The Mormon Moment died at approximately 11:00pm on Tuesday night. Mormonism, however, will be just fine. In fact, it may even come out of this week in a better situation than had its most famous son won the presidency.
Romney’s candidacy brought out the worst in many Mormons. To be sure, the vast majority of Mormons (and others) were simply conscientious citizens choosing the person who they thought was best qualified to lead the country, and they engaged in civil and respectful discourse, even disagreement, with people on the other side of the political spectrum. But far too many Mormons got wrapped up in the politics of parochialism, the hubris of hype, and the narcissism of the news cycle. Republican-voting Mormons questioned the faithfulness and integrity of their fellow church members who committed the cardinal sin of voicing support for the socialist anti-Christ Muslim intent on eradicating all their freedoms and leaving the Constitution hanging by a thread. Not to be outdone, Democratic-voting Mormons smugly disdained the unenlightened rubes they deigned to go to church with every week. Just showing up on Sunday to worship alongside the insufferable conservative masses was an act of heroic, self-congratulatory charity. If Ohio was a battleground, Facebook became Armageddon, and church hallways became sites of snipers’ nests and low-level skirmishes. Thankfully, mercifully, it is over. Perhaps now we can all go back to simply being members of the same church, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Beyond the daily walk of individual Latter-day Saints, Romney’s loss also has salutary effects for the institutional church. Because Romney is not in the White House, the LDS Church will be able to continue to weigh in on public issues of vital importance to it. Had Mitt Romney occupied the Oval Office, the White House and the Church Office Building would have cut off virtually all contact, for fear that either the president or the prophet would be accused of theocratic ambitions. As it is, however, the church can maintain its legal and appropriate lobbying efforts in Washington just like every other church and special interest in America does. Ironically, a Romney administration would have had the effect of decreasing the political influence of the LDS Church.
Secularist and fundamentalist fears (and Mormon millennialist hopes) to the contrary, a Romney presidency would not have brought about a commingling of church and state. Mitt Romney would not have become a latter-day Constantine; Salt Lake City would not be the new Rome. Nevertheless, Romney’s narrow loss means that Mormonism has narrowly escaped the devil’s ultimate temptation of “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” (Matt. 4:8). Christians have rarely fared well, as Christians, in the seat of sovereign power. Though his followers sought to make him a king, Jesus repeatedly rejected the throne, preferring instead the path of humble servanthood and prophetic distance from the trappings of temporal power.
Many Christians through the centuries have strictly followed Jesus’s lead in scrupulously avoiding the corrupting realm of secular politics. On the contrary, most Mormons side with the majority of Christians who believe that God ordains the political order, and that participation in government can be a means of doing real and lasting good in the world. Thus, the problem with a Romney presidency would not have been that a Latter-day Saint sat in the Oval Office. The problem with a Romney presidency would have been that most of his fellow Latter-day Saints would have been loathe to criticize the decisions and actions emanating from the Oval Office. There is nothing particularly complicated or sinister about this—as members of a historically besieged minority community, Mormons would have rightly been proud of having one of their own in the highest office of the land, and would naturally want to be protective of his reputation. This was largely true of Catholics when Kennedy was president, and has largely been true of African Americans during the Obama administration.
But by surrendering (or at least swallowing) their critique of the president, Mormons would have been defaulting not only on their duty as watchful citizens but on their responsibility as faithful Christians. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus told Pilate (John 18:36). Religion is historically at its best when it resides on the prophetic margins. Old Testament prophets were typically irritating gadflies more than they were trusted insiders in the throne room.
Most Mormons have not yet shown the capability of mustering truly righteous indignation toward one of their own. Yes, there is always Harry Reid, but the first strategy of his Mormon critics is to claim that he is not really one of us. The attraction of Mitt Romney for the Mormon faithful was that he was always, indisputably, impeccably, one of us. It would have been nigh on impossible for those caught up in the myth that he would be riding in on the white horse and saving the Constitution from impending peril to brook the blasphemous suggestion that he may, in fact, be just another politician.
And so Mormonism, however much social and cultural capital it may have gained in recent months, will remain on the margins…exactly where it belongs, and where it has always done real and lasting good in the world.