As the 2008 presidential election draws near, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints find themselves in an unfamiliar position: One of their own, Mitt Romney, is a serious contender for the presidency. In fact, at this writing Romney, until recently the governor of Massachusetts – of all states! – is universally considered one of the top three Republican candidates, along with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Senator John McCain.
Governor Romney is no garden-variety Mormon; he’s a Latter-day Saint from Central Casting – a former bishop and stake president with what author Hugh Hewitt calls a “Christmas card family.” But there’s more: Mitt is the multimillionaire son of George Romney, who in the 1960s was governor of Michigan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a serious contender for the presidency himself in 1968.
Need I mention that the younger Romney is also recognized as the man who rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics from the depths of scandal and turned the Games into an unqualified success, only four months after the September 11 attacks?
Measure of Dread
This is the stuff of which heroes are made. And yet along with their justified pride in Mitt Romney (and, for many, their hopes for his success) many members of the Church view Romney’s candidacy with a measure of dread.
We wonder: As this outstanding LDS man and his family seek the presidency, what indignities will they suffer because of his faith? What will such a national campaign really mean for the Church? What will come of the resulting scrutiny on our beliefs and culture? Will our critics among Evangelical Christians attack the Church as non-Christian and Romney as a cultist? Will pundits on the secular political left attack LDS beliefs as simply weird and incredible, and dismiss Romney as a believer in fairy tales about angels and golden plates?
And will our most sacred beliefs and symbols – our temples and temple garments, for example – be held up to national ridicule?
So far, the answers to all those questions have been yes – and the campaign has barely begun. Now Hugh Hewitt, a popular radio talk show host, political pundit, and author, has written A Mormon in the White House? Ten Things Every American Needs to Know About Mitt Romney.
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Those who want to understand who Mitt Romney is and the religious issues connected with his candidacy, or to help others, regardless of faith or political persuasion, understand those issues, would be well advised to read this book and to share it widely with their friends and acquaintances.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am an enthusiastic supporter of Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. I also have a special fascination for Hugh Hewitt’s effort in writing A Mormon in the White House? An unlikely chain of events resulted in my being interviewed about Mitt Romney on Hugh’s radio show, along with John Schroeder.
John is an Evangelical Christian; I am a practicing Mormon. We two were both experienced bloggers, and Hugh had been kindly supportive of our efforts. After the interview Hugh suggested that John and I start Article VI Blog, which is devoted to the religious issues associated with Romney’s candidacy. For the past year we have kept a keen eye on everything appearing in the news media and on the blogosphere related to Mormonism, Romney, and the presidency. John and I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of Hugh’s book. He has not disappointed us.
Hewitt’s A Mormon in the White House? is a comprehensive look at Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate by a political analyst of the center-right who also is an Evangelical Christian and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church. Among the “ten things” Hewitt thinks we should know about Romney, the book covers the Governor’s impressive successes at Bain & Company and Bain Capital; his rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics; his record as a pro-life politician and defender of traditional marriage; his record as governor of Massachusetts; his advantages as a presidential candidate (including a breakdown of the number of LDS stakes in Iowa and New Hampshire); and Romney’s potential vulnerability to attack as “too perfect.”
As important as those sections are, two themes in Hewitt’s book will appeal most to LDS readers: First, he seeks to tell us who Mitt Romney is, and Hewitt’s discussion of Romney and his family will cause almost all Mormons to feel pride in one of their own. Second, Hewitt digs deeply into the “Mormon Issue.”
1. Who Is Mitt Romney? Mormon Pride in One of Their Own
Hewitt recounts an anecdote from 1962, when George Romney – then president of American Motors – was considering running for governor of Michigan. The elder Romney made it known that he was planning to pray and fast about the decision. August (Gus) Scholle, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, made fun of George’s plan, saying, “The big clown. He thinks he has a private pipeline to God.”
George replied that “the same pipeline is available to Mr. Scholle, if he cares to take advantage of it.”
A great and admirable comeback, but I have to wonder: Could any candidate for statewide or national office make such a statement now without being pilloried as religiously self-righteous?
Such criticisms may not matter to the Romney clan. They seem to be just who they profess to be, starting with Mitt’s parents. “By many accounts,” Hewitt writes, “George and [Mitt’s mother] Lenore Romney were among the most remarkable people of their time. They combined outsized drive and talents with a sincere compassion for and interest in people of all walks of life. They also had an enormous love of family.”
Mitt and Ann are also superstar parents. Hewitt reports in some detail on the five adult Romney sons, which include three Eagle Scouts, three Harvard Business School graduates, one medical student, and one New York advertising agency music producer. Then appears this telling paragraph:
When I was asking Romney about the impact of his religious beliefs on his candidacy, one part of his response struck me as almost certainly a key to how the issue of his LDS beliefs will be assessed by a public unfamiliar with or even hostile to the Mormon theology. “[T]o understand my faith, people should look at my home and how we live,” Romney at one point suggested. “Of course, doctrines and theology are different church to church, but what my church teaches is evidenced by what I have become and what my family has become.”
For committed Mormons somewhat nervously watching the Romney candidacy unfold, this may be the most significant statement in A Mormon in the White House? Mitt Romney and his family are the archetypal successful Mormon family, and he is running for President of the United States. Romney is clearly willing to own up to that role. It’s as if everyone’s favorite stake president and his family took center stage in national politics, with all the opportunity and peril that involves.
Hewitt sees the significance of Romney’s comment in political-religious terms:
This is a powerful response to opponents of Romney who base their opposition on theology … Romney is very bluntly underscoring that despite deep differences, the practical impact of his Mormon faith on moms and dads and kids is quite obviously productive of tight and devoted families.
We Mormons intuitively understand Romney’s comment about the significance of his family. It brings to mind President Hinckley’s famous 1975 General Conference address, in which he related an account of a meeting with clergymen of other faiths during the open house for the rededication of the Mesa Arizona Temple.
President Hinckley was asked, “If you do not use the cross, what is the symbol of your religion?” His reply: “[T]he lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Symbol of Christ,” Ensign, May 1975, 92.)
Because of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, we may well see that principle on display in the most high-profile setting ever.
2. The “Mormon Issue,” or What Really Interests (and Worries) Latter-day Saints
Much of what Hewitt covers in his book has already been examined in other publications, but A Mormon in the White House? is terribly valuable for several reasons. Hewitt collects in a single volume every major objection and every major news story about Romney and all the issues and questions surrounding his candidacy – religious, political, or personal. For that reason alone, the book is an indispensable primer for anyone seeking to understand the Romney phenomenon.
But there’s more: Hewitt’s book is the only place I know of where Mitt Romney has clearly addressed, on the record, the most sensitive and personal of the “Romney issues.” Romney speaks openly, for example, of what it means to be a bishop and a stake president, including the subject of worthiness interviews and personal repentance. As a close observer of Mitt Romney’s campaign over the past twelve months, I have not seen him get into that level of detail anywhere.
Candidly, as an active Mormon I was touched to read Governor Romney’s open embrace of his faith, and his refusal to distance himself from it, on pages 208-209:
“Look,” Romney told me when I raised the issue of belief in the founding narrative of the Mormon faith. “I believe my faith. I love my faith. And I would in no way shape, or form try to distance myself from my faith or the fundamental beliefs of my faith.
“But what I can say is this,” he added. “To understand my faith, people should look at me and my home and how we live … I am a better person than what I would have been. I am far from perfect and if you spend some time looking into my present and past, you’ll find I’m no saint. I have my own weaknesses as did my dad. We’re not about to be taken into Heaven for our righteousness. But we’re better people – I’m a better person, my kids are better people – than we would have been without our faith. So judge my faith not by how different the theology may be on one point or another, but whether it made me and my family and perhaps others in my faith better people.”
Members will love Romney all the more for his courage and commitment. As a member of our church, he is “the real deal.”
Hewitt then turns to the obvious question: “So Mitt Romney is a thorough-going Mormon. What exactly does that mean, and why is it a problem for some Americans?”
Fully eighty-six pages of the book are devoted to the answer to that question, and members of the Church will want to read all of them and more. In essence, Hewitt is realistic about the challenge facing Romney and thoughtful about what ought to happen.
We Mormons bristle, for example, at being referred to as a “cult.” Hewitt rejects that characterization, but recognizes its problematic nature for Romney:
“This vision of ‘cult’ is difficult to square with the sunny Mormons one encounters at Boy Scout jamborees, on city councils across the land, or in the professions and business. But for those who do not know any Mormons, or at least not that well, this background music dominates the attitude they bring to the idea of a Mormon candidate for the presidency … [W]hat Romney confronts is the widespread attachment of the term “cult” to his religious beliefs. This is a political problem of the first order.”
Hewitt tries to give an overview of “unique” Mormon beliefs and does a fairly good job of that, with some clearly well-intentioned slips. He quotes a famous (or infamous) critic of the Church, Walter Martin, who provides a list of Mormon doctrines that not entirely accurate, or at least not fairly presented. That’s too bad, because some readers will think the list reflects reality.
There are some quotations from the King Follett Discourse and from some expounding by B.H. Roberts that made me wince. But all in all Hewitt is fair, sympathetic, and balanced in his presentation of Mormon doctrine.
Of most interest on a religious level are what Hugh Hewitt refers to as the “three objections” to a Romney based on theology. In reverse order of importance, those are:
1. Salt Lake City will call the shots in a Romney presidency.
For the first time that I have seen, Romney himself provides a strikingly blunt rejection of the idea that LDS Church leaders might call him about policy issues, or that he might take their guidance on such matters:
“Would you ever expect a call from [LDS Church] President Hinckley or his successor?” I asked.
“No,” he emphatically replied. “Absolutely not. And I’d also note that when you take the oath of office, that is your highest oath and first responsibility. That’s true when you become governor, it’s certainly true for anyone who becomes president. When I placed my hand on … the Bible … when I was sworn in as governor … my highest and first responsibility was to honor my oath of office and follow the Constitution and protect the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For those sworn into national office, their highest obligation is to the nation. It would be inappropriate for Church officials to contact me and it would be less than appropriate for me to take guidance from any institution other than caring first for the oath of office.”
2. A Mormon President will supercharge LDS missionary work.
As we have discussed in detail on Article VI Blog, a number of Christian clergymen, most notably the Rev. Al Mohler, have expressed a heartfelt worry that by voting for a Mormon, they will be encouraging what they call the “mainstreaming” of Mormonism. As a result, Mohler fears, some people may be attracted to our faith and thereby jeopardize their souls. As a matter of “Christian discipleship,” Mohler has stated that he wrestles with whether he can therefore vote for Romney in good conscience.
There is much to say about such worries, but the reality of the influence of high-profile Evangelical leaders like Mohler cannot be discounted. Again for the first time, in his interviews with Hugh Hewitt Romney addressed the issue directly – and light-heartedly:
Does Romney think he will be held up as a role model of Mormonism, part and parcel of the missionaries’ pitch in the remote regions of the world?
“That would kill us,” he said with a laugh. “It’s hard for me to know what the impact of that would be. I think certainly that’s not the reason I’m considering a run and I think it overstates dramatically the impact of the faith of a particular president.”
He laughed again. “I haven’t actually looked. My guess is that if you looked at the conversions here in Massachusetts, you wouldn’t see any change between before and after I became governor, and I don’t think Democrats are flocking to the Mormon Church because Harry Reid is the majority leader .
To suggest that people would say, ‘You know, because it’s sort of fashionable, I’m going to join this group where you have to give up 10 percent of your income, you can only have sex with your wife.” The dues in my Church are pretty high.”
“It certainly hasn’t worked that way in Massachusetts,” he said, with a final laugh at the idea …
On a more serious note, we Mormons should remain realistic about the consequences of electing an LDS president of the United States. In a very divided America, 50% of the people (or more) are likely to have strong negative feelings about whomever is elected. Those people are just as likely to transfer those feelings to the Church as Romney’s supporters are to do the same with their positive feelings. It would be a “mixed bag,” as Professor Craig Hazen, another Evangelical professor at Biola, tells Hewitt in the book.
It seems consistent with our beliefs not to place too high a value on success in politics. , Hugh Nibley and others have long taught that government is not the way to bring humankind to Christ. Alma, after all, when he saw Nephite society going downhill, gave up the judgment seat and devoted himself to preaching. He didn’t schedule a new election!
3. [Mormonism] is just too weird.
This is an attack likely to come at Romney from political left as much as from conservative Christians. One recent and astonishing example is a December 20, 2006 piece by Jacob Weisberg in the on-line magazine Slate:
I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics – a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.
This is pure religious bigotry, but it’s appearing in well-known and widely-read publications. (You can find the entire piece at http://www.slate.com/id/2155902/nav/tap2/.) Articles like this get right to the heart of the issue: When is the candidate’s religion relevant? Referring back to an early reporter’s question to Romney about whether he wears temple garments, Hewitt frames the issue this way:
“[T]here is sphere of private beliefs about God that is not right to raise or probe, and though the border is hard to find when there are legitimate issues that need to be discussed, heading for the undergarments angle is disgusting and will appear so to most Americans.”
The best response I have seen to the “Mormonism is too weird or irrational” argument is that offered by Professor John Mark Reynolds of Biola University. Reynolds is an Evangelical Christian and classics professor who is interviewed at length in the appendix to A Mormon in the White House? (The interview is fascinating, and highly recommended all on its own.) Reynolds applies a three-part test to whether any particular religious faith should be important in deciding whether to vote for a candidate:
First, the religious beliefs of the candidate should be held by a significant number of people and by a group willing to defend them (even if unsuccessfully) in a rational manner.
Second, the group in question should not have religious claims that will naturally lead to horrific, or at least far out, public policy
Third, the group should have a long track record of generally playing by republican rules in areas where it is dominant. No group is perfect, but the Presidency is too powerful a prize to trust to a new group that might have secret authoritarian leanings.
Applying this test to Mormonism, Reynolds has no problem voting for a Mormon candidate based on the candidate’s religion. Reynolds’ entire analysis is available here:
It remains to be seen whether this careful, rational approach, or the dismissive approach of a Jacob Weisberg, will be more prevalent as the Romney candidacy unfolds. We will surely see a lot of both.
Hewitt sees that battle as about much more than Mormonism. Indeed, the overarching thesis of his book is that if Mitt Romney can be made to suffer politically for his religious faith, then all political candidates who openly profess religious views will suffer. It’s a compelling argument.
This is valuable and important book. Buy one for yourself and several for your friends.