Mormonism Returns to the Campaign

The presidential campaign of Mitt Romney began under a cloud. When the former governor came on the scene, one question rose above all the others– “Can a Mormon win?” That question waxed and waned as a dominant theme through 2007, with the climax coming in December, as Romney addressed the question head on in his landmark speech on “Faith in America,” and as Mike Huckabee became a real competitor based partly on the contrast his Baptist credentials drew with Romney’s more suspect religion. But as the horserace moved into high gear, with primaries coming every week or so, the press collectively decided that the religion story had lost its luster, and moved on to issues of greater political relevance.

So it is oddly fitting that in the final stages of the campaign, Romney’s religion comes back to the fore, based on events far out of Romney’s control and far-removed from the world of politics. When Gordon B. Hinckley, the longstanding and well-beloved President of the LDS Church, passed away last week, Romney announced immediately that he would attend the funeral. This resulted in some head scratching in the media, as commentators wondered how to interpret Romney’s willingness to be overtly Mormon just two days before the largest primary event of his candidacy. Was his new candor regarding his loyalty to his faith evidence that he had conceded the race? Or was this some kind of new pander to play up his authenticity?

The AP’s Glen Johnson sees the new openness as a mere artifact of the low religious tension in the upcoming primary states, as opposed to that in past primary states like Iowa and South Carolina. USA Today has Jan Shipps, an oft-quoted academic with an expertise in Mormonism saying that “[Romney’s] in a bind. If he goes (to the funeral) people will say, ‘Oh, his religion is more important than his campaign.’ If he doesn’t go, people will say, ‘He doesn’t care about his religion, he cares about politics.'” The same story also quotes a University of Utah Political Science professor saying that Romney “could not not be there. Given the world of (Mormon) political insiders, this is an absolute must-attend.” In other words, attending President Hinckley’s funeral was a political necessity, in the eyes of some.

Yet others found a suspicious evasiveness in the candidate’s funeral plans. Salon Magazine’s Mike Madden is put off by the campaign’s privacy about Romney’s plans while in Salt Lake, as if one might expect him to set up a press conference with the funeral cortege passing slowly by in the background. In fact, you could almost smell a hint of suspicion in the Salon article that the LDS Church was itself complicit in helping Romney escape attention, by avoiding any religious ritual that could highlight the Mormon-ness of the affair. On the contrary, while it was conducted at an enormous scale to accommodate the huge masses interested in the event, the funeral was a very typical Mormon funeral in terms of content. The sincere speeches and sedate hymns, while anything but rewarding to a reporter looking for a thrill on Temple Square, were familiar displays of Mormon-ness, a lifestyle that is maligned for its strange eccentricity at the same time that the critics gripe about how boring the whole scene can be.

But in the midst of all this coverage, there’s a different story, about a 97-year old man who died this week, a man held by some 13 million people as a prophet and great spiritual leader.  His funeral was attended by 21,000 people that cared very little for the political implications of the day, but wanted only to pay their respects to a leader who had lived a thoroughly exemplary life.  Yet few in the press corps were willing to consider that Mitt Romney may have been driven by the same motive as the rest of those attendees.  It is no coincidence that the most insightful and probing story in the mainstream press about the funeral (kudos to Newsweek) both ignored Mitt Romney, and was written by a Mormon.

Ultimately, no motive or calculation should be imputed to Romney for spending crucial campaigning minutes in devotion and contemplation besides a simple desire to be himself and life the life of the Mormon he is. This is most easily proven by how impossible it would be for his advisors to calculate the effect of such a move, for which there is not even a hint of a script, even if they had tried. This weekend, Mitt Romney, the man, went to the funeral of another man, whom he knew a little, and whom he revered as a prophet. The media clearly lacked a script as well, and that’s as it should be. It is difficult to find public meaning in moments this private. And true to his core, which is so famously thought not to exist at all, Mitt Romney navigated the unscripted moment with grace and humility, failing to score points or protect himself from the barbs of his critics. Whatever else the world may want him to be, Romney is neither a hollow shell nor a secret cultist. He is a man of faith that sometimes needs a moment to live out that faith. Even two days before Super-Tuesday.