Is Romney the “face of Mormonism”?

In-fighting among Mormon politicians has erupted over an article by Gregory A. Prince, a well-known Mormon biographer. In the article, Prince claimed that Romney was “not the face of Mormonism.” Prince had been a Romney supporter prior to 2007, when Romney was a moderate. However, Prince became dismayed when Romney lurched to the right in his 2008 presidential campaign. and was baffled by Romney’s infamous “47% video.”

Prince argued that Romney’s dismissal of the “47%” was a betrayal of everything that Romney stood for as a Mormon lay pastor. A pastor who is a “good shepherd” goes after the lost sheep: even if one sheep in a hundred is in jeopardy, the pastor is to leave the fold and recover it. Also, Mormons were early champions of reaching out to the disadvantaged and providing social safety nets such as the Latter-day Saint Welfare Program. According to Prince, writing off 47% of the American population as a moocher class does not seem consistent with Mormon leadership principles or compassion.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has entered the fray, stating that he agrees with Prince. Reid and Romney have been at odds with each other before, but this time, it is about Mormonism itself.

To be honest, Romney probably is the face of a certain class of well-known Mormon industrialists, among them J.W. Marriott, Jon Huntsman, and the late Larry H. Miller. Perhaps these are some of the more visible faces of Mormonism. And men who walk, talk, dress, and look like Romney inhabit the upper echelons of the LDS Church hierarchy. But I could not imagine any of these church leaders writing off the needs of what the far right views as the “moocher class,” as Romney appears to have done in the video.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Mormons on average have become increasingly conservative. But Mormon leaders have periodically reined-in that conservatism to counter dismissiveness or lack of respect and empathy towards the poor, immigrants, and the disadvantaged. Mormons by and large have not adopted the most belligerent postures of the far right. Therefore from a Mormon perspective, Romney’s dismissive attitude might seem surprising and out of character for a Mormon who has been a lay pastor devoting years to serving the neediest under his care. Perhaps that is what Prince and Reid are reacting to.

There is another possibility: that Romney’s “face” is merely a mask, and that in dismissing the 47%, he is telling his wealthy conservative donors exactly what they want to hear, rather than what he truly believes. But that, too, is decidedly un-Mormon. A Mormon article of faith is that “we believe in being honest.” A current LDS Church manual quotes Brigham Young in stating, “If we accept salvation on the terms it is offered to us, we have got to be honest in every thought, in our reflections, in our meditations, in our private circles, in our deals, in our declarations, and in every act of our lives.” I wonder what Young would have thought about a candidate misrepresenting himself to a private group of donors—if that is what Romney did—in order to get campaign money.

A better face of Mormon honesty might actually be Jon Huntsman, who was ridiculed during the 2012 Republican Primaries for his consistently moderate views. He refused to lurch to the right as a political expediency, the way that Romney seems to have done. Like Romney, Huntsman was also born into a wealthy family, and therefore he is also probably a bit removed from the concerns of average struggling Mormons, but based on his views and consistency, he might have a little better claim for representing Mormon idealism than does Romney.

But perhaps it is incorrect to think that anyone could be the “face of Mormonism.” Mormons are more diverse than most non-Mormons think. There are single parents, undocumented immigrants, liberals, gays and lesbians, libertarians, and out-of-touch industrialists, all happily sitting next to each other on the pews of many Mormon congregations. Sometimes each of them is not completely honest, or compassionate, or tolerant, but they are all Mormon. Thus, ultimately I agree with Greg Prince’s observation that Romney’s video was not a good representation of Mormon ideals; however, I think that Romney has as good a claim to be the face of a flawed Mormon as any other Mormon does.

Harry Reid: the most prominent Mormon to back same-sex marriage

Following President Obama’s announcement that he now supports same sex marriage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced his own support for same-sex marriage, thus becoming the most prominent Mormon to back equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Reid’s position is somewhat nuanced. Though he supports same sex marriage as as a legal matter, he notes that his “personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman.” That “personal belief” is certainly a religious one, and it echoes the opinion of leaders of the LDS Church to which he belongs. In September 2008, just before the vote on California’s Proposition 8, which amended the California constitution to ban same sex marriage, the LDS Church issued a public statement encouraging its members to support political efforts to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married. By supporting equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, Reid is expressing what appears to be a disagreement with his church leadership on matters of policy, while still agreeing with the church on matters of doctrine.

There was a significant political backlash against the LDS Church’s political effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. The effort led to bad press, and has contributed to at least some defections from the faith by LDS Church members. Since then, the church has been much less aggressive on the issue. The LDS Church is sensitive about avoiding the appearance of giving “orders” to Mormon political leaders. Therefore, it would be uncharacteristic for the church to issue any statement that might be interpreted as a rebuke of Reid. For that reason, I expect the LDS Church to remain silent on the issue for the time being.