Romney is still Mormon? Stop the presses

It’s almost obligatory now for religion reporters to write their own version of “Romney is a Mormon,” ensuring readers know precisely what they’re getting into if they vote for him in two months. Or you have the general assignment reporters who think no one has already written that tired narrative.

In this case, we have the religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times connecting Romney’s faith to his view of personal responsibility. The piece launches with a Mormon couple who had never thought to seek government assistance, somehow tying it to Romney’s recent remarks about personal responsibility.

That worldview, focused on church and not government, is part of the culture of American Mormonism, paradoxically rooted in both self-reliance and communitarian idealism. It may help explain the roots of Mitt Romney’s conservatism, which in many ways mirrors the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When Romney said in a secretly recorded video that 47% of Americans lacked personal responsibility and believed they deserved government entitlements, it reflected a conservative political view rooted in the idea that freedom demands responsibility.

But it also may reflect his history as a Mormon bishop, whose duties included giving the needy among his flock a hand up — but never a mere handout.

I don’t necessarily doubt that the above paragraphs could be true, but I would like to see some evidence, either from Mormon teaching or from more of what Romney has said. Otherwise, from a readership standpoint, it feels like the reporter is reading into a remark.

Two-thirds of American Mormons describe themselves as politically conservative and only 8% as liberal, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Nearly three-quarters lean Republican. Mormons are significantly more conservative, on balance, than evangelical Christians, the religious group most identified with the political right in this country.

But Mormon conservatism differs from its evangelical counterpart. It can be more pragmatic, more flexible. It springs from different sources, some theological, some rooted in the Mormons’ rugged pioneer history. Those steeped in Mormon culture can hear echoes of it in Romney’s political rhetoric, although he generally avoids explicit mentions of his faith.

It might be worth mentioning just how many Mormons there are in the electorate as a whole. Can they really be compared to evangelicals, who dwarf the sheer number of Mormons when it comes to voting? I also don’t know that a reporter can definitively say Mormons are more pragmatic, more flexible than evangelicals. Says who? I don’t necessarily deny it, but how would you even begin to measure those qualities?

Romney is not in lock step with his fellow Mormons on all issues, and he has shown a willingness to take positions at odds with LDS doctrine, as when he took a stance in favor of abortion rights. (He now espouses antiabortion views similar to those of his church.) But it is difficult to fully understand him without grasping how his faith and its unique culture play out in political belief.

The reporter starts this section of the piece showing how Romney hasn’t been 100% in line with the LDS Church but then proceeds to show historically where the Republican Party and the LDS Church have met or diverged. The narrative set up seems too forced.

For many Mormons, the idea of free agency, with its intrinsic emphasis on individual responsibility, translates into a belief in limited government and an abhorrence of the welfare state, which is seen as crushing individual initiative. This meshes neatly with the ideals of the Republican Party, and was echoed in Romney’s recorded comments about Americans who believe they are “victims” and are entitled to help.

…But Mormons are quick to point out that, unlike many evangelical churches, their church allows for exceptions for abortion in the cases of rape, incest, when the life or health of the mother is in danger or when the fetus has such severe defects that it is not expected to survive beyond birth.

…Mormons tend to be less conservative on immigration than evangelicals, a position some attribute to the fact that so many of its young people serve abroad as missionaries.

Seen by whom, exactly? The reporter continues to suggest where Mormons and evangelicals diverge, but last time I checked, evangelicals really do not hold official church positions the same way the LDS Church would hold. That’s what you call apples and oranges, right? Generally, the piece seems to include quite a bit of conjecture, connecting dots that might not be worth connecting without more evidence.

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  • Susan

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if they contrasted Mormonism with Black Liberation theology?

  • The Old Bill

    At least they didn’t bring up the Mountain Meadows Massacre again.

    I can’t count the times I have heard or read the phrase “rape, incest or to save the mother’s life.” And I always wonder, if the only abortions being performed were for those reasons, would this be a hot-button issue.

  • Jettboy

    I wish that this blog did opinion pieces, because there was a NYT article called “Why I love Mormons” that starts out good, but ends up making a mess of Mormon theology no better than what he accuses others of doing. Of course, like this one, it is really about how weird Romney is and how not like traditional Christians he and his religion are. The problem with these articles is a lack of historical understanding and a focus on political present-ism. They are written to drive a wedge between Mormons and Evangelicals in hopes to tip the balance in the election to Obama. Like Susan said, the better contrast considering the Presidential election contenders. would be Mormonism and Black Liberation theology.

  • dalea

    Maybe the key to understanding the article is to note that is comes from the Los Angeles Times, a paper in the far West of the US. And then remember that this is also the region where Mormons are most numerous. I live here, and read the article as beginning with things those of us who know and work with Mormons understand about the faith. And we understand these things because our Mormon friends and co-workers have told us so and/or we observe the Mormon Church directly. I have heard the sentiments listed here directly from Mormons.

    I suspect this article reads very differently on the East Coast than it does on the West Coast. It assumes that the reader already has some familiarity with Mormons. Then proceeds to show how things the reader is already aware of are reflected in Romney. When writing for East Coast consumption, there needs to be a lot more background as the readers are probably entering unknown territory. But not so on the West Coast.

  • Darren Blair

    What few non-Mormons understand is the fact that in the early days of the church, “being a professional welfare recipient” was *not* an option.

    The church quite literally had to terraform just about everywhere it settled in order to make the place livable. In fact, Nauvoo was originally a swamp and the Salt Lake valley had been forsaken by all but a handful of Native American bands. Every last warm body was needed to get the job done, and so if a person was physically & mentally capable they had a job to do.

    In fact, if you’ll look at the church’s hymnal – http://www.lds.org/cm/display/0,17631,4996-1,00.html – a lot of the songs reflect this, such as “Put Your Shoulder To The Wheel” and a variation on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”.

  • cvg

    That worldview, focused on church and not government, is part of the culture of American Mormonism, paradoxically rooted in both self-reliance and communitarian idealism. It may help explain the roots of Mitt Romney’s conservatism, which in many ways mirrors the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    This seems to be a strong allusion to the grace vs. works debate. Why not build more of the article around a nuanced understanding of the Mormon concept of works, explaining why a culture of entitlement may be anethema to this group.

    • Marie

      I think that would open a whole other can of worms. Mormons don’t believe in salvation by works; they believe in salvation by grace. They do recognize a connection between faith and grace as well as a connection of faith and works. Mormons don’t always use the same terminology or form of expression that is common in contemporary Christianity and that leads to a lot of mis communication with the rest of Christianity. Many, if not most, other Christians, who are seeped in religious concepts and terminology have a hard time grasping this, and I think a reporter would most probably stumble and then crash and burn on any attempt to flesh this out.


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