The New York Times discovers Romney is Mormon

Hey, did you know that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon?

Crazy, huh! The New York Times seems to be intent on telling us all about this fascinating new bit of biographical information. All right, all right — I’ll dispense with the sarcasm. I’m just trying to get the airing of the New York Times grievances out of the way, and I confess it’s hard to get past the weird degree of arrogance involved in seeing the New York Times weigh in on a topic that’s already been well-covered by other outlets for the sole reason that the Paper of Record believes it is, in fact, still the paper of record.

Anyway, Times reporter Jodi Kantor weighed in a few days ago with a big picture look at the influence of the Mormon faith on Romney. It’s not bad, and parts of it are genuinely perceptive. However, there were a number of factual errors that the Salt Lake Tribune’s ace religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack was quick to point out:

For instance, perhaps someone should have told The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor that “deseret” is a noun in LDS-speak meaning “honeybee,” not an adjective suggesting “industriousness.” Mormons such as Mitt Romney generally don’t “belt out” or even sing the Protestant hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” White temple clothes don’t necessarily indicate an “elevated state.” And Nephites and Lamanites are not in the Bible.

Facts aside, I confess I was a bit chuffed by how the article was framed right off the bat:

Now, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mr. Romney speaks so sparingly about his faith — he and his aides frequently stipulate that he does not impose his beliefs on others — that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.

Romney’s Mormonism is difficult to detect? Really? It’s my impression that Romney’s inescapable public perception, for better and for worse, is that he’s the Ur-Mormon. As for speaking about his faith, he gave a major address about it when he ran in the last election and he’s spoken openly about his faith throughout a fairly extensive career. As for the fact he’s not eager to address it at this moment, could it be related to how every week publications with occasionally suspect political agendas write, say, long pieces dissecting distant, totally irrelevant episodes from the church’s history as if that’s relevant to Romney’s secular vocation? It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to provide these people any more rope. By contrast, the coverage of the president’s religion has been such that I doubt one in 20 voters could name the specific Christian denomination of the church he attended in Chicago, and also recall that the New York Times, the same outlet now falling back on questionable pretenses to pretend it’s difficult to detect Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, went six whole months during the last election cycle before quoting Obama’s long-time pastor as saying something incendiary that might not sit well with the voting public. (Ok, so maybe I still had a few grievances to air.)

Moving on, I don’t think this bit was necessarily intentional but it does expose the difference between understanding church life and viewing everything through a political prism:

Mr. Romney’s penchant for rules mirrors that of his church, where he once excommunicated adulterers and sometimes discouraged mothers from working outside the home.

The characterization that Romney “discouraged mothers from working outside the home” as function of his “penchant for rules” is loaded. The Mormon church, while it has fairly conventional ideas about marriage roles, has no prescription on women working outside the home. I’m pretty sure that if you asked Romney about this, he would say that as a Mormon bishop he gave women counsel about how to best uphold Mormon family values by weighing their individual circumstances and financial pressures. That’s very different from telling women to follow the rules.

Ok, now the good. Kantor does a very good job grasping the how Mormons port their values over into the secular realm:

When Mr. Romney’s former Sunday school students listen to him campaign, they sometimes hear echoes of messages he delivered to them years before: beliefs that stem at least in part from his faith, in a way that casual observers may miss. He is not proselytizing but translating, they say — taking powerful ideas and lessons from the church and applying them in another realm.

Just as Ronald Reagan deployed acting skills on the trail and Barack Obama relied on the language of community organizing, Mitt Romney bears the marks of the theology and culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Mr. Romney declined to be interviewed.)

Mormons have a long tradition of achieving success by sharing secular versions of their tenets, said Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People,” citing Stephen R. Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which he called Latter-day Saint theology repackaged as career advice.

Kantor also highlights a Mormon belief that isn’t picked up on much, and for once, it is relevant to his worldview as a secular politician:

Or take Mr. Romney’s frequent tributes to American exceptionalism. “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag,” he said in announcing his bid for the presidency last June. Every presidential candidate highlights patriotism, but Mr. Romney’s is backed by the Mormon belief that the United States was chosen by God to play a special role in history, its Constitution divinely inspired.

There’s also this perceptive bit about how Romney’s image problem is that he doesn’t have an image problem. Mormon culture is so much about striving to be wholesome, that it appears fake:

Similarly, he said, Mr. Romney’s squeaky-clean persona — only recently did he stop using words like “golly” in public — can make him seem “too plastic, the Ken side of a Ken and Barbie doll,” Mr. Barlow said.

He and others say that wholesomeness is deeply authentic to Mr. Romney, whose spiritual life revolves around personal rectitude. In Mormonism, salvation depends in part on constantly making oneself purer and therefore more godlike.

But again, there’s a great deal of ink expended explaining that one of Romney’s defining characteristics is his fondness for following the rules, and how this is a direct extension of his faith. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that Mormons are sticklers for strictures moreso than most. But I don’t think Kantor always makes the case very well:

He often urged adherence even to rules that could seem overly harsh. One fellow worshiper, Justin Brown, recalled in an interview that when he was a young man leaving for his mission abroad, Mr. Romney warned him that some parameters would make no sense, but to follow them anyway and trust that they had unseen value.

Telling a 19-year-old kid about to depart on a Mormon mission in a foreign country to follow the rules is pretty basic advice to dole out to teenagers who think they know more than they do. It’s true that Mormon missionaries have limited contact with their families and are supposed to abstain from popular entertainment and other distractions from their religious focus. But if the rules for Mormon missionaries “could seem overly harsh,” I wonder what Kantor thinks of what they do to teenagers in the Marine Corps.

Still, I give Kantor an A for effort. There’s a wealth of reported details and quotes from many sources. The section on the end about how Romney handles anti-Mormon prejudice is not just good, it’s surprisingly empathetic. If you want to read a piece on Romney’s religious life that has even more detail, I recommend this sprawling CNN piece I kicked the tires on back in November.

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

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  • Ryan K.

    Serious question for someone who has never set foot in a newsroom. Obviously it is not a new revelation to the NYT that Romney is a Mormon. So at some point do the editors and reporters of a newspaper sit down with each other and agree to not dive into a story till a certain point? I don’t want to sound to cynical or conspiratorial.

    I really am curious if sometimes newspapers say, lets not spill our ink on that angle/story yet, but rather at this time when it might be more impactful.

    I remember hearing many muse months ago that this is exactly how the NYT would operate with Romeny and his Mormon faith, and so far that seems to be precisely how it is playing out.

  • http://www.squibsquabble.com Dan Rann

    Ah, faith. When will we ever be rid of it? Let’s instead talk facts. The most important fact about Mitt Romney is that he IS a Mormon, bound to follow the dictates of the Prophet of the Mormon Church. I know this to be a fact because I myself am an Elder in the Mormon Church, and have gone through the same temple ceremonies as Mitt. In this respect he is not a leader, but a follower. Even he would have to admit this. I think I’ll stick with atheists and agnostics, who will make decisions based on people and not “faith.” Want “faith”? Just review the history of the world: religion is responsible for the world’s tragedies, including the Holocaust, religion’s largest horror. I think this world would be a much saner place without religion.

  • Jeff

    “Hey, did you know that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon?”

    Translation: Hey, did you know that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not only a fascist sumbitch but also a *weird* one too?

  • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

    Not a bad article from the NYT. Some weird fact errors, like that Deseret thing, but I still left it feeling like I understood Romney a little better.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Frnakly, if there were a phone call from the president of the LDS Church to President Romney, it would probably involve asking for Romney’s advice, not telling him how to do his job. The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not come out of a career clergy corps, but rather from the Mormon tradition of unpaid volunteer leaders contributing their talents and time. They include people who were successful in a wide diversity of professions, from medicine to law to academia to business to piloting to the military to publishing to nuclear engineering. They respect expertise, and when Mitt Romney was asked to rescue the 2002 Winter Olympics, they did not direct him, but asked what they could do to help.

    Clearly, when you have Mormons who are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, from Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) to Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), the Church is not dictating to the politicians how to do their jobs. No one can point to a single decision made by Romney as governor of Massachusetts that involved any dictation by a church leader to Romney.

    My local bishop and stake president do not try to tell me how to do my job as an environmental attorney, though they might call on my expertise on occasion if the need arises. They might, on the other hand, ask me to accept a calling to teach or lead within my church congregation in some capacity, which is within their jurisdiction, responsibility, and competence. It is possible that a President Romney could be asked to serve as a Home Teacher to a couple of families living within the congregation whose boundaries include the White House, meaning he would be asked to visit each family at least once a month to look after their spiritual and financial wellbeing.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Incidentally, if Dan Rann is indeed someone who was once ordained as an “elder” in the Church (meaning he was at one time a regularly attending adult male), his own letter of defiance demonstrates that his claim about belong “bound to follow the dictates of the Prophet” is clearly false. People who are disinclined to heed advice from a church leader suffer no particular coercive penalties. The LDS Church is first and always a totally voluntary organization.

  • Gary E

    As has been pointed out numerous times before, there are about 35 current members of congress who are Mormons, including Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of Mormons in various government positions in the past hundred and fifty years, including former Church President Ezra Taft Benson, who served 8 years as Eisenhower’s Sec. of Agriculture. Do we now see, or have we ever seen, any of these people do anything that suggests they are being influenced from LDS Church headquarters? The LDS Church bends over backward to stay politically neutral. For Pete’s sake, get over this business of the LDS Church ordering government officials around. It just doesn’t happen.

  • Jon in the Nati

    The LDS Church bends over backward to stay politically neutral. For Pete’s sake, get over this business of the LDS Church ordering government officials around. It just doesn’t happen.

    Indeed. Some people (not all, by a long shot) treat Romney a lot like Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic candidate, was treated during the 1928 election. The following links are to newspaper cartoons from the era.

    Romney is no more “bound to follow” the “dictates” of President Monson than JFK was to follow the “dictates” of John XXIII, and it is foolish to suggest this is the case. Now, most people don’t put it in such an inflammatory and ignorant way as Dan Rann above, but that is a pretty common strain in some media coverage.

  • http://dferriman.com Dave

    As a Christian of the “Mormon”faith, I’d say I have a hard time believing that Romney is a fellow Latter-day Saint. Sure, we both like chocolate milk, but that seems to be the only thing we have in common. Yes, the LDS Church DOES stay politically neutral – the Church doesn’t side with Republicans or Democrats. The Church has spoken out on issues one way or another ever since the VERY embarrassing time the Utah cast the deciding vote to end Prohibition. But Romney is still much more of a neo-con than a Mormon Christian as I see him in today’s race. If the Book of Mormon were to be used to outline a true doctrinal Latter-day Saints position on how they would run a nation, or even the Bible as these principles can be found there as well, there are ten points they would have to follow:

    1. They would have to work for the people (not businesses, special interest groups or corporations) (Mosiah 2: 12).
    2. They could not do anything to oppress any people, religion, races, gender, etc. (Mosiah 2: 13)
    3. They could not over tax the people to overly support themselves. (Mosiah 2: 14)
    4. They would be humble. (Mosiah 2: 15)
    5. They would encourage people to work together (Mosiah 2: 18, 26)
    6. They would ensure that children have food, shelter and are properly (not religiously) educated (Mosiah 4: 14-15)
    7. They would encourage welfare programs to care for the poor without judgment or prejudice (Mosiah 4: 16-19)
    8. They would lower or taxes for the poor, or not tax them at all (Mosiah 4: 24)
    9. They would tax the middle class and up fairly to cover the cost of government, keeping the government out of debt without overburdening taxpayers (Mosiah 4: 27 & Mosiah 7: 15)
    10. They would get us out of all the unnecessary wars and only declare war in defense of US soil (Alma 48: 15)

    Looking at Romney’s platform, it should be clear that he is a Republican running for office, not a “Mormon” aiming at the White House. He has stated that corporations are people. He is unwilling to stand up for gay rights, even if they differ from his own moral views. He is not bringing people together, he is furthering the distance between the right and the left by reaching out to Tea Party voters. He is not focusing on bringing our troops home.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This line alone captured for me the fact that Kantor does not get what is going on. “As a young consultant who arrived at the office before anyone else, Mr. Romney was being “deseret,” a term from the Book of Mormon meaning industrious as a honeybee,” is just plain wrong. First off, “Deseret” does not mean “industrious as a honey bee” it means “honeybee”. It is never used for anything else in the Book of Mormon, and only once used for that in the Book of Mormon.

    It is true that Brigham Young and his associates adopted the name of Deseret for their new polity to invoke the image of the honeybee. However Deseret Industries, Deseret Book and the Deseret News are so named either in the third case as a direct hold over from the days of the state of Deseret, or in the other two because the church has adopted this as a self marker.

    I have never heard Deseret used to describe people. Even though most Mormons know the origin of the word, they do not generally use it to describe industriousness. Kantor has made up the whole dialogue on this matter.

    This line was just so outlandish, and so wrong in describing Mormon thought and self-description, that I could not treat the article with seriousness after that point. Kantor just does not understand Mormonism.

    This becimes more evident when she claims that political views on monetary policy held by Romney are rooted in Mormonism. This ignores the issue that Harry Reid, another Mormon, holds opposite views. If she were discussing the issue of man/woman marriage and whether it should remain the standard of marriage the government endorses, than Kantor would be on strong ground, because Church statements make it clear that Reid has gone out of line from the teachings of the Church on this matter.

    On the other hand, no statement of the Church on debt given in the last 30 years, and I may not even need that caveat, can be read as anything other than a statement about personal debt. Federal debt is a uniquely different issue.

    Here http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865555312/Two-writers-use-the-Book-of-Mormon-to-score-political-points.html is an article by Lane Williams, a BYU-Idaho professor who writes a column on media coverage of Mormons for the Deseret News where he shows that if you want to you can justify all sorts of political ideas by appealing to the Book of Mormon, and then he proceeds to poke wholes in the argument based on the Book of Mormon that he really wishes he could make.

    To return to the Deseret issue, Kantor makes two fallacies. In LDS spek, Deseret means the church/Utah/areas whether in or outside Utah with majority LDS populations (Park City is not Deseret, Preston, Idaho would be by this last standard). It is a less clearly religious term than Zion (which to Mormons can mean Missouri, the pure in heart, the Church at least where organized into stakes, or is sometimes used to mean Utah, the last being what those saints who sang of it from 1847 until at least 1950 meant). It was first invoked as a reference to the industrious behive, but that is not the intent or goal of Mormons in using it, and Deseret is no more an adjective than Texas.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am really sick of the quotes from Barlow. This is the guy who claimed that “Romney did not really care about the blacks and the priesthood issue” because he had never discussed it with Romney. All that shows us is that Romney was not open about how he felt about the issue, which is very different. Barlow is the one who is a scholar of religion. If he and Romney did not discuss an issue, maybe that means that Barlow did not care about it.

    I am tired of shallow media spin that shows that the author can not even speak in the terminology of the religion covered. I am a little angry at all thesre developments.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The “excommunicated for adultry” line was a pot shot that needed more explanation. One of the reasons that the church always excommunicates men for adultery is that not doing so would allow some polygamists to stay in the Church. There are men who in their relationships would privately described them as polygamy, but will give the public image of adultry, because legally that is safer. The Church is 100% serious about rooting out any and all polygamy, and that means excommunicating all adulterers.

    There are other reasons related to views on marriage. To fail to explain these is to misinterpret the situation. Beyond this, the whole tone of the article is “Romney’s Mormonism influences his policy decisions”. Are they trying to claim that Romney plans to try and implement federal policies against adulterers? There is no evidence of such. Romney has shown as governor of Massachusetts that he will not seek to implement his religious views in this way, so why even bring it up? The “excommunicated for adultry” line strikes me as a cheap shot that needed way more context.

  • Edgy Mormon

    Dave,

    I think we must be reading the same book through much different lenses. Your interpretations seem to lean sharply to the left. You quote Mosiah extensively. Mosiah talks about a lot more than just working together.

    “that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God. Behold, ye have called me your king; and if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then ought not ye to labor to serve one another?” Mosiah 2:16-19 Book of Mormon.

    You will notice the emphasis on the verb labor. There is nothing in these versus about being permanently attached to the teat of government.

    For the record.. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) has one of the most sophisticated welfare service programs in the world. Donating millions of dollars of aid through its labors to member and non-members all over the world.

  • Dwight Rogers

    Mosiah talks several times about the evils of high taxes and top heavy government. Other than that, the teaching in Mosiah about helping the poor is talking about people helping other people, not government help-the-poor programs.

  • Dwight Rogers

    Mormon doctrine is comparatively women-friendly. Mormonism rejects the post-Biblical Augustinian doctrine of original sin, which held that humanity inherits the sin of Adam and Eve in which they ate the forbidden fruit. This sin was historically blamed on Eve, and was thought to be the source of women’s submissive and dependent state. Mormonism rejects this doctrine of original sin which relegates women to an inferior position and which is a post-Biblical doctrinal development.

    In 1842 (when women were usually constrained to home and hearth), Joseph Smith encouraged the women of the church to form their own organization, and said the church could not be correct until the women were organized. Women have always had a say and a vote in church affairs. The first women to vote in municipal elections were women in Mormon settlements, and women voted in Utah Territory until the Federal government disenfranchised them in 1887. Advanced education for women has always been encouraged. Some of the best formative writing about our faith sprang from the pens of erudite and educated women, such as Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells. Brigham Young and other early leaders not only encouraged university education for women, but sent their own daughters to eastern universities. The assumption that Mormon women are subservient lacks factual foundation.

    In his counsel to the bretheren of the Latter-day Saint Church, Brigham Young (the 2nd President of the church) said the following,” Bretheren if you must choose beetween educating your son and educating your daughter–Educate your daughters for it is they who will raise up the next generation. You sons can earn their way through the toil of their hands.” (late 1800′s).

    Brigham Young, President of the LDS Church, also taught: “As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large.”( Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997, p. 135)

    In 1869, Utah gave women the vote. In 1887, the federal government took the vote away from Utah women (Edmunds-Tucker Act)

    Below is a typical example of what I have consistently been taught all my life (over 50 years) as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

    Speaking of men in the church Gordon B. Hinkley said taught the following (from July 2002 Ensign Magazine)

    “Section 121 goes on to say: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
    “By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (D&C 121:41–42).

    “Our behavior in public must be above reproach. Our behavior in private is even more important. It must clear the standard set by the Lord. We cannot indulge in sin, let alone try to cover our sins. We cannot gratify our pride. We cannot partake of the vanity of unrighteous ambition. We cannot exercise control, or dominion, or compulsion upon our wives or children, or any others in any degree of unrighteousness.

    “The wife you choose will be your equal. Paul declared, “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11).

    “In the marriage companionship there is neither inferiority nor superiority. The woman does not walk ahead of the man; neither does the man walk ahead of the woman. They walk side by side as a son and daughter of God on an eternal journey.

    “She is not your servant, your chattel, nor anything of the kind.

    “How tragic and utterly disgusting a phenomenon is wife abuse. Any man in this Church who abuses his wife, who demeans her, who insults her, who exercises unrighteous dominion over her is unworthy to hold the priesthood. Though he may have been ordained, the heavens will withdraw, the Spirit of the Lord will be grieved, and it will be amen to the authority of the priesthood of that man.

    “Any man who engages in this practice is unworthy to hold a temple recommend.

    “I regret to say that I see too much of this ugly phenomenon. There are men who cuff their wives about, both verbally and physically. What a tragedy when a man demeans the mother of his children.

    “My brethren, if there be any within the sound of my voice who are guilty of such behavior, I call upon you to repent. Get on your knees and ask the Lord to forgive you. Pray to Him for the power to control your tongue and your heavy hand. Ask for the forgiveness of your wife and your children.” (Gordon B. Hinkley, Ensign, July 2002)

    The following is from a talk given by the president of the LDS Church and is typical of what I believe and typical of what I have been repeatedly and consistently taught all my life in the Church:

    Gordon B. Hinkley
    Now, we have a very diverse group to whom I am speaking. This includes young women who are still in school or who are working. You are single. You are hoping to catch that perfect man. I have yet to see one who is perfect. Aim high, but do not aim so high that you totally miss the target. What really matters is that he will love you, that he will respect you, that he will honor you, that he will be absolutely true to you, that he will give you freedom of expression and let you fly in the development of your own talents. He is not going to be perfect, but if he is kind and thoughtful, if he knows how to work and earn a living, if he is honest and full of faith, the chances are that you will not go wrong, that you will be immensely happy. (To The Women of the Church, Ensign, Nov. 2003)

    Dieter F. Uchtdorf
    Because their potential for good is so great and their gifts so diverse, women may find themselves in roles that vary with their circumstances in life. Some women, in fact, must fill many roles simultaneously. For this reason, Latter-day Saint women are encouraged to acquire an education and training that will qualify them both for homemaking and raising a righteous family and for earning a living outside the home if the occasion requires.

    We are living in a great season for all women in the Church. Sisters, you are an essential part of our Heavenly Father’s plan for eternal happiness; you are endowed with a divine birthright. You are the real builders of nations wherever you live, because strong homes of love and peace will bring security to any nation. I hope you understand that, and I hope the men of the Church understand it too. (The Influence of Righteous Women, Ensign Sept. 2009 )