As Mitt Romney tests the waters for a potential 2008 presidential run, he'll be able to tap a vein of affluent, motivated, activist supporters with considerable political experience - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), a/k/a the Mormons. The Romney family is to the Mormons what the Kennedys are to the Catholics. Mitt Romney's father, George, a former CEO of American Motors and governor of Michigan, himself ran for president in 1968. Miles Romney, one of Mitt Romney's cousins, was once a member of the LDS Church's First Presidency, a triumvirate of the world's three most powerful Mormons. And then, of course, there's Mitt. A former venture capitalist and Mormon bishop, Romney unsuccessfully challenged Ted Kennedy in a 1994 Senate campaign and then rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah - the Vatican of Mormonism - from certain disaster before being elected governor here. Like John F. Kennedy, who played to the religious loyalty and ethnic insularity of his fellow Catholics, and Michael Dukakis, who appealed to Greek pride, Romney - if he runs - will surely look to his own religious base to give his campaign leverage and traction.
If there's a moment that marks the beginning of the LDS ascendancy, it came in 1979, when right-wing Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell announced the formation of the Moral Majority, the anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-gay, pro-school-prayer group that reshaped American politics. In Falwell's coalition, individual Mormons joined forces with Christian fundamentalists and conservative Catholics in an attempt to make American politics more godly. The oft-isolated LDS Church had finally found willing partners.
Today, the nation's Mormon population is relatively small: there are 5.5 million in the United States, compared to 66 million Roman Catholics. But their ranks are tight - a distinct advantage when operating in a fractious and factionalized society. In 1972, George McGovern and his liberal backers used similar cohesion to gain brief control of the Democratic Party. The conservative takeover of the GOP is a bigger success story; today, the former right-wing insurgents have become the right-wing establishment. Now the voraciously ambitious Mitt Romney wants a place at the table, if not the lead chair. And Mormon solidarity - next to which standard conservative esprit de corps pales in comparison - may help him get it.
For a crash course in Mormon political power, consider the important role the LDS Church played in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed women equal rights under the law. Passed by the House in 1971 and by the Senate in 1972, the ERA enjoyed widespread national support and seemed destined to succeed. By 1976, 34 states had ratified it; only four more were needed to make it part of the Constitution.
Then the Mormons got involved. In October 1976, the LDS Church's First Presidency - consisting of the church's three highest-ranking members - issued a formal statement opposing the ERA: the amendment, the First Presidency warned, might "stifle many God-given feminine instincts" and lead to an uptick in homosexual activity. This denunciation had a near-immediate impact in Idaho, home to a relatively large Mormon electorate. The Idaho legislature had previously given the ERA the requisite two-thirds approval, but this was undone by a January 1977 referendum in which a popular majority opposed the amendment.
Next, the LDS Church turned its focus to the state-level International Women's Year (IWY) conferences taking place around the country. These gatherings had no formal role in the amendment process, but served as highly public barometers of female support for the ERA. As Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn recounts in a forthcoming anthology, God and Country: Politics in Utah (Signature Books), LDS women in numerous states worked to block pro-ERA resolutions at IWY conferences. The process was top-down, and controlled by the Church's (male) leadership. In Hawaii, for example, Mormon women received these written instructions: "Report to Traditional Values Van, sign in, pick up dissent forms. Sit together. Stay together to vote. Ask Presidency for help if needed." At other state conferences, male Mormon coordinators staked out various rooms and informed their compatriots when a particular vote was pending; the Mormon women in attendance then rushed in to participate. This kind of discipline and cohesion allowed the Saints, as the Mormons call themselves, to dominate conferences in states where their total numbers were quite small. For example, Mormons represented about four percent of the total populations of Washington and Montana, but accounted for half or more of the women attending each state's IWY gathering. And in both Washington and Montana, every proposed pro-ERA resolution was defeated.
In addition, under the guidance of Gordon Hinckley - then a special adviser to the First Presidency, and now the president of the LDS Church - Mormon-led civic groups were set up in a dozen states. Anti-ERA speakers were invited to speak in LDS Church buildings, and massive letter-writing campaigns were launched. Here, too, the Mormons' limited numbers belied their ultimate effect: by one estimate, Saints generated 85 percent of the anti-ERA mail sent in Virginia, where they made up only one percent of the population. Ultimately, after a promising beginning, the ERA was defeated. And while it might be going too far to say the LDS Church killed it, it certainly put the amendment on life support. True, Mormons made common cause with conservative Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists in their battle against the ERA, a collaboration that paved the way for the political sector now broadly known as the religious right. But without the LDS Church's timely intervention and efficient opposition, the amendment probably would have passed.
More recently, Mormons have devoted their political efficacy to the fight against gay marriage. In 1994, the First Presidency issued a formal statement opposing the marriage of same-sex couples. Soon after, fliers offering advice on how to create anti-gay-marriage PACs were distributed at Mormon congregations nationwide. In the mid '90s, the LDS Church's national headquarters tapped couples from Utah to participate in anti-gay-marriage endeavors outside the state, and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to "traditional marriage" campaigns around the country. Meanwhile, local leaders used their wards (which are analogous to parishes) to coordinate anti-gay-marriage lobbying efforts. In 1996, for example, at every LDS chapel in Texas, meetings were held to urge Mormons to join the Coalition for Traditional Marriage, a Church-sponsored lobbying group. The necessary registration forms were provided in case they wished to do so on the spot.
This strategy came to fruition in California during the fight over Proposition 22, an initiative to ban gay marriage in that state. In the year before the election, LDS leaders mobilized local congregations to support the ban, formally asking California Mormons to raise money, knock on doors, send mailings, and staff phone banks. It worked. In 2000, California voters approved Proposition 22 by a 23-point margin.
Of course, in their attempts to shape public policy from a faith-based point of view, Mormon leaders and rank-and-file believers are hardly unique. For example, most conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants vehemently oppose abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the US Catholic bishops created and distributed a nominally nonpartisan voter guide for the Catholic electorate; fundamentalist Protestants are also old hands at the voter-education game. (The LDS Church's official position on abortion is relatively liberal: it opposes abortion, but makes an exception for rape and for danger to the mother's health.)
The difference is, Mormons do it better. According to J. Quin Monson and David Campbell - professors at Brigham Young University (BYU) and Notre Dame, respectively, and Mormons both - the Latter-day Saints are the political equivalent of "dry kindling." The demands made on individual Mormons by their culture, Monson and Campbell claim, give them an unusually high aptitude for political activism.
To make their case, the professors cite a lengthy list of distinctive Mormon traits and habits. First, the overwhelming majority of Mormons vote consistently for Republicans; in 2000, for example, 88 percent of Mormons voted for George W. Bush. (Among other observant white Christian evangelicals, the number was 84 percent.) In addition to voting as a bloc, Mormons make greater sacrifices for their faith than members of many other religions do. The typical adult Mormon spends three hours in Sunday services; complements this with periodic worship in Church temples, which fulfills obligations that Sunday worship does not; visits a pre-established network of congregation members each month to discuss their satisfaction with the Church; and volunteers in some other capacity for his or her congregation. (One study found that 60 percent of Mormons volunteer annually for a church-related group, compared to 36 percent of Southern Baptists and 27 percent of Catholics.)
The list goes on. While the LDS Church is intensely hierarchical, its members are intimately involved in its day-to-day functioning; Monson and Campbell cite statistics showing that 53 percent of Mormons reported giving a speech or presentation at church in the past half-year, compared to 14 percent of Southern Baptists and four percent of Catholics. On top of that, most males also spend two years as missionaries just as they enter adulthood, journeying far from home to plug their faith to an often-hostile audience. Then there's the unusually rigorous Mormon tithing guideline, which instructs adults to donate 10 percent of their income to the LDS Church. (In contrast, the Catholic Church asks adherents only to contribute to its upkeep; the average Catholic giving rate is about 1.5 percent.)
Imagine how all this might play out in the 2008 presidential campaign. The stock method for predicting a given demographic group's electoral impact is to look at its presence in key states. By this standard, it's not clear how influential Mormon voters would be in the Republican primaries. The Latter-day Saints grew at a remarkable 20 percent clip in the 1990s and are now the nation's fourth-largest religious group, but they're still underrepresented in Iowa and South Carolina and barely register in New Hampshire. In several states with larger Mormon populations - such as Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Washington - the Saints could be a major factor in the general election. However, they scarcely show up in classic battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
But this framework underestimates the potential of the Mormon electorate. Of the 5.5 million Mormons in America, suppose only 50 percent are regular churchgoers - a conservatively low estimate - and then adjust for children, who won't be voting. At a minimum, this leaves one million practicing Mormon adults who - according to an index devised by Monson and Campbell - are significantly more likely to be politically involved than their Catholic and Southern Baptist counterparts. These one million would give Romney a ready-made fundraising base heading into the campaign. If they gave an average of $100 to the Romney-for-President Committee, the governor would have a quick $100 million - a healthy chunk of the war chest he'd need to run a competitive campaign. And given Mormon tithing habits, they might well give more: Mormons tend to be affluent, and to give larger amounts to their church - and with greater frequency - than Southern Baptists and Catholics do. (Monson and Campbell found that 22 percent of Mormons give more than $5000 for church-related causes annually; nine percent of Southern Baptists and two percent of Catholics do likewise.)
Furthermore, imagine the Mormon community's untapped value as a nascent campaign organization. Start, once again, with one million committed adult Mormons. If just one in 50 were willing to travel to a couple of high-value states to knock on doors or make phone calls for Romney - not an implausible figure, given the long-standing Mormon missionary obligation, and the examples of their civic involvement in the ERA and gay-marriage battles - he'd have a volunteer army of 20,000. And these wouldn't be the chronic volunteers or wide-eyed college kids who labored for liberal candidates like Howard Dean and John Kerry last year. More often than not, they would be mature, successful, persuasive individuals used to taking orders, working as a team, and persuading the unpersuadable.
In other words, they'd be a force to be reckoned with.
At this point, of course, it's all still hypothetical. Romney hasn't committed to a presidential run, and his fellow Mormons haven't lined up to support him. Until he does - and until they do - two caveats are worth noting.
First, Romney wouldn't be the first Mormon presidential candidate. Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the LDS Church, declared himself an independent candidate for the presidency in 1844. More recently, George Romney, Mitt's father, made an attention-getting run in 1968 (see "Here Comes the Son," News and Features, September 17, 2004), and Utah senator Orrin Hatch launched a bid of his own in 2000. The collective Mormon genius for politics wasn't enough to put any of these candidates over the top.
Then again, none of these candidacies really gave Mormons a chance to flex their political muscle. As the founder of a widely distrusted new religion and a perceived threat to the federal government, Joseph Smith was perhaps the least-viable presidential candidate in American history. George Romney's appealing candor hobbled his campaign early on, and he was essentially finished by the New Hampshire primary; furthermore, the elder Romney made his run before the LDS Church waged its formative battle against the ERA. And Hatch - burdened by profound blandness, and running against John McCain and George W. Bush - never managed to gain traction in the 2000 race. If Romney runs in '08, he should be the most nationally viable Mormon candidate yet.
The other point is more problematic. Veteran observers of Mormon politics believe that the LDS Church will not formally endorse or support Romney if he runs. Kim Farah, an LDS spokeswoman, says this is correct. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a longstanding policy of political neutrality," Farah said via e-mail. "The Church does not endorse political parties, candidates or platforms."
This raises a perplexing question: is top-down guidance necessary to shift the Mormon machine into high gear? Some believe it is. If Romney runs, Quinn argues, "you'd have independent firebrands with great organizational skills working in Memphis or Tallahassee or Boston, but their organizations wouldn't be connected. It would not represent a coordinated campaign." He adds that the endorsement of the LDS Church president - who, in addition to being the Church's top administrator, acts as its living prophet - carries profound weight: "Mormons can be critical thinkers, and skeptical, until they receive instructions from the 'living prophet.' Then believing Mormons act like army ants under orders from headquarters." This jibes with the conclusions of Monson and Campbell, who suggest that top-down direction is crucial to ignite the "dry kindling" effect.
But is it? First off, overt neutrality on the part of the Mormon hierarchy might well co-exist with quiet support for Romney's candidacy. "I very much doubt that they would publicly support Romney in an official way," says Ed Firmage Jr., a liberal Mormon political activist in Salt Lake City. "The Church is very skittish about appearing too political. But while it would be completely unofficial, in every invisible sense, [Church support] would probably be pretty strong." Again, the case of the ERA is instructive: while LDS leadership publicly condemned the amendment, it also worked to obscure the Church-directed nature of its members' opposition. Even if Church leaders were to remain formally neutral, comparable surreptitious support for Romney might be forthcoming.
Furthermore, there's something faintly ridiculous about the notion that, if Hinckley and lower-ranking Mormon authorities remain publicly neutral in the face of a Romney run, the Mormon electorate won't be able to discern their private preferences. Think about it: Romney saved the Salt Lake Olympics, which doubled as the LDS Church's chance to re-introduce itself to the world. His father remains a revered figure among Mormons; to a lesser extent, so does his cousin. Factor in some additional Romney attributes - his squeaky-clean image, his business success, his photogenic family - and it becomes clear that our governor is a paragon of Mormon virtues. "Honesty and integrity play well in Mormon culture," says J. Bonner Ritchie, an emeritus professor of organizational behavior at BYU. "Mormonism has become a true pro-business culture; successful businesspeople have credibility, and he's a successful businessperson. He has a good family - he has a beautiful wife, and sons, some of whom are in school here, who look like they're strong and good and behave well. All those things carry weight." Would Mormon voters really see their religious leaders as agnostic between Romney and the pro-gay-rights Rudy Giuliani? Between Romney and the libertarian McCain? Between Romney and Hillary Clinton? It seems unlikely.
One final factor suggests Romney could reap the full benefits of Mormon support even without an official Church endorsement. There is a notion, dating back to Joseph Smith's days, that Mormons have a messianic role to play in American history. At some point in the future, or so the argument goes, the US Constitution will be "hanging by a thread." And Mormons will save it. "I've heard that phrase since I was born," says one liberal Mormon intellectual. "That's something that every Mormon's been raised with." If several more states legalize gay marriage, the sense of crisis among gay-marriage opponents will intensify - and the impact will be especially acute in the LDS Church. What better time for a Mormon president to step in and clean things up?
Parsing the interplay of politics and faith is always delicate, and assessing the implications of Romney's religiosity is no exception. Back in 1994, when Romney challenged incumbent Ted Kennedy for a US Senate seat, the Kennedy camp offered an object lesson in how not to proceed. Joe Kennedy Jr. suggested that an unsavory aspect of Mormon history - the church's long-standing denial of the priesthood to blacks - was a legitimate campaign issue. Romney reacted angrily, and invoked the example of John F. Kennedy. Ted Kennedy backpedaled, and commentators around Boston lamented his foray into religious bigotry.
Times have changed. In the past few years, we've seen George W. Bush use his own religiosity as a campaign prop, and watched Catholic bishops upbraid John Kerry for not following Church doctrine on abortion. (Quite a difference from 1960, when JFK vowed to compartmentalize his religious and political identities.) The question today isn't whether politics and religion interact, but how.
If Romney does run - and if his candidacy is strong - it's a safe bet that the major media will offer bite-size synopses of Mormon history and theology. (Catholic politicians are lucky their faith is already well-known: when it comes to far-out doctrines, transubstantiation is hard to beat.) In the interest of not appearing judgmental or inflammatory, however, they'll probably gloss over the political usefulness of Romney's faith. That would be a mistake. The Mormon talent for politics is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, it should be a point of pride. But it should also be discussed openly, and pondered at length. After all, it could make a big difference in '08.