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Mitt the Modern Mormon 

What does Romney's religious background tell us about his candidacy?

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Why can’t Mitt Romney connect with voters, let alone inspire them? Some observers blame his problem on Mormon theology, others on his wealth and how he got it. Quite obviously, Romney’s church departs fundamentally from mainstream Christianity — both in regards to narrative and theology. For example, Mormons believe that Jesus Christ literally came to America following the resurrection (Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi, 11).

As for his wealth, most aren’t so concerned about how much he has; rather, it’s about how he got it, and even more so, his obliviousness to the lives of those who have less.

Doing right by doing well: Mitt Romney’s idea of virtuous living.

Still, I suggest there’s something more to the story. Mitt Romney is in and of what some Mormon historians refer to as the “Modern Era” — the period from the late-1940s through the mid-1960s. During this time, Romney’s church doubled in membership; BYU increased from a school of a few thousand to a university of almost 25,000. After decades of effort, finally during this era — also known as “The Fifties” — Mormonism arrived at middle America’s doorstep, and middle America looked a lot like Mormonism.

“The Fifties” validated Modern Mormonism’s preferred self image in so many ways: ideal family life, appropriate gender roles, emphasis on the practical, intellectualism put in its place. Mormonism’s favorite all-time president had to have been Dwight Eisenhower. Ike personified these and related Mormon values — organization, discipline, hierarchy, patriotism, God and family. Deified Fifties social conventions defined young Mitt Romney, and were adopted as settled religious practices. For all the Mitt Romneys of Modern Mormonism, they continue to have religious significance today.

 

Romney's church had long before abandoned the 19th-century communalism of Brigham Young for the individualism and corporatism of Bain Capital. No Mormon leader today — most certainly not Mitt Romney — would speak about wealth as did the 19th century LDS apostle, Orson Pratt, who once preached: “An inequality in riches lays the foundation for pride and many other evils.” And Pratt wasn’t done: “An inequality in property … is a principle originated in hell, it is the root of all evil.”

Not to be overlooked, during this same period of time Mormons, as did so many Americans, moved to the suburbs in droves. This may explain some of the religion’s popularity — it creates instant community. Notably, unlike other other American religious denominations, Mormonism moved from farms and small towns directly to the suburbs, skipping city life along the way.

Mitt Romney is a man of the suburbs. His Boston home was not on Beacon Hill, nor Back Bay, nor even in Cambridge (where there is an LDS ward); the Romneys lived out in Belmont, near the temple, just off the Concord turnpike, near the I-28 corridor, half an hour from downtown Boston. It is not by some accident that so many Mormon temples — in Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle or even Spokane — are located out in the suburbs, often near a freeway. Mormonism is a suburban religion.

While most denominations these days serve a prominently suburban faithful, mainstream Christian churches, while “in” the suburbs, remain “of” the city. Catholic and Episcopal cathedrals are always located in cities; you will also always find in cities active Congregational, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist congregations (United Methodist and First Presbyterian, for examples).

What we can say is that the city experience, in comparison to the suburban experience, is more diverse, richer in many ways, but no doubt more tawdry in other ways — that is to say, city experience is good preparation for any candidate who seeks the presidency. Running for president is a trek that requires candidates to mingle with ease among the Mary Magdalenes, the money changers, the meek, the profane, the cosmopolitans, the brilliant and the not so — often all at the same time.

And then there’s one more factor: As the sociologist Thomas O’Dea wrote in his 1957 classic, The Mormons, the LDS church has always been dominated by an anti-intellectual bias.

Richard Hofstadter most clearly drew the useful distinction between intelligence and intellect.

Intelligence, he wrote, “is excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate and predictable range, it is manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical.” By contrast, intellect is “critical creative and contemplative.” The intelligent man can become a very accomplished technician. “The intellectual man,” writes Hofstadter, “asks why this is important.”

Mitt, the Modern Mormon, is obviously very intelligent and can rationally justify his wealth as earned and taxes as “legal.” But Mitt, the anti-intellectual, is ill-equipped to address the follow-up questions: “Why” is legality all that’s important? And “why” is what’s legal automatically defined as “fair and just?”

It seems clear that Romney remains tethered to a socially flat, time-bound, anti-intellectual culture that provides only limited and stunted vocabulary to connect with voters.

Romney and his supporters seem unaware of this problem. It has never occurred to them that Mitt’s fundamental public-relations problem might be traced to, paradoxically, those very time-bound social conventions. Being stuck in the 1950s is a status practically deified by the Mormon Church. But to many outside of Mormonism, it all seems like an odd relic of a bygone era.

Robert Herold did his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University. His graduate work was done at The George Washington University.

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