Mitt Romney, speaking last week in Jerusalem, shows why religion is and ought to be part of our campaign discourse—not the pointless question of who is more Christian than whom, but the investigation of how the worldviews that religious communities conserve inspire the way that candidates read circumstances. During the primaries, we were so busy trying to figure out if Romney is a real Christian, we didn’t look very closely at what really matters in his religious worldview. If we had, his recent declaration that “culture makes all the difference” in Israel would not have so surprised and bewildered us.
Romney’s assessment of the situation in Israel-Palestine is of a piece with what literature scholar Harold Bloom has called the “most work-addicted culture in religious history.” Romney and other Mormons today read their heritage, even their very existence as Mormons, as a demonstration of the triumph of the cooperative strength of hard work and fiscal prudence. Indeed, work and economic care play a much more important role in Mormon theology, such as it is, than the loosely conceived notions that make real Christians choke on their coffee.
Their own history tells Mormons that no circumstances can keep a good people down. The governor of Missouri enjoined Missourians to “exterminate” Mormons, and the Mormons went on to raise a city as big as Chicago in a swamp. Illinois evicted them from that city, putting them homeless into the Iowa winter, and, in response, the Mormons coaxed crops to grow in the wasteland of the Salt Lake Valley. When the president of the United States sent out America’s largest peace-time army to occupy those crops, the Mormons still managed to colonize the West. And when the federal government strangled Mormons with the Edmunds-Tucker Act and other marginally constitutional devices, Mormons still built an economic giant so massive and powerful it scares the stuffing out of Businessweek.
Romney grew up internalizing a theology that formed in and around the Mormon pioneer struggle, and, consequently, saw its doctrine that work and thrift produce prosperity—even in the most oppressive of circumstances—validated by the success of its community. It is a religious ideal—an article of faith—that moves Romney to see the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian prosperity as an indication of cultural difference (and, perhaps, cultural quality).
Of course, Romney may be overlooking one of the principal strategies alongside hard work by which early Mormons thrived - moving. Mormons left Missouri. They left Illinois. And when the federal government besieged them in Utah, they left themselves and radically changed their doctrine and practices to assimilate. The early Mormonism that produced Romney’s worldview had space and resources that are not available in equal measure to everyone. Even if they were inclined to leave their homes and start over, as the early Mormons did repeatedly, to where would the Palestinians go, without a vast and mostly unpopulated frontier at their elbows? Would the Palestinians have healthier relations with their neighbors in Israel if they, like the Mormons, were to adjust their religious identity to seem more Jewish or Christian?
What Romney has to say about Israel and Palestine—well-informed and well-considered, or not—demonstrates that we should be talking about the candidates’ religions. Religious worldviews do inform decisions and shape understanding, and failing to understand the impetus that religion gives to candidates makes us less competent voters and may, in fact, be unfair to candidates.
The assertion that religion has no place in a campaign is merely denial, and almost as pernicious as the useless concern only with the Christian quality of a candidate’s religion. Knowing Romney’s religion, knowing it well and in its own terms as well as in responsibly critical terms, will contribute to the understanding of this man who would be the first of all of us equals.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.”