Most Americans are a bit gun-shy when it comes to talking about faith and politics. And it’s no wonder, given that for the last few decades we’ve seen religion used as a political weapon on sensitive personal issues, like the most recent entanglement that seems to be rolling back the clock on contraception for women.
As the landmark election of President Obama in 2008 presented an important opportunity to discuss race in America, this year presents another important opportunity: to improve the quality of our national conversation on religion, as America contemplates the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney.
Many Americans admit that they know little to nothing about Romney’s Mormonism, a faith rooted in nineteenth-century American Protestantism that has developed its own distinctive body of scripture, Christian theology, and culture. As a Mormon myself, I would like more Americans to recognize our tradition and its history as a part of the American story. But for now, our story remains split between Mormons imagined as murderous renegades, bearded polygamists, and clean-cut company men, reflecting a great divide between the sensational and the sanitized images Mormonism.
I would like to see a more substantial national conversation about the diverse ways contemporary Mormons--including a potential future President of the United States--live our faith. Yet, whether by dint of his pragmatic personality or official campaign strategy, candidate Romney continues to studiously avoid discussion of his religion, preferring instead to stress only the elements of his faith that align with campaign priorities. Asking what impact Mitt Romney’s practice of Mormonism would have on his presidency is a legitimate question Mormons and non-Mormons alike should want to know.
This I know: Mitt Romney is the product of a time in Mormon history when the faith completed its transition from regional upstart to global corporate church. The late 20th century LDS Church culture that formed and rewarded Romney strongly emphasized disciplined messaging, individual obedience, allegiance to hierarchy, and cultural conservatism in the service of institutional growth. This corporate-institutional Mormonism discouraged and sometimes stigmatized critical inquiry and free expression.
Which makes me want to know if Romney ever found himself wrestling with LDS Church positions, for example, in the years prior to 1978 when the church banned the ordination of African-Americans. If so, how did he reconcile his conscience with discriminatory institutional mandates? How did Romney deliberate for himself the question of women’s rights when the LDS Church invested in political opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Is Romney giving thought to issues of LGBT understanding and acceptance, a source of deep deliberation for many LDS people today?
Did LDS bureaucratic culture shape Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital as a by-the-book decision maker who falls in line with corporate and institutional agendas? Does he consider minority perspectives? How does he relate to people who disagree with him? Who loses when Romney wins?
Voters also deserve to understand the range of faith-based positions Mormons take on matters of foreign and economic policy and where Mitt Romney falls on this spectrum. Will Romney invoke religion only as a rationale on social issues like same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, or will he also consult his faith when it comes to war and torture? What about issues other people of faith characterize as matters of human dignity, like access to affordable health care, worker protections, or immigration policy? Does Romney consult his faith as he weighs the balance between people and profits? These and many other issues do indeed register in Mormon history and doctrine.
There are some matters on which Romney has diverged from LDS Church positions. For example, LDS Church leaders have advocated moderate immigration reform measures that honor immigrant families, while Romney has expressed support for punitive measures like Arizona’s SB 1070. The LDS Church has also made efforts to reach out to and cooperate with Islamic relief agencies. Do Romney’s foreign policy positions and his choice of foreign policy advisors suggest an LDS faith-informed approach to global politics, or one shaped more by neo-conservatism?
These are tough questions. But they are questions that move our national conversation about religion beyond sound bites and simple answers to a deeper level of reflection on the impact personal faith has on conscience, institutional loyalties, national priorities, and power. Which brings us back to a central question: I know that Mormonism can foster thoughtful deliberation and humanity; are these also features of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism?
If Romney really is just the by-the-book decision maker who always finds himself in harmony with the priorities of large corporations--religious or financial--voters should know that. Understanding how a president would deliberate and make tough decisions is a legitimate question that needs to be asked by us all: not just by people of faith, but by voters and journalists alike.
Joanna Brooks covers Mormonism, faith, and politics for ReligionDispatches.org and hosts her own column at askmormongirl.com. She is also a founding participant in FaithSource, a new initiative by Auburn Seminary to bring diverse voices of faith into the mainstream media.