Saturday, October 20, 2012

How Romney's Mormonism Will Affect His Presidency

Mitt Romney is poised to become America's first Mormon president. His debate performances have won over a number of independents, evangelicals have gone from saying they'd never vote for a Mormon to openly campaigning for him, and he is running against a man with as dismal a record as any modern president. While the election is too close to call, it is certainly close enough to consider exactly how Romney would govern as a Mormon in the White House.

Americans tend to hold to separation of church and state and our presidents are not to be theocrats, but there is no doubt that they bring their religious convictions into the Oval Office. Barack Obama may be the least religious president of them all, but his own brand of Christianity - black liberation theology – was certainly in line with his policy choices. We should expect that Mitt Romney’s Mormon conviction will guide his presidency. After all, he is not only a Mormon, but a deeply committed Mormon. He is, as opposed to the likes of fellow Mormon Harry Reid, a true believer.

 Now many might be saying, "So what? Mormonism is just a branch of Christianity, so what's the big deal?" I can see where one might think that. High profile meetings with Billy Graham and the tide of evangelicals supporting Romney without carefully delineating how Mormonism is not a branch of Christianity can lead to that confusion. In some ways, Mormonism has become mainstream. In other ways, it is receiving more scrutiny.

 What I want to try to answer is how Romney's Mormonism will shape his presidency. I think it will in three ways. First, Mormons have a peculiar relationship with the American experience, for better and for worse, and that will underscore Romney's vision for America and his relationship to the Constitution. Second, Romney is a utopian, and that will shape his policy goals. Third, Mormonism is a works-based religion, so Romney will want to succeed.

 The first issue is the largest, most ambiguous, and most complex. Without retelling the entire story, let's just say that Mormonism is a distinctly American religion (or religious cult) and it has thrived because of America's grand history of religious freedom. Its beliefs are pretty unusual and non-Christian in almost every respect. But their story bleeds American. The Book of Mormon (albeit inaccurately) speaks of American places and Jewish tribes who traveled to America. In Mormon folklore, America is the Promised Land. Their holy books reference America. Americans don't have to just imagine Jesus in Israel. Their own prophets ended up right here in the US of A! How could a Mormon not love this place? And how different that is from a president whose liberation theology has led him to conclude America is a source for evil? (Trust me, that is what liberation theology teaches. Jeremiah Wright is just the tip of the iceberg.)

 Mormonism's experience in America has not always been happy, though. They were persecuted, or at least rightly pursued on many occasions by U.S. law enforcement. They ended up in Salt Lake because Utah was not yet a state and they were free to practice their faith, including polygamy. Only after intense pressure when Utah sought to become a state did Mormons give up polygamy. Joseph Smith was assassinated and that persecution is part of what has historically bound this group together.

 This is the paradox of Mormonism and their relationship to America: they are free to be Mormon for the most part, but at times, they experienced legal rebukes to end their more extreme prophecies. In the end, it seems that Mormons have moved on from those persecutions and have decided to make a go of it. They now say that they are Christian, whereas in the past, they said they were not. They work on conversion, not on starting militias. And there are even those strange prophecies that speak to a Mormon president saving the American Constitution, which hangs by a thread. Some persecution aside, Mormons know that the Constitution protects their right to belief (false) prophecy. So whereas Mr. Obama sees the constitution as incomplete and/or inadequate, Mormons want to see it protected. That will certainly shape Mr. Romney's presidency.

 The second area is, at least for conservatives, far more problematic. Mormons are utopians because they deny original sin. While they say they affirm the Protestant (Pauline) doctrine of "justification by grace alone," they operate on a works-based theology. Good works earns favor in the eyes of their god (who was once a man). This means that they believe men are capable of building a better world. If you hang out in Salt Lake City, you might tend to agree. If you are in control of your eternal destiny and your good works earn you special dispensation in that eternity, you are a utopian.

 This will benefit you if you have Mormon neighbors. But its not a good guide for government policy. Utopians are stubbornly optimistic and hope for the best in people. This is why he will never be as conservative as many conservatives hope for. He will defend the Constitution, but he won't be bashful about social programs with good intentions. The core of conservatism is a fundamental belief in original sin, and therefore the need to limit government and protect man from man. A utopian who believes in human/social progress will want to help men along rather than stop them in their tracks. This optimism will almost certainly be a blind spot for Mr. Romney.

 Finally, there is a flip side to this works righteous heresy. Mr. Romney will bust his butt trying to be a successful president. For a mind like his, there is no sting worse than failure, and, for better or worse, he will not want to leave a legacy of failure. He will want unemployment to go down, the economy to improve and the debt situation to improve as well. Unlike Mr. Obama, whose liberation theology teaches that America's lack of success is itself a success, Romney will be more motivated than most to see to it that he is a successful president. He believes he answers to a higher power with special dispensation towards America. If America is the Promised Land in your religion and you are her leader, you definitely don't want to blow your opportunity to succeed.

 To a degree, Romney's own personality will shape his presidency. He is a frugal, detail-oriented, managerial tightwad. After four years of detached, professorial cool, I’m perfectly okay with that. For the first time in years, we will not have a lazy president or one so rigidly ideological that they let their stubbornness impede progress. I can't believe I'm saying this as I certainly did not support him in the primaries, but I think that Romney has a rare combination of skills and motivation to have as consequential and successful a presidency as Ronald Reagan.

 It is only the Mormon factor, particularly his stubborn optimism, that will slow him down. It will keep him from seeing the full truth of a broken humanity. But in the end, it could propel to him to a consequential presidency. Two things are for sure: first, Mormons are not Christians; second, a deeply committed Mormon like Mr. Romney will absolutely take that into the White House and it will guide almost everything he does.