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Onward, Mormon soldiers (continued)

Related links

Mormon Archipelago

A compendium of Mormon blogs from every perspective imaginable, including Feminist Mormon Housewives, Issues in Mormon Doctrine, and Dave’s Mormon Inquiry.

Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research

Dedicated to "defending Mormonism" from those who would unfairly impugn it.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Official LDS Church Web site.

Richard and Joan Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000). Probably the best available history of the Mormons — neither polemical nor apologetic, just engaging and insightful.

Jeffrey E. Sells, God and Country: Politics in Utah (Signature Books, 2005). As its starting point, this just-released critical anthology assumes that Utah is, in fact, a de facto Mormon theocracy. Contributors then weigh in on whether this is a good or bad thing.

Mitt Romney, governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Romney’s official gubernatorial Web site, complete with a Romney-family photo gallery.

Romney Is a Fraud

Intermittently updated blog dedicated to making Mitt Romney look as bad as possible. When the content is fresh, a worthwhile read.

AT THIS POINT, of course, it’s all still hypothetical. Romney hasn’t committed to a presidential run, and his fellow Mormons haven’t lined up to support him. Until he does — and until they do — two caveats are worth noting.

First, Romney wouldn’t be the first Mormon presidential candidate. Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the LDS Church, declared himself an independent candidate for the presidency in 1844. More recently, George Romney, Mitt’s father, made an attention-getting run in 1968 (see "Here Comes the Son," News and Features, September 17, 2004), and Utah senator Orrin Hatch launched a bid of his own in 2000. The collective Mormon genius for politics wasn’t enough to put any of these candidates over the top.

Then again, none of these candidacies really gave Mormons a chance to flex their political muscle. As the founder of a widely distrusted new religion and a perceived threat to the federal government, Joseph Smith was perhaps the least-viable presidential candidate in American history. George Romney’s appealing candor hobbled his campaign early on, and he was essentially finished by the New Hampshire primary; furthermore, the elder Romney made his run before the LDS Church waged its formative battle against the ERA. And Hatch — burdened by profound blandness, and running against John McCain and George W. Bush — never managed to gain traction in the 2000 race. If Romney runs in ’08, he should be the most nationally viable Mormon candidate yet.

The other point is more problematic. Veteran observers of Mormon politics believe that the LDS Church will not formally endorse or support Romney if he runs. Kim Farah, an LDS spokeswoman, says this is correct. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a longstanding policy of political neutrality," Farah said via e-mail. "The Church does not endorse political parties, candidates or platforms."

This raises a perplexing question: is top-down guidance necessary to shift the Mormon machine into high gear? Some believe it is. If Romney runs, Quinn argues, "you’d have independent firebrands with great organizational skills working in Memphis or Tallahassee or Boston, but their organizations wouldn’t be connected. It would not represent a coordinated campaign." He adds that the endorsement of the LDS Church president — who, in addition to being the Church’s top administrator, acts as its living prophet — carries profound weight: "Mormons can be critical thinkers, and skeptical, until they receive instructions from the ‘living prophet.’ Then believing Mormons act like army ants under orders from headquarters." This jibes with the conclusions of Monson and Campbell, who suggest that top-down direction is crucial to ignite the "dry kindling" effect.

But is it? First off, overt neutrality on the part of the Mormon hierarchy might well co-exist with quiet support for Romney’s candidacy. "I very much doubt that they would publicly support Romney in an official way," says Ed Firmage Jr., a liberal Mormon political activist in Salt Lake City. "The Church is very skittish about appearing too political. But while it would be completely unofficial, in every invisible sense, [Church support] would probably be pretty strong." Again, the case of the ERA is instructive: while LDS leadership publicly condemned the amendment, it also worked to obscure the Church-directed nature of its members’ opposition. Even if Church leaders were to remain formally neutral, comparable surreptitious support for Romney might be forthcoming.

Furthermore, there’s something faintly ridiculous about the notion that, if Hinckley and lower-ranking Mormon authorities remain publicly neutral in the face of a Romney run, the Mormon electorate won’t be able to discern their private preferences. Think about it: Romney saved the Salt Lake Olympics, which doubled as the LDS Church’s chance to re-introduce itself to the world. His father remains a revered figure among Mormons; to a lesser extent, so does his cousin. Factor in some additional Romney attributes — his squeaky-clean image, his business success, his photogenic family — and it becomes clear that our governor is a paragon of Mormon virtues. "Honesty and integrity play well in Mormon culture," says J. Bonner Ritchie, an emeritus professor of organizational behavior at BYU. "Mormonism has become a true pro-business culture; successful businesspeople have credibility, and he’s a successful businessperson. He has a good family — he has a beautiful wife, and sons, some of whom are in school here, who look like they’re strong and good and behave well. All those things carry weight." Would Mormon voters really see their religious leaders as agnostic between Romney and the pro-gay-rights Rudy Giuliani? Between Romney and the libertarian McCain? Between Romney and Hillary Clinton? It seems unlikely.

One final factor suggests Romney could reap the full benefits of Mormon support even without an official Church endorsement. There is a notion, dating back to Joseph Smith’s days, that Mormons have a messianic role to play in American history. At some point in the future, or so the argument goes, the US Constitution will be "hanging by a thread." And Mormons will save it. "I’ve heard that phrase since I was born," says one liberal Mormon intellectual. "That’s something that every Mormon’s been raised with." If several more states legalize gay marriage, the sense of crisis among gay-marriage opponents will intensify — and the impact will be especially acute in the LDS Church. What better time for a Mormon president to step in and clean things up?

PARSING THE interplay of politics and faith is always delicate, and assessing the implications of Romney’s religiosity is no exception. Back in 1994, when Romney challenged incumbent Ted Kennedy for a US Senate seat, the Kennedy camp offered an object lesson in how not to proceed. Joe Kennedy Jr. suggested that an unsavory aspect of Mormon history — the church’s long-standing denial of the priesthood to blacks — was a legitimate campaign issue. Romney reacted angrily, and invoked the example of John F. Kennedy. Ted Kennedy backpedaled, and commentators around Boston lamented his foray into religious bigotry.

Times have changed. In the past few years, we’ve seen George W. Bush use his own religiosity as a campaign prop, and watched Catholic bishops upbraid John Kerry for not following Church doctrine on abortion. (Quite a difference from 1960, when JFK vowed to compartmentalize his religious and political identities.) The question today isn’t whether politics and religion interact, but how.

If Romney does run — and if his candidacy is strong — it’s a safe bet that the major media will offer bite-size synopses of Mormon history and theology. (Catholic politicians are lucky their faith is already well-known: when it comes to far-out doctrines, transubstantiation is hard to beat.) In the interest of not appearing judgmental or inflammatory, however, they’ll probably gloss over the political usefulness of Romney’s faith. That would be a mistake. The Mormon talent for politics is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, it should be a point of pride. But it should also be discussed openly, and pondered at length. After all, it could make a big difference in ’08.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: March 18 - 24, 2005
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