Mitt Romney and Mormon culture

Ronen Zvulun AP Israel’s President Shimon Peres, right, and US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney meet at the President’s residence … Continued

Ronen Zvulun


Israel’s President Shimon Peres, right, and US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney meet at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 29, 2012.

Mitt Romney, speaking last week in Jerusalem, shows why religion is and ought to be part of our campaign discourse—not the pointless question of who is more Christian than whom, but the investigation of how the worldviews that religious communities conserve inspire the way that candidates read circumstances. During the primaries, we were so busy trying to figure out if Romney is a real Christian, we didn’t look very closely at what really matters in his religious worldview. If we had, his recent declaration that “culture makes all the difference” in Israel would not have so surprised and bewildered us.

Romney’s assessment of the situation in Israel-Palestine is of a piece with what literature scholar Harold Bloom has called the “most work-addicted culture in religious history.” Romney and other Mormons today read their heritage, even their very existence as Mormons, as a demonstration of the triumph of the cooperative strength of hard work and fiscal prudence. Indeed, work and economic care play a much more important role in Mormon theology, such as it is, than the loosely conceived notions that make real Christians choke on their coffee.

View Photo Gallery: After stopping in London to visit with British leaders and attend the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the Republican presidential candidate continues his week-long overseas trip by going to Israel. He concluded his journey with a stop in Poland.

Their own history tells Mormons that no circumstances can keep a good people down. The governor of Missouri enjoined Missourians to “exterminate” Mormons, and the Mormons went on to raise a city as big as Chicago in a swamp. Illinois evicted them from that city, putting them homeless into the Iowa winter, and, in response, the Mormons coaxed crops to grow in the wasteland of the Salt Lake Valley. When the president of the United States sent out America’s largest peace-time army to occupy those crops, the Mormons still managed to colonize the West. And when the federal government strangled Mormons with the Edmunds-Tucker Act and other marginally constitutional devices, Mormons still built an economic giant so massive and powerful it scares the stuffing out of Businessweek.

Romney grew up internalizing a theology that formed in and around the Mormon pioneer struggle, and, consequently, saw its doctrine that work and thrift produce prosperity—even in the most oppressive of circumstances—validated by the success of its community. It is a religious ideal—an article of faith—that moves Romney to see the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian prosperity as an indication of cultural difference (and, perhaps, cultural quality).


Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pauses as he visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 29, 2012.

Of course, Romney may be overlooking one of the principal strategies alongside hard work by which early Mormons thrived – moving. Mormons left Missouri. They left Illinois. And when the federal government besieged them in Utah, they left themselves and radically changed their doctrine and practices to assimilate. The early Mormonism that produced Romney’s worldview had space and resources that are not available in equal measure to everyone. Even if they were inclined to leave their homes and start over, as the early Mormons did repeatedly, to where would the Palestinians go, without a vast and mostly unpopulated frontier at their elbows? Would the Palestinians have healthier relations with their neighbors in Israel if they, like the Mormons, were to adjust their religious identity to seem more Jewish or Christian?

What Romney has to say about Israel and Palestine—well-informed and well-considered, or not—demonstrates that we should be talking about the candidates’ religions. Religious worldviews do inform decisions and shape understanding, and failing to understand the impetus that religion gives to candidates makes us less competent voters and may, in fact, be unfair to candidates.

The assertion that religion has no place in a campaign is merely denial, and almost as pernicious as the useless concern only with the Christian quality of a candidate’s religion. Knowing Romney’s religion, knowing it well and in its own terms as well as in responsibly critical terms, will contribute to the understanding of this man who would be the first of all of us equals.

View Photo Gallery: “The Mormon story is a quintessentially American tale,” writes On Faith columnist Lisa Miller.

David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.”

David Mason
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  • jpk1

    The “concern with the Christian quality of a candidate’s religion” comes in two flavors: bigotry and facts.

    Bigotry: the folks who wouldn’t vote for a President who was not a Christian.

    Facts: Romney’s church does not happen to be Christian. That’s relevant because it keeps pretending it is.

  • Thomas Post

    The article is about how the candidate’s religious upbringing may influence their decision process. This should not be a theological discussion; we are electing a president not a pastor.

  • arrested_development

    US Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3: “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

    Look into it.

    Your column proves my point that fascism and Christianity are related.

  • pmarlow

    To those who feel the need to mock, ridicule and be hostile to Mormons for not being Christian: Is this what Christ teaches? If you say you believe in Christ, Mormons will agree with you that you’re a Christian. And they will be supportive of your Christian values and come to your defense when you are attacked by those unfriendly to your faith. How sad that we can’t all just love one another as Christ taught.

  • RONY

    The definition of your two “flavors” are crossed.
    Can you please double check ?

  • RONY

    Facts: the folks who wouldn’t vote for a President who was not a Christian.

    Bigotry: Romney’s church does not happen to be Christian. That’s relevant because it keeps pretending it is.

  • bytebear

    Your “facts” are flawed.

  • ohioan

    Harry Reid, a high-level Democrat Senate Minority Leader , is Mormon, and nobody seems to mind that…..

  • MarlboroStan

    “Illinois evicted them from that city, putting them homeless into the Iowa winter,”
    Weren’t they breaking the law?

  • Matt McLaughlin

    Deepa Kumar and other syndicated writers are reporting that in GOP circles Obama is to be painted as, ‘the secret Muslim”? In GOP circles Mitt Romney is the secret Mormon. How so? Mormons aren’t Evangelical or Zionist. If the GOP desired a Zionist for its nomination for President, it screwed up. Check Mitt’s credentials. The Mormon church’s most used phrase for the Israeli/non-Israeli conflict is, ‘…we don’t take sides’. But Romney is overseas advocating for an Israel? A ‘Jewish state’ to boot? Backing a bombing by a fictitious Zion? As this discrepancy moves into the light FOX NEWS just doesn’t know what to do with it.

  • nimitz1

    Romney’s assertion about culture only surprised democrats, and much of their surprise and bewilderment is feigned. David Landes makes an excellent and well reasoned case backing up that very assertion. The only major adjustment the Mormon church made under persecution in Utah was the ending of polygamy. The church and its members make efforts to be understood, because they are often misrepresented, but they do not radically change their identity to seem more Christian. Mormons continue to affirm that while Joseph Smith was an instrument in restoring the Lord’s church to earth, he was but an instrument. The restoration was the work of Christ himself. If that assertion is true, no other sect on earth could be more Christian. Finally, Mason’s assertion that “real” Christians choke on their coffee is as offensive to Mormons as the Palestinians and Democrats pretend that Romney’s statement was. Real Christians don’t drink coffee.

  • thunder029

    Jesus was probably too dark to be allowed in the Mormon church. Many scholars believe he was very dark, or as Joe Smith puts it, “cursed with the dark skin”. And the bigotry continued until 1978…

  • nimitz1

    Yes, Illinois was most definitely breaking federal law. In response to the Mormons’ greivances, president Van Buren told Joseph Smith in 1839 “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.”

  • norman

    What continued until 1978?

  • nimitz1

    Joe Smith, as you call him (intending a deliberate slight, because you know he is revered as Joseph Smith), actually saw and spoke with Jesus Christ. This affirms the reality of the resurrection, and it trumps the theorizing of any number of scholars. In any case, Jesus Christ is the founder and continuing direct leader of the Mormon church, and I’m sure he will not exclude himself from its membership.

  • nimitz1

    Bigotry: other denominations’ assertion that members of the LDS church are not Christian.

    Facts: most democrats attack all Christian religions because they feel that the world has outgrown religion.

  • carolyn152

    How is bigotry to say Mormons are not Christians? The very basic tenets/doctrine of Christianity are belief in The Trinity and salvation can only be obtained by belief in it. Mormons believe neither. It’s not bigotry it’s fact. No one is saying Mormons aren’t good people.They just can’t be called Christian. This is the belief of every mainstream Christian religion.If a Mormon wants to be Christian they can convert. The same is true of a Christian who wants to be a Mormon.

  • KCorkery

    “Mormons aren’t Evangelical…”???

    So your door has never been knocked on by well dressed and polite “Elders” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder Day Saints??

  • thunder029

    So, what you’re saying is that from Christ’s lips, FLDS was flawed from inception. From the moment it was translated by “Joseph” Smith from the lost *whoops* golden plates by the angel Maroni it was flawed. But it was only years later that they started allowing black people to enter the church? Still, black people weren’t allowed into the apostasy until 1978. So, Mormons finally figured out that the plates were wrong but they didn’t figure it out until 1978…

  • thunder029

    I was once approached by a 19 year old kid with a name tag that read, “Elder Lee”… I laughed so hard I almost had a hernia.

  • political-ash

    People of African American decent were always allowed in the church. That was never a question. However, there was a controversy within the church over the restriction of the priesthood to blacks at that time. But, the LDS church believes that the church was restored, therefore it must be instituted in exactness to how it was in the Bible and Book of Mormon. According to bible, blacks were withheld from the bible for a time as well. If a church was restored to exactness, why would they change that? I’m not saying that is exactly why, but that is my personal opinion of the matter.

  • political-ash

    excuse me, withheld from the priesthood, not bible

  • political-ash

    Also, please do not take my post as being racist, as that is not my intent; I was just explaining the history side.

  • David Wimmer

    mormons where often driven from areas to a great extent because they voted in blocks often against slavery in border states such as Missouri. its not the only reason but it is one of a few

  • political-ash

    Chris·tian   [kris-chuhn] Show IPA
    of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings: a Christian faith.
    of, pertaining to, believing in, or belonging to the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ: Spain is a Christian country.
    of or pertaining to Christians: many Christian deaths in the Crusades.
    exhibiting a spirit proper to a follower of Jesus Christ; Christlike: She displayed true Christian charity.
    decent; respectable: They gave him a good Christian burial.

    I see nothing in this definition (provided by or others stating that to be a christian you must believe in the trinity.

  • David Wimmer

    and so Joesph eventually ran for president to get his grievances heard and was killed before election

  • David Wimmer

    some mormons seem to

  • David Wimmer

    the idea of the trinity was formed in really an argument long after christs death. they believe in a very similar principle called the Godhead but do like to point out where the concepts differ

  • WendilynnK

    As a Mormon, I actually like this article. I disagree with your conclusions about Palestinians though. Teh problem with Palestinians is not that they have no place to go, its that they are ruled by Hamas who has no intention of every giving up their power. They need conflict and hatred to maintain where they are. The Palestinians need good leaders who encourage hard work and working together to build themselves up. Not tyrants who teach their children hatred and war and then wonder why they are poor.

  • WendilynnK

    I’m always amazed when people try to throw the racist card against Mormons. They fought against slavery. Joseph Smith ran a anti slavery position when he ran for President. Our church is bigger outside the United States then in it. We have huge growth in Africa and South America and the Pacific Islands. As for who holds the priesthood, we have a different view on what makes that important and the role it plays. We don’t have paid clergy and everyone is a volunteer. Those volunteers rotate regularly. Everyone is eligable to teh blessings and ordiances that come with the priesthood whether they could hold it or not. What is important to outsiders looking in, is often not what’s important to those living this religion. You want to get a neat view of how important people felt this church was, no matter if they could hold the priesthood or not, you go read about the history of the church in Africa. Those early believers were amazing men and women.

  • fkratzor1

    If you would like to read your early Prophet Brigham Young’s thoughts
    on the subject, I would encourage to read his own words as recorded in the Journal of Wilford Woodruff. This is available on line in PDF form so you can search it typing in the word ‘negro’ for example.

    Brigham Young most definately felt that those of color were beneath the “brethren”. It is interesting reading.

  • Postino

    Elder is a title of priesthood in the Old Testament (during the time of Moses for example).

    They laughed at Moses, they laughed at Jesus, they laughed at Joseph, and all the prophets since Noah to today. People always seem to mock and laugh at things they don’t understand, or things that threaten their way of thinking. That’s just the way it has always been, and will always be. Bullies and ignorant individuals who cry at night in their misery and laugh at others in the day due to insecurity.

  • pasc1

    A good, balanced piece. Interesting, thought-provoking, fair.

    Romney aside, how religion informs and is IGNORED BY the supposedly devout is yet another subject that should be explored…and exposed.

    Like in all those red, republican states.

  • jvmbl

    No they were NOT breaking the law. The State of Missouri has since issued an apology to the Mormon Church for the actions of that time period.

  • jvmbl

    Harry is breaking one of the Ten Commandments and Mormons don’t take kindly to that. “Thou shalt not bare false witness…” I think he is willing to fall on his sword at this time and do whatever the Dems want him to even if he knows it’s wrong, because I don’t think he will run again. So it won’t come back and bite him in a future election.

  • jvmbl


  • joelwcannon

    RCorkery – you are confusing the name Evangelical (a protestant movement) with the verb “to evangelize” (to preach the Gospel).

    Mormons are Christians who evangelize their version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – which is different than the Gospel of Catholics or Protestants. We all use the same Bible and are sincere – just interpret it differently. There would not be thousands of different Christian sects if there was a universal consensus.

  • joelwcannon

    Harry Reid is strong evidence that the Mormon Church does not play elected officials like puppets. Harry Reid has every right to his opinions and can act on them without church interference. There are Mormons in every political party and they are all free to vote their conscience.

  • EW88

    Good points in here. It would have been nice to see “real Christians” replaces with “traditional Christians” because who can say who is “real?” Really. I am a Mormon myself. If others don’t want me to be called a Christian, that doesn’t bother me. As long as people know that the core of the LDS Church is to teach people to follow Jesus Christ, I don’t care what name I am called. You are absolutely right that religions shape character and understanding, but I certainly hope you extend this to Barack Obama. He’s not off the hook just because he’s a sitting president, even though the liberal news media give him a pass. Read both sides, people, because both sides leave stuff out and you can hardly make an informed opinion with only half of the information. Thanks for listening.

  • nimitz1

    Thunder029: I get it. I also like “Elder Berry”

  • enough

    I don’t think that Obama is necessarily getting a “pass” when it comes to analysis of his policies based on his religious beliefs. He already had that analysis by the voters and the media 4 years ago when he was initially running for the presidency. Since then, we have seen how he approaches both domestic and international affairs and there fore we have no need to speculate on his decisions based on his religious beliefs.

  • enough

    The conflict in this area is far more complex than boiling it down to one group educating the population with hate. There is hate on both sides which has prevented peace between the two nations. It has to be understandable that the Palestinians would still be angry about being invaded and continually occupied by a foreign “state”. Until both sides are willing to compromise, the only tool the Palestinians have is violence, otherwise they would have to succumb to continually stricter regulations by the Israeli government until they are forced from the country.

  • fkratzor1

    And then there was the old guy, Elder Lee, who insisted on doing a mission because he didn’t want the youth having all the fun.

  • Halospawn

    No, there was not a serious inquiry into Mr. Obama’s religious beliefs and the teaching of Rev. Wright. The mainstream media essential gave him a pass because it would reflect negatively upon him.

  • Halospawn

    The United States and the Allied powers of WWII are responsible for the establishment of modern Israel. Because “WE” restored Israel to the region of Palestine, we are responsible for the conflict. The Arab people who call themselves Palestinians are not native to the region, but were in fact nomads who settled in the region after the Romans crushed Israel. In the intervening years, Catholics Crusades annihilated the various occupiers of Jerusalem and the surrounding regions. The people who call themselves Palestinians are the remnant of the various occupiers, and there has never been a “country” of Palestine.

  • Halospawn

    The Arab people who call themselves Palestinians are not native to the region, but were in fact nomads who settled in the region after the Romans crushed Israel. In the intervening years, Catholics Crusades annihilated the various occupiers of Jerusalem and the surrounding regions. The people who call themselves Palestinians are the remnant of the various occupiers, and there has never been a “country” of Palestine.

  • RONY

    Mormons do NOT “understand ” that Jesus Christ was praying to himself at Getzemani.
    When he was crucified he asked why he betrayed himself, and then he put his spirit on his own hands.

    Man !! What is wrong with these mormons, why do they insist in being weirdos, come on guys?

  • psmithphd

    Thank you for a thoughtful treatise

    Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D.

  • camotim

    vast and underpopulated area nearby? much more so that LDS ever faced in the US problem for the pallies is that their arab neighbors know them for the gangbanging worthless people they are and to do not want them around ask the Kuwaitis what happens when one lets them move in a country with any large numbvers—they side with a viscious invader like saddam

  • SteadfastImmovable

    “The assertion that religion has no place in a campaign is merely denial”
    Uh, no. Its not denial, its respect for the Constitution and freedom of religion.

    If one’s faith is scrutinized as part of an election or campaign it violates Article Six. It dishonors the proscript of a religious test because such scrutiny of a faith, its practices, and doctrine is a defacto test. Why go there? Is it not more honorable to the founders vision to avoid any appearance of a test?

    Campaigns should be faith-blind as they ought to be color-blind, gender-blind, ethnicity blind, etc. Race, gender, ethnicity are rightfully on par with religion and deserve the same respect. No exceptions. You seem to want to draw a distinction but religion is protected and those who lawfully practice it are free to do so without criticism.

    Isn’t it enough to measure the candidate by the life he has lived, his accomplishments, his capacity to lead, his vision for the country and his experience?

    Its not denial Mr. Mason. Excluding religious conversation in an election is an important step in honoring the US Constitution. Religion has no place in a campaign.

  • SteadfastImmovable

    How religion informs etc.. should you wish to explore it is a topic best left for discussion in Sunday School, Theology Institutes and Philosophy 101. But it is a violation of Article Six of the US Constitution to include it as part of a presidential election.