On Being a Mormon Candidate in America

Not yet twenty-four hours after Mitt Romney announced the end of his campaign, we’ve already seen several people telling him what he did wrong. Most of these post-mortems are limited by their failure to view the race as it was when Romney got in it. The consensus now seems to be that he sealed his fate by running to the right, acting the part of the red-meat conservative instead of the brainy technocrat with the ability to fix our country as if it were a slightly larger version of Dominoes Pizza. But a year ago, when Mitt Romney was receiving raves at the CPAC conference and being hailed as the perfect answer to the inevitability that enveloped Giuliani and McCain (depending on who you asked), that kind of advice would have sounded pathetically misguided.

What the commentators aren’t remembering were both the anonymity of Mitt Romney and the gaping hole on the right end of the GOP field. The man needed a niche to fill, and that niche was there for the taking. One more thoughtful moderate refusing to speak to the base would have flamed out instantly, and Romney was smart enough to know where he could fit in. But he wasn’t smart enough to anticipate the less visible, but far more serious threat to his candidacy- the rise of the “Authentic Christian Leader.”

Long before Mike Huckabee, there was plenty of talk about whether a Mormon could be elected president. Many doubted, and the polls seemed to back them up. But for the optimists (of whom Mitt Romney was one), there was abundant counter-evidence. Those same polls showed voter resistance to a “Mormon candidate” steadily decreasing from spring to summer to fall. Romney saw a corresponding bump in his numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. For every big story in the mainstream press about nutty Mormon beliefs, there were three or four small-town papers running pieces on the very normal, upstanding Mormons in their own communities. The press became better informed about Romney’s faith, and slowly stopped mentioning it in every story about the “Mormon candidate.” Romney had a chance. (more…)

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.

Romney- the Real Christian Leader

Dave Sundwall of A Soft Answer alerted me last week to a very informative article in the Salt Lake Tribune about Mitt Romney’s religious ministry. As has been well documented, Romney served for several years as a leader in the Boston area Mormon Church, first as a Bishop, or leader of his local congregation, and then as a Stake President, or the higher-level leader of a collection of congregations.  But while these titles have appeared in many biographical profiles of the candidate, their meaning may have flown silently over the heads of most readers, who likely do not understand the depth of commitment and discipleship these roles require of anyone who takes them on.

Earlier this year, Richard John Neuhaus wrote that while he does not consider Mormonism to be a Christian faith, he is open to the possibility that many Mormons could be Christians. This likely means that setting aside strictly theological questions, those who lead lives fully of charity and Christlike compassion may be thought of as Christians in a broad sense. The picture of Mitt Romney painted in the Salt Lake Tribune portrays someone who fully deserves that distinction. Here are a few pertinent excerpts:

Regardless, Mormon women in Boston still talk about an extraordinary 1993 meeting Romney called to address the women of the stake.

More than 250 members poured into the Belmont chapel. One by one they called out their issues while he stood at the front with three pads labeled: policies we can’t change, practices we can change, and things we can consider.

Nearly 100 proposals were made that day, including having female leaders give talks in various wards as the men on the high council do; letting women speak last in church; turning the chapels into day-care centers during the week; letting women stand in the circle while blessing newborn babies; recognizing the accomplishment of young women as the church does of Boy Scout advancements; and putting changing tables in the men’s rooms.

Many women left with a new appreciation of Romney’s openness.

He was “so brave,” says Robin Baker, who has worked on Exponent II.

Sievers, who worked with Romney to set up the meeting, was ecstatic.

“I was really surprised,” she says. “He implemented every single suggestion that I would have.”

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Not long after Grant Bennett fell off a ladder while trying to dislodge a hornet’s nest outside his second-story bedroom, Romney came to offer sympathy and show Bennett a smarter way to deal with the festering insects – from inside.

Before Doug Anderson had even finished getting family out of his burning house, Romney showed up with a brigade of neighbors to salvage beloved belongings from the remains.

Several Mormons affectionately describe him as a man who can’t remember names and can’t tell a joke, but did preach inspiring sermons.

“We loved hearing him speak,” recalls Bennett’s wife, Colleen. “He was so smooth yet so connecting.”

(By the way, for those worried that Romney would be too beholden to Mormon dogma or policy to govern independently, that meeting regarding the concerns of women should go a long way toward settling the concern. That Romney even held the meeting shows a departure from how many other Mormons leaders would have dealt with these issues; that he was so open to wide-ranging, and sometimes heterodox proposals shows that he was far from a blind follower even as a church officer. He could hardly be expected to be less independent as the nation’s president).

While these anecdotes don’t give the full view of what it means to be a Mormon bishop or stake president, they do indicate that Romney’s service must have required a real depth of spirituality and humanity, attributes he is not often assumed to possess. In order to give a better sense of what those positions required, I asked my older brother, a Mormon Bishop in the Bible Belt to describe his duties. I believe that Romney’s job description as bishop would have been very similar to the following:

As a Mormon Bishop, I am the leader of the local congregation. That means I am ultimately answerable for the physical, emotional and especially spiritual welfare of the members. This involves a great deal of time spent counseling those with serious issues such as marital problems, addictions, or emotional problems. I also spend time working with those who are seeking a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.

Because we have no paid, full-time clergy, leadership at every local level is composed of volunteers. As Bishop, I oversee their efforts and coordinate with other congregational leaders, those who work with the children, the youth, as well as the men’s and women’s ministries. I am also responsible for the administrative matters–overseeing budgets, collecting and depositing offerings, the maintenance and use of the building and so forth. The church operates a large welfare program that assists struggling members with their needs, and that is also administered by the Bishop. Occasionally, I am given special assignments as well, for example, I am the designated contact person for transients passing through the Metropolitan area and am responsible to assess their needs and provide them with such help as may be prudent and useful.

Among Mormons, it is well-known that to be called as a Bishop means the end of one’s free time, and calls for huge sacrifices from one’s family. Bishops give great amounts of time to very complex and emotional problems with no pay and very limited training. If you find it impossible to picture Mitt Romney selflessly giving such personal, Christian service, then maybe you need to reevaluate what you think you know about Mitt Romney.

Mona Charen: Mormon Church Produces “Excellent Americans”

I hate to write many posts that just link to other stories, without adding any substance myself.  But the rigors of the close of the billable year call me to other pursuits at the moment.  Nevertheless, you won’t regret reading this article by Mona Charen.  She sounds many notes we’ve heard before, but her framework is new.  Isn’t it true that every election year, we see people wondering why our crop of candidates is so pathetic, when there are so many successful, competent people in America?  Anyone saying that this year clearly hasn’t thought hard enough about Mitt Romney, who perfectly fits the bill:

The question as to whether someone’s religious convictions are a fit subject for public scrutiny is not as simple as it sounds. It’s too pat to say, “There should be no religious test for public office and there’s the end of it.” If a candidate were, say, a fundamentalist Mormon like Warren Jeffs, or a Scientologist, that would be an obstacle. But the mainstream Mormon Church has enough of a track record in producing excellent Americans that the particularities of its doctrine are by now a matter of purely scholarly interest.

* * *

When Mitt Romney took office as governor of Massachusetts, the state had a $1.2 billion deficit. Four years later it was in surplus. He boasts that fourth and eighth graders in Massachusetts achieved the highest scores in the nation in reading and math, though they were doing so before he became governor as well. But his program of assessment, merit pay for good teachers, English immersion and a focus on math and science may have helped keep them at the top.

It is difficult to find any significant weakness in Romney. He is refreshingly articulate, exceedingly well prepared and self-disciplined, clearly an excellent manager with both private and government experience, happily married with a large, supportive family, and well within the mainstream of conservatism on every major issue. His nomination would not divide the base.

He is just the sort of candidate people complain that they never get.

Read the whole thing.  And have a good weekend, everyone.

National Review Endorses Mitt Romney for President

RomneyExperience doesn’t often stray from the center of its niche of religion/politics, but once in a while, there’s an issue important enough on one or the other side of that combination that it’s worth discussing. Today, there are two, one on each side.

First, and most important, the editors of the National Review have officially endorsed the candidacy of Mitt Romney. In their editorial, they make the detailed case for Mitt Romney as the right man at the right moment, far better qualified and better positioned to win the presidency and lead the country than any other Republican candidate. Here’s the kernel of the argument, in my view:

Romney is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished former businessman and governor. At a time when others yearn for competence and have soured on Washington because too often the Bush administration has not demonstrated it, Romney offers proven executive skill. He has demonstrated it in everything he has done in his professional life, and his tightly organized, disciplined campaign is no exception. He himself has shown impressive focus and energy.

I think it would be really difficult to argue with that statement. There’s no question that viewing the field solely in terms of competence, focus and energy, Romney is far and away the best choice on either side of the aisle. Of course, Romney’s got so much more to recommend him, including his broadly conservative stances on most important issues. The NR editors also deal with every major objection to Romney, from the claims of inauthenticity and flip-flopping, to distaste for Mormonism. I recommend reading the entire article. It’s the second strong piece of evidence in a week (after last week’s Faith in America) that Romney has what it takes to become the nation’s president. And the accompanying illustration pushes the total to three, clearly.

Secondly, on the religion side, one of the biggest questions in the public discussion of Mormonism is whether Mormons are Christians. RomneyExperience has dealt several glancing blows to this question, but hasn’t yet confronted it head on. If this is a topic that interests you, please read this piece by Mike Otterson, who is the official spokesman for the LDS Church. Otterson writes on Newsweek’s “On Faith” blog, and offers his own answer to the question of whether Mormons are Christian. The money quote:

But for Mormons, these belief differences have nothing to do with whether or not they are Christian in the true meaning of the word. Mormons believe in the Jesus of the Bible, the same that was born at Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached His gospel in Galilee and Judea, healed the sick, raised the dead, and finally offered Himself as a sinless ransom for the sins of the world. They believe that Jesus Christ was literally resurrected, that He lives today, and that He is the only name under heaven by which mankind can be saved. This is the Jesus whose name is depicted on the front of every Mormon place of worship. This is the Jesus in whose name every Mormon prays and every sermon is preached. This is the Jesus whose body and blood are commemorated in weekly worship services by Latter-day Saints from Nigeria to New Zealand, from Michigan to Mongolia. For Latter-day Saints who try to live their lives as they believe Jesus taught, assertions that they aren’t Christian are as bewildering as they are wounding.

It’s a great piece, worth a few minutes of your time.

Mitt Romney’s “Symphony of Faith”

The speech is over and the reviews are pouring in. I thought I’d take a moment to give my own preliminary thoughts before launching into full-scale analysis.

First, some of my favorite lines:

In John Adams’ words: ‘We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people.’

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I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law. . . .When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

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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.

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I am moved by the Lord’s words: ‘For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me.’

My faith is grounded on these truths. You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family. We are a long way from perfect and we have surely stumbled along the way, but our aspirations, our values, are the self-same as those from the other faiths that stand upon this common foundation. And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency.

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And the inspiring closing passage:

And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith. .

Recall the early days of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, during the fall of 1774. With Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war. In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray. But there were objections. ‘They were too divided in religious sentiments’, what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics.

Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.

And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God. they founded this great nation.

In that spirit, let us give thanks to the divine ‘author of liberty.’ And together, let us pray that this land may always be blessed, ‘with freedom’s holy light.’

I thought this was a passionate, inspiring, even sometimes rousing speech. First and foremost, my main takeaway was the same I always come up with after hearing Mitt Romney speak at length: that regardless of the substance, this guy has serious presidential chops. As a communicator and a spokesman for big ideas, you can’t beat Mitt Romney. I think the biggest result of this speech will be that American media, and to a lesser extent American voters, got to see Mitt Romney at his impassioned best. Against that backdrop, the charge of plasticity is hard to maintain.

Second, I thought the content was pretty masterful, especially given that it was written almost exclusively by the candidate himself. It displayed a deep grasp of the American milieu, the interdependence of religion and public life, and respect for minority viewpoints. As a message directed at an audience, it struck the right tone of independence combined with conciliation.

I’ve already heard critiques that it wasn’t Mormon enough. It’s true, there was little specific Mormon content here, which the campaign has been prepping us for all week. Still, I think the Governor missed an opportunity when discussing some of the appealing distinctives of other faiths (which was very nice, by the way), to insert a paragraph about what makes Mormonism appealing. He also has a lot of material about Mormon patriotism and Liberalism that could have been used. (But slyly inserting Brigham Young into Roger Williams’ and Anne Hutchison’s club of venerable religious dissenters was brilliant.).  But Mormons recognized something very Mormon about this speech- the choking up.  That was an poignant convergence between the impassioned but stony mode of American public speaking and the more emotional, sometimes teary delivery of Mormon religious speakers.

In sum, this was a speech with many strong moments, and not one flat note that comes to mind. He handled the potentially divisive topic of empty European churches with grace, and came off strong against both secularism and jihadism.

Personally, I think he nailed it.

The Trial of Christopher Hitchens

It’s here– the next big attack you’ll be reading about everywhere. This time it’s no less an intellect/polemicist than Slate’s Christopher Hitchens, whose intelligence and polymathy are matched only by the palpable rancor of his rants. (For those keeping score, this makes the fifth religious attack on Romney’s faith appearing in Slate’s pages in the last year, counting this, this, this, this, and the present article. Why is that, Slate?). Hitchens has already outed himself as no friend to Mormonism, or to religion in general, by way of his too cutely titled new book God is not Great. (You can read an excerpt on the “ridiculous cult” of Mormonism here. Note while you’re there that while the book purports to attack all religion, Slate only had the gumption to publish excerpts attacking Islam and Mormonism. No good picking on anyone that might be able to fight back in numbers, right?).

Hitchens picks up his current tirade where he left off in that last edition, making enormous assertions based on glaring mischaracterizations of Mormon history and belief. Not to fear, he’s writing in a very prominent online magazine, so Hitchens can rest assured that his readers will assume he’s been fact-checked and vetted, and will walk away from the article believing they’ve just heard all they need to know about Mitt Romney’s crazy religion. It’s one thing to go on a tear in some small evangelical magazine, and another to post a dirty, mendacious diatribe in a visible forum viewed by tens of thousands of intelligent Americans. Sadly, something below that number will view this response, so regardless of the actual truth of these matters, Hitchens has already won. If Hitchens can sanctimoniously concoct the trial of Henry Kissinger for alleged crimes against humanity, surely he ought to stand trial himself for these glaring crimes against decency and truthfulness.

But enough hand-wringing. Let’s pick up some of the worst of Hitchens’ claims and show the world how pitiful they are in the light of truth, shall we? As Hitch might say, do let’s. There’s so much here that we’ll dispense with our normal snappy segues and paragraph structures. It’s bullet point time.

  • Hitchens starts by discussing Romney’s video response to the recent push polls in Iowa and New Hampshire attempting to tie Romney to a number of controversial Mormon doctrines. To Hitchens, the video is model of “revolting sanctimony and self-pity,” and is also part of an affirmative strategy for Romney to gain politically by defending himself. I recommend viewing the video to judge the level of sanctimony and self-pity, because I don’t see it. In fact, if you’ve ever been attacked on the basis of your religion or another out-of-bounds characteristic, you’ve probably gotten a lot more exercised than Romney does here. But then, it’s possible Hitchens never watched the video, because he feigns ignorance about why Romney brings up the timing of Thanksgiving- even though Romney clearly explains that “this is a time when we’re preparing for Thanksgiving. A time when we get to celebrate the fact that this nation was founded in part to allow people to enjoy religious freedom.” See the connection yet, Hitchens? (more…)

USA Today: Pleeeease tell us what you believe!

USA Today ran a column by George Washington U. Professor Jonathan Turley banging on the old “if you run on religion, you have to answer questions on your religion” nail. As Turley writes, “[I]t may be time to demand that, when politicians call to the faithful, they should have to answer to the faithful on their own religious practices.”

Turley spends most time applying this piece of wisdom to Mitt Romney, of course:

Yet, when one is campaigning evangelically, it is hard to maintain that the faithful flock should not question the shepherd. There is particular sensitivity over in the Romney camp. Mitt Romney is a former bishop and stake president (or head of a collection of congregations) in his church, but he has largely refused to discuss the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Romney admitted last week that his staff does not want any in-depth discussion of LDS on the campaign trail. The church remains controversial with many religious voters who view it as non-Christian and polytheistic.

Even so, Romney is actively courting the faithful, including changing his positions on key moral issues, such as gay marriage, due to personal (if belated) conversions. He has called Jesus Christ “my personal Lord and savior” and alluded to the Gideon Bible as his favorite reading, leaving Mormons and non-Mormons wondering about his faith values. If religion is the most important factor in a person’s life and directs his decisions on issues such as gay marriage, why should the electorate not learn about that faith?

This passage reveals Mr. Turley to be more interested in finding support for his tenuous point than dealing with actual facts. (more…)

World Magazine: Mitt is a Liar Because He is a Mormon

I often don’t cover the venom being spewed in smaller publications, just because such publications are less likely to make a broad impact, and are less likely to be persuaded to repent anyway. Once in a while, though, some two-bit magazine will print something so indefensible that it’s hard to bite one’s tongue.

This week’s offender is World Magazine (tagline: Weekly News | Christian Views). Columnist Joel Belz wrote a piece titled “Trifling With the Truth; Mitt Romney’s Mormonism May Shed Light on His Sudden Policy Changes.” Reading the title sets off a few suspicious alarm bells, which ought to remind the cautious reader to be on the lookout for evidence.

Some of the highlights:

By theologian Norman Geisler’s count (he’s written two books about Mormonism), Mormons reject more than half the 16 main tenets of historic Christianity– held jointly by Roman Catholocism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and traditional Protestantism. So we’re plowing brand new ground when we talk about electing a Mormon as president.

And exactly what is the new ground we’re plowing? Did you see the deft leap from discussion of traditional Christianity orthodoxy checklist to . . . electing a president? (more…)

Is the “Mormon Factor” Still Important?

I’m in trial this week, so blogging time is limited.  While my time constraints continue, we’ll keep running high-quality guest posts like the following.  This one was submitted by reader James Masters.  Send your guest post to [email protected]

It’s time to rethink the impact of “The Mormon Factor” when considering Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations.  CNN let slip a small news story last Thursday regarding a recent poll from Opinion Research Corporation.  The poll indicated that 80% of individuals would not let Mormonism be a negative factor in deciding on a candidate.  Only 19% of those polled indicated that they would be “less likely” to vote for a Mormon.  The poll’s margin of error is +/- 3%.  Compare this statistic with the following historical polls: (more…)