When Mitt Romney addresses the Republican Convention on Monday night, America, if not the world, will be waiting to hear what he has to say — not about the United States economy or the Middle East or even his final verdict on the London Olympics — but about his Mormon faith. The journalistic consensus is that the presidential candidate can no longer put off explaining what his religious beliefs are and how they might influence his exercise of the highest office in the land.
Mormonism certainly has some odd doctrines and rituals, the core ones cloaked in secrecy that is cult-like. Its founding story about the Book of Mormon being conveyed to Joseph Smith on gold tablets is hard to swallow. Its earlier embrace of polygamy and ideas about race sully its history. Its conviction that its members are direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and are now “members of the House of Israel” — as well as its belief that when a Mormon saviour one day arrives it may be in Washington — has foreign policy implications.
For these reasons, wrote Prospect magazine editor Bronwen Maddox in the London Times on Wednesday, the media need to “press” Romney — a devout and senior member of the church — about his beliefs. So far, she says, he has been given an easy ride. “But if Mr Romney wins without his Mormon faith having been questioned, it will legitimise in the US leader a set of beliefs that deserves challenge. It is entirely appropriate to ask him, until he answers: ‘You believe exactly what?’”
Romney has been quizzed about his faith before — though perhaps not in the same haughty tone as Maddox’s question implies — and survived. No doubt he has developed his technique further. In any case he is free to respond in the general terms both he and President Obama used in an interview with Cathedral Age, the magazine of the National Cathedral in Washington, this week. “Every religion has its own unique doctrines and history,” said Romney. “These should not be bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.”
Demands to know more about a candidate’s religion are unlikely to be motivated by a desire to understand him better and increase religious tolerance; they are largely a form of political attack. Obama’s connection to his church was scrutinised by the conservative press — but only in the service of partisan politics. Like the followers of every other creed, Mormons are pretty diverse. If a candidate’s religion is sincere, it will obviously have an impact upon him. But the only way to assess that is to look at his policies, not to interrogate his beliefs.
There is, of course, already evidence of how Romney, the Mormon believer, impacts on American life. There is his personal success in the financial business sector, and his record as governor of Massachusetts from 2002 to 2004, when he presided over the elimination of a ballooning state deficit and signed into law a health care reform that provided near universal health insurance. That doesn’t sound too threatening. He may be a “less government, more business” man, but you don’t have to be a Mormon to take that stance. He may have dodged taxes — if that is the case let the facts speak for themselves. At any rate it is not a particularly Mormon thing to do.
When it comes to Mormons generally, Romney has nothing to be ashamed of. Their social recipe is an outstanding success. An essay by ex-Mormon Walter Kirn in the lefty New Republic journal sees Mormonism as “our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden sharing that has been lost in contemporary America.”
A recent Gallup poll ranked Utah, the church’s heartland, the top state for quality of life. Mormons live much longer than other Americans — thanks, in part, to their no drinking and no smoking rules. These may make some “gentile” Utahns uncomfortable but they must be awfully good for the health budget. Utah also has a top AAA credit rating and Forbes has ranked it “the best state for business and careers” for the second straight year.
The general level of education among Mormons is high — 44.3 percent of their women have a post-high-school education compared to 27. 7 percent in the general population — and the multi-lingualism that results from the members’ overseas missions has made them attractive to big international companies.
Above all, Romney and his co-religionists can justly boast of their devotion to family. Discouragement of pre-marital sex, the solemnity of Temple weddings, early marriage and childbearing all contribute to a strong family culture. Utah has the highest birthrate and the youngest population in the US. “Families thrive there,” writes Californian Joel Kotkin, and “the big growth along the Highway 15 corridor [into Salt Lake City] is mostly single-family home communities [with houses] affordable and large enough to accommodate several offspring.”
Finally, the practice of tithing makes Mormons the most charitable of US citizens. The first beneficiaries are their own members who need support, but church welfare centres — in Utah at least — are open to the poor of any faith. New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, writes of a visit to Salt Lake City where he saw “Mormon neurosurgeons and lawyers volunteer” on production lines that supply Mormon-brand cheap groceries, and “inner-city congregations where bank vice-presidents from the suburbs spend their weekends helping drifters find steady work”.
All this points to a Mormon influence in America that is largely benign — something a Mormon president is unlikely to change. Speculation that Mormon messianic hopes may suddenly flower seem rather silly given that the US president is one man in a complex system of government who presumably can be impeached if he runs amok. After all, there are only six million Mormons among 314,000,000 Americans. Can they really bring about Apocalypse Now?
Rather than interrogating his religion, journalists would be better advised to keep examining Romney’s policies; on these his candidacy and possible presidency stand or fall.
But if people who have public profiles are going to have their religious beliefs used as a test for their fitness to serve the public, how about starting with the media? Shouldn’t there be some disclosure of Maureen Dowd’s creed? (Here she is throwing rotten tomatoes at Romney in her New York Times column.) Of the beliefs of Mark Thompson, the former BBC chief who is about to become the new CEO of the New York Times? Of Rupert Murdoch’s? It seems even more relevant for journalists, because their stock-in-trade is opinions, while politicians’ is policies. Where do those opinions come from? How about a register?
Obviously this is absurd, or rather, it is seriously post-modern. Let journalists stick to digging up facts and promoting ideas, and let’s all stick to judging people by their deeds, not their beliefs. A great religious figure gave us the appropriate test: “By their deeds you shall know them.”
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.