As Romney Clinches Nomination, Focus Moves Away from His Peculiar Faith
After a winter of discontent in which the media focused on the most controversial aspects of Mormonism and Romney’s unpopularity among Evangelicals, media coverage is now shifting the focus from Romney the Mormon to Romney the Candidate. Observers agree that Romney’s Mormonism actually helped him clinch the Republican nomination, and a study by the Brookings Institution argues that, come November, his faith won’t hurt, either.
“Our results should not be taken as definitive, particularly because they are not based on a nationally representative sample,” write the authors, Matthew M. Chingos of Brookings and Michael Henderson of the University of Mississippi. “But they do suggest that concerns over Mitt Romney’s ‘religion problem’ have been overblown.”
Although Romney fared poorly among Evangelicals in the primaries, Chingos told the New York Times that having objections to a hypothetical candidate is not the same as rejecting a specific candidate whose views are closer to the voter than the opposite candidate.
For their study, Chingos and Henderson randomly gave participants four sets of information about Romney. While set 1 did not mention Romney’s Mormonism, sets 2 to 4 described Romney’s Mormonism in progressive degrees of detail, with set 4 including information about peculiar beliefs such as Jesus’s visit to America and the golden plates. Support for Romney remained almost the same across the four groups, and support for Romney among conservative respondents actually rose when they received information about Romney’s faith.
During the winter and early spring, stories about the LDS practice of proxy baptism appeared in several national media outlets. The controversy was partly fueled by the revelation that the parents of Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal had been baptized posthumously. Romney became involved in the story when Elie Wiesel told the Huffington Post that LDS Church’s failure to stop vicarious baptisms for the Jews killed in the Holocaust was “scandalous” and asked Romney to “speak to his own church and say they should stop.” The revelation that Anne Frank had been baptized yet again added fire to the controversy.
The LDS Church responded by issuing an apology and sending a letter to congregations worldwide reaffirming policies that ban baptisms for deceased celebrities or Jewish Holocaust victims.
Comedians had a field day with the story. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert proceeded to convert all Mormons by proxy to Judaism by performing a vicarious bris. A website called AllDeadMormonsAreNowGay.com urged users to enter the names of dead Mormons to make them “gay for eternity.” Shortly before the Wiesenthal story broke, Bill Maher learned that the Romney family had performed a vicarious baptism for Mitt’s father-in-law, Edward Davies, who was an atheist. Maher performed a mock ritual on his show to “rescue [Edward] from Planet Kolob” and “call upon the Mormon spirits to leave your body the **** alone.”
Another controversy erupted on February 28 when a Washington Post story quoted BYU religion professor Randy Bott tracing the origins of the “priesthood curse” back to Egyptus, Ham, and Cain—a line of doctrinal argument that the LDS Church does not officially avow.
“God has always been discriminatory,” Bott told the Post. Bott went on to compare giving the priesthood to Black people with prematurely giving car keys to a child. One day later, the Church issued a statement affirming that Bott’s positions in the Post “absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of [the LDS Church].”
The statement continued, “The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism of any form.”
The Bott controversy also became tied to Romney. In early April, a Ron Paul supporter asked Romney during a town hall meeting whether he believed that interracial marriage was a sin—to which Romney answered, “No. Next question.” Even before the Bott controversy erupted, a January 31 headline in the Washington Post had already asked, “Will Mormon’s racial history be a problem for Mitt Romney?”
In another controversial turn, the BBC aired an exposé in March suggesting that the LDS Church is a cult. The program, which was not aired in the U.S. but was available on YouTube, showed Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland accidentally calling President Obama “Osama,” and Michael Purdy, head of LDS Public Relations, first denying, then admitting that he knew about the existence of the Strengthening Church Members Committee. BBC reporter John Sweeney, who had previously produced an exposé of the Church of Scientology, interviewed a number of disaffected Mormons, including Mitt Romney’s cousin Park Romney. According to British tabloids, BBC employees were “furious” when two LDS public relations representatives entered BBC headquarters, contrary to BBC policy, to hand deliver a complaint after the exposé was aired. “Mormons ‘Invade’ where Scientologists fear to tread,” read a London tabloid headline.
Almost every aspect of Romney’s life, especially in connection to his Mormonism, has been probed by reporters, from his service as a missionary to his role as stake president. According to a new book, The Real Romney, the Republican candidate, while a bishop in Boston, threatened a pregnant, unwed mother with excommunication if she did not give her baby up for adoption. Romney denies the story. Ronald Scott, who wrote a different Romney biography, doubts the details of the story, noting that excommunicating a mother for refusing to give up her child for adoption would have been against Church policies.
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer told The Daily Beast that Latinos’ tepidness toward Romney was “kinda ironic given that his family came from a polygamy commune in Mexico, but then he’d have to talk about his family coming from a polygamy commune in Mexico.” An Obama campaign spokesperson denounced Schweitzer’s words on the grounds that “attacking a candidate’s religion is out of bounds.” Romney initially declined to comment, but finally told Fox News that “My dad’s dad was not a polygamist. My dad grew up on a family with a mom and a dad and a few brothers and sisters.” (Romney’s great-grandfather Miles Park Romney had four wives and 30 children).
The Seattle Times probed Romney’s claim that his father had grown up in poverty, concluding that “that’s not the whole story.” “His father’s success ensured a more privileged path for Mitt Romney,” the article explained, “who was raised in the posh Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills and attended an elite prep school before he went on to the business and law schools of Harvard University.”
Stories about Romney’s tithing appeared in major newspapers when Romney released his tax returns. Romney reported giving $4.13 million to the LDS Church over the previous two years, out of an income of approximately $43 million over the same period. Romney told Fox News Sunday that “the Bible speaks about providing tithes and offerings.”
“I made a commitment to my church a long, long time ago that I would give 10% of my income to the church,” he added, “and I followed through on that commitment.”
Romney’s stances on gay issues were also discussed by the media. In March, the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-gay marriage group, publicized documents showing that Romney donated $10,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage. A story in the Washington Post revealed incidents in which Romney as a teenager bullied two closeted gay students. In one of the incidents, Romney led a group of pranksters to track down the student and forcibly cut his long hair. Another student recalls that his efforts to speak out in English class were punctuated with Romney shouting, “Atta girl!” Romney commented that he didn’t remember the incidents and didn’t know that the students were gay.
Evangelicals Come Around
Despite the flurry of negative publicity, a positive angle began to emerge when an April survey reported that 77% of surveyed Americans did not consider Romney’s religion a major factor in their decision to support or oppose his candidacy. A December poll taken by the Salt Lake Tribune had already found that despite their theological differences, Evangelicals see Mormons as political allies.
Even Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, who last year made headlines by insisting that Mormonism is not Christian, came out in support of Romney. “Given the choice between a Christian like Barak Obama, who embraces non-Biblical principles like abortion, and a Mormon like Mitt Romney, who embraces Biblical principles, there is every reason to support Mitt Romney in this election,” Jeffress said. “I’ll hold my nose and vote [for Romney].”
Other influential pastors, such as Brad Atkins, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, admitted that they do not consider Romney’s faith to be a part of Christianity and did not support him in the primaries, but will endorse him in the general election against President Obama.
“White Evangelicals who are skeptical of a Mormon candidate are really skeptical of President Obama,” says John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. “After all, [Obama] is pro-choice on abortion and has supported gay rights.”
For Mormon scholars, the media obsession with everything Mormon has been an opportunity to explain different aspects of their faith. Former Dialogue editor Neal Chandler suggested a connection between the LDS history of accommodation—exemplified by the renunciation of polygamy and the lifting of the black priesthood ban—and the kind of flip-flopping that has been attributed to Romney, who moved from casting himself as socially liberal in Massachusetts to talking like an all-around conservative on the national scene. “If Romney’s concessions to changing political environments have upset even some Mormons, they are not uncharacteristic of the church to which he belongs,” Chandler wrote for a Washington Post blog. “Mormonism has its own history of political accommodation.”
Jana Riess, who writes for Religion News Service, and Joanna Brooks, who blogs at Religion Dispatches, are examples of Mormon writers who followed controversies around Mormonism and Romney and used their blogs to both reflect critically about their faith and to help educate the public about Mormonism. When the Bott controversy erupted, both Riess and Brooks wrote articles explaining the progress made by the Church on the issue of race in recent decades, but they also suggested that the issue is not yet closed because the LDS Church refuses to apologize for its past racism or admit that its policies were wrong.
“The Church made a great leap forward yesterday in its statement about race,” wrote Jana Riess on 29 February. At the same time, Riess noted that while the Church said, “We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church,” the statement “does not name the racism, which is a key component of repentance.”
Matthew Bowman, author of the recently released The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, wrote for Salon.com about correlation, or “how Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.”
“Behind correlation stands a theology that has set Mormons apart from the rest of America for nearly two centuries: an origin story that many Americans find fantastical, temple rituals that seem strange to outsiders, an unusually detailed vision of the afterlife,” Bowman concluded. “While the LDS Church has lately begun to discard some of correlation’s worst inheritances, the tensions that have dogged Mormonism throughout the 20th century—and Mitt Romney through two election cycles—are not likely to fade anytime soon.”
Where Do Questioning Mormons Go?
By the standards of LDS correlation, Elder Marlin K. Jensen’s speech was stunningly candid. Issues such as Joseph Smith’s polyandry, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and DNA and the Book of Mormon, Jensen said, are leading Latter-day Saints away from the Church in droves, and the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve know it.
“They realize that maybe since Kirtland, we never had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now, largely over these issues,” Jensen admitted to a Utah State University audience last November. At the time he was speaking, Jensen was serving as the Church’s historian and recorder. He was released from that position in January.
“We are suffering a loss, both in terms of our new converts that come in that don’t get really established in the Church, as well as very faithful members who because of things we’re talking about, as well as others, are losing their faith in the process. It is one of our biggest concerns right now.”
The internet, with its free traffic of information, seems to play an important role in this dynamic. In a recent edited collection, No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, BYU Professor Robert L. Millet states that even though Latter-day Saints should not be “consumed with provocative materials critical of the [LDS] Church, the day for ignoring such matters is long past.”
“The Internet is filled with thousands of pages of anti-Mormon polemic,” Millet adds, “and it is extremely difficult for people to receive an honest and fair appraisal of Mormonism without significant effort on their part.”
John Dehlin, executive director of the Open Mormon Foundation, knows firsthand how unanswered questions can unsettle faith. In 2001, as a Seminary teacher, he experienced his own crisis of belief. “As I turned to family, friends, ward members and ward leadership for help, I encountered landmines at every turn,” Dehlin lamented at a conference on Mormonism and the Internet held at Utah Valley University last March. “Turning to the Internet for—out of almost desperation—I was disappointed to find either apologetic or antagonistic resources, and almost nothing that sought to be a neutral support for me in my journey.”
This led Dehlin to start the Mormon Stories podcast in 2005—a project that culminated with the creation of some 80 Facebook support communities and conferences now being held across the country.
Through an online survey of 3000 respondents he conducted in 2011, Dehlin found out that former believing Mormons overwhelmingly abandon the faith over issues of doctrine, theology, and Church history—not because they were offended by someone or wanted to embrace a worldly lifestyle. “Their issues are legitimate,” Dehlin stated during the conference. “Their motives are overwhelmingly genuine. The pain and suffering are real and significant.”
In his Utah State University talk, Jensen said that two solutions the Church is pursuing are making sure that Google gives top ranking to LDS-controlled sites (a process called “search engine optimization”) and creating materials responding to candid questions. Jensen mentioned a project called “Answers to Gospel Questions,” which would be “a place where people can go” to ask tough questions. “We are trying to figure out exactly what channels to deliver it in and exactly what format to put it in,” Jensen explained.
Meanwhile Dehlin’s Mormon Stories project has garnered support from Latter-day Saints known for their work in progressive Mormon causes, such as Joanna Brooks, Brian Johnston, and Scott Holley.
“We seek spaces where we as Mormons can live lives of intellectual and spiritual integrity, individual conscience, and personal dignity,” the Mormon Stories’ mission statement reads. “We recognize the confusion, distress, emotional trauma, and social ostracism that people on faith journeys often experience. We seek constructive ways of helping and supporting people, regardless of their ultimate decisions regarding church affiliation or activity.”