Assessing Mitt Romney as a 2012 Presidential Candidate: Part Four in an Ongoing Series on the Likely Candidates and Their Views on Religion

Posted in: Politics

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is often charged with flip-flopping on social and political issues.  When it comes to his religion, though, he is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the LDS Church.  In general parlance, that makes him a Mormon.  Romney is not just a member of the church, however, but also a religious leader in it.  When asked about religion, he has typically called it the “faith of my fathers.”

According to a 2007 report by the Associated Press (AP), Romney’s great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were active polygamists, with five and 12 wives, respectively.  His father was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is where Mormons engaging in polygamy often landed, at that time in history, in order to avoid the universal rule against polygamy in the United States.

Romney himself apparently is uneasy about polygamy, as are many Mormons.  It is after all a practice that was strongly and defiantly embraced by the forefathers of the faith.  According to the AP, he “has joked about polygamy, saying in various settings that to him, ‘marriage is between a man and a woman . . . and a woman and a woman.’ But in serious moments he has called the practice ‘bizarre’ and noted his church excommunicates those who engage in it.”

Given the human rights abuses against women and children that have occurred within contemporary polygamous communities, as has been confirmed by the prosecutions of the Fundamentalist Mormons in Texas and several others in Utah, it would be nice to hear Romney taking a stronger position against the practice of polygamy.  Instead, he seems to be more in the mold of Senator Orrin Hatch, who currently backs the nomination of federal magistrate David Nuffer to the federal bench, despite the fact that Nuffer represented Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) members in his prior law practice, and the fact that Nuffer’s nomination is strongly opposed by groups fighting polygamy and its attendant abuses.

The New York Times just published a front-page article on Romney’s religious background this past Sunday, October 16, which emphasized his role as a religious leader.  It is not the most flattering piece, as it cites fellow LDS members describing Romney as “imperious,” cold, and even pompous.

Interestingly, this description—with its revelation of his active role as a minister of the faith—moves Romney closer to the likes of Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, than to businessman Herman Cain.

Romney’s Prior Speech Regarding His Faith and How It Would Affect His Presidency

When he ran for the presidency four years ago, Romney delivered a speech that echoed John F. Kennedy’s response to questions about whether his Roman Catholic faith would dominate his presidential decisionmaking.  Kennedy’s response was direct and memorable.  It put to rest the notion that as a Catholic he would put the needs of the United States second to his church:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

In his own 2007 speech on the topic of religion and governance, Romney seemed to start with these ideas, but then seemed to say that he could not separate himself from the “faith of my fathers.”  He spoke on the topic as follows:

Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. . . . I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law. . . . When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.  There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers—I will be true to them and to my beliefs. . . . There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.

Is Romney Truly Committed to Civil Rights, or Not?

Romney did say in June that he favors equal rights for homosexuals in employment, even though his church has been active in working against homosexuals, at least when it comes to marriage.  When asked how he could square those two elements of his life, Romney said in a USA Today article, “I separate quite distinctly matters of personal faith from the leadership one has in a political sense.”

To be honest, I’m not sure what he meant by saying that.  Kennedy, in his time, was far more clear and candid, and it would be good to see that level of clarity and candor from Romney, as well.

According to Romney, his parents were strongly and publicly opposed to the LDS’s beliefs that forbade African-Americans from serving in the church until 1978, when Romney was 31 years old.  Tim Russert interviewed Romney in 2007 for “Meet the Press” and asked him, “[Y]our church was excluding blacks from full participation.  Didn’t you think, ‘What am I doing [as] part of an organization that is viewed by many as a racist organization?’”

Romney answered Russert by pointing to his parents’ activism on this topic and, once again, invoking the faith of his fathers. But there seems to be no record that Romney took up the cause of civil rights in the LDS church himself.  It would be one thing if he had failed to try to change unequal race relations before the 60s, but to have failed to do anything in the 1970s is telling.  It makes him appear to be more of a company man when it comes to religion than an independent leader with a strong moral compass.

Is Romney Pro-Choice, or Pro-Life?  Or Neither?

Romney has been accused of inconsistency on a number of issues, particularly when it comes to abortion.  In Salon this August, Steve Kornacki put it this way: “Some suspect Romney has always been pro-life, and that he only pretended to support abortion rights to get ahead in Massachusetts. Others wonder if he might still secretly be pro-choice, and only pretending to be pro-life to succeed in national GOP politics. But a close examination of his evolution on this issue suggests an even more cynical conclusion: that he doesn’t believe anything at all. During his 17-year political career, Romney has actually changed his tune on abortion multiple times—and always in a way that suited his political needs. . . .”

If Kornacki is correct, Romney’s faith actually may not be a reliable indicator of his future positions as President.  But that shouldn’t give voters comfort; if anything, the contrary.  If Romney is able to game even the abortion issue, where emotions run strong on both sides, he may be able to hide—or shift—his true views on any topic.  In an era, like most, when the United States needs sure-footed leadership, this is a concern.

Does Romney Favor Small Government?

Like his fellow Republican and religious candidates—Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry—Romney is in favor of small government until it is inconvenient.

Here’s one example of Romney’s inclination to believe in small government only until believing in big government proves more advantageous:  Peter Suderman has pointed out that “Romney didn’t pair his [Massachusetts] health care overhaul with a large tax hike. He didn’t have to, though, because he relied on generous help from the federal government to pay for it.”

In other words, when he was in a position to solve problems at the state level, he co-opted federal cooperation and financial assistance to make his plans happen.

Moreover, Romney also sided with federal power, and against letting states choose for themselves, when he signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge requiring him to support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage, nationwide, as only between a man and a woman.

That position, of course, is the same stance the LDS Church took in California when it was subsidizing lobbying for the state’s Proposition 8, which outlawed homosexual marriage.  Marriage has traditionally and persistently been a matter of state law, which is why a federal constitutional amendment would be needed for the federal government to take action on the issue.  Joining this pledge is a strong indicator of how he would use federal power to fulfill his faith’s ends.

According to CBS, the pledge Romney took goes even farther than mandating a federal takeover of marriage law.  It also would require Romney to create a “presidential commission on ‘religious liberty’ that would investigate harassment or threats against those who have taken positions against same-sex marriage.”  This takes us back to his position on civil rights; this part of the pledge would protect the civil rights of the opponents of gay marriage but does not pledge evenhanded civil rights protection.  It is an interest group’s vision of civil rights, not a proper President’s.

The pledge, CBS reports, “is also notable because Romney was not always such a strong opponent of gay rights. In 1994, he sent a letter to a gay Republican group saying he would be a stronger advocate for gay rights than his Massachusetts Senate opponent, Sen. Ted Kennedy.”

So what does one take away from the intersection between Mitt Romney and religion?  One point is very clear:  He holds dear the “faith of his fathers,” whatever that means.  After that, it gets a little cloudy.

Posted in: Politics