Notes toward prolegomena to any future consideration of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism

1. It should be remembered from the outset that Mitt Romney is running for president and stands some signficant chance of winning. Thus, he is a bastard. But how is this bastard different from all the other bastards?

2. In this season of non-standard presidential candidates, Romney’s Mormonism has drawn some comment. Damon Linker’s recent essay in The New Republic is the most prominent among journalistic attempts to discern something about the chameleon-like Romney by talking about his Mormonism. You can generalize about Mormonism, but to what extent can these generalizations tell us anything about Mitt Romney?

3. Many of the Christian conservatives Romney is targeting with his candidacy object to various aspects of Mormon theology. Plenty of these objections are valid as theological points from within the historical Christian tradition, but are unfairly applied to politics. In fact, when stated as reasons not to vote for a Mormon, they amount to anti-Mormon prejudice: “I won’t vote for Romney because Mormons are polytheists” is no better than “I won’t vote for Kennedy because Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary.”

4. Linker’s objections are theological but more sophisticated. Mormonism, he says, has no theological or philosophical resources to prevent the President of the Church (also believed to be the Prophet) from ordering his followers to commit some radical and awful act. Thus, according to Linker, it is at least prima facie legitimate to worry about Romney following orders from Mormon leaders to do something sinister — in a way it was not legitimate to worry about JFK doing the same thing vis à vis the Pope.

5. Linker makes at least one shrewd observation: As the hopeful candidate of the Religious Right, Romney can’t run away from his religion as Kennedy did. “Romney thus needs to convince voters that they have nothing to fear from his Mormonism while simultaneously placing that faith at the core of his identity and his quest for the White House.”

6. But most of Linker’s essay is a red herring. It focuses on theological concerns that Linker thinks strongly influence the behavior of a church and individuals within the church (having or lacking a doctrine of natural law, a closed canon, a belief in the current church leader’s having an open phone line to God). But as the Mormon historian Richard Bushman points out in an exchange with Linker, the history of Mormonism indicates that current leaders are extremely unlikely to try to control a Mormon officeholder, much less in some radically destructive or sinister fashion. (Bushman’s view of this history has its own problems, but they’re outside the scope, as we say.) Mormonism made a decisive turn toward a patriotic, pro-American ethos in the late nineteenth century. There hasn’t been a radical Mormon church president since Brigham Young, and as Linker himself admits, the current gerontocracy is structured to weed out any troublemakers.

7. Still, it’s legitimate to judge a candidate for her beliefs — and religious beliefs don’t get a free pass. If anything, religious beliefs that could affect public policy should receive more scrutiny than non-religious beliefs, since religious beliefs tend not to be open to falsification by public evidence and argument. Thus, we should hold Romney under suspicion if he appears to share the objectionable political views of the Mormon church (whether these views are “official” church doctrine or not — a perpetually slippery point): anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-welfare, pro-business, militarist.

8. Of course, to take just the abortion example, Romney has embraced different positions at different points in his career, and it’s obvious that his current position on this issue is a result of his political ambition much more than his Mormonism. We can object to Romney’s positions on the issues, but it’s simply not accurate to attribute to his religious commitments much causal power over his political positions. George W. Bush presents a similar case — it’s not really his religious beliefs that are the problem, despite some liberal worries to the contrary. (On the other hand, there are politicians, like Sam Brownback, whose religious beliefs do appear to have a strong and objectionable effect on their political positions.)

9. Another legitimate potential concern about religious candidates: Close-knit religious subcultures like Mormonism tend to have strong formative effects on their members, even setting aside the inculcation of specific beliefs — extending into patterns of decision making and other psychological matters. To the extent that Mormonism is unhealthy in this regard, producing adherents with patterns of mind and action that are unwelcome, we might worry about what Mormonism has wrought in Mitt Romney.

10. Romney, though, is clearly an exception within Mormonism: Although he professes devotion and has served in relatively high lay leadership positions, he has a national political pedigree and a privileged upbringing; he has then gone on to business and political success that few people ever achieve. To what extent does his socialization as a Mormon matter to who he is now, compared to his identities as a political Brahmin, multimillionaire businessman, or Republican presidential hopeful?

11. Are there areas where Romney’s other identities overlap with his Mormonism, where their energies are in phase and strengthen each other? Is Romney in some way an über-Mormon, just as Mormons are in some way the über-Americans?

12. The most promising direction for investigation might not be what Mormonism can tell us about Mitt Romney, but what Mitt Romney can tell us about Mormonism, or what Mitt Romney and Mormonism can tell us about the American situation.

53 responses to “Notes toward prolegomena to any future consideration of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism”

  1. bacon says:

    I urge you and your readers NOT to vote for Mitt Romney…in the elections that are, like, two and a half years into the future.

  2. Rachel says:

    CNN This Morning cited the examples of Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid as evidence that Mormon leadership holds no partisan stance. Ha! Doesn’t anyone remember bringing down the ERA? Or at least the 1995 “Proclamation on the Family” and subsequent harangues against same-sex marriage, complete with instructions to church leaders telling their congregations how to vote on the issue? (The gay & lesbian Mormon group Affirmation’s website hosts one smoking gun LDS memo.) Millions of dollars spent organizing members and fighting same-sex marriage in Hawaii, Nevada, Texas, California, on and on…the whole thing chills my blood. But will church leaders actually go so far as telling their members to select a specific candidate?–I’m not sure.

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    Like, one and half years, Bacon. [insert economist joke here].

  4. LP says:

    And I hereby salute Dave for using a word nobody knows in the title of today’s post. Actually, I salute him for having waited this long to do so. For the record, I am absolutely pro-Lego, no matter what my opponent might tell you.

  5. bryan says:

    [ahem] i knew the word. and got the allusion. sorry to disappoint, parrish.



  6. LP says:

    Damn academics.

  7. Scott Godfrey says:

    Parrish, I didn’t know the word. You stand strong sister, and don’t let that BW bum you out.

    Dave, awesome post, I find myself sickly intrigued by Romney. Honestly, however, I don’t think he’ll get the nomination. Obviously an affiliation with God is a prerequisite for electability, but any politician that is so deeply defined by a specific religion gives me the willies.

  8. Rachel says:

    Brave leaders, please free my recent comment from moderation purgatory! Surely if you have time for linguistic shenanigans and playing with Legos, you have time for that.

  9. rachel — i don’t see any comments in the holding pen. is it possible it was erased instead of sent?

  10. Rachel says:

    Oh, all those beautiful embedded links for nought!

    CNN This Morning cited the party affiliations of Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid as evidence that the LDS church doesn’t take a partisan stance or tell its members how to vote.

    That’s so patently false that I almost blew cereal milk out my nose when I heard it. I was wondering whether the LDS church would actually go so far as to endorse a candidate [Romney] over the pulpit.

    In brief, some precendents of the LDS church’s interventions in poliitcs:

    The 1995 Proclamation on the Family and subsequent harangues against same-sex marriage, accompanying…

    millions of dollars of Church money spent fighting same-sex marriage in Nevada, Hawaii, Texas, and so on. Most notably, Proposition 22 (the Knight Initiative) was passed in 2000 in California, due in large part to the grass-roots organizing efforts of Mormons. According to the Boston Phoenix, “In the year before the election, LDS leaders mobilized local congregations to support the ban, formally asking California Mormons to raise money, knock on doors, send mailings, and staff phone banks.”

    The Affirmation (Gay & Lesbian Mormons) website hosts a “smoking gun” memo (link to it here ) in which the LDS First Presidency instructs local leaders to tell their congregations how to vote on the same-sex marriage issue.

    So will there be a Romney memo?

  11. ken says:

    People who are against Romney because of his religion suffer from the 3 “ances”:

    IgnorANCE, ArrogANCE and IntolerANCE!

    Prejudices aside, Romney is the most qualified candidate – in either party – to be President!

  12. Rachel says:

    Oh, now it appears twice. Good grief.

  13. MF says:

    So… Mitt Romney was the stake president of the Boston, MA stake when I was in college. (A stake president is a regional leader in the Mormon church.)

    Back when I was a church-going zealot, sometime in 1993, or thereabouts, Mitt Romney gave a talk during stake conference on homosexuality. People actually walked out of the room it was so alienating and rigid in it’s perspective. (And that is saying a lot considering that the people in the room were churchgoing zealots just like me.)

    I realize it’s been some time since then and his political ambitions have moved his public views on such topics significantly more to the middle, but it’s hard for me to ever imagine him as President. But then, I can’t usually imagine any Republican as president. So, there you go.

    And by the way, LP, I had to look it up too and I still dont’ know the allusion.

  14. Tim Wager says:

    I think it’s a reference to Kant’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics,” often referred to by academics and smarty-pantses alike as “The Prolegomena.” That is all.

  15. #12: I dragged them out of the spam filter, but I didn’t notice they both had gone through. I think the filter must have assumed they were Mormon anti-gay propaganda, given the keywords, and not the reverse!

  16. Dave says:

    Rach — no church would actually endorse a candidate over the pulpit, because that would pretty clearly violate the laws that give it a tax exemption. But as you point out, the Mormon church, like plenty of other churches, stretches those laws. And given the political beliefs of the US Mormon membership, all the church has to do is read a letter from the pulpit urging members to support “honest and faithful” candidates and such like.

    MF — interesting to hear about Romney’s anti-gay talk. I have a hard time figuring out what he actually believes, but incidents like that help clear things up.

    A confession: In high school, I wanted to read some philosophy. Our school library had about five books on the subject, two of which were Ayn Rand. There was an old edition of the Prolegomena, and the introduction noted (correctly) that Kant wrote it to give a simpler, shorter explication of the main points he had made in the Critique of Pure Reason (known in the trade as the First Critique). So I though, that’s great, I hear the Critique is really hard, but surely Kant’s own Cliffs Notes to it must be manageable. I struggled through the first page, not understanding a word, and gave up. (In college I read most of the First Critique with a lot of help and can now orient myself in the Prolegomena, which really is easier.)

  17. Marleyfan says:

    I couldn’t wait to see what discussions would arise from this contribution…

    I am curious about number 4. Why was JFK not the same as Romney, does the Catholic church have a theological or philosophical resources to prevent it?

    Has Dave listened to the Bob’s song “Stir it up” recently?

  18. Dave says:

    Re point #4: Linker says that even pre-Vatican II Catholicism, despite a rich anti-democratic (“anti-modernist”) tradition, made it very hard for the Pope to tell a Catholic politician what to do — and be obeyed. Catholicism has a whole theology of natural law, which according to church teaching is discernable by reason alone and which no ecclesiastical order can violate. It also has a closed canon of scripture by which the church’s pronouncements can be judged. And a bunch of authoritative declarations by councils over the years. And a very narrow delineation of when the Pope is speaking infallibly. So a Catholic politician who doesn’t want to do what the Pope says has all kinds of resources to fall back on to defend his actions even within his own faith.

    Plus, as Linker points out, Kennedy was not running as “the Catholic candidate.” He sidelined his religion, while Romney wants to emphasize his.

  19. Dubya says:

    What kind of name is Mitt? What’s it short for?

  20. Marleyfan says:

    Mittigate, Mittalica, and Mittain’tnonayourbusiness

  21. Dubya says:

    “Mittigate.” Genius! So perfect in so many ways.

  22. Stephanie Wells says:

    It’s actually an acronym for Mormonism Is The Truth.

  23. ks says:

    Yet another great post at TGW. I’m so happy I stumbled upon ya’ll. I have long wondered about the origins of this group of writers who are TGW. What is the big connection you share? It seems that a common thread for many of you is having been reared in the LDS faith, and a later abandonment of said cult(ure), no? Is there more to it than that? I was raised in the land of zion but was never “of the flock” so I am fascinated by the discourse I often read about Mormonism but I continue to feel oddly alienated, sort of like I did when I was growing up an “NM” in Utah as a child. As a life-long dissenter I don’t hold membership in your cool club of late-life rejection and doubt. Dammit. Mitt’s potential candidacy will be fascinating to watch. I look forward to further discussion of it!

  24. Rachel says:


  25. Trixie Honeycups says:

    welcome ks!
    i love it when new people comment. so exciting.
    i was never mormon. just wanted to get that out there.

  26. G-Lock says:

    Trixie and I are Mormon by injection! By the same family!

  27. ks says:

    Cripes, I can’t believe I missed “dammitt”. Excellent catch, Rachel. And Trixie, you didn’t fully answer my question but I take *some* meaning from your knee-jerk disavowal of a connection between TGWers and jack- mormonism. I’ll comment more often, now that I know it’s okay to. I’m often moved to.

  28. G-Lock says:

    (But I’m not near Mormon enough to think Mitt Romney is Presidential material.)

  29. Dave says:

    26 is a bit graphic, don’t you think?

  30. Dave says:

    We’re less than 50% Jack.

  31. G-Lock says:

    Sorry, I’m drunk. Dave, I’m home!

  32. largo clergy says:

    “Plus, as Linker points out, Kennedy was not running as “the Catholic candidate.” He sidelined his religion, while Romney wants to emphasize his.”

    I didn’t hear the M word in today’s announcement speech. And I don’ t think he’ll ever use it of his volition. So unless you think that declaring a belief in God is tantamount to running as “the Mormon candidate,” Linker’s argument fails.

  33. Dave says:

    Romney’s clearly angling to be the candidate of the Religious Right. He’s not just declaring a belief in God (something that’s obligatory for all serious presidential candidates). He’s competing with Sam Brownback for the title of God’s Favorite Republican in ’08. His religiousity, though not his specific religion, is a key to his campaign strategy. So he either has to separate his religiousity from his religion, or make his religion acceptable to conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. Linker argues that he’ll have a hard time doing the latter; the former seems even less likely.

  34. autumn says:

    Mormonism Is The Truth.
    I hick-up laughed and almost lost my sip of tea out my nose.
    it’s going to be a very interesting run to the election with Mitt, Barack, John McCain, ole Hil, Edwards, Rudy and what will likely be so many more.
    I think the TGW will be my go to commentary.

  35. bryan says:

    31: are you trying to pick a fight with me, g-lock?

  36. bryan says:

    so dave — isn’t it possible that your average mormon (not even your average mormon multimillionaire ex-governor of a democratic state) is more moderate on social issues than your average southern baptist? that is, if southern christian conservatives fail to endorse romney, isn’t it possible that he just wasn’t right-wing enough? i don’t know many mormons who would stand outside gay high schools in new york with “god hates fags” signs, yet there seems no shortage of nut case christian fundamentalists willing to travel to new york for just that purpose. if i were a bible thumper and i saw mitt on TV, i would be suspect because he looked too mainstream, too TV-perfect, too groomed, too slick. Too Mormon, I suppose, true — but when it comes to American politics I’m more scared of W’s religion than I am of Mitt’s. I’m scared of Mitt’s lack of moral backbone and his increasingly conservative social agenda, but do I worry that “God” will interfere with his decision-making to the degree he has with W, who fancies that God chose him to usher in the last days? Nah.

    That said, please, God, give us a democrat with principle and charisma and the ability to win.

  37. Dave says:

    The people with the “God Hates Fags” signs aren’t Southern Baptists, actually. And while there are definitely Protestant Fundamentalist nutjobs that make most Mormons look like Nancy Pelosi (and a few freaky Catholics that make Mormons look like hippie anarchists), my sense is that the median voter among American Evangelicals is probably somewhat to the left of the median U.S. Mormon voter. And certainly the Religious Right in its Protestant and Catholic incarnations finds common cause with Mormons on the all-important issues of abortion and homosexuality, along with a general hostility to feminism, a culture-war mentality about Hollywood, resentment over school prayer and other church/state issues, etc.

    Also, I think Mitt is much more devout than W, who I don’t think is very religious at all. He used a self-help gospel to quit drinking when Laura forced him to, but he was well aware that his religious path could be shaped into a powerful political narrative. I think the shrewdest comment on W’s religiosity was made by an anonymous Bush cousin who, when asked whether W’s faith was genuine or a political calculation, responded “Both.”

  38. bryan says:

    And certainly the Religious Right in its Protestant and Catholic incarnations finds common cause with Mormons on the all-important issues of abortion and homosexuality, along with a general hostility to feminism, a culture-war mentality about Hollywood, resentment over school prayer and other church/state issues, etc.

    With the exception of Hollywood (Mormons love movies, and even more, they wish they could watch the ones they’re not supposed to) I see your point, of course. My question, on one hand, is whether evangelicals realize how much they have in common politically. (Leaders do, of course, because they’ve long accepted Mormon dough to fight gay marriage.) On the other hand, Mormons sound quite moderate compared to some other right-wing Christians: they make exceptions for abortion in cases of rape or incest (though they prefer adoption) and though they pour tons of money into anti-gay crusades, they’re generally more humane than the “God Hates Fags” folks. (If those aren’t Southern Baptists, who are they? If I’ve got my fundy definitions screwed up please correct me.)

    I’m not worried about whether W is devout. I do think he has a sense that God is backing him, even as he (or Rove) shrewdly manipulates fundamentalist Christian paranoia to win elections.

    There’s a whole cohort of Mormons who have long tried to forge relations with evangelicals based on socially conservative agendas. The religion department at BYU, for example, which is packed with what sociologists of religion (following Kendall White in the late 60s) called “Mormon neo-orthodoxy.” The result has been, for 20 years or so (about the same length of time that neo-cons have been underwriting national culture wars) that it’s easier for conservative Mormons to get on socially with most evangelicals than it is to get along with liberals who are their co-religionists. Again, though, the real question is whether evangelicals will bite. Or is their anti-Mormonism too deeply ingrained?

    Your last point is the most pertinent for this reason. Unfortunately for most people involved, they won’t have the critical distance to ask and answer such questions.

  39. Ruben Mancillas says:

    why are we spending so much time on this guy again?

    while it’s mildly amusing to watch the lambada between he and the christian right it worries me that many of us seem all too willing to poke holes in someone like senator clinton’s positions but discuss romney as if he were merely an interesting social construct rather than another potential disaster.

    i remember when w. was mocked as being so incompetent as to be unworthy of concern and look how that turned out.

  40. bryan says:

    don’t get me wrong, ruben. i realize he’s a disaster. he’d be an imrovement over bush, i think, but a disaster nonetheless. they share a sort of moral universalism — the kind that makes you think if you airbomb the middle east with copies of the declaration of independence, everyone’s going to start wering periwigs and mouthing enlightenment cliches about democracy.

  41. Lisa Tremain says:

    I’m not Mormon, ks, but seem to have happily stumbled into this community of reformed Mormons-turned-bohemians. And very intelligent bohemians at that.

    And, I’m sorry, but “Baptisms for the Dead” freak me out.

  42. Dave says:

    The “God Hates Fags” people are unaffiliated Primitive Baptists –Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church. And Southern Baptists generally don’t think of themselves as fundamentalists, although you can argue they are.

    I’ll have to try to find some data about who’s more conservative, Mormons or Evangelicals. But I do think Evangelicals love Hollywood as much as Mormons do, if not more — so much their preachers have to rail against it as much as Mormon general authorities do.

    And baptisms for the dead didn’t seem so weird when I was doing them!

  43. DeadHead says:

    Maybe it should be Bohemians for the Dead

  44. PB says:

    Just for the record, I think comment #26 was really funny.
    Mitt would appreciate it, oh wait, I guess not this year.
    The hypocritical bastard.

  45. Marleyfan says:

    I’m just a little slow, what did it mean by injection? Plus, did ya’ll see the Mitt’s thong
    (I hope this works, the last time I put a link in, I did it wrong…

  46. Marleyfan says:

    Doggonit, tried to add a link, but did it wrong again! I’ll find out how to do this correctly, then add a link.

  47. Marleyfan says:

    Le’t see if it worked this time (hopefully, 3rd time’s a charm)

  48. Marleyfan says:

    I’m an idiot (you don’t have to say it)

    Here’s the fourth try:

  49. bryan says:

    Try this, Marley.

  50. i think you finally got it — i found some additional efforts in the moderated comments queue.

    if you want to avoid having the whole URL hanging out in the open, do what i did in #49 — Type your sentence, highlight the text you’d like to turn into the link (the word “this” in my case), then while it’s still highlighted hit the little arrow button above the comments box. this should open a new window where you can put the URL for the link. hit OK or Insert or whatever it says and presto, you have an embedded link.


  51. Dave says:

    Or use HTML “a href” tags — you can learn about them at any site with an intro to HTML.

    Comments with links tend to get shunted into a moderation queue, like Bryan said, so they don’t actually appear until one of the editors approves them. This helps cut down on comment spam.

  52. Stella says:

    That Mitt thong is a whole new take on Mormon undergarments…

  53. Dave says:

    Bryan, re: Mormons being at least as conservative as Evangelicals, check out this data from Gallup (via Yglesias) on rates of support for the war by religion.