Mitt Romney and Mormon Theology

Editor's Note: As the election approaches, the subject of Mormon Theology and its influence (or lack thereof) on Mitt Romney has been the subject of a number of provocative essays. Best known probably is Andrew Sullivan's piece, on the conflicted history of Mormonism and race, here, which should be read accompanied by Joanna Brooks's significant dissent from it here, and Matthew Bowman's historian's perspective here, which concludes that "Mormonism is not so simple as a quirky version of American conservatism, and both Mormons themselves and their fellow Americans would do well to notice."

Below is Jon Pahl's view, which contrasts with all of the above. The discussion continues.

By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

            Much has been made of Mitt Romney’s apparent flexibility with the truth.  But what if this is not intentional disregard of facts, but rather stems from a theological point of view that sanctions “creative” knowledge? 
            There are beauties to behold in Mormon theology that I am sure Latter-Day Saints can and will clarify.  And one cannot forget the persecution and violence inflicted on the community in its early decades.  And, finally, Mormons can be found across political parties, as the distinguished career of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and the existence of makes clear. 
But implicit in the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion is the requirement for citizens to question how religious and theological claims shape the public policies of those who would represent us in leadership.  Few have hesitated to question President Obama’s religion, albeit alternately depicting him as a Muslim, and/or in disparaging his social-justice oriented Christian pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.  
            And in the last debate, Romney made a point of his long career as a Mormon missionary and “pastor.”  Something to which an aspiring President has been so devoted ought to receive attention.  And there’s good reason to recognize that many of Romney’s policies may stem from and reflect deep structures of his Mormon faith.
            First is what we might call the “hyper-agency” of the “I Made That” claim, featured at the Republican National Convention.  As is well known, Romney emphasizes his capacity as a “job-creator,” and disdains those 47% or so of us who emphasize instead our collective responsibility for each other.  This may not be so much Ayn Rand as Joseph Smith.  According to the The Book of Mormon, which like the biblical book of Genesis traces things back to Adam and Eve, human beings are co-creators with God:  we are “free agents.”  Procreating is the ultimate “I made that” act.  All other agency reflects this theological truth.  This directly explains much of Mormon hostility to same-sex marriage, of course, and more indirectly explains Romney-nomics.  Wealth is nothing less than godly blessing on co-creative activity.  Why should the wealthy have to share their wealth with less active co-creators?
            A second deep structure in common between Romney’s policies and some versions of Mormon theology is on the level of authority.  Mormons envision the “divinization” of humanity.  This serious aspiration explains why the dead are “baptized” posthumously, and why the temple rituals of the faith are secretive:  this is God-business, not for the unwashed.  Such an authority structure explains Romney’s apparent assurance that “of course the numbers work out,” even if they don’t.  Or as Mormon Apostle N. Eldon Tanner put it in 1979:  “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.”  Authority has its own logic, through some secret process not available to ordinary mortals. 
            Finally, on foreign policy, we ought to ask hard questions about the political implications of Mitt Romney’s theology.  It is well known that “American exceptionalism” is woven into the fabric of Mormon teachings:  America has a manifest destiny in God’s plan. This destiny is often depicted in dualistic, us versus them, terms, as Mormon Mary Barker recently argued in an important essay:  “Mitt, Moochers, and Mormonisms Other Legacies.”  How does Mitt Romney intend to translate his Mormon faith into the subtleties of diplomatic engagement?  How does the extravagant apocalyptic theology of Latter Day Saints influence Romney’s thinking about sending young people to die in warfare?  We have had recent experience of a missionary-apocalyptic-Christian in President George W. Bush, who rather than engaging a targeted police action against Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of 9/11, led Americans into an expensive, and tragic, “Global War on Terror” that sought no less than to “eliminate evil.”  Can we afford another theologically-inspired war?
             All in all, the way Mormon theology shapes Mitt Romney’s policies deserves inquiry.  The origins of the Book of Mormon are well known, and are easy to lampoon—as the Broadway musical gleefully does.  But the consequences are not laughable when a theology produces policies that ruthlessly favor rich over poor, promote arrogance about the difference between truth and falsehood, and may lead to yet another war.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and author of Empire of Sacrifice:  The Religious Origins of American Violence.


Christopher said…
Interesting post. I agree that "the way Mormon theology shapes Mitt Romney’s policies deserves inquiry," but what you've laid out here is something approaching an ahistorical caricature of Mormon thought, in which LDS theology is both simple and stagnant. "This may not be so much Ayn Rand as Joseph Smith" is a clever turn of phrase, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anything resembling Romney's disdain for the 47% in Joseph Smith's corpus of writings and sermons. By contrast, Smith embraced and advocated the more general collective responsibility for each other.

There is, to be sure, a strain of Mormon theology that prizes individual success. I'm not convinced, as you apparently are, that this automatically translates into "policies that ruthlessly favor rich over poor, promote arrogance about the difference between truth and falsehood, and may lead to yet another war." To reduce Mitt Romney's political positions to little more than consequences of what you imagine his theology to be reduces the complexities of his life and the culture and society in which he lives to a degree I, as a historian, an comfortable with. Mitt's Mormonism matters, but so does his status as a privileged heterosexual white male, his successful career as a businessman, and the hard-right turn his political party has taken in the last 4 years.
David Stowe said…
This is one of the more chilling analyses of Mormon political philosophy I've seen...and one of the most compelling arguments for defeating Romney next week. Thanks for putting this together so concisely.
Anonymous said…
Dware, I disagree strongly that Romney's theology presents "one of the most compelling arguments for defeating him" but I think you're probably right in pointing out that Pahl's actual motivation for posting was purely political and not at all scholarly.

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