Mormons Ambivalent about Romney Spotlight

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to supporters during his Florida primary night party. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won the Republican caucus in Nevada yesterday by about 25 points, helped in part by Mormons, who made up more than a quarter of the voters who turned out.

This big win cast against renewed scrutiny of Romney's silence about his faith. Frank Rich castigated Romney's silence on his faith in last week's New York Magazine. "Romney's very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps,” Rich wrote in the article, titled “Who in God's Name is Mitt Romney?”

Over the weekend at Columbia University, scholars and students — Mormon and not — were asking the same question. But the broader concern was what Romney's presidential run means for Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more than a few described deep ambivalence about this new spotlight.

“There's this contrast between Mormons inherent desire to be mainstream, but also our love of being peculiar,” Darren Jackson, a Mormon law student at Columbia concluded at the end of the two-day conference on Mormonism and American politics. “We both are hesitant when Mitt Romney gets questioned about his faith because we don't want him judged by that, but we love the fact that people are talking about us. Most Mormons won't go to see the Book of Mormon, but we love the fact that there is one, you know?”

This gathering was small, less than 100 people, but the assembled speakers and participants described a pervasive uncertainty about this “Mormon Moment” of greater exposure and higher scrutiny.

Six in ten Mormons told Pew last month that they feel like the American public is misinformed, and two-thirds said they don't feel like they're viewed as part of the mainstream in the U.S.

“I've actually been very surprised by how little people very educated people on the East Coast know about Mormons,” said Lane Anderson, a Mormon who moved from Utah to New York and now teaches English at Yeshiva University. “I do think the prejudice, it feels real. It definitely feels real in intellectual circles sometimes.”

Anderson name-checked Christopher Hitchens in particular, who called Mormons “one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil” in Slate last October.

“Yeah, well he's dead,” someone yelled in the crowd.

“Take that, Christopher Hitchens,” she replied to laughs.

In this conference room at Columbia, this felt like a crowd of allies, insiders. Over and over again, the assembled theologians, scholars, and practicing Mormons described that remarkable sense of community within the Mormon church.

Deeply personal sharing – testimony – is a hallmark of Mormon spiritual practice. And the central tenet in that sharing is the belief that the Mormon church is the one true church.

So Mitt Romney's personal reticence to publicly detail his faith is not an extension of an overly cautious personality or callous strategy. It has its roots deep in Mormon practice, argued Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University, a Christian college in Kansas.

“Mitt Romney is able to speak amongst his congregation about how he knows certain things are true. And that's an essential religious language for him. It's an essential religious language for me,” Fox said. “It's what we were brought up with.”

“We haven't figured a way to comfortable know how to talk inside of church and outside of church in the same way.”

In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential cycles, Mitt Romney has emphasized his commitment to God and to his family when talking about this faith. But he's kept it broad and very nonspecific. For example, he gave what was billed as a major speech about religion in America, and he mentioned the word Mormon just one time.

“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,” he said. “These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.”

And he firmly rejected the idea that he owed American voters more details about his personal faith.

“There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines,” Romney said, and drew sustained applause with this: “No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.”

Romney gave that speech in December 2007, before the Mormon church drew ire from the left for its financial backing of Proposition 8 in California, the ballot measure that prohibited gay marriage in the state. And back then, Romney was the only Mormon running for president Before Jon Huntsman bowed out, 2012 had two.

American voters' attitudes about a potential Mormon president have stayed largely consistent. Gallup found last June that about one in five Americans reported that they would not vote for a Mormon for president. That's been about the same since they starting asking the question in 1967 – when Romney's father George Romney was preparing a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

On the campaign trail, most of the focus this cycle has been the evangelical response to Mormonism, including in my interviews with voters in South Carolina. The Gallup poll showed that non-Christians and Protestants equally reluctant at 22 and 23 percent respectively. (Catholics were more comfortable — only 16 percent said they wouldn't back a Mormon.) And more Democrats than Republicans said they'd withhold their vote.

But if history's any guide, Romney may have to come up with some clearer talking points on what exactly he believes.

“I think he's handled the religion question all wrong,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of Religious History at Barnard. “His stock answers are, I'm not a theologian, I don't speak for my church. And I think unfortunately for him politically it kind of reinforces the idea that he is evasive, kind of a moving target.”

He suggested Romney look back at candidates like Joe Lieberman, who opened himself up to the most basic of questions about his observant Jewish practice when he was the Democrat's Vice Presidential nominee in 2000. He said voters need to understand, or doubts can fester about Romney's moral makeup which is what religion in presidential politics has really been about in the post-Watergate era.

“What we want to know is whether our presidential candidates are good, honest, decent people. We don't know how to ask the question,” Balmer said.

Instead, voters and the media press for details about personal faith and religion.

And to Balmer, that's not the only proxy battle going on this year.

“It's my impression that Mormons in America view Mitt Romney's candidacy as a kind of proxy for their own acceptance into American society,” he said. “If American voters accept Mitt Romney, that they will be in some way validating [their] place in American society.”


Romney's Faith in America speech - December 6, 2007


More in:

Comments [14]

frank burns from Spain

Mormons are half right. They are not brothers. They are the same, with two different names. The Great Deceiver.

Jun. 01 2014 09:07 PM

In Doctrine and Covenants 132:20 it says "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them." This proves that we may be exalted to become gods. This is a very comforting and encouraging thought. Catholics and Protestants need to open their eyes to this truth.

Feb. 07 2012 10:09 PM

I agree. Go directly to the source. Study the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, King Follett Discourse, and the Sermon in the Grove. LDS dot org and mormon dot org are also good resources. But keep in mind that initially what you read on those websites will sound very similar to Protestant or Catholic Christianity. Yes, we in the LDS *are* Christians, but Protestants and Catholics do *not* have the whole truth. This is where we look to Joseph Smith for the whole truth. Protestants and Catholics completely misunderstand and will miss out on exaltation. Exaltation means that we may be exalted to God, because God the Father was a man once, and he himself was exalted at one point and became a God. Protestants and Catholics miss out on the benefit of exaltation. They need to open their eyes to the whole truth.
"As man is, God once was; As God is, man may be."

Feb. 07 2012 10:06 PM
Lena Kins` from TN

Most people that don't know anything about Mormonism and say things such as I won't vote for a Mormon because of what they hear. These people are coming from "the school of thought', called heresies or hear-says. They say what they heard grand ma or my sister or my aunt and so on say. They don't read the History of Joseph Smith (the blue & white cover) and also the Book of Mormon. These people need to read and not listen to hear-says. The LDS believe in the holy ghost, fasting, healing, laying on of hands, honesty, charity and helping others, being highly educated (if the BOM was in error) these highly intelligent people"genius", would know the error, etc., and say this is bull shit. But instead they read and see the truth. There are o/t and n/t prophesies of the Mormons. Luck fall in the laps of Mormons.

Feb. 07 2012 07:39 PM
Caydon Robison

Mark, there is more proof for what Prophet Joseph Smith taught than any other religion.
"As man is, God once was; As God is, man may be."

Feb. 06 2012 06:34 PM

Most Mormons are extremely ignorant of Mormon history outside the trimmed-down version presented by the church. When they finally read it from credible, unbiased sources, they sometimes feel betrayed and lied to by the organization. Unfortunately, this happens late in life for many people. Mormons need to get acquainted with the scholarly history of the church, and then make an educated decision about whether or not they want to be a part of the organization.

Feb. 06 2012 05:37 PM
Melissa from Minneapolis

Come on, John. Aren't we allowed a sense of humor? The writer in question called our religion “one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.”
And so much worse is said of us daily. Inconsiderate things, bigoted things, false things, and truly sick things. And all because one of us wants to be president.
As the campaign wears on, the religion we have quietly lived all our lives will be attacked with the ferocity only millions of dollars in campaign money can buy. Every aspect of our theology, culture, and history will be investigated for the next "gotcha" moment.
We will forbear, because we truly are Christian. But please, forgive us if we cheer at the demise of a very vocal detractor.
Leave us, at least, with our sense of humor.

Feb. 06 2012 05:28 PM

Laughing about a writer's death. "Take that." Sounds like a great religion.

Feb. 06 2012 04:40 PM

Andrew, if you are looking for proof that we can be exalted to godhood, in Doctrine and Covenants 132:20 it says "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them." This is exaltation.

Feb. 06 2012 02:51 PM

Linda, I agree with you in spirit, but please visit mormon dot org

We may also refer to our church as the Mormon Church.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the official name of the religion commonly called the Mormon Church."
from mormon dot org

Feb. 06 2012 02:07 PM

Linda, I agree with you. But our church does also call itself the Mormon Church. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the official name of the religion commonly called the Mormon Church."

Feb. 06 2012 02:05 PM
Linda from Cedartown, GA

First off let me state that we are not "Mormons". People who believe the Joseph Smith is a Profit of God and Book of Mormon to be ANOTHER testament of Jesus Christ belong to The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints. It is not "The Mormon Chruch". Mormon is not the main focus of our religion. Jesus Christ is. The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ and we believe in its teachings, but we LDS believe in the Bible just as strongly. We strive to adhere to the teachings of the Bible just as much, in our daily lives as any other Christian. People take our beliefs and turn them around to where they sound like we are Satin worshipers or something. We are not Satin worshipers. There is absolutely nothing we believe in that is not in the BIBLE. We believe with all our hearts that Jesus is the Christ and we are suppose to do the best we, as mortals, can to follow his example in our daily lives. I am proud to be a member of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints. I am proud of the fact that I know Jesus is my Savior and my Redeemer. I am proud of the fact that know God and his son Jesus Christ love each and every one of us. If those beliefs are wrong or "bad" then I will go to my grave being wrong.
Sincerely, Linda

Feb. 06 2012 02:02 PM

Andrew, Mormonism is *not* a cult. There is more proof for what Prophet Joseph Smith taught than any other religion. Prophet Joseph Smith explained many mysteries that other prophets were not able to explain in the King Follett Discourse. Based on Joseph Smith's teachings, Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Mormon church, wrote that: "As man is, God once was; As God is, man may be." Look into this truth yourself.

Feb. 06 2012 12:49 PM
Andrew Price from London

The belief system of Mormonism is truly shocking and offensive to Christians and non Christians alike.Take for example the Mormon secret Temple ritual pre 1990 which Romney participated in where the Christian minister is mocked and traduced as being in the hire and pay of Satan.Romney made a promise to keep secret the Temple rituals by a symbolic gesture that his throat should be slit if he were to divulge them.The Mormons believe that Jesus is the Devil's brother, that they originate from a planet near a star called Kolob;and they themselves can become gods and goddesses.Mormons draw a distinction between white people who they consider "white and delightsome"and black people who they consider as being cursed with the "mark of Cain" ie black skin.

Feb. 05 2012 06:06 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by