Say what you will about Mitt Romney; he is a devoted to his religion. A mutigenerational Mormon, he has held high-ranking leadership positions and donated millions of dollars to the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). For many, religion goes to the core of their belief system, so what does it mean for Mitt to be a Mormon? Of course, Mitt is not just any Mormon; he inherited the special status that comes with being the son of a wealthy Governor. Looking into Mitt’s religious experience might provide some insight into his character and an explanation to some of the things he says on the campaign trail.
1. Mormons are expected to spend a couple of years as missionaries and, when Mitt’s time came, he was sent to France. While in France, Mitt was involved in a car wreck that killed his supervisor’s wife. When his supervisor went home for the funeral, Mitt was left in charge of the French effort. He immediately moved from the countryside to a home in the wealthy district of Paris complete with artwork and servants. By all accounts, the young Romney led a heroic effort of converting over 200 French people to a religion that prohibits drinking any alcohol, including wine. If Mitt seems undaunted by taking unpopular positions (i.e. more tax cuts for the wealthy), it could stem from his days of selling austerity to the French.
2. There is a well known strong puritanical streak that runs through Mormonism. The “Word of Wisdom” requires members to abstain from not only alcohol, but also tobacco, coffee and tea. In addition, they are supposed to refrain from sex until marriage. Non-Mormons are not even allowed at the wedding ceremony, including family members of the bride or groom. Although Mitt admits to tasting a beer and sampling a cigarette during his wild teenage days, he’s been squeaky clean ever since. And while this demonstrates a determination and discipline that is admirable, it makes me wonder how relatable he is to most Americans.
3. There are no paid clergy in the LDS. Instead, they rely on members to take on temporary leadership roles. Mitt took his first turn at 30 years old (in 1977) as a counselor to the President of the Boston stake. Among other responsibilities, he counseled fellow Mormons who were going through tough times: lost jobs, marriage troubles, unwanted pregnancies. Peggie Hayes has told about being an overwhelmed single mother who was pregnant with her second child. She went to her friend and LDS Bishop at the time, Mitt Romney, who advised her to put her unborn child up for adoption, even threatening her with excommunication if she didn’t. Being a counselor to struggling people gave Mitt an opportunity to see suffering up close, although he wouldn’t deviate from his opinion of what it meant to be a ‘good Mormon.’
4. In their August cover story, Bloomberg Magazine chronicled how the Mormon Church has become a business empire, owning corporations in a variety of industries that bring in $1.2 billion annually, as well as an estimated stock (and bond) pile of $6 billion. LDS has been accused of blending spiritual values with financial success, seeing the latter as a blessing from God and a way to improve life for its members. Mitt embodies this glorification of materialistic success. At 37, he was tapped to head Bain Capital, which would use leveraged capital to invest in businesses. While he never managed any of the companies they bought, he was effective in making money for investors and himself, even if profits came at the expense of slashing jobs or piling up debt for the companies. Mitt and the Mormons are proud of their achievements, even if they do not want anyone to know the details of their business or the extent of their wealth.
5. Like most religious institutions, Mormonism has adapted, albeit slowly, to the times. Through revelations that coincided with an outcry of public opinion, church leaders decided that polygamy wasn’t such a good idea (1890) and that African Americans should be treated with equality in their church (1978). To an outsider, it can seem convenient that God speaks to His chosen church through ‘progressive revelation’ after the rest of the nation has already gotten the message. In a similar manner, Mitt seems to have no trouble switching to the side that is in the majority, or at least in the majority of his party. Unfortunately, his stances on issues such as abortion, healthcare, immigration have regressed in an attempt to appease the far right.
6. Mormons are very generous, especially to other Mormon causes. While other Christian churches suggest a tithe; to be in good standing, Mormons requires members to give 10% back to the church. The Bloomberg article (8/12) estimates that tithing brings in an estimated $8 billion a year (in addition to their business revenues). This money is used for a variety of worthy endeavors, along with trying to keep their own members off government or public assistance. Having struggled with acceptance into the mainstream, Mormons are wary of the government and this comes out in some of Mitt’s rhetoric. Like many Republicans, he wants to control an institution that he seems to view with suspicion and distrust.
7. Predestination (or fore-destination), or the belief that they were chosen to be born into a specific family at a given time, is central to Mormonism. Likewise, they believe in a multi-tiered heaven, which is certainly nicer than the Christian fundamentalist version of fire and brimstone. Never-the-less, only those sealed in the Mormon Temple can live with Christ in the highest realm of heaven, where they can eventually go on to rule their own universe. While Mormons are certainly entitled to believe this, if not careful, it can breed a subtle form of elitism. Couple pre-destination with a life that has known nothing but wealth and privilege, and it is possible to understand how Mitt thinks in terms of an “us” versus “them,” whether it’s the other 47% or the 99%.
In the end, I won’t vote against Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon. While parts of Mormonism seem strange to me, I’m sure my own Christian faith sounds irrational to outsiders too. The reason I won’t vote for Mitt Romney is because I want a President who cares about 100% of the population; yes, including the poorest members of our society. In my reading of the scriptures, real Christian values means policies that provide a safety net for “the least of these,” affordable healthcare for everyone, and a more equal playing field between the rich and everyone else. No, the reason I won’t vote for Mitt is not because he’s a Mormon, but because his political agenda conflicts with what I believe as a Christian.