2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission from The Weekly Standard.

You remember, or perhaps you don't, Sen. Orrin Hatch's 2000 presidential campaign. The senator talks about it in soft inflections, recalling this event and that debate. But especially he talks about what motivated him to run. Hatch, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cites polling data from 1999 suggesting that 17 percent of Americans wouldn't vote for a Mormon for president under any circumstances.

"One reason I ran was to knock down the prejudicial wall that exists" against Mormons, he says. "I wanted to make it easier for the next candidate of my faith."

That next candidate just might be Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. But would his religion hurt him? Would he run into a prejudicial wall? Maybe, though there are reasons to think otherwise.

Apparently some people so dislike Mormonism, or find it so odd, that they wouldn't vote for a Mormon. You can speculate about why that is. Maybe it's the hierarchical character of the church. Or maybe it's the church's secrecy about things like finances or temple rituals. Then there's polygamy, introduced by Joseph Smith (who had 49 wives) and practiced until, a century ago, the church finally realized that the federal government would not tolerate it.

Church and State

And there's church and state: Some people fear that, deep down, Mormons want to gain control of the government and turn the United States into their kingdom of God.

Some of those objections might fade if voters got to know a Mormon of compelling political credentials, and came to feel comfortable with him. Other objections might have to be answered directly. In regard to polygamy, for example, it would be unfair to hang that history around the neck of Romney, the husband of one and only one wife since their marriage 36 years ago.

As for church and state, Mormons don't seem especially threatening to the prevailing order. The church doesn't endorse candidates. It stays out of partisan matters, refusing even to let individual churches or their membership lists be used for partisan purposes. It does encourage citizens to vote: Before elections the church urges members to consider the issues and candidates, "and then vote for the people that best represent their ideas of good government," according to a spokesman.

Like most churches, it participates in law cases raising religious liberty issues, often partnering with religious bodies of diverse beliefs. Here, in a friend-of-the court capacity, the church seeks to protect its ability to proselytize and to hire church officials and employees.

The church does occasionally speak out on what it calls "matters of principle." In the 1970s and early 1980s, it helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. More recently it has affirmed the traditional definition of marriage and contributed to referendum drives banning same-sex unions. The church seems to distinguish ballot-measures from elections for office, seeing only the latter as partisan. In any case, the church's efforts in these respects have a common theme--protection of the traditional family.

Policy and Faith

Romney hasn't felt compelled to regard the church's guidance to its members as sufficient in matters of public policy. He emphasizes his independence in assessing issues. He points out that he doesn't drink, consistent with what his church advises, yet he signed a bill permitting liquor sales on Sunday because "there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol if you do it properly and responsibly."

On a more momentous issue, abortion, Romney told voters when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994 that he was personally opposed to abortion but that abortion should be "safe and legal in this country," and that "we should sustain and support" Roe v. Wade because it had been law for 20 years. When Romney ran for governor in 2002, he maintained his position on Roe, but also indicated that he didn't want to be known as "pro-choice." He promised voters that he would honor a "moratorium," meaning he would not try to move state abortion law in one direction or the other, and he's kept his word.

Romney speaks of the moratorium as an act of deference to "an overwhelmingly pro-choice state" and not as reflecting any commitment he might still have to a pro-abortion rights position. Romney describes himself as "pro-life," but his own moratorium has prevented him from moving abortion policy in that direction, were he inclined to do so. On abortion, Romney's church is in favor of life but permissive of abortion in cases of incest or rape or when the mother's life or health is threatened. Suffice to say, Romney has not seen fit to advance his church's policy.

On the question of when life begins, Romney is actually to the right of some members of his church, since, invoking science, he says life begins at conception, while some co-religionists say it doesn't begin until implantation occurs, because "there's no soul" until then. Romney's position on when life begins has shaped his response to the therapeutic cloning legislation just passed by the Massachusetts legislature. Romney says it would sanction "the creation of life with the intent of destroying it."

Romney hasn't been able to turn around the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirming same-sex marriage. But he sharply criticized the ruling when it was handed down, and he continues to push for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Romney's opposition to same-sex marriage is consistent with that of the General Authorities in Salt Lake City. But his arguments against same-sex marriage don't use religious language.

Regarding the passage in Mormon Scripture stating that the American founding documents were inspired by God, Romney says, "Yes, my own faith believes that." But he adds, "My guess is that most Americans think the same thing." Romney emphasizes how his faith is like "every other faith" in that it has "fundamental values that are quintessentially American." Observing, "I surely don't think that it hurts for an individual [running for president] to openly express the fact that they believe in God."

Romney's positions on social issues could make or break his candidacy, and social conservatives who've followed his term as governor tend to give him mixed, though on balance positive, reviews. He's generally praised for his stand against same-sex marriage, though some conservatives think he could have used his executive powers to prevent the implementation of the state Supreme Court's decision affirming such unions. He's applauded as well for opposing the creation of embryos for research. But he's drawn criticism because he would allow research using "surplus" embryos created through in-vitro fertilization.

On abortion, Romney's "moratorium" on changes in the law gets lower marks, since it prevents any movement in a pro-life direction. Even so, Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, recognizes that Romney's position on abortion is "more conservative than some of the alternatives in our state." Romney knows that a moratorium wouldn't be viable at the federal level, where abortion policy has multiple opportunities to move this way or that, through new legislation, new regulations, and new litigation.

Mormonism and Traditional Christianity

Romney's prospects can't be fully assessed without coming to grips with this fact: Most Americans are affiliated with churches that--notwithstanding important differences among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelical Protestants--stand in the same line of historic or traditional Christianity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as its most articulate representatives will tell you, stands apart from that line.

Mormonism says that the early church fell away from the truth and withered for roughly 17 centuries and that "in the latter days" Christ has been restoring his church. He has done so through living prophets in receipt of continuous revelation that becomes Scripture and may guide interpretation of the Bible. Historic Christianity does not accept Mormonism's belief in the necessity of a restored church; or its understanding of modern prophets and continuous revelation; or its acceptance of an open canon of Scripture.

There are more differences: Mormonism says that God fathered every human being--we lived with him in "the preexistence" before our sojourn here on earth. Mormonism thus believes that God and man are ontologically the same--the same species, if you will. But historic Christianity (and Judaism) maintains a sharp distinction between God and man. Regarding man's destiny, Mormonism says that man may become (in Joseph Smith's statement) "what God is," a phrase that would seem to encompass all of God's attributes, but historic Christianity says that by grace man may become not God but like God, and that by no means will man acquire God's "incommunicable" attributes, such as omniscience and omnipotence.

Protestants and Catholics who are serious about their Christian faith are likely to see Mormonism as heretical in key respects, even non-Christian. Would such perceptions of Mormonism lead voters to decide they couldn't vote for Romney? Many evangelicals with whom I spoke were reluctant to be quoted by name. But someone willing to go on the record was Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship. Notwithstanding his "fundamental" theological differences with Mormonism, Colson said, "I could in very good conscience support Romney," calling him "a first-rate guy in every respect" and "a social conservative on most of the issues we care about." Colson obviously wasn't declaring for Romney, but simply indicating that he would not in religious principle, so to speak, be opposed to Romney and indeed could find political reasons to support him.

If Romney ran and were in the lead or gaining ground, a desperate candidate, or more likely a political action committee, might bring up the church's pre-1978 exclusion of blacks from the priesthood, or the continuing exclusion of women. Or there might be an attack on Mormon doctrine--to the effect that Romney is a member of a cult. The evangelical leaders I spoke with said that such an attack wouldn't work, as it would be seen as way over the line of what's politically acceptable. It's interesting to imagine who might rise to Romney's defense, and it's not inconceivable that Harry Reid--the Senate minority leader and a Mormon--would protest, especially if his party or its allies were the ones lobbing the grenades.

It's conceivable, too, that some evangelicals might speak out. In recent years a small group of evangelical theologians and Mormon scholars of religion have been meeting to discuss doctrinal issues. In November the Latter-day Saints opened the Mormon Tabernacle to Richard Mouw, a prominent evangelical. Mouw issued an apology to Mormons, saying, "We evangelicals have sinned against you" by "seriously misrepresent[ing] the beliefs and practices of members of [your] faith." Some evangelicals are critical of Mouw and other evangelicals for their continuing dialogue with Mormon scholars.

As for the question that I came to Boston to ask Romney--whether he thought a Mormon could be elected president-- Romney posited "stick figures"--people we know nothing about "except we are told their religion. Well, we are going to say, 'I like that one better than that one, and I don't like this one but I like that one.' But there are no stick figures in politics, you have human beings, who have families, who have lived careers, who have political positions, whom you have watched debate. You know them as human beings, and their religious affiliation actually becomes only one small part of the person."

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