More Mormons pursuing the presidency

When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008, his Mormon faith and the extent of its cultural and political acceptance generated quite a lot of ink. So now that former Utah Gov. and Chinese Ambassador Jon Huntsman is also considering throwing his hat in the ring, the possibility of two credible Mormon presidential candidates could create a veritable LDSapalooza.

Of all publications, the vaunted Economist is out of the gate with a story that looks at how Mormonism may shape the next presidential race. It’s got a breezy, anthropological tone that is normally deplorable when examining religious issues. However, since the Economist is often geared toward a British and international audience that may not be as familiar with Mormons, I’m inclined to grade it on a curve.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. Here’s how the piece addresses Mormon antipathy in the political realm:

This distrust keeps peeking through. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist and another Republican candidate, insinuated just before the Iowa caucus in January 2008 that Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers (Mr Huckabee promptly went on to defeat Mr Romney in that caucus). Last year, when an evangelical Republican in Nevada, Sharron Angle, challenged Harry Reid, a Mormon and a Democrat who is the majority leader of the Senate, her pastor called Mormonism “kooky” and alleged that “Harry Reid’s allegiance is to Salt Lake City,” that Mormons “do illegal things” and that “there’s weirdness going on there”.

Protestants once murmured similar things about the Catholic John Kennedy, with Rome taking the place of Salt Lake City, but have since got over their distrust of papistry. They seem to find Mormonism harder to accept. How plausible is it that a semi-literate man in upstate New York should find golden plates written in “reformed Egyptian” and translate them, while burying his face in his hat, to reveal the tale of a family who left Israel in 600BC and ended up in North America? Then again, to be fair, how plausible are the miracles and resurrection of Jesus?

It’s understandable Huckabee would be mentioned. However, while Harry Reid may be the highest-profile Mormon officeholder in America, that’s a curious example. Angle’s pastor may have said those things about Reid’s religion, but Sharron Angle’s religious views were a far bigger issue in that campaign than Reid’s Mormonism. (Particularly because of the baseless and repeated claim that Angle, a Southern Baptist, was somehow sympathetic to the Christian Reconstructionist movement.)

Then there’s the rhetorical suggestion about the revelations of Joseph Smith and the divinity of Jesus being equally plausible. I’m not going to touch that (and PLEASE remember the comments section below is not a place to discuss this distinction either), but I don’t think tossing off a line like that is a terribly respectful way to smooth over the differences between Mormons and Christians in America.

The article’s characterization of how Mormon beliefs influence the politics of the church’s members also struck me as not quite right:

Through their faith, Mormons tend to inherit many quintessentially conservative values, above all an attachment to the family. Mormons believe that families remain linked together eternally after death, and that one can even include ancestors into this union by retroactively baptising the dead. This explains why the church maintains probably the world’s most sophisticated genealogical database.

But other aspects of Mormonism have liberal, even socialist, elements. Joseph Smith had an egalitarian vision. The church demands, for example, that Mormons pay 10% of their income as a “tithe” to the church, although argument remains about whether this should be applied to income net of government taxes.

The mixture has created overwhelmingly conservative politics in heavily Mormon states such as Utah and Idaho, but with a pragmatic twist, says Kirk Jowers, a Mormon and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. It may not be a coincidence that Mr Romney in Massachusetts and Mr Huntsman in Utah made the two biggest state-level efforts to reform health care (Mr Romney’s reform even resembling Barack Obama’s to a striking degree).

The debate on immigration is another example. The author of a harsh state law against illegal immigrants in Arizona, passed last year, is a Mormon. But as Utah began debating its own version, with anti-immigrant rhetoric taking on racist tinges, the state’s overwhelmingly Mormon policy elite formed a “Utah compact”, an agreement to keep the debate civil and empathetic toward all. The church gave this compact a nod of approval, citing the sanctity of families, including those of illegal immigrants, who might be split up by deportations. It is also aware that more than half of Mormons are outside the United States, many in Latin America.

I fail to see how requiring a tithe speaks to the fact that Mormonism has liberal or socialist elements. The church does have its own internal welfare system, but this goes unmentioned, and I wouldn’t exactly describe the church’s approach to it as egalitarian or socialist. Further, other elements of the church — such as the Mormon requirement that families keep a year’s supply of food storage on hand — speak to a conservative vision of self-reliance. Of course, we could examine the politics of former presidential candidate Joseph Smith, and things might get past the modern and binary right/left distinctions we’re working with here. Further, how the church approaches the political beliefs of its members in the public square is a very complex and nuanced thing. But this article kind of bulldozes past all that.

Then there’s another weird example. As someone who was raised Mormon, I agree with the general assessment that there is a streak of political pragmatism in the church. But I’m not sure that health care is a good example of this. Huntsman was a centrist Republican governor in a very conservative state — consequently, his health care reform policy was very free-market friendly. Romney was perceived at the time as a liberal Republican in a heavily Democratic state, and so his health-care plan does resemble Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. My general sense here is that these specific policies were shaped by the political realities with which these governors who happen to Mormon were dealing with. (And that’s saying nothing of the fact that “It may not be a coincidence…” is a kind of a weasel-phrase here.) Dragging their faith into it strikes me as a bit of a stretch. But for what it’s worth, I do think the immigration example is a very good one on this point.

On the whole, I’m a bit conflicted about the story because as a journalist this article trades in far more unsubstantiated generalizations than I’m comfortable with. But as someone who’s more familiar with Mormonism than the average bear, I feel like the generalizations are mostly on target. This is the rare story that misses the trees for the forest.

In any event, I feel like the author had noble intentions and there’s a lot of useful information here and they should be commended for that. For now, I’m eager to see how they move the chains on the Romney-Huntsman story. I suspect this is just the beginning.

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  • Jared

    How did you miss the “White Horse Prophecy” reference in your criticism? That was clearly debunked years ago by the church and yet it made it’s way into the article by The Economist. In fact, that was possibly the only thing that I disagreed with in the economist article (except perhaps that Mormons are excited two of us are running). They even hit the socialist undertones in Mormon teachings square on the head (the church has taught theocratic socialism as an ideal since its inception – whether or not you choose to believe it).

  • mark

    The church may have debunked the “White Horse Prophecy” and perhaps I should have said something to that effect. However, I don’t think that has stopped many Mormons from believing it. Maybe it’s unfair to flatly state that Beck has alluded to it just for using the phrase “hanging by a thread,” but I hardly think its unreasonable to suspect he was doing exactly that either. Still, perhaps I should have said something rather than let the author assume motives.

    I’m not sure about “theocratic scocialism,” but I do think I allowed that there contemporary binary political distinctions don’t do adequately explain the church’s political leanings. I’m open to an argument that the church has or has had socialist and egalitarian leanings — just that this article didn’t provide any convincing evidence for that.

  • Dave

    Then there’s the rhetorical suggestion about the revelations of Joseph Smith and the divinity of Jesus being equally plausible. [...] I don’t think tossing off a line like that is a terribly respectful way to smooth over the differences between Mormons and Christians in America.

    I don’t think the reporter was trying to smooth over such differences, but pointing out that Christians cannot criticise facially implausible Mormon origins narratives without being vulnerable to comments on their own. An example, imho, of trying to editorialize a little “sauce for the goose = sauce for the gander” whilst reporting.

  • Jerry

    I’m open to an argument that the church has or has had socialist and egalitarian leaning

    Well, google found quite a few hits on Mormon “theocratic socialism” :-)

    For example: http://www.mormontimes.com/article/16103/What-would-the-Pioneers-say and http://www.mormondialogue.org/topic/53501-the-case-for-book-of-mormon-socialism/

  • Steadfast&Immovable

    mark, for someone who claims to be raised in the LDS faith, I am surprised you did not take issue with the Econimist statement that Mormons believe in retroactively baptizing the dead. Baptism for the dead is not retroactive. The doctrine teaches that the dead can accept it at the time or in the future. But it cannot be retroactive.

    And this one gets the award for mischaracterization: the Church DEMANDS that members pay tithing? In no way can this be construed a demand. Rather they teach its members the gospel of Christ and the law of tithing from the scriptures and invite all to live the law of tithing. No one demands a red cent from the members. There is not even plate-passing going on in their congregations.

    All in all I thought the article played to the stereotypes.

  • mark

    Steadfast,

    You’re right about “demands.” That is egregious. Strongly encourages perhaps, but demands is just not accurate.

    You’ll also notice that I removed your comments about the supposed “plausibility” of the Joseph Smith’s revelations because they’re likely to cause exactly the kind of theological debate that I explicitly warned against.

    Keep to the journalism people.

    Best,

    Mark

  • Eric

    I’m LDS, and once I got past the lede — church members I know have a wide variety of mixed thoughts on having two Mormons running, so we’re hardly “in a tizzy” — I didn’t have any major problem with the story. It was certainly more respectful than many I’ve read, and the political tone of the story (minus the first graf) was fine.

    But I did have more than my share of quibbles. Although I recognize that Mormonism can be quite complex to the outsiders, the writer still perpetuated a number of errors. Our claim of ongoing revelation and our belief in modern prophets hardly seems much more ambitious than the claim what the Catholic church teaches about itself; moderate use of caffeine isn’t prohibited for members; probably fewer than half of the missionaries learn a foreign language, although certainly many do; we do have paid clergy, although not at the local level; our “socialistic” elements are probably no more pronounced than the “socialism” that Christians had in the days of St. Paul; and, as already been mentioned, the White Horse prophecy has pretty well been debunked (although many Mormons believe it to be authentic).

    I also think the writer did a poor job explaining the suspicion that many evangelical leaders have toward Mormonism. Many of our idiosyncrasies could probably be tolerated if we had a different view of the Trinity (just as Seventh-day Adventists are somewhat accepted by evangelicals despite many unorthodox beliefs, such as about hell), but that dividing-line theological issue isn’t mentioned in the story.

    Despite those many errors, though, I still think the writer got the tone right about how we fit into society and the political system. It’s too bad that s/he made so many mistakes in doing so.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    .

    Mormons don’t scare me (politically speaking).

    I’m with Luther, who said, “I’d rather be ruled by a smart Turk (Muslim), than a stupid Christian.”

    .

  • kadee

    I would also take issue with the “demanding” tithing. Collectively my husband and I have been a member of the LDS (Mormon) Church 118 years! Never has tithing been ‘demanded’ of us. There have been several times when we did not pay tithing and no issue was made of it by anyone. And yes, we do not pass a plate at any time in any Mormon Chapel. I know that Mark, the author of this piece knows all that to be true. However despite promoting some misconceptions, I thought both Mark’s post and the article overall were quite well done. Huntsman and Romney are both men who have solid, admirable, and honest political and personal beliefs. We could do a lot worse than to hope for men of their caliber.

  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    As a Mormon I kind of liked the article, actually. The Joseph Smith to Jesus comparison felt a little sophomoric, but it was nice to read a description of the Mormon church that wasn’t completely focused on how ultra-conservative and/or “fundamentalist Christian” we are. I do believe that Utah, Arizona and especially Idaho tend to be much more politically conservative than the rest of the LDS population of the country (and the world). But the church is imbued with so-called “liberal” and “socialist” doctrines, just like traditional Christianity, and I’m glad the article made mention of it. Some disagree, but I think it is accurate to describe Joseph Smith as having had an “egalitarian vision” for the church.

    Just a small thing, but is there any reason that the word tithe has to have quotes around it?

    “…that Mormons pay 10% of their income as a ‘tithe’ to the church”

    I can’t say I’m familiar with the way other religions collect tithes and offerings, but doesn’t the word itself mean ten percent? Why the quotation marks? Is the LDS system of tithing different from the mainstream?

  • Julia

    Protestants once murmured similar things about the Catholic John Kennedy, with Rome taking the place of Salt Lake City, but have since got over their distrust of papistry

    Papistry is surely an inappropriate term to use in a straight journalism article in a highly regarded periodical. It’s like calling Baptists or other Protestants fundies without using quotation marks.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The description of what is going on with the linking of an individual to their ancestors is just plain wrong. It is not the baptising but the sealing ordinance that links according to Mormon doctrine.

    The attempts to link Mormon doctrine and politics seem even more sloppy though. Mayor Becker of Salt Lake City, who was one of the signers of the Utah Compact, is a Catholic, as is Peter Corron, the Mayor of Salt Lake County. The only signers identified by religion were Utah’s Catholic Bishop, Utah’s Episcopalian Bishop and a Lutheran pastor. Another signer of the compact, Dean Singleton, did so under the title “Publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune” however Singleton runs a broad network of papers and appears to be neither a Mormon nor a Utah resident. It is true that many of the signers were Mormon, but I think the characterization of the situation is inaccurate. Beyond this, Idaho is only 25% Mormon so reducing its politics to Mormonism is just overly simplistic.


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