When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008, his Mormon faith and the extent of its cultural and political acceptance generated quite a lot of ink. So now that former Utah Gov. and Chinese Ambassador Jon Huntsman is also considering throwing his hat in the ring, the possibility of two credible Mormon presidential candidates could create a veritable LDSapalooza. Of all publications, the vaunted Economist is out of the gate with a story that looks at how Mormonism may shape the next presidential race. It's got a breezy, anthropological tone that is normally deplorable when examining religious issues. However, since the Economist is often geared toward a British and international audience that may not be as familiar with Mormons, I'm inclined to grade it on a curve.
That's not to say it doesn't have its problems. Here's how the piece addresses Mormon antipathy in the political realm:
This distrust keeps peeking through. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist and another Republican candidate, insinuated just before the Iowa caucus in January 2008 that Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers (Mr Huckabee promptly went on to defeat Mr Romney in that caucus). Last year, when an evangelical Republican in Nevada, Sharron Angle, challenged Harry Reid, a Mormon and a Democrat who is the majority leader of the Senate, her pastor called Mormonism "kooky" and alleged that "Harry Reid's allegiance is to Salt Lake City," that Mormons "do illegal things" and that "there's weirdness going on there".
Protestants once murmured similar things about the Catholic John Kennedy, with Rome taking the place of Salt Lake City, but have since got over their distrust of papistry. They seem to find Mormonism harder to accept. How plausible is it that a semi-literate man in upstate New York should find golden plates written in "reformed Egyptian" and translate them, while burying his face in his hat, to reveal the tale of a family who left Israel in 600BC and ended up in North America? Then again, to be fair, how plausible are the miracles and resurrection of Jesus?
It's understandable Huckabee would be mentioned. However, while Harry Reid may be the highest-profile Mormon officeholder in America, that's a curious example. Angle's pastor may have said those things about Reid's religion, but Sharron Angle's religious views were a far bigger issue in that campaign than Reid's Mormonism. (Particularly because of the baseless and repeated claim that Angle, a Southern Baptist, was somehow sympathetic to the Christian Reconstructionist movement.)
Then there's the rhetorical suggestion about the revelations of Joseph Smith and the divinity of Jesus being equally plausible. I'm not going to touch that (and PLEASE remember the comments section below is not a place to discuss this distinction either), but I don't think tossing off a line like that is a terribly respectful way to smooth over the differences between Mormons and Christians in America.
The article's characterization of how Mormon beliefs influence the politics of the church's members also struck me as not quite right:
Through their faith, Mormons tend to inherit many quintessentially conservative values, above all an attachment to the family. Mormons believe that families remain linked together eternally after death, and that one can even include ancestors into this union by retroactively baptising the dead. This explains why the church maintains probably the world's most sophisticated genealogical database.
But other aspects of Mormonism have liberal, even socialist, elements. Joseph Smith had an egalitarian vision. The church demands, for example, that Mormons pay 10% of their income as a "tithe" to the church, although argument remains about whether this should be applied to income net of government taxes.
The mixture has created overwhelmingly conservative politics in heavily Mormon states such as Utah and Idaho, but with a pragmatic twist, says Kirk Jowers, a Mormon and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. It may not be a coincidence that Mr Romney in Massachusetts and Mr Huntsman in Utah made the two biggest state-level efforts to reform health care (Mr Romney's reform even resembling Barack Obama's to a striking degree).
The debate on immigration is another example. The author of a harsh state law against illegal immigrants in Arizona, passed last year, is a Mormon. But as Utah began debating its own version, with anti-immigrant rhetoric taking on racist tinges, the state's overwhelmingly Mormon policy elite formed a "Utah compact", an agreement to keep the debate civil and empathetic toward all. The church gave this compact a nod of approval, citing the sanctity of families, including those of illegal immigrants, who might be split up by deportations. It is also aware that more than half of Mormons are outside the United States, many in Latin America.
I fail to see how requiring a tithe speaks to the fact that Mormonism has liberal or socialist elements. The church does have its own internal welfare system, but this goes unmentioned, and I wouldn't exactly describe the church's approach to it as egalitarian or socialist. Further, other elements of the church -- such as the Mormon requirement that families keep a year's supply of food storage on hand -- speak to a conservative vision of self-reliance. Of course, we could examine the politics of former presidential candidate Joseph Smith, and things might get past the modern and binary right/left distinctions we're working with here. Further, how the church approaches the political beliefs of its members in the public square is a very complex and nuanced thing. But this article kind of bulldozes past all that.
Then there's another weird example. As someone who was raised Mormon, I agree with the general assessment that there is a streak of political pragmatism in the church. But I'm not sure that health care is a good example of this. Huntsman was a centrist Republican governor in a very conservative state -- consequently, his health care reform policy was very free-market friendly. Romney was perceived at the time as a liberal Republican in a heavily Democratic state, and so his health-care plan does resemble Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. My general sense here is that these specific policies were shaped by the political realities with which these governors who happen to Mormon were dealing with. (And that's saying nothing of the fact that "It may not be a coincidence..." is a kind of a weasel-phrase here.) Dragging their faith into it strikes me as a bit of a stretch. But for what it's worth, I do think the immigration example is a very good one on this point.
On the whole, I'm a bit conflicted about the story because as a journalist this article trades in far more unsubstantiated generalizations than I'm comfortable with. But as someone who's more familiar with Mormonism than the average bear, I feel like the generalizations are mostly on target. This is the rare story that misses the trees for the forest.
In any event, I feel like the author had noble intentions and there's a lot of useful information here and they should be commended for that. For now, I'm eager to see how they move the chains on the Romney-Huntsman story. I suspect this is just the beginning.