Mitt Romney’s Mormonism: Implications for the 2012 Election and Beyond

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This lecture was delivered at the University of Lancaster in 2011. Some of the thoughts and allusions may be dated.

In 2007 during his first campaign to gain the Republican nomination for presidency Mitt Romney gave a candid speech about his faith and the influence it would have on his presidency:

Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as president. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

For the purpose of this lecture it is interesting to explore the various nuances of what he did, and did not, say. I have no doubt that his assertion that “no authorities of my church… will ever exert influence on presidential decisions” is true. Latter-day Saints can sometimes be at pains to recognise a disconnect between their religion and any public service. One Latter-day Saint teacher has expressed a similar view with regard to their classroom practice:

My religious beliefs and my persona or role of a teacher would be to use a Dawkinsesque term “non overlapping magesteria” – never the twain would meet. I was worried that, belonging to a missionary oriented aspect of Christianity, I would be accused of undue influence.

They are not alone in this, as Governor Romney pointed out John F. Kennedy has to address similar fears with regard to the role of Roman Catholic Church within his potential presidency. However, to suggest that religious authorities from any one tradition would not have impact on policy is not to suggest that an individual’s faith would be absent when weighing any potential decisions, though this is a point Romney does discuss:

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

A person’s faith, especially within Mormonism, is a part of who they are. For practicing Latter-day Saints faith is not a bolt on and bolt off accessory, rather it should be a part of every decision they make. One Latter-day Saint has commented:

My faith and religion permeates every aspect of my life. As a parent I strive to follow the patience and love that my Saviour showed. As a friend I try to exemplify the service that Jesus taught and showed. In my recreational time I try and abide by the teachings of the Saviour and the prophets – such that there are many films I will not watch, music I will not listen to and substances I will not use. In this I am striving to live my covenant ‘to stand as [a witness] of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [I] may be in’ (Mosiah 18: 9).

If this is true, then Mitt Romney’s, and any other Latter-day Saint politician’s, faith will have an impact on the decisions they make while in office, even though Brooks suggests that “Romney’s policy positions bear virtually no imprints of his faith.” Therefore, before discussing what impact that might be it is important to explore some of the fundamental doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fundamental to Latter-day Saint belief is the belief that there is a loving Heavenly Father, the Son of God Jesus Christ who is the Saviour of the world, and the Holy Ghost who is a guide and a testifier of truth. These three distinct beings form the Godhead to whom all God’s children are responsible to and blessed by. As Mitt Romney has explored this is different to the beliefs about the Father, Son and Holy Ghost that can be found throughout the rest of Christianity:

What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.

This belief in a Godhead of separate beings is linked inextricably with the foundational event of the Restoration of the Church: The First Vision. In the First Vision, Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith was struggling to know which Church to join, after a period of intense searching he was led to a scripture in James which says “if any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God”. This Joseph Smith determined to do, and in response he records:

I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me… When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other–This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (JSH 1:16-17).

The First Vision establishes for Latter-day Saints the separate nature of the Godhead, and further teachings of Smith support and strengthen this: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s, the Son also” (D&C 130:22). The First Vision is described as “[t]he greatest event that has ever occurred in the world, since the Resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high” (Smith, J. F. 1939: 495). Utilizing this experience, Latter-day Saints interpret every other principle of their religion: “Having accepted this truth, I find it easy to accept of every other truth that he [Joseph Smith] enunciated and declared during his mission of fourteen years in the world” (Smith, J. F. 1939: 496). The First Vision establishes an important baseline for Latter-day Saints in their doctrine; all of their teaching should be developed and viewed through the spectacles of the revelations of Joseph Smith (Millet, 2005).

The First Vision is a useful case study in examining how Latter-day Saint teaching fulfils two purposes. The First Vision articulates the beliefs that Latter-day Saints hold (in this case the teaching that Christ and his Father are two distinct personages), while also recognizing the teachings that they reject as a consequence. Smith was told that the mainstream Christian “creeds were an abomination” (JSH 1:20) and “all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines” (Smith, J. 1996 [1842]: 376). The creeds, as understood by Smith, referred to the declarations of the Councils of the churches that had been adopted as official doctrine. Included in these would be the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed.  This dual function in the articulation of belief in the First Vision is recognized in modern Latter-day Saint teaching, Hinckley suggests:

They say we do not believe in the traditional Christ of Christianity. There is some substance to what they say. Our faith, our knowledge is not based on ancient tradition, the creeds which came of a finite understanding and out of the almost infinite discussions of men trying to arrive at a definition of the risen Christ. Our faith, our knowledge comes of the witness of a prophet in this dispensation who saw before him the great God of the universe and His Beloved Son, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. They spoke to him. He spoke with Them. He testified openly, unequivocally, and unabashedly of that great vision. It was a vision of the Almighty and of the Redeemer of the world, glorious beyond our understanding but certain and unequivocating in the knowledge which it brought. It is out of that knowledge, rooted deep in the soil of modern revelation, that we, in the words of Nephi, “talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that [we and] our children may know to what source [we] may look for a remission of [our] sins” (2 Ne. 25:26) (Hinckley, 2002: 90-91).

Although there is an effort on the part of some Latter-day Saint writers to place the Church’s belief in Christ into the same language and understanding as mainstream Christianity (see for example Millet, 2005), it is important for Latter-day Saints to delineate their belief. There are aspects that are similar, but the legacy of the understanding of Christ inherent in the First Vision cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Linked with this belief in the Godhead, is the belief that all humanity are children of God, created as spirit brothers and sisters in a pre-mortal world. Here, humanity lived as one family in the presence of God. When Latter-day Saints speak of a Heavenly Father that is what they literally mean. He has sent his children to earth in a probationary and learning experience as a prelude to returning to live with him. The description that Moses gives of himself could be given by any of humanity:

And it came to pass that Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee? (Moses 1: 13).

As children of God, Latter-day Saints believe that his desire and “work and… glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). The way that Latter-day Saints believe the Father has planned to enable all to return to live with him, if they desire, is through the Saviour Jesus Christ.

The events of the atonement of Christ (the Garden of Gethsemane, the cross and the empty tomb) exemplify for Latter-day Saints that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life”. Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection enabled him to say that “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).There is no other who could have opened up the way. It is Christ with whom Latter-day Saints should be determined to build a relationship, so that the can return, cleansed from sin, to their Father in Heaven. For Latter-day Saints this relationship and cleansing is a result of a conscious relationship with Christ. This relationship begins with a knowledge of Christ and his relationship within the Godhead, and with humanity. Knowledge is a key to salvation (as it underpins beliefs and actions). A knowledge of truth is important, but there are truths that are more important than others; for example, a knowledge of the divinity and atonement of Christ are crucial first steps in gaining salvation. The help that this type of knowledge is to salvation is exemplified in the Doctrine and Covenants:

Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come (D&C 130: 18-19).

The path to salvation in Latter-day Saint belief is a way of knowledge. The knowledge and truth necessary for salvation is not restricted to knowledge of facts; knowledge of God refers to understanding who he is, but also refers to acting on this knowledge:

In the context of the Bible, knowledge− in its highest spiritual sense− had little to do with the intellect but was rather a matter of the heart. The Old Testament references to a man knowing God and to a man knowing his wife− meaning conceiving a child with her− both use the same Hebrew word (yada). As a man was to leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and become one flesh with her, so he was to leave the things of the world, cleave unto his God, and become one with him. As faithfulness in marriage was essential to the nurturing of love, so faithfulness in keeping Gospel covenants was understood to be necessary in obtaining a knowledge of God. As love of spouse was strengthened in sacrifice and devotion, so the knowledge of God was obtained in living those covenants with exactness and honour (McConkie, J. 1987: 230).

Having a knowledge of Christ, involves having a correct understanding of his nature and work which then leads to a correct relationship with Christ. Latter-day Saints believe that one cannot have a true relationship with someone that is built on a misunderstanding of who they are and what they do. To know Christ is to be in a relationship with him, evidenced through faithfulness to his commandments and covenants.

Mormonism is all about relationships. Relationships with the Godhead and with each other. Salvation is the realisation of a completion of a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The unity of the Godhead expands the definition of exaltation to mean a unity of individuals with the Godhead: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17: 21). As joint heirs with Christ to receive the same inheritance of Christ (salvation), Latter-day Saints must strive to develop this unity throughout our lives. The Church and also the wider world is crucial in the development of this relationship. The relationships formed is in every aspect of life, to unify their own lives, and also to express unity with those whom they are in any kind of relationship with is a prelude to the service and unity that can be found within salvation. Thus, a participation in the development of positive relationships is a necessary preparation for salvation. In the novel, The Shack, an explanation of what the Church is, by Jesus, could have been written to describe this ideal: “It’s simple, Mack. It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life. What we are doing right now− just doing this− and being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.”  Those relationships should not be limited to those who are immediately identified as like minded.

Interestingly, for the purpose of this lecture, Romney’s suggestion that he will hold beliefs, but that they will not impact his actions (if that is, indeed, what he is saying) has some radical cognitive dissonance about it. Let me now explore some of the fundamental practices of Latter-day Saints (that are based in the aforementioned doctrines) that may lead a President, or any other politician to behave in certain ways.

Latter-day Saints are a covenant making and keeping people. These extend from baptism, through the priesthood, Temple and marriage covenants. All are similar in that they require certain “obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,—the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions” (Talmage, JE [1976], 84).

If Latter-day Saints are called to be charitable, which in Latter-day Saint terminology is to extend the love that Christ showed to everyone what impact will that have on society? In doing this, as all Christians they are to serve those people around them. The ministry of Jesus teaches that he not only served his immediate circle of friends, but especially those who were cursed and rejected by others and found themselves on the periphery of society. We read of him mingling with tax collectors, women, gentiles, lepers and so on. On reflecting on this Latter-day Saints are not just to serve and help those people with whom they get along, and in their immediate circle of acquaintance and friendship, but also those who have either been placed on the periphery by others, or placed themselves there? Are they fulfilling their Christian duty to reach out to “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (Hebrews 12: 12). If they learn just one thing from the example of Christ it is that they are required to love all people.

Let me use one fundamental issue of this election campaign that might have a direct correlation to the command “to love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31). I am aware that the implications I suggest would not be accepted by some Latter-day Saints. The issue is Obamacare- one of the main issues for the Republican campaign is the repeal of this hated system of socialist health. It is suggested that Obamacare:

  • seeks to provide affordable health insurance for all US citizens.
  • does not replace private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid
  • will reform and expand Medicare in order to help cover more people, especially those below the poverty level.
  • aims to improve community health care centres in an effort improve health care for those who cannot afford private health care.

While, apart from party differences, the majority of people oppose it for two main reasons; based on a CNN poll, 62% of respondents said PPACA would “increase the amount of money they personally spend on health care,” 56% said the bill “gives the government too much involvement in health care.” I would suggest that from a Latter-day Saint perspective Obamacare helps them fulfil a responsibility to care for those who are less fortunate, to show Christlike love. In conversation with a number of American Mormons I recognise that this is a controversial leap to make, but I think it a logical outworking of deeply held Mormon beliefs. I am not the only one to be led to this conclusion; Jana Riess recently suggested in a post entitled I’m a Democrat because I’m a Mormon:

As a Mormon, it’s my job to ensure that the poor are cared for. I believe the Book of Mormon’s explicit claims that our standing with God rests upon how we treat the poor—not just as individuals, but as societies. (King Benjamin’s sermon is a case in point.)

Mitt Romney is determined to get Obamacare repealed and leave healthcare reform to the individual states. In this, I am not suggesting that Romney is being “un-Mormon” rather that his political beliefs are taking precedence as he suggested in the statement I referred to at the very beginning of this lecture:

As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as president. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

David Mason of the Washington Post suggested that Romney’s opposition was

…not a Mormon response. It was a political response. Had Romney responded as a Mormon, rather than as a presidential candidate, he would have warmly embraced Obamacare as a sign that the country is finally, after a century and a half, catching the Mormon vision. Everyone in the United States has some sense of the mythic collectivism embedded in Mormon culture.

The suggestion that political beliefs about the role of big government took precedence over religious beliefs is supported by the health care reform undertaken in Massachusetts by then Governor Romney in 2006. This provided incredibly similar provisions and mandates to those included in Obamacare, but one supposes was not hindered by political beliefs about the limits of federal government. Thus, this is one example where political ideology may override religious beliefs in the enabling of laws. Indeed, somewhat unkindly, Mason has suggested that “We can all breathe easy now that Romney has finally settled the role that Mormonism will play in his presidency. Like the Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Catholicism, etc., of most presidents, Romney’s Mormonism will be an innocuous Sunday excursion.” I am not sure that Mitt Romney would agree, cognitive dissonance is a hard stance for a Latter-day Saint to endure, and he must feel that his actions are in harmony with his beliefs; that his response as an individual is determined by his conscience (examples of his service to those who need help are numerous). Other Latter-day Saints have suggested:

We think that a society where freedom and liberty abounds without excessive government leads to the greatest happiness of all people and gives the poor the best chance. Remember, being forced to give to the poor doesn’t qualify as charity.

Echoing the teachings of one of the Church’s past presidents:

By deriving its just powers from the governed, government becomes primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft, and involuntary servitude. It cannot claim the power to redistribute money or property nor to force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will. Government is created by the people. No individual possesses the power to take another’s wealth or to force others to do good, so no government has the right to do such things either. The creature cannot exceed the creator (Ezra Taft Benson).

Individual charity is therefore more important than the actions of the Government which must be in harmony with constitutional and republican principles. In the end, it is possible to see how Mormonism could be used to support or oppose Obamacare, it just depends on the emphasis interpretation one puts on different teachings of the Church. Romney would argue that individual responsibility for charity is far better than forced good works, as evidenced through the example of Cain and Abel:

Another controversial area where it is perhaps easier to delineate a religious response is in the area of gay marriage. Although there may be some Mormon advocates for gay marriage, this is not in harmony with the teachings or doctrines of the Church. Based on the centrality of the family both to society and to salvation, Latter-day Saints are opposed to gay marriage. In 1995 the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” which outlines various teachings directly related to issues of gay marriage and trans-gender.

We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose…

We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife…

The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ…

We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.

Therefore, it would seem impossible that a Latter-day Saint in political office would ever be able to support measures to legalise gay marriage. Perhaps because it is also a Republican platform it is possible to see that harmony between religious and political ideology in Mitt Romney’s oppostion to such legislation. Interestingly though the resultant implications of opposition to gay marriage can be vastly different not just among Mormons, but also among people of all faiths. I have had experience of people of faith being homophobic in relation to their speech and also to the restriction of rights placed on homosexual couples. In this, Mitt Romney has exemplified his Mormon beliefs to treat other people as he would like to be treated. In discussing his opposition to gay marriage in Massachusetts it has been argued that “he paired his opposition to gay marriage and civil unions with strong support for other gay rights. During the race against Kennedy, he told the Log Cabin Republicans that he would “provide more effective leadership than my opponent.” He promised to co-sponsor a federal nondiscrimination act and support efforts to allow gays and lesbians to serve “openly and honestly” in the military.” This type of response may put him at odds with certain figures and groups within the Republican party, but would maintain a definite religious obligation to oppose gay marriage, but treat other people positively. In doing this, he may alienate supporters and opponents. This stance is also highlighted in some laws in the overwhelmingly Mormon city of Salt Lake City, speaking in support of these measures an official Church spokesperson suggested:

The issues before you tonight are the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against. But, importantly, the ordinances also attempt to balance vital issues of religious freedom. In essence, the Church agrees with the approach which Mayor Becker is taking on this matter.

In drafting these ordinances, the city has granted common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations, for example, in their hiring of people whose lives are in harmony with their tenets, or when providing housing for their university students and others that preserve religious requirements.

The Church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage. They are also entirely consistent with the Church’s prior position on these matters. The Church remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman.

I represent a church that believes in human dignity, in treating others with respect even when we disagree – in fact, especially when we disagree. The Church’s past statements are on the public record for all to see. In these comments and in our actions, we try to follow what Jesus Christ taught. Our language will always be respectful and acknowledge those who differ, but will also be clear on matters that we feel are of great consequence to our society.

This has been reiterated recently that “As a church, our doctrinal position is clear: Any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, and we define marriage as between a man and a woman… However, that should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness. We expect each Latter-day Saint family and individual to reflect Christ’s second great commandment — to love one another.”

It is possible to find Mormon Democrats and Mormon Republicans- as evidenced through these election two of the highest profile politicians are Mormon but stand on opposite sides of the debate (Mitt Romney and Harry Reid). The determination of which party or candidate to support is left to the individual, with the Church being avowedly politically neutral. In both parties I would argue that various issues could be seen to be in harmony with Mormon teaching depending on how you interpret them, and others are seen to be in direct opposition. Mitt Romney is in a party that the overwhelming number of Mormons support in the USA, based mainly on the moral issues of abortion, gay marriage- it would be impossible in their minds to vote for a party that supports both of these. However, Democrat Mormons would suggest that the moral issue of social justice outweigh the other considerations.

The question remains as to how Mitt Romney’s faith would affect his presidency. Despite protestations to the contrary I have no doubt that he is a devoted Latter-day Saint; but similarly as Harry Reid has suggested Romney is not “the face of Mormonism.” To try and use what I know of Mormonism to be able to predict what he would do is a fool’s errand. His interpretation and hierarchy of beliefs and doctrines may well be based on different social and political considerations than other people. In the end a Mormon’s personal relationship with God is just that: “personal.”

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