Santorum, yes. Against Arnold [Schwarzenegger, who is ineligible], no."

Romney's positions on social issues could make or break his candidacy, and social conservatives who've followed his term as governor tend to give him mixed, though on balance positive, reviews. He's generally praised for his stand against same-sex marriage, though some conservatives think he could have used his executive powers to prevent the implementation of the state Supreme Court's decision affirming such unions. He's applauded as well for opposing the creation of embryos for research. But he's drawn criticism because he would allow research using "surplus" embryos created through in-vitro fertilization.

On abortion, Romney's "moratorium" on changes in the law gets lower marks, since it prevents any movement in a pro-life direction. Even so, Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, recognizes that Romney's position on abortion is "more conservative than some of the alternatives in our state." Romney knows that a moratorium wouldn't be viable at the federal level, where abortion policy has multiple opportunities to move this way or that, through new legislation, new regulations, and new litigation. "It would be very different for anyone that is considering a federal office--they have a very different series of considerations they have to look at," he says. "But given the fact that I am not running for federal office at this point in my life, I am not going to get into exactly how I would solve that." Perhaps later.

ROMNEY KNOWS FIRSTHAND how his religion can be exploited in negative campaigning. When he ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994, then-congressman Joe Kennedy, the senator's nephew, said Romney was "a member of the white boys' club," a not-so-veiled reference to the Mormon priesthood, closed to blacks until 1978, when then-church president Spencer Kimball, having received the necessary revelation, announced that the priesthood was open to males without regard to race or ethnicity. The Kennedy campaign also said that Romney's church treated not just black people but also women (because they are barred from the priesthood) as "second-class citizens."

Romney responded: "I am sad to see Ted Kennedy taking away his brother's victory," saying he opposed discrimination in any form but would not "publicly criticize" his church. Ted Kennedy's brother John faced and overcame anti-Catholic sentiment in 1960, when he became the first (and so far only) Catholic to be elected president. Ted Kennedy backed away from his campaign's use of Mormonism, saying, "I believe that religion should not be an issue." For his part, Joe Kennedy said he didn't know that the priesthood had been opened to blacks, and he apologized. But the attack may have had the desired effect. Ted Kennedy's poll numbers went up and stayed up. For Romney personally, the episode was especially ugly, since his father was an early, strong advocate of the 1960s civil rights laws. Romney told me that "the happiest day" in his life from a religious standpoint occurred when Kimball said blacks could now enter the priesthood. "I was driving when it came on the radio, on Fresh Pond Parkway. I pulled over and went into a parking lot. I was overjoyed."

If Romney ran and were in the lead or gaining ground, a desperate candidate, or more likely a political action committee, might bring up the church's pre-1978 exclusion of blacks from the priesthood, or the continuing exclusion of women. Or there might be an attack on Mormon doctrine--to the effect that Romney is a member of a cult. The evangelical leaders I spoke with said that such an attack wouldn't work, as it would be seen as way over the line of what's politically acceptable. It's interesting to imagine who might rise to Romney's defense, and it's not inconceivable that Harry Reid--the Senate minority leader and a Mormon (one of just 4 Democrats among the 16 Mormons in the Senate and the House)--would protest, especially if his party or its allies were the ones lobbing the grenades.

It's conceivable, too, that some evangelicals might speak out. In recent years a small group of evangelical theologians and Mormon scholars of religion, including Robert Millet, have been meeting to discuss doctrinal issues. The conversations have been civil. Friendships have developed. Differences have been refined, though of course critical ones remain. "The biggest," says Millet, concerns "the necessity for more than a reformation, the necessity for a restoration of divine authority through modern-day prophets."

The recent book How Wide the Divide? reflects the kind of dialogue underway: A professor of ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, Stephen Robinson, and a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, Craig Blomberg, wrote separately on the same four topics--Scripture, God & Deification, Christ & the Trinity, and Salvation--and then elaborated on points of agreement and disagreement. The book's subtitle is, A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation.

In November the Latter-day Saints opened the Mormon Tabernacle to the evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias, who gave a sermon attended by both evangelicals and Mormons. Zacharias observed key differences between churches in the line of historic Christianity and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but also said they shared a reverence for Christ as Savior. Especially notable were remarks at the same event by Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, which bills itself as the world's largest multidenominational seminary. Mouw issued an apology to Mormons, saying, "We evangelicals have sinned against you" by "seriously misrepresent[ing] the beliefs and practices of members of [your] faith." Some evangelicals are critical of Mouw for presuming to speak for all evangelicals and, more generally, of Mouw and other evangelicals for their continuing dialogue with Mormon scholars. As one evangelical critic told me, "It's everything a Mormon could dream of to make Mormons theologically legitimate." The conversations continue, with one scheduled for November at Fuller.

If there seems to be a budding ecumenism between evangelicals and Mormons, a version of it may involve Romney. During my visit to his office, I noticed a tall book case containing memorabilia from campaigns past and also the Bible his father held when he was sworn in as governor, and which Mitt Romney held when it was his turn, in 2003. I also saw other books, none of which Romney said occupied his time, save for the one with a blue back he pulled from its shelf. It was The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more than 22 million copies and is back on the best-seller lists. The author is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, the megachurch in Southern California. Romney said he recently had a breakfast scheduled with Warren, who'd sent him the book. The night before they were to meet Romney realized he hadn't read it, so he did, all 40 chapters. When they met the next morning, "Rick told me I just had to read one chapter a day, for 40 days!"

As for the question that I came to Boston to ask Romney--whether he thought a Mormon could be elected president--he said: "This is a nation that will always welcome people of faith, and my party, in particular, will welcome people of faith. I think if you said, 'Look, we have a candidate for you, and you can know nothing about this person, except [his] religion, that's the only thing that you can know, this person is a Mormon, but that's all you can know. Do you want [him] as president?' Well my guess is with all of the misunderstanding and lack of understanding and differences between one religion and another, that I think a lot of people would say, 'Gosh, I am not sure that that makes me feel real comfortable.' But if you said, 'Here's a human being that has done this and this and this, and here's [his] family, and here [are his] political views,' and so forth, then [the person is] going to get defined by those other things far more than by [his] religion alone and [his] religion would be seen as the basis of values that would either be consistent with the voters' or inconsistent."

At another moment during the interview, Romney pursued the point in a different way by positing "stick figures"--people we know nothing about "except we are told their religion. Well, we are going to say, 'I like that one better than that one, and I don't like this one but I like that one.' But there are no stick figures in politics, you have human beings, who have families, who have lived careers, who have political positions, whom you have watched debate. You know them as human beings, and their religious affiliation actually becomes only one small part of the person."

Here Romney had in mind his father. "I think before anyone heard of my dad, the fact that he was a Mormon could have been a real big matter of consideration" when he decided to run for governor. But after people got to know him as the president of an automobile company, and then as the chairman of the convention that wrote the new state constitution, Romney said, they liked him. And the thought some people might have had--"'Oh, he's a Mormon!'--well, so what? It became such a footnote."

Indeed it did, and it appears that the son hopes it will be the same with him--if he runs for president. Mitt Romney is a man comfortable being who he is, and prepared to let Americans assess him as they will.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.