Mitt and Mormonism

Mitt and Mormonism September 5, 2012

Over at the LA Times Review of Books, Laurie Winer is trying to feel out the influence that Mormonism has had on Mitt Romney. She’s right that this is a topic that hasn’t received a great deal of attention. Instead, we get interminable discussions over whether Mormonism is Christian or not, as if Christianity had a solid definition or there is a legitimate authority figure to define it.

Plus, I think most liberals feel that Romney is just so vacillating that no influence is going to stick to him. But Winer suggests that this is exactly the impact that Mormonism has had:

Like candidate Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints possesses a remarkable adaptability that keeps it alive and thriving. In a pinch, its talent for survival will trump its doctrine. At its founding, the church stipulated that marriage equaled monogamy, then there was polygamy, then a whole lot of polygamy, then the church was back to monogamy. For a very long time people of color were let nowhere near the church’s holy offices; suddenly, in 1978, they were welcome. The church has reversed itself on other doctrines as well, such as Adam being God (which he was under the leadership of Brigham Young), and the idea of “blood atonement” — in which a sinner’s crime is so unpardonable that his only recourse for salvation is to give up his life (i.e. be killed, another of Young’s ideas).

It’s interesting, but I think Winer is just using it as an excuse to retell Mormon history (not that there’s anything wrong with that …) My problem is that I don’t think this changeability is unique to Mormonism, and I’m skeptical that the changes in Romney’s policy position really go as deep as Winer suggests.

Mormonism is a relatively small and young religion, which allows it to shift more easily than other religions. Orthodox Christianity has had many such shifts in its history when it was young and small. But far from becoming concrete and monolithic, it continues to diversify and evolve. Perhaps its simply because we are immersed in it that we can’t see the changes occurring.

For example, there are few things more certain than that conservative Christians are opposed to abortion. But Fred Clark has repeatedly pointed out that the evangelical passion for anti-abortion politics is relatively recent.

All told, if Mormon flexibility can explain Mitt Romney, we then need to explain why any American politician can stick to a principle for more than five seconds. (No jokes, I’ve seen some that last for ten.)

A more plausible explanation was provided by Neil Swidey in his 2006 article, The Lessons of the Father. Swidey pointed out that Mitt is much like his father George, another successful businessman and politician. But George’s political career was scuttled by a changing position on Vietnam and a passing comment in which he said that he’d been “brainwashed” by the military propaganda.

The lesson that Mitt has taken from that doesn’t seem to be that he should be more consistent. Being perfectly consistent is probably impossible in American politics, where the official is supposed to be both a leader with delegated powers and a representative enacting the will of their constituents. Instead, Romney the younger focuses on control, letting nothing slip out and saying nothing that hasn’t been focus-group tested.

Whereas George Romney was often zestful, impulsive, hot-tempered, Mitt is analytical, cautious, even-keeled. Michigan reporters loved to cover George because they knew they could always get him worked up enough to deliver a headline. You never hear Beacon Hill reporters talk about Mitt like that.

We can be sure of this much: Unlike most of the governors and senators whose names get bandied about as presidential gold only to melt under the glare of the national spotlight, Mitt Romney is ready for prime time. His steady hand and media savvy running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics showed the world that. The lessons of the father have been learned, and learned well, by the son. He is not likely to flub his way to footnote status. But will he remember to breathe? Will he allow himself to go off script? Will he be able to get past that reputation for being so polished that he sometimes seems almost plastic?

With Romney, there’s no risk taking. The conflicts that Winer points out are a result of Romney saying exactly what he feels he needs to say to win whatever race he’s in with 51%, and no more. Different races require different statements of principle, and Romney will attest to whatever principle is needed for however long it is required.

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