In May, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2008 Republican presidential hopeful, will give the commencement address at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. What better opportunity for Mr. Romney to discuss the issue of his Mormon faith before an audience of evangelicals?
When John F. Kennedy spoke before Protestant clergymen in Houston in 1960, he sought to dispel the fear that as a Catholic president, he would be subject to direction from the pope. As a Mormon, Mr. Romney faces ignorance as well as fear of his church and its political influence. More Americans, polls show, are willing to accept a woman or an African-American as president than a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It isn’t just evangelical Christians in the Republican base who find Mr. Romney’s religion a stumbling block. Among those who identify themselves as liberal, almost half say they would not support a Mormon for president. Although with 5.6 million adherents Mormonism is the nation’s fourth-largest denomination, 57 percent of respondents to a recent CBS poll said they know little or nothing about Mormon beliefs and practices. Mr. Romney needs to be their teacher, whether he likes that role or not.
Among the reasons Americans distrust the Mormon church is Mormon clannishness. Because every worthy Mormon male is expected to be a lay priest in voluntary service to the church, the demands on his time often leave little opportunity to cultivate close friendships with non-Mormon neighbors. A good Mormon is a busy Mormon. Those — like Mr. Romney — who serve as bishops (pastors of congregations) often find it difficult to schedule evenings at home with their own families.
To many Americans, Mormonism is a church with the soul of a corporation. Successful Mormon males can expect to be called, at some time in their lives, to assume full-time duties in the church’s missions, in its vast administrative offices in Salt Lake City or in one of many church-owned businesses. Mormons like to hire other Mormons, and those who lose their jobs can count on the church networks to find them openings elsewhere. Mr. Romney put those same networks to effective use in raising part of his $23 million in campaign contributions.
Moreover, Mormons are perceived to be unusually secretive. Temple ceremonies — even weddings — are closed to non-Mormons, and church members are told not to disclose what goes on inside them. This attitude has fed anti-Mormon charges of secret and unholy rites. Already in his campaign, Mr. Romney has had to defend his church against beliefs and practices it abandoned a century ago. That some voters still confuse the Latter-day Saints with fundamentalist Mormon sects that continue to practice polygamy and child marriage is another reason the candidate should take the time to set the record straight.
But Mr. Romney must be sure to express himself in a way that will be properly understood. Any journalist who has covered the church knows that Mormons speak one way among themselves, another among outsiders. This is not duplicity but a consequence of the very different meanings Mormon doctrine attaches to words it shares with historic Christianity.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
For example, Mormons speak of God, but they refer to a being who was once a man of “flesh and bone,” like us. They speak of salvation, but to them that means admittance to a “celestial kingdom” where a worthy couple can eventually become “gods” themselves. The Heavenly Father of whom they speak is married to a Heavenly Mother. And when they emphasize the importance of the family, they may be referring to their belief that marriage in a Mormon temple binds families together for all eternity.
Thus, when Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans a few months ago that Jesus was his “personal savior,” he used Southern Baptist language to affirm a relationship to Christ that is quite different in Mormon belief. (For Southern Baptists, “personal savior” implies a specific born-again experience that is not required or expected of Mormons.) This is not a winning strategy for Mr. Romney, whose handlers should be aware that Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals know Mormon doctrine better than most other Americans do — if only because they study Mormonism in order to rebut its claims.
Especially at Regent University, Mr. Romney should avoid using language that blurs fundamental differences among religious traditions. Rather, he should acknowledge those differences and insist that no candidate for public office should have to apologize for his or her religious faith.
Finally, there is the question of authority in the Church of Latter-day Saints, and of what obligations an office holder like Mr. Romney must discharge. Like the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church has a hierarchical structure in which ultimate authority is vested in one man. But unlike the pope, the church’s president is also regarded as God’s own “prophet” and “revelator.” Every sitting prophet is free to proclaim new revelations as God sees fit to send them — a form of divine direction that Mormon missionaries play as a trump card against competing faiths.
At Regent University, Mr. Romney will address an audience of conservative Christians who regard the Bible alone as the ultimate authority on faith and morals. Some, like Mr. Robertson, will also be Pentecostals who claim to receive private revelations themselves from time to time. But these revelations are strictly personal, the fruit of a wildly unpredictable Holy Spirit, and their recipients have no power to demand acceptance, much less obedience, from others.
How, then, might Mr. Romney defend himself against the charge that, as president, he would be vulnerable to direction from the prophet of his church?
He should invite critics to review the church’s record. The former Massachusetts governor is neither the first nor even the most prominent Mormon office holder. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah come immediately to mind — not to mention Mr. Romney’s father, George, a moderate governor of Michigan who ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1968.
There is no evidence that church authorities have tried to influence any of these public servants. On the contrary, the church leadership is undoubtedly astute enough to realize — as Catholic bishops did with President Kennedy — that any pressure on a Romney White House would only harm the church itself. “My church doesn’t dictate to me or anyone what political policies we should pursue,” Mr. Romney declared in New Hampshire in February. Voters should accept that declaration unless there is evidence to prove otherwise.
The issues above are real to many people, and Mr. Romney should take the opportunity to address them at Regent University. But none of these popular reservations about the Mormon Church are reasons to vote for or against Mitt Romney. History was bound to have its Mormon moment in presidential politics, just as it had its Catholic moment when Kennedy ran. Now that the moment has arrived, much depends on Mr. Romney.
Kenneth Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, is writing a book about American religion since 1950.
We appreciate your support
One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.