Willard Romney is a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, by his own admission and the testimony of those who know him. He went to Brigham Young University as a dutiful son should, and later to Harvard to get his secular credentials; he did his mission in France, a spot for the best and brightest of Mormons, and converted his wife to the faith. His record, on just this much information alone, puts him in the elite of his faith. His money, as is true of any member of any religious creed, only adds to his prestige. His father was a high official in the church, and Willard will be also, if he does not make the Presidency of the United States of America.
Just as Americans had to ask themselves what it said about Barack Obama that he listened faithfully in the church of Mr. Jesse Wright for almost two decades (obviously not enough to disqualify him for our highest political office, although I admit it was a deal-breaker for me), it is time to ask what it says about Mr. Romney that he is, in the popular use of the word, Mormon.
First of all, Latter Day Saints are not Christians. I am well aware that coals will be heaped upon my head for saying so, but it is true. Christians, for whatever else they do not have in common, are Trinitarians: God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one. This is not the belief of Mormons. Nor do they believe that Holy Scripture is the Old and New Testaments complete and unified, and the Word of God, as Jesus is the Word. The Book of Mormon is to the Old and New Testaments exactly what the New Testament is to the Old in comparing Christianity with Judaism. In fact, and this is the most important theological fact that Christians must understand about the Latter Day Saints, they stand in relation to Christianity exactly as Christians stand in relation to Jews; that is, they “complete” what Christians started, and make it full and true.
Latter Day Saints also believe that the Christian church became apostate within its first century. Taken to its logical conclusion that implies that what became Western Civilization was essentially a moral fraud until the coming of Joseph Smith, who made all things clear and right. If you were to read the Book of Mormon, just as if you were to read the Koran, the underlying world-views of their adherents might take on a different coloration than that which is demanded by the doctrine of political correctness.
I’m not hostile to Mormons. In fact, I not only respect them and admire them but I would be willing to say that I know as many good people who are Mormons as I know who are Catholics. I worked for almost two summers for John Atkin, the President of the Stake in Palmyra, New York, the founding place of the Latter Day Saints. I have never known a finer man. I have read the Book of Mormon carefully. I have been to their pageant in Palmyra (the equivalent of a Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem) nine times. I hired two Mormons to our department at Hillsdale College, and was a good and respectful friend and cared deeply for their families. I’ve read the best of Mormon and non-Mormon scholarship, which leads me to bring up the book by Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (1985). A sympathizer but not a Mormon, Dr. Shipps presents the religion exactly as I have described above, but of course with much more sophistication and nuance.
If you have a real curiosity about how Mr. Romney views the world, consider these things. In the history of the United States, the greatest religious bigotry was reserved for Catholics (and still is, in many quarters), although there is much evidence that such bigotry is now being transferred to Christians in general. If this doesn’t matter to you as voters, or if other categories of candidate differences trump religion, then, of course, disregard it. But don’t kid yourselves, the religious sensibilities of our presidents make a difference. Woodrow Wilson, for example, tried to impose a strange Calvinist triumphalist Redeemer Nation imperium, and we have been suffering from it ever since. William Jefferson Clinton’s peculiar sexual sensibilities (weirdly justified by his biblical and semantical gymnastics) taught my grandchildren the meaning of oral sex. And on, and on.
I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Romney will urge upon us anything apocalyptic or immoral. As a Latter Day Saint, however, he is not invested in the same traditions of the church or of the rule of law or the deep archives of sacrifice for the civilization of the West as I am, or most of you are. He is a problem-solver, it is true; but from where does he pull up the resources to see the problems clearly? Mormons tend to be triumphalists, they see an end to history that has them at the center of it; and I see that Mr. Romney has gathered around him neocon triumphalists who care relatively little about limited government, but who wish mightily to engage the dragons around the world who seem to be threats to our hegemony of “democratic capitalism.”
Mr. Romney is not, like the current resident of the White House, a Chicago community-organizing thug, nor would he be as President anything but the best gentleman he could possibly be, at the same time looking at all of the rest of us as bothersome peasants. He isn’t an ideologue, as far as one can tell, although Mormons can become ideologues in times of crisis, just as can Texas Methodist teetotalling converts. The Episcopalian Bush I comes to mind, a good man who paid his dues to the Republican Party far more than Mr. Romney has, who ultimately didn’t know where to stand, but what did the good Mr. Bush do except turn into the second-string New Dealer we all knew he would be? What better could Mr. Mormon Romney do that isn’t a replay of the good Mr. Bush? In strictly political terms, it may be argued that prudence is a better trait for a leader to have than one’s own religious test. In the case of Mr. Romney, however, it is at least a fair question to ask, is the religious test something seriously to consider? It is for me.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.