What is Mormonism and what would a Mormon in the White House mean for US politics and the world?
Mitt Romney is the favourite to become the Republican Party’s candidate in November’s US presidential election. But in what could be a tight race with Barack Obama, Romney’s Mormon faith might be a deciding factor.
While the majority of US voters will be unconcerned about Romney’s religious beliefs, a significant minority say that they would think twice about voting for a Mormon as president. Evangelical Christians are especially concerned, with some believing that Mormonism is more a cult than a mainstream Christian creed. Others fear a Romney administration would be unduly influenced by the church’s attitude to such matters as polygamy, gay rights and abortion.
So what is Mormonism and what would a Mormon in the White House mean for the US and the world?
The biggest challenge Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney faces in locking up his party’s nomination for president and defeating Barack Obama in the general election could well be his Mormon faith. According to a Gallup poll, one in five Americans would not vote for a Mormon for president, and it is not just Democrats, but Christians who are a key component of the Republican base.
In the Republican primaries, Evangelical Christians oppose Romney and support his main opponent Rick Santorum because they do not think Mormonism is Christian, but rather a cult. Meanwhile, the practice of polygamy remains a negative characteristic commonly associated with the Mormon faith and Romney, although his church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the LDS church) banned the practice more than 100 years ago.
Mormonism is a truly American faith. It was founded in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, a charismatic American frontiersman who grew up in an area of New York State known as the Burnt Over District because of an intense period of religious revival there.
Smith’s family was poor and made a living as money diggers, going out to look for buried treasure. Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni – whose golden image now adorns the top of Mormon temples – came to him in visions and guided him to golden plates buried in an earthen mound. Smith translated the plates with the help of scribes and published the Book of Mormon in 1830. It tells the story of ancient Israelites who left Jerusalem before the Babylonian conquest, traveling to the Americas and building an advanced civilisation before it was wiped out by warfare.
Smith proclaimed himself a prophet who was going to restore the uncorrupted Christianity practiced by this Nephite civilisation and bring God’s government to the world.
In Mormon theology, America occupies a special place. According to Smith, Adam and Eve settled in Missouri, near the small town of Gallatin, after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Smith also revealed that Jesus will return to Missouri to plan for his second coming.
Historian Will Bagley, who has written more than a dozen books on Mormonism, points out that “in the Mormon sacred geography, America is essentially God’s favourite place in the world. God helped create the constitution and the American Republic so the gospel could be restored under Joseph Smith”.
These sentiments are echoed by Mitt Romney, who has said that he believes the American constitution was divinely inspired, and who speaks often of American exceptionalism, the unique destiny and role of the US in the world.
Although Mormonism is an American religion, Smith and his followers, many converts who had arrived from Europe, encountered hostility wherever they settled. As a result of clashes over land, political power and religious beliefs they were forced to move from Ohio to Missouri and then to Nauvoo, Illinois. In Illinois, Smith began preaching the radical doctrine of plural marriage, or polygamy. By some accounts, he married more than 30 women.
Plural marriage became a huge scandal, and Smith shut down a newspaper that exposed his practice of polygamy. In the controversy that followed, Smith was arrested for treason and put in a jail with his brother in Carthage, Illinois. The jail was stormed by an angry mob that included members of an Illinois militia that was supposed to be guarding Smith, and he was murdered.
Many thought that with Smith gone, Mormonism would vanish. But instead, as Bagley says, the mob “created an American martyr”. Today, the LDS church has some 14 million members worldwide and is the richest per capita in the US. It sends out more than 50,000 missionaries a year to convert people to Mormonism.
Richard Hinckley, an emeritus member of the LDS Church’s General Authority, says that Mormons place a high value on proselytising because they believe they are helping to save mankind. About 70 per cent of American Mormons are supporters of the Republican party, reflecting a church leadership that Bagley says “sees the world in corporate American terms, because they’re attorneys, they’re executives”.
Although the LDS church excommunicates those who practice polygamy today, there are some 40,000 fundamentalist Mormons involved in plural marriages in the US. Joe Darger, who lives with his three wives and 18 children about 30 miles from Salt Lake City, says that the church would prefer he did not exist, but he believes many members of the church still subscribe to the view that there will be plural marriage in heaven because “it is still in their scriptures and still part of their doctrine”.
According to the original Mormon theology revealed by Joseph Smith, Darger says, men also have the ability to progress and become gods living with God in heaven.
Evangelical Christians in the US have had a long competition with Mormons for converts. Philip Roberts, who served as the head of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for over a decade, says many evangelicals now fear that the election of a Mormon president would give the Mormon faith additional legitimacy around the globe, aiding the missionary efforts of an ‘un-Christian’ faith.
Evangelicals regard the idea that humans can progress to godhood as blasphemous, and take issue with many Mormon practices and doctrines, such as so-called endowment rites. In these temple rituals Mormons pass between rooms representing different stages of the eternal progression they believe all humans participate in – from the Garden of Eden to the earthly world to celestial heaven.
Mormons also practice proxy baptisms, or baptisms of the dead, to save deceased ancestors who passed away without being baptised on earth. Despite warnings from the LDS Church, Mormons have stirred controversy by baptising dead celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims.
James Garfield, who was elected president in 1881, served as a Methodist preacher. If Mitt Romney captures the White House he will be the only other president to have held such significant positions in his church. The LDS church does not have any paid clergy, relying instead on bishops, or lay pastors, to lead local congregations. So-called stake presidents oversee several congregations. Mitt Romney served in both capacities in the Boston-area over a 12-year period, after finishing studies at Harvard Business School and beginning a career in finance.
Mike Moody, who attended Brigham Young University with Romney, thinks he is running for president to help establish “the Kingdom of God. I think that’s the foundation of his personal ambition. He’s kneeled down and taken what’s called the oath of sacrifice. He’s promised his talents, his abilities, and everything that he is to the church”.
Moody believes that Romney is also influenced by a Mormon tradition known as the White Horse prophecy that goes back to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon migration to Utah. The prophecy says that there will come a time when the US constitution “hangs by a thread” and Mormons will ride in on a white horse to save it.
Today, Romney faces the same challenge John F. Kennedy did in 1960 – convincing voters that he will not be beholden to leaders of his church. One in five voters said they would not vote for Kennedy because they were afraid he would take orders from the Pope – the same percentage who now say they would not vote for a Mormon for president.
Richard Hinckley says there would not be discussions between a President Romney and LDS church leaders over policy. “It won’t happen,” he says. “First of all he’s too smart to do that. Secondly, our leaders are far too smart to engage in that.”
Romney has done his best to avoid all discussion of his Mormon faith in the 2012 race. According to Phil Barlow, a professor of religion at Utah State University who was a counselor to Romney when he was a bishop in the Boston area, Romney and his campaign regard any speech about his faith as a “lose, lose situation”.
Pollster Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, DC, argues that Romney has a more difficult challenge than Kennedy did in 1960. “In 1960 it was enough to say I believe in the separation of church and state,” Jones says. “Today the American public does really want to see, ‘Okay that’s great. But what will you be doing with your faith?… I think that’s the question Romney is still working his way toward answering.”
Jones believes that if Romney is the Republican nominee for president, which seems likely, his Mormonism could be “the x-factor” that costs him the election in a tight race against Barack Obama for the White House in November.