What Does Mormonism Mean to Mitt?

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Mr. Bowman is a doctoral student in American history at Georgetown University.

In College Station, Texas, last week Mitt Romney finally admitted that he is a Mormon. Throughout his campaign the candidate has not been reticent, exactly, with this information, but he has been insistent that it be discussed only on the terms and in the language that he himself deems appropriate. There was understandably great anticipation, then, for the College Station speech, which Romney’s aides promised would be a discussion of the candidate’s views on faith in public life, the tradition of American religious tolerance and – most intriguing - the way his own religion shaped his politics. Pundits were enthusiastic about this, for the Romney campaign has generated a vast amount of curiosity and speculation about the staid Utah church with seemingly outlandish doctrines. While Romney himself has been reluctant to discuss particulars, his antagonists have not been so reticent. Mike Huckabee (unintentionally, we were later assured) expressed disbelief about Mormon theology of the pre-existent relationship between Christ and Satan; the Baptist minister Bill Keller made a point of appearing at Romney events in order to snub him; Damon Linker asked pointed questions in the New Republic about what Romney’s allegiance to the prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might mean for the way he would execute the office of the presidency.

This, of course, is nothing new. Mormons, like Catholics before them, have traditionally been excluded from the American civic religion, which means being excluded from American civic life. The communitarian, even theocratic nature of the church’s organization has raised questions since the 1830s about where Mormonism might fit into the hallowed process of democratic elections and rule of the majority. Similarly, Mormons’ frequent unwillingness to subscribe to Protestant language about Jesus Christ, conversion, regeneration, and the nature of morality have made them foreigners to the evangelical discourse that has so often dominated American politics – a discourse that stresses personal moral rectitude, the use of government to foster regeneration and idealistic moral crusades, and notions of a national, progressively righteous American destiny. This moral fervor and democratic ethos intertwine to form a single narrative, liberal in the classical sense: one in which the morally responsible individual is the fundamental unit of the American political and social order.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy recognized the power of this civic religion, and repudiated the social philosophy of his own Catholicism in order to win office. Catholic social thought, as articulated by thinkers like John Ryan, emphasized the importance of community and defined freedom in terms of membership in the body of the Church. In his famous Houston speech, Kennedy endorsed the separation of church and state as Protestants defined it in his declaration that his church would have no influence on his performance in the presidency. On the other hand, he endorsed moral responsibility and a messianic interpretation of the role of America in the world. He thus accepted evangelical notions about the role of religion in the American polity, maintained that despite Protestant fears his faith was compatible with American liberalism, and won office.

Mitt Romney faces similar suspicions. Evangelicals doubt not only his church’s institutional authority, but also its ability to participate in the common American dialogue between faith and public life. Romney’s speech at College Station, however, lacked a definitive Kennedy moment, a stirring line in which Romney cleanly exonerated his faith from the concerns Americans have expressed with it. Many commentators have since expressed disappointment that Romney did not address his own faith in greater detail. CNN ran banner headlines declaring it significant that he used the word “Mormon” only once; conservative commentator William Bennett argued that any candidate could have delivered the speech. Many accused Romney of mouthing platitudes, seeking acclimation on safe, well-trodden ground rather than taking a stand on his convictions.

It is true Romney’s speech did little to assuage fears about Mormonism’s compatibility with other Christian faiths. Rather he declared that such concerns betray American ideals. His only reference to the substance of Mormon theology – or indeed, of any theology - was a declaration in his faith in Jesus Christ’s role as the savior of mankind. Instead, he praised the practices of faith, celebrating the frequency of Muslim prayer, the antiquity of Jewish tradition, the passion of evangelical prayer, and the ceremonialism of Catholic Mass. Fundamentally, he argued, all these things point to a common standard of moral behavior. Romney thus argued that practice, the works borne of faith, are a more important measure of a religion than its doctrine.

This argument hearkens back to the Romney campaign plan the Boston Globe reported on in February 2007: that Romney should collapse his religion into, simply, “the way he has lived his life,” identifying it as generic morality rather than a particular theology. On the trail, Romney stresses the importance of religious “values,” and, conflating praxis with faith, claims that the source of America’s greatness is, as he declared in Texas last week, “a common creed of moral convictions” – a creed that is the “firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.”

To Bennett, or to CNN, these are mere platitudes. But these critics miss that Romney’s speech – even in those aspects deemed most disappointing – was saturated in Mormon ideas and ideologies. Romney was describing the ways in which Mormonism shaped his convictions, and he simply chose not to diagram the roots of such beliefs in the Mormon soil from which it sprang. Or, it may be that he himself does not recognize the origins of his worldview, so deeply in his mind is it settled.

For example, Romney and many other Mormons express bemusement and confusion when evangelicals confront them with the phrase “different Jesus.” In strict theological terms, there is indeed a doctrinal gap between the Jesus of creedal Christianity and the Jesus of Mormonism, one that springs from the medieval theologian Anselm’s insistence that in order to effectuate the atonement, Christ had to be fully God in every way that God the Creator was God, as well as fully man. On the other hand, in Mormon theology, Christ is indeed a God and divine; he is, however, a person distinct in substance and identity from God the Father. However, most Mormons simply aren’t equipped to discuss and justify these differences, indeed, many are not even aware of their subtleties. The point is that Mormonism is, as philosopher James Faulconer has described it, “atheological.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lacks an official, or even semi-official, systematic theology. Aside from a few basic principles – such as the literality of the death, atonement, and resurrection of a divine Jesus Christ, the inspired character of Mormon scripture, the authority of the Mormon priesthood to perform ordinances, and the actuality of divine communication to the prophets of the Church – Mormons do not have a creed. The precise nature of Jesus Christ pronounced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD – both fully man and fully God, one person with two natures - is not only foreign to Mormons in its particulars, but also seems needlessly confusing and irrelevant to the importance of Christ’s mission. Mormons do not have a theology of liturgy or sacrament or baptism, they do not have an official atonement theory such as that sketched out by Anselm or John Calvin. What they do have, however, is a conviction that Jesus, simply and literally the son of God in the flesh, indeed performed the atonement, even if there is no particularly Mormon theory as to how it works. That is, what Mormons have is a religion of practice, and not belief; behavior rather than propositional knowledge. And here we reach the conception of what religion is that Mitt Romney so passionately expounded at College Station.

Like Catholicism, Mormonism is a religion of works; salvation is achieved through participation in the ordinances Mormons believe their church alone is empowered to administer and obedience to the commandments of scripture. Unlike Catholicism, Mormonism is a lay faith; congregations are run by members of their own flocks, and every Mormon is rotated through a series of callings, or particular tasks, from teaching youth Sunday school to coordinating community service. (Romney himself has served as a bishop, head of a congregation.) These characteristics, combined with the faith’s atheological character, mean that Mormon culture tends toward legalism and the celebration of effort. Mormons who wish to worship in the faith’s temples – a group expected to include all adult members of the church - must undergo an interview with their bishop. This interview is the closest thing there is to a Mormon catechism. That interview’s questions, standardized by church headquarters in Salt Lake City, are fifteen in number. Four relate to belief – such basic principles as the existence of God, the divine mission of Christ, and the truth of Joseph Smith’s mission – while eleven deal with practice, down to such detail as weekly attendance at meetings, day to day honesty, and kind treatment of family members. Similarly, the sermons of Mormon authorities are characterized by didacticism, moral exhortation and instruction in right behavior rather than doctrinal exposition. This means that when Mitt Romney declares that a “moral creed” is the fundamental characteristic of all American faiths, he is not merely mouthing platitudes; he is sincerely describing his own experience with religion, what it is, and what he believes it should be. As a Mormon children’s hymn, directed to their parents, runs: “Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way. Teach me all that I must do, to live with him someday.”

The substance of that moral creed also reflects particular Mormon ways of understanding the universe. Mormon confidence in effort, in the ability of human beings to work out their own salvation derives from a particular anthropology, or theological understanding of humanity. Mormons teach that all human beings are literally, ontologically, the children of God, and that divinity is an accurate description of both their nature and potential. (As Huckabee noted, these ranks include not only regular human beings, but Christ, Satan, and angels.) The hymn mentioned above begins with the words of its title: “I am a child of God, and he has sent me here.” Free will – or free agency, in Mormon parlance - therefore, is inviolate to Mormons; the ability to choose absent divine predestination (as in Calvinism) derives not merely from a gift of God but from human beings’ very nature. Thus Romney’s declaration that all religions teach that “man is a child of God” means, if such is possible, something more serious to him than to even his evangelical listeners, and his call for the defense of individual liberty reflects this conviction. It also dovetails with popular Mormon belief about American exceptionalism. For Mormons, the Constitution is a divinely inspired document, produced in part to safeguard the religious liberty essential to human nature but also to facilitate the emergence of their own church. These beliefs not only add heft and theological weight to Romney’s defense of American religious pluralism; they also clarify some of the more controversial statements of his address, such as his claim that “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom.” For Romney, as for many Mormons, freedom is defined in its fullest sense only religiously; it is a term that requires knowledge of the divinity of human nature and of the pattern with which God sketched out plans for the creation, before it can be understood in all its ramifications.

Thus even Romney’s celebration of religious pluralism reflects the theological trends of his faith. Though Mormons stand firm in their conviction that their church alone holds the necessary authority to administer the ordinances of salvation, in recent decades Mormon leaders have reinterpreted the early denunciations of other Christian churches that characterized much nineteenth century rhetoric in ways similar to Romney’s own declaration that “all faiths draw their believers closer to God.” The Mormon experience of persecution and its theology of liberty contributed here; in 1844 Joseph Smith declared that “We believe in allowing all men liberty to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience,” was one of the thirteen articles of his church’s faith. Similarly, in 1978, the Mormon leadership declared that prophets such as Buddha, Muhammad, and Confucius “received a portion of God’s light.” The current president of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, has described the message of Mormon missionaries as an invitation to converts to join their light to the great fire of Mormonism.

The influence of Romney’s faith on his politics reaches to specifics beyond the general philosophy of the College Station speech. Romney’s clearest statement reflecting his current position on abortion, for example, taken from his website, states: "I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother.” The final sentence is a paraphrase of the LDS Church’s official position, which declares opposition to “elective abortion” but allows for exceptions in cases of “rape or incest, or a competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.” Romney has, of course, taken a great deal of flack for his conversion on abortion, but it is clear his current position derives from that of his faith, and more, that he is seeking to bridge the gap with evangelicals by introducing them to Mormonism via the lens of the social issues he believes to be key.

Family is another example. On March 16, 2006, Romney declared in New Hampshire that “we are a purpose-driven people founded on the family unit.” The phrase “purpose-driven,” of course, originates with the leading evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life. However, this is not to say that Romney is simply invoking evangelical buzzwords. Rather, he is attempting to meld evangelical and Mormon rhetoric on values, proving to evangelicals that they and Mormons can in fact speak each other’s languages when it comes to the common moral creed. The phrase “family unit” calls up particular associations for Mormons, whose leaders issued ten years ago a statement entitled “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” calling for “measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.” The Proclamation affirms the sacralization of the family in Mormon theology; it describes human beings as the children of literal “heavenly parents” and proclaims that the family unit is not merely earthly, but the model of heavenly sociality. It is frequently cited within the Mormon community; without, it is much less well known. Romney, however, draws on it frequently for rhetoric. Romney’s castigation of the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage argued that “marriage is first and foremost about nurturing and developing children. Its ruling meant that our society is supposed to be indifferent about whether children have a mother and a father." This distinctively echoes the Proclamation, which states: “We declare that God's commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. . . Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother . . .”

Mormon theology of the family, and its influence on Romney’s politics, however, does not stop there. As with the phrase “child of God,” Mormonism adds a certain theological depth to the social construction of the family. Unlike Protestantism, for Mormon theology the fundamental unit of salvation is the family, not the individual. Persons are saved through relationships, “sealed” for eternity in family units and ultimately, via an ever-expanding genealogical tree, to the entire human race and thence to God himself. This conception of humanity lends Mormonism a certain communitarianism, a philosophy of mutual aid and dependence within a community rather than the state. It is exhibited in the tightly-knit LDS congregations, each of which administer programs similar to food banks and orchestrate regular mutual visits called “home teaching,” and is reflected in the Church’s social programs, which include an education fund for poor Church members around the world, an extensive international Church welfare program, and massive charitable efforts. However, this impulse is combined with a distrust of government that extends back to the persecutions of nineteenth century Mormons in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah. Thus, Mormons might be expected to have more sympathy for privately run social programs than those administered by government, and indeed, though his Church’s leaders rejected the Bush Administration’s offer to participate in the president’s faith-based initiatives program, Romney experimented with a similar program in Massachusetts. The health care program he supported there demonstrates a similar character, eschewing government administration of the program in favor of a plan that simultaneously recognizes the communal nature of the problem and mandates private solutions. The small government, private ethos of Republicanism in general, then, exerts appeal to many in the Mormon community, while other Mormons, such as Senator Harry Reid, separate out the faith’s communitarian bent and declare that government is the way to achieve these goals. Notably, Reid is a convert, while Romney’s Mormon roots run deep into the nineteenth century. Indeed, Mormons outside the Utah core, including most converts, tend not to share the rock-ribbed conservatism of those in the state where federal marshals hunted Mormon polygamists for two decades.

In all these ways, then, Mitt Romney has been telling us about his Mormonism all along. It is a faith compatible with American civic religion in ways deeper than most observers note. Romney has interpreted it in ways designed to appeal to the constituency he seeks, emphasizing Mormonism’s close identification of religion with moral behavior, and drawing on certain social policies derived from distinctive Mormon theology. Tensions clearly remain, but they are primarily on a theoretical level; like Kennedy, Romney is reluctant to discuss his religion in too great detail; he rarely if ever mentions the theological imperatives behind his politics, and seeks to paper over the gap between the essentially theocratic, communitarian way Mormons imagine religion and the individualistic ethos that penetrates American Protestantism to its core. Despite this, Romney’s use of his Mormonism in the College Station speech indicates that talking about his religion may be a useful way to enter the fray of American public life.

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kurt wolf - 12/17/2007

Columbia Law Professor Kaimipono Wenger talks about this at

Caroline Hill - 12/17/2007

What no one (to my knowledge) in the public or press or blogosphere has mentioned about Mitt is the past adherence to polygamy in his family. His grandfather (George's father) moved his multiple wives to Mexico after the head of the church received the revelation outlawing polygamy; that's why George was born in Mexico and when HE was a presidential candidate decades ago questions arose about whether he was truly a 'natural born citizen of the US' and thus qualified for the presidency. In addition to knowing what Mitt says about the history of Mormons & race, I'd like to know what he says about all his half-relatives through his grandfather's various wives. (The family moved back to the US after the Mexican Revolution when the new leaders of the country decided they didn't want the polygamists around; what happened to those 'other' wives? I don't know and wish someone would investigate.)

Jamie L. Bronstein - 12/17/2007

I'd like to see a thoughtful answer to the question of how Mr. Romney could endorse the racist views of his church until 1978. To me, that is the elephant in the room.

Derek White - 12/16/2007

I have read hundreds of articles about Mormonism and I am often disappointed with the inaccuracies that so often appear. Many writers who write about Mormons just don't seem to GET IT. This article about Mitt Romney and Mormonism is without question the most perceptive and accurate analysis of Mormonism I have ever read. Thank you Mr. Bowman.

Tracy Hall Jr - 12/16/2007

As a whole, I agree with Matthew Bowman's thesis that Romney's Mormonism does in fact inform much of his political philosophy, and I thank him for this insight.

I do have to disagree, however, with the following characterization:
"Like Catholicism, Mormonism is a religion of works; salvation is achieved through participation in the ordinances Mormons believe their church alone is empowered to administer and obedience to the commandments of scripture."

Mormonism is a religion of faith *and* works. We happen to believe the statement in the epistle of James (which Luther characterized as an "epistle of straw") that "faith without works is dead."

Our very clear doctrine on this matter is stated succinctly by Nephi, the first writer on the gold plates:

"For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." (2 Nephi 25:23)

The kicker is, of course, "after all we can do." Yes, the ordinances of baptism by water and by fire are essential to salvation, but so is the trial of our faith -- enduring in faith to the end of our days.

Again, in Nephi's words, "Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life."
(2 Nephi 31:20)

I agree with Mr. Bowman that we do not have anything equivalent to the creeds of traditional Christianity or an "oral Torah" (Talmud) like Judaism that codifies our theology. Instead we believe that the heavens are open again. Joseph Smith wrote, "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

This makes for a very fluid "theology" -- and to our enemies, a moving target.

I also take issue with the implication that the typical Latter-day Saint is somewhat naive about LDS teachings. My experience is that the Mormon layman is quite well informed about his religion. A nationwide study of teens and religion showed that LDS youth excel in many ways in understanding and practicing their faith. We are constantly exhorted to diligent study of our sacred texts.

By contrast, while on my mission for the Church, I was constantly bemused that many Christians with whom I spoke did not understand or believe the Nicene Creed. They typically believed, as do I, and as I believe the Bible clearly teaches, that since we are created in the image of God, God indeed looks like a man, and as the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus show, and the vision of the martyr Stephen, that the Father and the Son are separate beings. I did not bother to try to educate them on the fine points of the Nicene Creed.

Thanks, however, for a generally perceptive, creative, and insightful approach to the subject.