Mitt Romney: Latter-day Saint – Arc Digital
There are moments that call for political accountability and moments that call for a moral reckoning. The first befits a more ordinary type of transgression—it’s what we need when, for example, a president tries to go it alone in the face of congressional inaction. Such behavior may well be unconstitutional, sure, but almost benignly so. Because we have effective and conventional ways of dealing with episodes of this sort. Standard-fare accountability is necessary in any political order—and, in ours, it’s regularly provided.
That’s not our current situation.
What the country finds itself needing now is a moral accounting, a grappling with the incontestably degrading behavior continually coming out of the White House.
But moral frameworks come in many different flavors. Which is right for our moment?
Although a fully formed ethical vision isn’t needed in order to know that Trump is morally compromised, it still matters what our framework is. The problem is that some of them have proven disappointingly susceptible to capture.
Evangelicals, for example, have rearranged their convictions in order to accommodate the man who promised them power. While evangelical theology possesses the source material to mount a critique of Trump, actual evangelicals prefer to use the same source material to instead justify Trump’s actions. Which means that if we’re looking for a person within the conservative camp to bring a moral case against Trump, and if evangelicalism, the dominant religious strand within that camp, has disqualified itself, what’s left?
What about the views of an individual who, despite being a member of the president’s own party, and despite agreeing with many of the initiatives the president has helped pass, offers regular and interesting pushback? What might be driving that willingness to publicly dissent?
I am of course referring to Mitt Romney. A cynical interpretation is that he writes the op-eds that he writes, and says the things that he says, in order to put himself in the best position possible should the party experience a break.
But that’s not the only interpretation. Another one is that Romney’s core beliefs, his religious and ethical framework, compel him to oppose Trump at various points and in various ways.
Mitt Romney is a Latter-day Saint—he is a Mormon. And what he believes about sin and salvation is different than what his evangelical counterparts believe. Consequently, what he does in the coming weeks and months might also be very different.
And if it is, it will spring from prior differences history has not done well to make us aware of. Let’s explore some of those differences now.
The early Latter-day Saint (LDS) movement was punctuated by struggle—often a violent one—for a piece of the American landscape. The “Mormon Wars,” various conflicts and skirmishes involving Joseph Smith and his followers in mid-19th century America, represent the only real instance of an extended period of religiously motivated violence in the country’s history.
The first of those episodes, the 1838 Mormon War, culminated in Missouri Executive Order 44, known in common parlance as the Extermination Order. Issued by the governor of Missouri, the Order is the sole occasion in American history where a religious group was targeted by government decree for violence.
Years later, Joseph Smith Jr., the LDS movement’s founder, was killed by a mob in 1844 at Carthage Jail in Carthage, Illinois, where he was awaiting trial.
In the wake of his death, the largest segment of the religion he founded headed across the plains to the Utah Territory under the guidance of Brigham Young. There, in the desert, on the very edge of America, they would begin to practice plural marriage openly. This led to persistent conflict between the LDS community and the United States government, conflict that involved the government threatening to seize church assets and imprison church leaders. The ordeal even delayed Utah’s statehood.
It was not until 1890, under significant external pressure, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (then and now the largest LDS group) abandoned the practice of polygamy. Even then, coming into the 20th century, the word “Mormon” conjured in the American mind the image of a rough-hewn, bearded polygamist, living out in the mountains and deserts of the inner Mountain West.
The transformation of the Mormons from ultimate American outsiders to the embodiment of bland Americana happened in the middle of the 20th century under the guidance of the Church’s 9th president, David O. McKay. For 19 years McKay guided the Church toward a more outward-facing image, one far more assimilated and thus more palatable to society at large. Of course, to achieve this, more controversial teachings would need to be downplayed in favor of emphases friendlier to the American way. Indeed, Mormonism entered the American mainstream by deemphasizing the doctrinal developments that make it unique.
The re-branding (and what else can you call it) of Mormonism under McKay coincided with the rise of the Religious Right. But despite being coalitional in nature, the Religious Right was spearheaded by white evangelical Protestants. In order for the Religious Right to be politically effective, those driving it needed to make peace with theological traditions—e.g., Roman Catholicism and Mormonism—they had previously tried to eject, sometimes violently, from American public life and (in a few extreme cases) from the U.S. altogether. Evangelicals continued to rail against these other frameworks theologically, but in the political realm, they were happy to lock arms.
Yet despite a genuine measure of political convergence, due to both Mormons and Catholics working hard to assimilate their public presentation to America’s de facto Protestant public square, real theological differences remain.
American evangelical Protestantism has its roots in the 18th century at the confluence of various religious movements arising in the aftermath of the Reformation. While there is some debate among scholars as to the particular recipe, it is likely that evangelicalism arose from some combination of Pietism (a 17th-century reform movement within the Lutheran Church), Presbyterianism, and Puritanism (with perhaps additional influence from segments as diverse as Anglicanism and Anabaptism) during a period of religious revival known as the First Great Awakening.
While early evangelicals oversaw considerable stylistic innovations—the early settlers, for example, grafted their Puritanism onto the American identity, but conditions in America influenced them back—it was one particular doctrinal development that made a huge difference. I’m referring to the evangelical emphasis on the assurance of salvation. This is the belief—a tweak from the Reformation-era doctrine of “the perseverance of the saints”—that the Holy Spirit gives Christians inner certainty of salvation.
What gives this doctrine its special character is how quickly one can unlock it: evangelicalism gives its adherents license to claim it in its fullness immediately upon professing belief in Christ, with no subsequent action or evidence needed. Anyone who has been asked to pray “The Sinner’s Prayer” by a street preacher or overly eager classmate has come into contact with this “once saved, always saved” theology. In reality, there are a lot of theological variations of this principle—some more faithful to the biblical record than others—but I suspect that for most people in the pews it translates this way: Once you have the assurance of salvation, once you have earnestly prayed that Sinner’s Prayer, you have a ticket to Heaven. Your place in the kingdom is assured.
This kind of “freebie grace” was one of the things that bothered a young Joseph Smith Jr., growing up in upstate New York in the fire-and-brimstone days of the Second Great Awakening. Perhaps unsurprisingly, LDS salvation theology differs greatly from that of its evangelical counterpart.
For starters, unlike nearly all of Protestantism, evangelical or otherwise, Latter-day Saints do not believe that we are saved by grace alone. Though its interpretation has been widely disputed, the plain reading of the Book of Mormon’s 2 Nephi 25:23 says that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (emphasis mine). Later LDS theologians like Bruce R. McConkie, granted official authority by the Church for a time, suggested there can be conditions to salvation, such as our producing “good works.”
But LDS theology curiously combines that with “universal salvation,” the doctrine that in the end all will be saved. Christian orthodoxy has historically rejected universalism of this sort, opting instead for “particularisms” of different kinds along with a belief in the existence of an eternal hell. How can it be that salvation is potentially conditional and also that all will be saved?
According to LDS theology, Heaven has a levels program and in the end all will be assigned to one of three degrees of glory: the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Telestial Kingdom. The Celestial Kingdom is the highest plane; the Telestial Kingdom the least fortunate place to end up. Importantly, these assignments will be made based on a combination of factors that include both actions and beliefs.
And so Mitt Romney, unlike Ted Cruz, is still waiting to find out where he will end up in the afterlife. For a deeply religious man, I can think of few more powerful motivators than that.
Hailing from one of the LDS movement’s first families, and boasting great-great grandfathers—Miles Romney and Parley P. Pratt—who converted to the Church in its first decades, Mitt Romney is Mormon to his core. Having come of age in the presidency of David O. McKay and in the household of a politician, he is also skilled at presenting the most relatable, blandest form of his faith. He knows the art of going along with it. But that does not change what he actually believes or how he will behave when he is up against a wall.
Mormonism’s unique salvation theology and its history of persecution, a history that is part of Romney’s own family story, shapes Romney’s engagement with politics and could very well prove the difference in this moment of national crisis. Romney has a national profile and a core theology that puts him at odds with the Republican Party’s evangelical base. This is why he is the likeliest high-profile Republican politician to break with his party and ultimately land on the pro-impeachment side when the process moves to the upper chamber.
Latter-day Saints largely forgo the wearing of crosses and crucifixes. In their place, rings, buttons, and pins with the letters CTR have become popular among the Mormon faithful. CTR stands for “Choose the Right.” Originally designed for children during the LDS presidency of David O. McKay, it is a phrase taken from an old hymn. The chorus goes like this: “Choose the right! Choose the right!/Let wisdom mark the way before/In its light, choose the right!/And God will bless you evermore.”
Mitt Romney most certainly knows the words of this hymn. And one cannot help but wonder if the words are popping in his head more frequently these days.