Why Mitt Can Not Talk About Being Mormon by Jane Barnes

At the start of Romney’s 2007 run, most newspapers ran stories on his Mormonism, but only to declare his religion was no obstacle. Who would entertain such a prejudice at this point in our history? A leaked memo from Romney’s campaign changed all that. The document described Romney as “sensitive” to the fact Mormonism was considered “weird” and concerned about the many ways it could derail his run for president. According to the memo, Romney and his staff had decided he should emphasize how he’d led his life (rather than mention the particular church which formed him) and stay out of prolonged explorations of Mormon doctrine and practices.

The press smelled blood. Presidential campaigns run on blood and the gloves came off. Alex Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe, featured the memo in a piece entitled, “A Mormon president, I don’t think so.” The columnist declared a Mormon president unelectable because the tenets of his faith were too “strange.” He singled out Joseph Smith’s revelation that Independence, Mo. was the Garden of Eden; the fact the prophet claimed Christ had come to earth during his Resurrection; and, inevitably, polygamy, the big bad wolf of Mormonism.

If Romney’s memo was a blueprint for how not to seem who you are, Beam’s column was a model of prejudice. After Beam, the deluge. Every Mormon joke – from Angel Macaroni to Kolub, God’s personal planet – was tossed around in public. The holy underwear were all but flown at national half mast. On The McLaughlin Group, Lawrence O’Donnell said Mormonism was “demented, crazy and ridiculous” and described its founder as “a lying, fraudulent criminal.” But Romney never responded. He earned spectral stripes for being “detached,” “cool” and “distant.” By the time he made his speech on religion in December 2007, his strategy of avoiding had congealed into self-deception. The speech was dominated by the idea that his Mormonism was equivalent to Jack Kennedy’s Catholicism. Romney blandly asserted that neither he nor Kennedy were defined by their religions; they were both just Americans “running for president.”

It was neither the first nor the last time Romney passed on a major opportunity to transform the Mormon narrative. There were all sorts of ways he could have educated the American public about, for instance, anti-Mormonism. It just kept coming. After his speech on religion, Lawrence O’Donnell raged against Romney personally in the Huffington Post, “Your religion was founded by an alcoholic criminal named Joseph Smith who committed bank fraud and claimed God told him polygamy was cool after his first wife caught him having an affair with the maid and who then went on to have 33 wives…” Noting only in passing the many factual errors here, it is incredible that a prominent media commentator would use this tone addressing a public figure competing to be a presidential candidate.

It is also a shame that Romney didn’t call O’Donnell on his hate speech. Anti-Mormonism is a fact, but not necessarily one that’s here to stay. Before it can be dismissed, however, it has to be recognized – something Romney could, but wouldn’t do. Once he became the actual presidential candidate in 2012, the pressure for him to speak about his Mormonism rose rapidly; in the build-up to the Republican Convention, the liberal press hammered the idea that Romney had to show “who he really was” to the point of delusion. No sane human being would actually expose a private self amid the steely cynicism of what the intensely scripted, endlessly dragged out, repetitive and repulsively over-financed American presidential campaign has become.

Yet there had been months when Romney could have developed something real to say about Mormonism at the Tampa convention. Friends, neighbors, members of his congregations did come forward with stories about his good works as a bishop, but these were not televised. Meanwhile two days in, David Chalian, Yahoo News Washington, D.C. bureau chief, was caught live on a hot-mike. “They’re not concerned at all,” he exclaimed to laughs about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, in reference to Hurricane Isaac. “They’re happy to have a party when black people drown.” He was quickly fired, but first Chalian tried to explain the remark away by saying he was just riffing on Isaac. Presumably he was also referring to the racism of the Mormon Church before blacks were allowed to be part of the priesthood. In his acceptance speech, the only mention Romney made about being Mormon was that nobody had treated him differently for being one when he was a kid. What about all the years since then?

Could Romney change the anti-Mormonism in the Mormon narrative? Does a presidential candidate have that power? Consider Obama’s response to Reverend Wright’s extreme statements during the 2008 campaign. Wright was Obama’s former pastor, and Obama had attended services in which Wright had said such things as, “not God Bless America…but God damn America.” Some of Wright’s most unacceptable remarks appeared on YouTube, followed by the sort of major national uproar that could easily have destroyed Obama’s chances to be president. Obama had to address the subject of racism. In a much admired speech, he embodied a new maturity for the country as a whole by allowing that Reverend Wright’s anger was no more or less than any white person’s resentment. The emotions might shock us when we had to face that they were still part of our multiracial democracy; but Obama called us all to acknowledge them again as we pushed ourselves beyond “racial stalemate” and blended our stories in the union’s larger one.

Race and Mormonism are not exactly equivalent. Racial suffering has a longer history in America and, more importantly, a much more developed national discussion. Obama spoke to a country where most reasonable people – whether black or white – agree that we as a nation are committed to overcome our racial nightmare. We have many more historical examples, especially recent ones, of blacks and whites working out their issues on a national scale than we have occasions of Mormon and non-Mormon working out their problems with each other.

As Mormons were hounded from Ohio to Missouri to Nauvoo in the 19th century, they grew accustomed to living apart in their own communities. After Joseph Smith was murdered, the Mormons moved to the part of the west which was then outside of America altogether. But in 1848, when the Mormon territory was joined to the U.S., our country then went to war against Mormon polygamy – and won. Since then our two communities have lived in a polite – if uncomfortable – stand-off. We have both prospered, but the last substantial example we have of the two groups working through an explosive issue are the Reed Smoot hearings between 1903-1907 about whether to seat Smoot, a Mormon, in the U. S. Senate. Though a monogamist, he was made to stand trial for all the Mormons still practicing polygamy; finally, after his prophet issued yet another order for all his people to desist from plural marriage, the Senators were satisfied to let Smoot do his job.

For more than a hundred years, in the absence of any real contact between the two groups, anti-Mormonism has continued to thrive. But what has fed it? The Mormons have done nothing but a good job in their families, community, and business. Since putting their most inconvenient religious aspirations behind them, they have gone gang busters as capitalists. They go to great lengths to share their wealth around the world. Non-Mormon Americans eagerly affirm how much they love Mormon “individuals.” Yet non-Mormon Americans also love to mock the Mormon religion. They feel permitted to make fun of it. Polls show the bias against a Mormon presidential candidate has not changed since 1967. Ever since Gallup asked Americans if they would vote for George Romney, Mitt’s father, 18% said they would not vote for a well-qualified Mormon, and today, the same per cent of the country says it will not vote for the son.

At the same time, according to the-american-interest.com, an online blog reports that “liberal anti-Mormonism – a politically opportunistic breed of bigotry” has “exploded” with the rise of Mitt Romney. No polls are given, but let me offer Alex Beam, Lawrence O’Donnell and David Chalian as examples of an entitled new liberal anti-Mormonism in the media. They aren’t inventing their prejudice out of whole cloth. Somehow the right to kick the Mormons around has been part of our shadow life for a century. But why doesn’t Romney stand up to it?

I think it’s because getting America to face our anti-Mormonism will only be the beginning. Once the country’s crude dismissal of the religion is acknowledged, there will have to be discussion about religious tolerance. There will have to be education about the Mormon place in American history. We will have to grow as savvy about religion as we are about race. It won’t be enough for Romney to make a brilliant point about anti-Mormonism in the debates. If he did, he would set off a fire storm of distracting objection and debate. But if he does not do it, and he loses, the next Mormon candidate for president will most likely have the same problem of having to tip-toe around his religion for fear of setting off a mine field.

If Romney wins without ever addressing his Mormonism, it will be another matter. Maybe the problem would just go away in the public arena, but he would still have to deal with the anti-Mormonism in his gut. He might not even know it is there. How could he? If he can hardly say the word “Mormon,” then how much harder it must be for him to say “anti-Mormonism.” According to Michael Barbaro in his August 29th piece in the New York Times, Romney spent the three years between his first and second presidential runs pursuing strategies to help him fulfill his “longing to be accepted by the world beyond his close-knit community.” That very need says so much about why Romney’s running: running from, running for, running to. Running, running, running away.

Jane Barnes
Jane Barnes has written for films and publication. Her film credits include award-winning documentaries for American Experience, American Masters and Frontline. She has published essays, short stories and two novels: I, Krupskaya and Double Lives. Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet, her first book of non-fiction was published in August by Penguin/Tarcher.

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