In a conference call with Nevada reporters last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced a fresh line of attack against Mitt Romney, saying that the GOP presidential nominee has “sullied” their mutual faith.
The Salt Lake Tribune this week reported that Reid, a Latter-day Saint, repurposed an argument that Greg Prince, another fellow Mormon, recently made in the Huffington Post: Romney’s dismissive comments about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax do not adequately represent the spirit of a faith “whose official mantra is ‘to take care of the poor and needy throughout the world.’ ”
Prince, a biotechnology executive well-connected in LDS circles and a family friend of mine, tried not to discuss politics too much — “Judge Mitt Romney as you will, and vote for or against him as you will,” he wrote. Prince mostly wanted to tell non-Mormons that not all Latter-day saints sound like Romney. Reid, however, was making a very political point, saying that “a lot of members of the LDS church” who live in swing-state Nevada should “understand that [Romney] is not the face of Mormonism” and is, rather, hiding from their faith.
Yet Romney’s expressed position on the welfare state would resonate with a great many faithful and conscientious Mormons, in Nevada and elsewhere.
Prince and Reid expose a fascinating tension in modern Mormon culture. Utah is perhaps the reddest state in America, one of the few where more than 60 percent of the vote went to John McCain in 2008. Yet Mormons are extremely communitarian. The church operates an impressive welfare program. Everyone in a Mormon congregation has a role, or “calling,” which often includes seeing to less fortunate members. Mormons have no professional clergy; all LDS men are expected to perform pastoral duties, ministering to the poor and sick. None are materially compensated for this work, and all are expected to pay a full 10 percent of their incomes in tithing, which helps finance the church’s charitable operations. Mormons also share a history that includes experimentation with collectivist communities.
At the first national meeting of the LDS Democrats Caucus in Charlotte last month, many Obama-backing Mormons argued that the church’s veneration of charity encouraged them to support goals such as universal health care. Reid is perhaps the most prominent representative of that “face” of Mormonism.
But reverence for charity and good works does not necessitate a belief in a robust welfare state. One can regard charity as a mainly private virtue, best left to those voluntary organizations — many religious — that see to the particular needs of their various communities without encouraging, in Romney’s characterization, “dependence” on government. Mormons, who also share a history of state-sponsored persecution, are perhaps more inclined toward this view than other groups. If this is Romney’s position — and it’s always hard to tell — it’s not necessarily at odds with the church’s teachings or history.
Even if Romney’s words on the 47 percent didn’t cohere with his faith, his real problem is not that he has violated specifically Mormon values and, as Reid’s recent comments seemed to suggest, deserves special disapproval from LDS voters in Nevada. When he pulls President Obama’s quotes out of context and makes them predicates for his campaign, that’s dishonest. Evading questions about how he would alter the tax code and calling it leadership isn’t necessarily lying, but it’s not truthful, either. Beyond his 47 percent remarks, Romney has violated universal values in explaining what he would do for the country, which should concern Mormons and non-Mormons alike.