THEY WERE WORDS THAT still live in infamy. Mike Huckabee—Baptist minister, former governor of Arkansas, and dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination—was being pressed by a reporter for the New York Times Magazine about the religion of his rival, Willard Mitt Romney, before the 2008 Iowa caucuses. The reporter prodded Huckabee with an all-important question facing our Republic: Mormonism—cult or religion?
“I think it’s a religion,” the skinny Arkansan said. “I really don’t know much about it,” he admitted. Then he stepped in it, big time. The Times noted that he asked with an “innocent voice” the following question: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
Mormons were quick to pounce on those remarks, charging Huckabee with bigotry of the rankest sort. Scott Gordon, president of the Mormon apologetics group FAIR, called it an “attack question.” A spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said that while Mormons believe “all beings were created by God and are his spirit children,” Jesus Christ was the “only begotten in the flesh”; the “son of God”; and the “savior of mankind.” In other words, in Latter-day theology, “Satan is the exact opposite of who Christ is and what he stands for.”
Radio talk show host Bob Lonsberry, a convert to Mormonism from evangelicalism, wrote that the question was really a “hand grenade”—and it must have been, because messy metaphors went flying everywhere. Lonsberry argued Huckabee knew full well what he was asking. The idea was to feed “a firestorm of religious bigotry” and let the electoral inferno reduce his Mormon opponent to cinders. And, Lonsberry added, looking at the Iowa polls, it appeared to be working, damn him: “Judas got 33 pieces of silver, Huckabee got 22 points in the polls.”
It’s difficult to know what’s in a man’s heart, but Huckabee seemed genuinely contrite about the whole conflagration. He likely got the idea from an unforgettable, crazy animated sequence in the anti-Mormon documentary The Godmakers, which has been shown in tens of thousands of evangelical churches. Given the source material, the fact that Huckabee decided to pose that particular question demonstrates a curiosity toward Mormonism, not an animus against it. The Godmakers alleges a lot worse, including brainwashing and conspiracy and “endless celestial sex.”
Though he never got along well with Romney during the primaries, at the subsequent GOP debate, the Baptist minister walked right up to the former Mormon bishop and apologized. Huckabee insisted then and later that the question really was an innocent one. He had not meant to attack the Massachusetts governor’s religion. He just really did not understand it and did not understand at the time why asking questions would stir up outrage.
To all appearances, the two have buried that hatchet. It helps that they are no longer fighting for the same prize, but Huckabee appears sincere and has circled back several times to say that though he doesn’t buy into Mormonism, it’s nothing personal. When Huckabee launched his new radio show this April, Romney was his first guest.
Yet by then the narrative for many Mormons and prominent pundits had crystallized. Huckabee was a demagogue who had cynically used Romney’s religion against him to win Iowa. He had wrong-footed a member of a long-aggrieved religious minority and stuck us with John McCain as the designated Republican nominee to lose to Barack Obama come November. Latent GOP anti-Mormon bigotry was so strong that Huckabee had managed all this by asking one simple, impertinent question.
Four years later, heading into the present election cycle, pundits duly predicted Romney would sail into gale force anti-Mormon headwinds. John Ellis stated this more unambiguously than most on RealClearPolitics.com (the sister website of several sites that I edit). “The fact is that the Republican Party of 2012 is not going to nominate a Mormon as its standard bearer,” Ellis confidently wrote in July of 2010.
The GOP would not nominate Romney because the base of the party is dominated by evangelical voters, and these people could not be made to see reason. The conventional wisdom was that Romney had a “Mormon problem” and the Republicans had a bigot problem. That meant President Obama would have no problem at all coasting to re-election.
BARACK OBAMA can still win re-election, but the conventional wisdom has been badly wrong thus far. It’s worth examining why it has been so far off the mark. The talking heads were wrong because they didn’t quite get the politics and the religious dynamics of Romney’s first loss. That may mean they’ve also misread the tea leaves for the next presidential contest. If so, America will finally get her First Mormon President.
First, the politics. Anti-Mormonism played a highly exaggerated role in Romney’s defeat four years ago. The same month Huckabee stepped in it, Romney insisted in a major speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library that “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” He acknowledged that his “church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths,” but he stressed the things that Mormons share in common with Protestants and Catholics. To wit, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” The speech pitched the idea of a united front: the religious against the more extreme secularists who seek to reduce religion to “a merely private affair with no place in public life.”
That heavily evangelical Republican primary voters didn’t buy into his candidacy right away does not mean that they were passing judgment on Romney’s religion. There were plenty of reasons not to vote for him that had nothing to do with his religion. He was considered a centrist from Massachusetts in a party that is more conservative and now has a Southern base. Romney had learned his moderation in the cradle. His father, auto exec and Michigan governor George Romney, had been the preferred candidate of the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party against Richard Nixon in 1968.
Mitt Romney flip-flopped and zigzagged a lot and then shamelessly turned around and attacked people for taking the very positions he used to hold. This enraged his primary opponents. Their political consultants found that one of the best ways to attack him was with robocalls that simply replayed Romney’s old words to would-be voters. They could quote him distancing himself from President Reagan, say, or endorsing insurance mandates, or huffily and unambiguously endorsing the right to abortion.
Few of the reasons shouted publicly or whispered privately against Romney four years ago had a thing to do with his Mormonism. At best, it was a sweetener for evangelical voters: “Vote for Huckabee/McCain/Fred Thompson because he agrees with us and, by the way, he’s not a Mormon.” Many Romney backers refused to admit their candidate’s own qualities had something to do with his loss. They blamed the whole tackle box on anti-Mormon bigotry and worried that persistent prejudice would prevent Romney from running a successful campaign in the future.
THEIR WORST FEARS seemed to be confirmed in October of last year when Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist megachurch in Dallas, rose to speak at the Values Voter Summit. Jeffress was introducing Texas governor Rick Perry. He asked the mostly evangelical audience if they wanted a “candidate who is a good, moral person”—in other words, Mitt Romney—“or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?” Later at that same event, Rev. Jeffress described Mormonism as a “cult” and said that Romney was “not a Christian”—just in case anybody might have missed his earlier remarks.
Cue the outcry, and not just by Mormons. Democratic uber-consultant Robert Shrum used the incident to complain of the “persistent resistance” to Romney’s candidacy “on the shameful ground of religious bigotry.” Bioethicist Arthur Caplan denounced it in an op-ed and in several media interviews. He argued that all “cult talk is hate talk,” and the haters were, of course, Republicans.
That did not bode well for Romney. How could a party so steeped in religious prejudice give the nomination to an object of its prejudice? And even if he managed to spend a great deal of his considerable resources and secure a victory, how could he count on serious grassroots Republican support come November?
Near press time, Rev. Jeffress made national headlines again for endorsing Romney. Joanna Brooks, a Mormon feminist, seemed shocked when she wrote, “Yes, that Robert Jeffress—the one who called Mormonism a ‘cult.’” She accused Jeffress of opportunism. Her theory was that he had only been using the controversy to help sell his latest book. Other pressmen pitched in with their own variations of the old saw that politics sure does make for strange bedfellows—I mean, some of them can’t even smoke after.
The Jeffress endorsement should have surprised precisely no one who was paying attention around the time that he first opened his mouth. In media interviews the pastor had quickly crawfished on one very important point. He said that in calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “cult,” he meant a “theological cult,” not a “sociological” one. In Texas-speak, that meant he wasn’t lumping them in with dangerous crazies like Jim Jones and Tom Cruise.
Jeffress’s endorsee proved even more eager to get away from the cult talk. A spokesman for the Perry campaign told the New York Times that Perry didn’t consider Mormonism a cult and that he didn’t pick the person to introduce him at the Summit. For good measure, he added, “The governor doesn’t get into the business of judging other people’s hearts or souls,” but rather “leaves that to God.” Not that it did him any good: Perry finished fifth place in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and dropped out soon after.
The tendency in primary campaign coverage has been toward Balkanization. A certain kind of voter is going for candidate x because they identify with him as one of them, we are told. But the Republican primary upset a lot of the usual narratives. In Iowa, the heavily evangelical caucusgoers passed over two of their own, Perry and Michele Bachmann, to give first and second spots to Rick Santorum, a Catholic, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon. For much of the rest of the race, Santorum carried the evangelicals but tended to lose his own Catholic voters. After the first few primaries, you had two Catholics, a Mormon, and only one Protestant, Ron Paul, left over as the great WASP hope.
Now that it’s all over but the counting, most of the few evangelicals who did conceive of the race in terms of identity politics are finding some way to support the Mormon. Jeffress telegraphed this when he said last October that this would be a primary struggle only. Of course he’d vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama if it came down to it, he’d said, because faith is not and should not be “the only criteri[on] by which we elect our leader.”
Arguably, Jeffress is only following fellow co-religionists on this one, at least according to the latest Pew poll of likely voters. Romney, wrote the Religion News Service, “now possesses a particularly large lead over Obama among white evangelicals (73 to 20 percent) and white Catholics (57 to 37 percent).”
Romney’s new lead is due to the president’s worsening fortunes with those voters: “Obama lost ground in the past month to Romney among Protestants and Catholics generally.… Obama’s support has dropped among Protestants (5 percentage points) and Catholics (8 percentage points) since mid-March.” But at least the president still has this much going for him: “Religiously unaffiliated Americans largely support Obama (67 to 26 percent).” That would be awesome news for Obama, if this were France.
BY SHEER NARRATIVE COINCIDENCE, France is the place where a much younger Mitt Romney nearly met his maker. He was serving as a Mormon missionary out of Paris in 1968. While his father George was busy losing the primaries to Nixon, Mitt was attempting to win souls for his Latter-day religion—and having the first great trial of his life.
According to R.B. Scott’s sympathetic biography Mitt Romney, Mitt accepted the three-year post in part to get away from Stanford in the 1960s, which he had attended for his freshman year. The political radicalism of the place did not sit well with him. He attended one anti-war, pro-pot rally as a mild counter-protester who objected more to the style than anything else. His picket read “Speak Out, Don’t Sit In.” When he returned to America, he transferred to the Mormon academic mother ship, Brigham Young University, and got his undergrad degree there.
But first he had to get back to America, and that was touch and go. Romney had worked his way up to the job of assistant to the mission president, helping to oversee 175 or so missionaries. Romney was driving a Citroën carrying the mission president and his wife, Duane and Leola Anderson, and three others, near Bernos-Beaulac when tragedy struck in the form of a speeding Mercedes-Benz. The vehicle, driven by a Catholic priest whom Scott diplomatically describes as being “somewhat inebriated,” hit the Mormons head on.
The priest lived to regret that one. A few of the Mormons escaped relatively unscathed, but Romney and the Andersons had all been sitting up front and were in terrible shape. “Sister” Anderson died en route to the hospital. The first gendarme on the scene wrote the unforgettable words “Il est mort” (“he is dead”) on Romney’s passport after he was found entirely unresponsive. A medic managed to find a pulse and determined that he was in a coma.
He had youth and strength going for him. Romney was back on his feet in a week with a broken arm, a concussion, a large measure of grief, and a whole mission to run, as the president had left to grieve and bury his wife. The powers-that-be in Salt Lake City, “concerned that the historically free-spirited French Mission was being run by only two young missionaries,” asked Joseph Nelson, a mission president from Geneva, to look after the Paris branch. According to Scott, Nelson popped in for a look-around, determined that Romney had things pretty much handled, and let things be.
As de facto head of the mission, Romney decided to raise rather than lower the missionaries’ “conversion goal” for the year by 40 percent. He traveled all over France to try to make that happen. CNN reported, “Romney lifted up deflated missionaries with silly made-up songs. He taught them to visualize all they could accomplish and challenged them to raise their expectations.” And it worked: “In the end they surpassed Romney’s goal of baptizing 200 new members into the church.”
Numbers tell only part of the story. There was also the example Romney and company set. When Duane Anderson had recovered and mourned, he came back to serve out the term of his mission. Anderson’s son recalled his amazement at “how well Mitt had gotten them all to pull together. The accident, my mother’s death, Mitt’s leadership and my father’s determination to serve out his term proved galvanizing for the entire mission.”
And voila! Mitt the Mormon turnaround artist was born. He would apply that experience to business, moving on from consulting to more hands-on leveraged buyouts and amassing a large fortune in the process. He would turn around the scandal-plagued Olympic winter games in Salt Lake City.
In politics, Romney would win election in the overwhelmingly Democratic state of Massachusetts and try to turn its budget and its health care system around with Romneycare. He would throw the weight of his political machine behind electing Scott Brown to the Senate and come very close to scuttling Obama-care in the process. And now his supporters, Mormon and otherwise, want him to turn around America.
IT’S A TALL ORDER. First he’s got to win the White House against a candidate with $1 billion to spend on a re-election campaign and a lot of supporters in the press. In the coming months, Romney is going to come under heavy scrutiny precisely because of his religion. Most of the heaviest fire will come not from the reactionary Christian right but the progressive secular left.
In January, the anti-defamation group Mormon Voices released the document “The Top 10 Anti-Mormon Statements in 2011.” It tried to be fair and balanced, drawing slightly more examples from “right” sources than from “left” ones. Instead, it gave a surprising preview of things to come.
Several of the lefties were big names: Christopher Hitchens, Harold Bloom, Bill Maher. The most prominent names on the other side of the ledger were Rev. Jeffress and Ben Ferguson. Other contributors included an associate publisher of World Magazine, a host for Focal Point radio, and a guest on Fox and Friends who speculated that another candidate could “get a lot of money” from the Christian Coalition, “because Romney, obviously, not being a Christian…”
Like the remarks of the Fox and Friends guest, many of the red team comments Mormon Voices chose to highlight were pretty thin cabbage. “Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy—whether or not this is his intent—will be to promote Mormonism,” wrote World’s Warren Cole Smith for the multifaith religion website Patheos.
Smith called Mormonism a “false and dangerous religion,” though any danger he could spell out was theoretical at best. Moreover, Smith admitted, “There’s a lot about Romney I like. He seems to be a competent manager, he’s a fiscal conservative, and his positions on some social issues—while problematic in the past—seem to have genuinely changed.”
Why do conservative critics of Romney’s Mormonism so often pull their punches? One reason is that Mormons are overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. States where Mormons dominate politics, such as Utah and Idaho, are some of the most Republican in the country. Mormons are also natural social conservatives and energetic ones at that. In California in 2008, various Protestant and Catholic churches spoke out in favor of Proposition 8, an initiative to prohibit gay marriage. It was Mormons who actually put in most of money and hard effort to pass the thing, and faced boycotts and recriminations after.
This year, Romney accepted an invitation to deliver the commencement address at the college the late Jerry Falwell founded, the Southern Baptist-affiliated Liberty University. Its current president, Jerry Falwell Jr., said those who protested the invitation were not familiar with the school’s “traditions.” That was extreme shorthand for the political vision of his father, who founded the organization Moral Majority.
Moral Majority was a coalition of people of different creeds and communions based not on shared theology but shared morality. They could do so based on the theory of “co-belligerency,” developed by the late great Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer, which allowed religious competitors to be political allies. Baptists and Catholics didn’t have to pray together to agitate for religious freedom, and Mormons and Pentecostals might find common ground advocating a culture of life.
IN CONTRAST, those lefty critics Mormon Voices called out had showed little restraint and had nothing good to say about Romney or Mormonism. Bill Maher, approvingly cited by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, said, “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion.” Hitchens called the LDS church, “one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.” Bloom likened the current Mormon president Thomas Monson to “the secular plutocratic oligarchs” who rape and pillage our dear democracy.
Next year’s list will no doubt include a recent Joseph Smith diatribe by MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, who has a history of anti-Mormon commentary. “Mormonism,” said O’Donnell, “was created by a guy in Upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith’s lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it, which Mitt Romney says he believes.”
The polygamy meme was picked up by Montana’s Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer. He said in an interview that if Romney chose to appeal to Hispanic voters by saying that his father had been born in Mexico, that would be “kinda ironic given that his family came from a polygamy commune in Mexico, but then he’d have to talk about his family coming from a polygamy commune in Mexico,” and female voters would hate that.
Romney has gotten good at shrugging off anti-Mormon barbs over the years. In fact, he’s quite good even at poking fun at his own religious background. At a Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in 2005, he explained his opposition to gay marriage in religious terms. As a Mormon, he said, “I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.” That one knocked most of the room’s Irish pols right over. Yet Romney uncharacteristically got his back up over Schweitzer’s criticism.
“My dad’s dad was not a polygamist,” Romney insisted to Fox News. “My dad grew up in a family with a mom and a dad and a few brothers and one sister” and he had a rather “tough upbringing,” all told. In fact, you have to go back to Mitt’s great-great-grandfather to find an actual polygamist in the family, but the Slate headline underscored the absurdity of how the press usually deals with religion stories: “So Was There a Polygamy Commune, or Wasn’t There?”
THE ANSWER—to that question and to so many other questions about Mormonism—is so much more complicated than the choices we are given. The fact that Mitt’s grandfather took only one wife should tell us something. It wasn’t only because of polygamy that many Mormons sought shelter in Mexico in the 1880s and ’90s. Though the religion began here, America has been terrifically hostile to it in the past.
The U.S. government didn’t just object strongly to polygamy and prosecute the occasional perp. Congress passed a bill, the Edmunds-Tucker Act, and the government disincorporated the LDS church and seized its assets. This came on top of decades of bad blood between these new sectarians and their American Protestant neighbors. They were effectively run out of New York and Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until 1976 that the government of Missouri officially rescinded its Mormon extermination order. Smith, the religion’s fonder and most important prophet, was gunned down by an angry mob in an Illinois jail in 1844.
Mormons finally established a permanent beach-head in Utah, which had the virtue of being sparsely settled and defensible. The social peace they’ve enjoyed with the U.S. government since the LDS church forbade polygamy has led to a great flourishing. There are more than 6 million Mormons today in the U.S., and more than 20 million worldwide. Their influence is felt in all kinds of ways—from Napoleon Dynamite to rollicking Broadway musicals to the popularity of the Twilight novels to their outsized influence in politics. Mormons have both money and the political pull that comes with sky-high rates of civic participation.
Theologically, the religion is almost uncategorizeable. Mormons are a very American mix of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Smith’s own mind-bending visions. They are best described not as polytheists but henotheists, because they seem to believe in more than one god but only worship one of them—à la the Jewish patriarchs. Some of their temple -rituals hearken back to the mystery religions of the Roman empire. Their idea of “free agency” marks them as anti-Calvinists. They reject the Trinity as firmly as they reject predestination.
Borrowing from Protestants, Mormons believe the church fell apart very early on, right around the end of the first century. They believe the church was reestablished by divine intervention through the prophecies and presence of Smith. Borrowing from Catholics, they see the authority of the present “Quorum of the Twelve” as a very big deal. At the same time, the local meetinghouses are almost entirely lay-led, and Mormons serve in various positions for fixed periods. Missionaries pay their own way, and few people draw salaries unless they serve in a select number of posts in Salt Lake City.
The one “cult” title that Latter-day Saints might not blanch at is the Cult of the Family. The practical application of Mormon theology is very family-centric. Young Mormons are encouraged to get married and to aspire to be “sealed together” in a special temple marriage. One reason Mormons are known for their niceness is that they really do view their fellow religious as a sort of extended family, and they’re always looking for converts.
Another reason for Mormon niceness is that it
is drilled into them that their actions here on this earth really will affect their heavenly rewards hereafter. Speculation about what form those rewards might take is a perennial subject of mockery by critics of Mormonism. (“They think they’ll become gods! They’ll inherit their own planets!”) Yet it’s hard to argue with the this-worldly results of modern Mormon belief: families that cohere, believers who do a good job taking care of one another, sobriety and public-spiritedness, and faith that encourages industriousness.
ROMNEY CAN BE protean and pragmatic when it comes to business and politics, but when the subject is Mormonism, he really believes the stuff. He and Ann Romney were married in a temple and raised five Mormon boys and a dog. He has baptized the dead by proxy, but not “recently.” Mitt has tithed millions of dollars to the LDS church and spent years of his life volunteering as a missionary, bishop, and stake president.
All of this religiosity is going to be used against him in the coming months by people who would like to knock religion down a peg—especially his own form of wonderbread, patriarchal, particularly American religion. The politically expedient course would have been for Romney to practice his Mormonism sparingly. Yet he wouldn’t have made it this far without it, and he has in the past been honest enough to admit this.
In his Bush Library speech four years ago, Romney acknowledged that his faith could “sink my candidacy,” and if that were to happen, well, “so be it.” But he believed on the whole “Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.”