Mitt Romney and Mormon Studies

Mitt Romney and Mormon Studies January 3, 2019

Mitt Romney has done more than just about anyone else (save my Doktorvater) for my career.

By coming close to the Republican nomination in 2008 and then being the presumptive nominee for the next four years, Romney made Mormon Studies great. The creators of The Book of Mormon: The Musical also deserve ample credit, but the man from Michigan Massachusetts Utah enhanced popular interest in his religion just in time for my first book on the subject.

Some people wondered whether or not Mitt Romney was a Christian. I had no doubt about it. The New Testament encouraged him to become “all things to all men,” and Romney gamely tried his best to do so. Pro-choice when running for office in Massachusetts? Severely conservative when securing the GOP nomination, fending off heavyweights such as Rick Santorum? Forcing the citizens of Massachusetts to buy health insurance, and then promising to stop forcing other Americans to do the same? That may sound like criticism, but a politician’s first order of business is to get elected, so tacking one way and then another is sort of the job description.

Back in 2012, I did my best to get my benefactor over the hump in Virginia. I attended a Romney campaign rally on my campus. I even clapped. Many of my Latter-day Saint historian friends did not like Mitt Romney and made that plain. I couldn’t believe their selflessness. I knew that a Romney win would guarantee eight years of semi-popular interest in the things I was currently studying.

And then my hero let me down. He claimed that a near-majority of Americans were free-loaders and just wanted the government to support them. That created a more narrow path to victory. He couldn’t decide whether to publicly talk about his religion or not. His wasn’t a bad campaign, just sort of a meh effort against an incumbent with meh popularity. It wasn’t enough. Mitt Romney became what the current incumbent regards as a “loser.”

He could have retired from politics. In my mind, I could see him as a future president of BYU, maybe even an apostle. At the very least, he could do celebrity boxing matches and occasionally appear on late-night television.

Instead, Mitt Romney did the easiest thing he could possibly have done. He got himself elected as Utah’s junior senator. He could have spent the whole year in La Jolla or Hawaii and won that election. I can’t think of anything easier than a Romney winning a state-wide election in Utah. A Kennedy would have a harder time in Massachusetts.

Okay, nice to close out a career with an irrelevant victory lap.

Nope. My former hero decided to publicly announce himself as the new voice-of-reason moderate Republican Trump critic.

Romney and Trump have had a mostly adversarial relationship since Romney choked lost in November 2012. Because of his own electoral strength in Utah, Romney did not need to court Trump in order to get his party’s nomination for the Senate. His scathing op-ed denunciation of Trump is not a flip-flop. Romney never warmed up to Trump, with the exception of being suckered into having dinner with the president-elect back in the fall of 2016. (Mitt should thank Heavenly Father every night that Trump didn’t make him Secretary of State). So you would expect Romney to be a leading voice against his own party’s president in the Senate.

At the same time, I don’t like Romney’s public positioning of himself as Republican Trump critic #1. It’s a position usually filled by an Arizona senator, for starters. But really, what’s the point? Romney is not going to run for president in 2020. He’d get hammered. Barring massive changes on the political landscape, no other credible Republican candidate will challenge a president who absolutely thumped everyone in the primaries the last time around and has a solid electoral base. It’s just poppycock.

So my fellow scholars of Mormonism should not get excited. No Mormon president anytime soon.

There is a special role for Republican thorns in Trump’s side. They can go on CNN, MSNBC, and The View and get treated with faux respect. But does Mitt Romney really crave that sort of phony adulation?

Furthermore, Mitt Romney is going to support Trump’s agenda on just about everything but immigration. Conservative replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg? You can count on it, whether it fills you with joy or dread.

Despite the above tone, I’m sympatico with the conservative Never Trump playbook. Cheer on good policies and criticize bad ones. Praise Trump for his successes and criticize him when he behaves boorishly. I fully expect Mitt Romney to do precisely that.

But there is no significant non-Trump wing of the Republican Party at the moment. When Trump decides not to run again, loses in 2020, or retires after two tumultuous terms, there will be a battle for the soul and future direction of the Republican Party. Until then, it’s Ever Trump.

So Mitt Romney will have a pretty meaningless six or more years in the U.S. Senate. He’s no second coming of Reed Smoot. He won’t be as significant as Mike Lee. Yes, Romney has stature, and he’s been an effective fundraiser for other Republican candidates. But his peak of his clout is already long past.

I like having Mitt Romney in national politics. It reminds me of how much he has accomplished in his life, for himself, his family, his church, his many states, and his country. And for me and for other historians of Mormonism who found it easier to publish our books and get jobs partly because of his rising star. So even as he slides into the role of sanctimonious Trump critic, I promise to remain thankful to him for his past service. He could have made Mormon Studies greater, but it was enough that he helped make it great.

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