The press is pawing over Mitt Romney’s religion, and the candidate may just welcome this scrutiny. It marks him as a man of active faith and diverts attention from an issue that necessarily plagues him: Mitt Romney, flip-flopper.
Critics point shrilly to well over a dozen strong positions he has conveniently changed on issues like health care, minimum wage, and gay rights. In response, Romney pleads learning curve. He’s adapted, he says, to “new information.” In the business world, non-adapters get fired.
Still Mormons themselves, who, a recent Gallop poll says, are the most conservative major religious group in the U.S , have not all been convinced. Fellow Latter-day Saint Glenn Beck, at least, wants it known that it’s not just Obama: “Mitt Romney is a socialist too.” Yet, if Romney’s concessions to changing political environments have upset even some Mormons—they are not uncharacteristic of the church to which he belongs. Mormonism has its own history of political accommodation.
Almost from its birth, this new movement found itself at the center of political controversy. It was not just religious, but also political furor that drove the burgeoning Mormon commune ever further west. And even in the distant Utah desert, Mormons soon found themselves confronted by an expeditionary force sent by U.S. President Buchanan to remove Brigham Young as territorial governor and put an end to that “relic of barbarism: polygamy.”
Outright war was narrowly averted. Over time the outnumbered, outgunned Mormons gave up resistance and set out, instead, to prove to the nation they were as American as pie and more patriotic than the Post Office.
In 1893, church leaders admonished members to join the established national political parties. Because Republicans vilified them and pushed anti-Mormon legislation, church members overwhelmingly preferred the Democrats. But if Mormons all flocked to one party, non-Mormons in the territory would flock to the other, aggravating us-against-them tensions. So wary leaders jawboned the Mormon faithful to divide up and join both parties, even assigning some to become Republicans.
Both the official church and Mormons generally backed away from certain beliefs they had gone into the wilderness to secure: the theocracy of melding secular government with religious hierarchy, a communal living order very like socialism and not least of all plural marriage. These were bedrock doctrines, touchstones of Mormon orthodoxy that could not, however, be reconciled with the larger American culture, so without repudiating these teachings, Mormons simply gave them up.
Two successive edicts or “manifestos” issued by Mormon prophets forbade further polygamy. By the 1930s, under Mormon Prophet Heber J. Grant, an aging patriarch who had married his three wives when polygamy was still permitted, harsh punishments awaited any mainline Mormon who taught or claimed the church sanctioned any marriage other than that of one man to one woman. In the 1930s, he excommunicated members of the church in Short Creek, Arizona who refused to sign a loyalty pledge to the church and renounce plural marriage. This action provoked a schism and the formal beginning of the Mormon fundamentalist movement. Still today, dissident “fundamentalists” who claim legitimacy in the early teachings of Mormonism practice plural marriage and sometimes live communally. (For an overview, see Armand Mauss, “The Angel and The Beehive, the Mormon Struggle with Assimilation,” Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994.)
Among today’s mainline, church-going Mormons, polygamy is virtually never mentioned. A modern Sunday school manual based on the life and teachings of Joseph Smith, who declared plural marriage essential and who married at least 33 women, is fronted by a short biography that lists a single wedding and a single spouse. There is but a single mention of plural marriage anywhere in the manual’s 586 pages. (A note in the forward states that the topic is closed and not to be addressed.)
Successful institutions adapt, and Mormonism has adapted itself fiercely to ideals imposed from outside. Shortly before his murder, Joseph Smith declared his candidacy for the U.S. presidency. Today’s top-down Mormon hierarchy rarely meddles in national politics, and when it does, tries to avoid doing so openly. It does not endorse candidates and denies any theocratic ambition to control government. Latter-day Saints, whose forbears deeded their property to church communities where all things were held in common, have in the U.S. become Latter-day warriors for free-market capitalism. Instead of bucking the system, Mormon hierarchy has joined the rising and powerful American oligarchy, heading up an empire of church-owned real estate and for-profit businesses. The communitarian admonitions of LDS scripture go mostly unread and unremarked, a curiosity for historians and bloggers. As for marriage, the once militantly polygamous Saints have become monogamous beyond compare.
Meanwhile missionary proselytizing has carried Mormonism to the “four corners of the Earth,” bringing new political challenges requiring different local accommodations. Influenced by an explosion of non-white converts in Brazil and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., many Mormons celebrated when in 1976 the Mormon prophet announced a revelation reversing a long-standing policy denying the priesthood to black members. Other Mormons were shocked, some appalled, but most calmed down and went back to being rank-and-file Mormons. If God wanted to change his mind, why fault Him for opportune timing?
Even Mormonism’s growing conservatism can be seen as market adaptation. Liberal Protestantism is on the wane. The hot growth arena, both in the U.S. and abroad, is Christian conservatism where Mormons vie with proselytizing Pentecostals and evangelicals for market share.
If institutional Mormonism has developed a religious politics, it is a policy agenda of aggressive accommodation to cultural and political realities, leaving the church freer to pursue its own distinct ends. “Whosever compel thee to go with him a mile,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “go with him twain.” The veiled allusion is to Israel’s Roman occupiers. And the point is that kicking against powerful inevitabilities is not useful.
So when Mitt Romney is compelled by reigning party ideologues to go with them a mile and seems anxious, in fact, to go two or even three, this falls well within the obliging traditions of his religion. Gay friendly pronouncements made perfect political sense in Massachusetts, but --like government-financed health care or the polygamy Romney’s forbearers practiced --they are political toxin for Republicans around the country today.
The question hovers, however, whether Romney’s adaptive survival instinct, the same one that has helped the LDS church thrive, will finally assuage GOP voters who yearn for a pure, party-line candidate.
Jesus also said, “No man can serve two masters.”
Neal Chandler is Mormon, a Mormon watcher and frequent writer on Mormon culture. He is a retired Director of the Creative Writing Program at Cleveland State University and was from 1999 to 2004 co-editor of “Dialogue,” a Journal of Mormon Thought.