How Mormons Saw Romney

In wooing evangelicals, he made some fellow LDS members uneasy.

Newsweek/February 8, 2008

In his pursuit of the presidency, Mitt Romney held fast to his Mormon faith, though his religion remains controversial with evangelicals and some other Christians. But his determined (and ultimately futile) wooing of evangelicals led him to make some statements that didn't quite square with Mormon beliefs and culture. And the effort itself may have deepened the impression of him as inauthentic-even to some fellow Mormons.

Early in his presidential bid, Romney was asked what he thought of polygamy. Prompted by what they considered a divine revelation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued the practice more than a century ago, and the church distances itself from polygamist "fundamentalists." But Romney went one step further, saying he couldn't "imagine anything more awful than polygamy." Many Mormons were privately taken aback. Mormons believe that, in its time, "plural marriage" was a commandment from God, and they are, as a group, fiercely proud of their ancestors, hundreds of whom practiced polygamy. (Romney's own great-grandfather had five wives.) LDS church members loathe the polygamy stereotypes and jokes bandied by outsiders. But hearing Romney-the most recognizable face of their faith these days-disavow it in those terms was mildly unsettling to LDS insiders.

Others were puzzled to hear Romney say he reads the Gideon Bible-the version popular with evangelicals: Mormons uniformly study the King James version, in a Salt Lake edition that is cross-referenced to all other Mormon scripture. "Seems like he just figured he had to say the safest, most Protestant thing he could think of-that was kind of annoying," says Russell Arben Fox, a Mormon professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita, Kans.

In his December speech on religion and politics, Romney said that when taking the oath of office, it would become his "highest promise to God." Some Mormons noted that church members are supposed to regard their temple covenants as their highest promises to God-which in Romney's case would include the temple ceremony where he was "sealed" to his wife, Ann. Still, Mormons overwhelmingly said they saw no conflict between fulfilling the duties of the presidency and honoring temple covenants.

Romney again bothered some church members when he answered a Boston reporter's question about the possibility of divine revelation conflicting with his duties as president by saying, "I don't recall God speaking to me. I don't know that he's spoken to anyone since Moses in the [Burning] Bush." Romney quickly added "or perhaps others," but his offhand comment seemed to strike at the very foundations of his church. After all, members believe the church was restored to Joseph Smith after not just a spoken revelation but an actual visitation from God and Jesus Christ. And one of Mormonism's core beliefs is that everyone-not just the current prophet-is entitled to receive personal revelation from God. "He's been a little more willing than your average Mormon to either distance himself from or to outright dump on various cultural or doctrinal matters in the church," says Fox.

Still, in his December speech, the beleaguered candidate stood his ground, saying, "I believe in my Mormon faith. My faith is the faith of my fathers-I will be true to them and to my beliefs." (It was the one time he used the word Mormon.)

Like any religious or ethnic group, Mormons are loyal to their own. "There was such a proclivity to forgive Mitt Romney because so many Mormons were rooting for him so enthusiastically. When he did make a misstatement, instead of dwelling on it, I think most Mormons said, 'Oh well, we know what he really meant'," says Richard Bushman, professor emeritus at Columbia University and a visiting professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. Romney carried Utah by an enormous margin and also did well in other states with large Mormon populations.

But many Mormons were troubled by Romney's eager wooing of evangelical voters and his efforts to blur the differences between the two groups. "I do think he was attempting to reach out to conservative evangelicals in a way that, as a Mormon, I'm not entirely comfortable with," says Nathan Oman, a law professor at William and Mary. "I don't want us to fall into the trap of trying to present Mormonism as some sort of idiosyncratic brand of Protestantism."

Romney's failed courtship of evangelicals was predictable, Oman says, given that for many evangelicals, "Mormons are anathema-not only on theological grounds [but because to evangelicals] there is something uniquely disreputable about being a Mormon. I really don't think there's anything you can say that is going to convince these people to forgive you for being a Latter-day Saint. I didn't see there was any way he was going to get those votes."

So even while the attempts to sound mainstream failed to persuade evangelicals, they also made some of Romney's fellow Mormons uneasy. "Rather than the individual little comments that may have startled Mormons, I think what troubled [fellow LDS members] was a sense that he was pandering," says Bushman. "To try to be something you're not just doesn't work," he says. "I think it was a moral error, as well as a political error."

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