Whichever way one is voting, I think that we can all be thankful together that this election is about to be over. Polls suggest that, by however thin a margin, in another week Mitt Romney will need to begin considering whether he intends to go for the full William Jennings Bryan. Another interim period will begin in which we may ask what effect the election had for Mormonism, before we start asking, again, what effect the next one might have. I think that this election’s effects mean that the question will be less interesting next time. Three things come to mind for me so far:
1) Obviously, Mitt Romney’s candidacy has created a greater base of general knowledge about Mormonism among the public. In 2004, I found myself correcting a group of MBA students who thought that all Mormons practiced polygamy; this seems unlikely to happen today. A lexis search for “Joseph Smith” and “1890” – terms that suggest an article recounting basic facts about Mormonism – returns about as many stories since January (182) as it does in all of the 1990s (217).
2) No more “Model [Religious] Minority.” The public has learned that Mormons are not, actually, always nice. From the infamous “47%” business, to Romney’s attitude toward the President during the debates, to his diss of the London organizers of the Olympics, you might read him as either tough as nails and brutally honest or as insolent and duplicitous, but either way it seems hard to fit all of those things into a pre-Romney stereotype of the polite missionary. Confronting one of the early complaints about his candidacy, Romney (if often accidentally) appeared more human as the campaign dragged on, and, to the extent that he will represent Mormonism for much of the public for years to come, I think this has the entirely benign effect of humanizing a faith that has been stereotyped as super-humanly polite.
3) No more “cult”? On October 11th, Mitt Romney went to the mountaintop to be blessed by Billy Graham himself. Many have speculated that this had more to do with Graham’s son Franklin than with the elder Graham – Billy Graham hasn’t been so overtly involved in politics since the seventies – but either way the event had significance for both Mormonism and conservative evangelicalism. After the event pundits noticed that, not that long ago, the Grahams believed that Mormonism was a cult; such references were quickly scrubbed but the Grahams’ organization has stopped short of accepting Mormons as Christians. The blessing of Romney’s candidacy, then, is the latest sign that hot-button social issues and distaste for a President they believe to be, variously, a fake Christian or a real Muslim has overcome theological niceties and forced many conservative evangelicals to back a person they believe to be a non-Christian to lead their Christian nation. The footwork is tricky, but Franklin Graham wants to lead the dance. It requires acknowledging that “we do not have a state religion” and that “our Constitution provides for the freedom to worship without interference of government” while also maintaining that a commander-in-chief must “ensure God’s moral law will not be violated.” It requires the simultaneous emphasis on and abstraction of faith that Romney himself has promoted. “While there are major differences in the theology of evangelical Christians and that of Mormons, as well as those who practice the Catholic faith or the Jewish faith, we do share common values that are biblically based,” Graham writes, which to me echoes Romney’s appeal to the “nation’s symphony of faith” and generic Judeo-Christian values in his religion speech during the 2008 campaign.
Political acceptance of this abstraction suggests that in future elections evangelical support for Mormons or any other appropriately conservative candidates may be a non-issue. This abstraction seems like a thing that ought to be difficult for those committed to a very specific, heart-felt experience of grace as the only path to the only true religion, but I am hardly one to judge. The Grahams are of course right – Mormonism is not a cult – but it also seems pretty plain that the decision to abandon this false belief arises out of political expediency that may be, at best, explained as service to a number of other false beliefs, such as that President Obama might “create a new nation without God or perhaps under many gods.” The act of acceptance is to be applauded, but its circumstances make it look an awful lot like a mogul on the slippery slope to the secular society in which people like me would be perfectly happy. That, then, may be the most surprising consequence of Mitt Romney’s campaign: by forcing those most devoted to religion’s place in politics to make a decision between “values” and “faith,” he may succeed in making the religious element matter a bit less for everyone.