Sometimes, when Mitt Romney steps in it, as he did this week , it’s helpful to look to his religion for clues as to why. Not because Romney (or any man) is a perfect reflection of his faith, but because Romney is shaped by the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that church happens to have a historic horror of dependency on the state.
When Romney says, buffoonishly, that 47 percent of Americans will vote for Barack Obama because they “are dependent upon government . . . believe that they are victims . . . believe the government has a responsibility to care for them . . . believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” he is echoing a traditional concern of LDS elders. When he says, “[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he is using language he must have heard, and repeated, a million times in contexts far more insular than a presidential campaign.
Mormons regard thrift, industry and self-reliance as non-negotiable obligations. Hard work — “industry” in the LDS community — is the backbone of a faithful Mormon’s life. Good, honest sweat will lead to more than individual prosperity; it will lead, Mormons believe, to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. “Everything connected with building up Zion requires actual, severe labor,” said Brigham Young, one of the fathers of the church. A friend of Young’s recalled in 1862, with sentimental exhilaration, working “side by side” with Young in the fields, from sunrise until past 9 p.m. and chopping wood, for pennies, waist-deep in snow. American Christians have long glorified work — “worldly business,” Jonathan Edwards said, can be “as good as prayer” — but for Mormons it is a value above almost every other.
It is not an accident that the emblem for the state of Utah, settled by Mormons, is the beehive — the natural world’s community of busy workers. The state’s motto, not coincidentally, is “Industry.”
In the Mormon view, self-reliance is the inevitable result of work, and that independence — from the larger world, from enemies, from corrupting influences — is a prize in itself. Every Mormon man is expected to provide for his family. He is expected to tithe to his church. He is expected to give his free time to church welfare groups that support fellow Mormons in need. “Whatever the Latter-day Saints have gained has been obtained by sheer wrestling and unconquerable resolution,” Young said.
At his most convincing, Romney talks about how hard he will work if elected. His political biography puts work at its center. We have read about how Romney’s father, George, made young Mitt do chores all Saturday, even though he was privileged and had friends hanging about, longing to play. We have read how during his mission in France, Romney buckled down, converting more souls than most of his peers. Romney worked day and night to establish Bain Capital. He broke his back to rescue the Olympics. Even Romney’s wife admires her husband’s prodigious capacity for industry. “No one will work harder,” she said at the Republican National Convention in August.
The dark side of the Mormon devotion to self-reliance is a corresponding horror of failure and dependency on outsiders. A good Mormon wants to care for others in need, but he doesn’t want to be cared for. If in dire straits, he should seek help first from family and then from his church community — not from government assistance. In 1936, Mormon authorities released an official document condemning the “horrors of the dole” and the “evils of idleness.” “Work is to be reenthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership,” it said. In 1944, LDS elder Stephen L. Richards wrote that “my food would choke me if [I] knew that while I could procure bread my aged father or mother or near kin were on public relief.”
Whatever you may think about Romney’s disavowal of the 47 percent, and his assertion that poor mothers should work outside the home to qualify for public assistance, he comes by those views honestly.
Hard work and self-reliance are all good, of course; they are rungs on the ladder to the American dream. But Kathleen Flake, professor of religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a Mormon, believes that Romney’s personal theology is a “twisted” interpretation of Mormon self-reliance. Romney is blaming the poor for their unfortunate status. “That’s Republicanism,” Flake said. “That’s not Mormonism.” What thunders from the Book of Mormon in LDS churches on Sunday, she added, is “if you judge the poor, you have no place in the kingdom of God.”
Bad stuff happens for no reason sometimes. And if you don’t have the LDS Church to look out for you, then who, in Romney’s world, will?
To read Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/ onfaith.