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Mitt’s Core, Part II: Mitt the Mormon

May 07th, 2012 by Vader

Continuing with the discussion from Part I.  

I do not know Mitt Romney. The most that I can claim is that a close friend knew Romney at first hand many years back. My friend thinks very highly of Romney and plans to vote for him, though he wishes Romney was a bit more conservative politically, but that’s been the extent of our discussion. So what follows is mostly not an attempt to dissect the specifics of Romney; rather, it is a more general discussion of what it means to be a Mormon man, written from a largely cultural Mormon perspective, and how this might bear on the kind of man Romney is and President he will be. I’ll bring in Mormon theology only to the extend necessary to illuminate some of the roots of Mormon culture.

I’m also going to have to drop the Vader persona for this series of posts. By their nature, these posts are going to include a lot of material distilled from my own experience as a lifelong Mormon, and the topic is too serious to risk any forced Vader humor. (Well, except that one.) I’m going to remain coy about my own precise identity; my employer insists on it.

Roughly half the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was born in the Church. Both Romney and I are part of this group, and we both have several generations of Mormon ancestry, going back to the pioneers that crossed the Great Plains from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley from 1847 on. Both of us have ancestors who practiced polygamy during the latter half of the 19th century. My last polygamist ancestor was a great-great-grandfather, while Romney is one generation closer to his polygamist forebears.

The Mormon settlements in the Old West developed a distinctive character that reflected both the new Mormon theology and the established culture of the immigrant who were attracted to that theology. Most of these immigrants came from New England, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, with just a leavening of southern Americans and other northern Europeans. These immigrants were relatively literate and well steeped in both the Old and New Testament, though, unsurprisingly, they tended to be unusually dissatisfied with the dominant Christian denominations in their communities. Often they felt that what they saw and were taught in their original churches was at odds with what they read in the Bible, and the flood of new revelation through Joseph Smith, the Mormon founding prophet, was to them a floodlight illuminating the meaning of their traditional scriptures.

The Mormonism they converted to, though thoroughly unorthodox, was nonetheless a thoroughly Christ-centered religion, which viewed Jesus of Nazareth as God the Son, quite literally the spiritual and physical Son of God the Father, and as the Redeemer of all mankind. It was a religion that heavily emphasized spiritual gifts, including revelation, prophecy, healing, and the gift of tongues. The Church’s claim to continuing revelation, beginning with the Book of Mormon, was a rejection of the completeness of the existing scriptural canon and suggested the possibility that the canon was not even infallible, yet the early Saints took the Bible very seriously. It would be fair to say that the Bible long remained at the heart of the Mormon scriptural canon, undisplaced by the Book of Mormon, which was treated largely as a second witness to and commentary on the Bible. This may surprise some readers, but it is consonant with my own experience. I grew up on Bible stories and did not really begin to be introduced to Book of Mormon stories until well after my baptism at age 8. The modern emphasis on the Book of Mormon within the Church began within my lifetime.

The first pioneers entered into the Nauvoo Covenant, a sacred pledge to support each other in the journey west. Part of the concrete realization of this covenant was the Perpetual Emigration Fund, a rotating fund that provided loans to help the poorer Saints make the journey to Utah and get settled into their new homes. The fund was later seized by the U.S. Government during the polygamy prosecutions, which hindered further Mormon immigration, as was doubtless intended; however, the modern Perpetual Education Fund, which provides educational loans to Saints in Third World countries, was deliberately styled after the Perpetual Immigration Fund. Thus the pioneers had a strong sense of community.

The isolation of the Mormon communities and the prior history of persecution within the United States, combined with the searing experiences of the Utah War and the polygamy prosecutions, might be expected to have destroyed any loyalty of the Saints to the United States. Certainly the Congressmen who refused to seat B.H. Roberts and nearly denied Reed Smooth his Senate seat thought so. Yet this was not the case. Among Joseph Smith’s revelations were statements, taken as coming from the lips of Christ Himself, that the authors of the Constitution had been raised up by God for that very purpose, and that the Constitution was an expression of principles for establishing a just secular government in preparation for the divine government of Christ at His Second Coming. Even more central to Mormon theology is the concept of agency: Mormons resoundingly reject any Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, viewing the suffering of Christ as the price paid for men to be given genuine moral choice. Thus the philosophy of natural rights became, to the Saints, an article of religion. The Saints could not easily forget that they had been denied their rights by other Americans, but they came to view the American polity as a divinely inspired system that sometimes fell into the hands of evil men.

With the end of polygamy and the granting of statehood to Utah, the Saints worked to integrate themselves into the larger nation while preserving the distinctive character of their communities. By 1940 it was possible for Hollywood to produce Brigham Young, with its sympathetic portrayal of the Mormon pioneers (and, incidentally, a slightly eccentric portrayal of Joseph Smith by Vincent Price.) Among the fatalities at Pearl Harbor was Mervyn Bennion, captain of battleship West Virginia and an active Latter-day Saint. The Eisenhower administration included Ezra Taft Benson, a sitting Mormon Apostle, as Secretary of Agriculture.

The mid-20th Century also saw the gradual transformation of the Church from a community comfortable with the most liberal and progressive elements of American culture (Emmeline Wells, president of the Women’s Relief Society, was a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) to a community that increasingly identified itself with the more conservative elements of American culture. Utah voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964; it has not given its electoral votes to a Democratic nominee for President since. I believe it would be fair to say that much of this shift was in the American ideological map rather than in the Church; what it meant to be a liberal underwent a sea change in 1960s, and conservatism as a knee-jerk reaction became conservatism as an articulated political philosophy at about the same time. Church members, disturbed by the spread of Communism, by the radicalism of the 1960s, and by the growing secularization of American culture, found that the new political conservatism of the Republican Party resonated with them. Early Church members had practiced a form of voluntary community socialism called the “United Order”; many saw Communism, with its explicit atheism and state coercion, as Satan’s counterfeit, and most of the Church membership became strongly anti-Communist and anti-Socialist. A Church membership that had been fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans became increasingly Republican.

George Romney, Mitt’s father, found a measure of political success as a liberal Republican in the 1960s. However, his campaign for President seems to have foundered largely on a single ill-advised remark: He described the military’s careful orchestration of his visit to Vietnam as a brainwashing. I would not be the first to suggest that this explains Mitt’s own circumspection. Mitt has approached his political career with a not-entirely-irrational fear of stepping on a political land mine and suffering the fate of his father.

Mitt the Mormon Elder

Another thing Mitt Romney and I share is an upbringing in a family having pioneer Mormon roots but living outside the traditional “Mormon Corridor.” My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived in predominantly Mormon communities; I was raised in a community that was mostly not LDS. The same is true of Romney. For me, this meant having a foot in each of two worlds: the tight-knit Mormon congregation, and the wider non-Mormon community. Both my parents and I had good friends in both communities, but the bulk of our social activities revolved around the Mormon congregation. This was partly because ours was a small community and most people did a lot of socializing within their respective churches, for lack of other diversions.

Mitt’s congregation was tiny compared with my own. I grew up in a ward, which is a congregation of about 200-600 members led by a bishop. This bishop is a layman (in fact, at one point, my bishop was my own father) and his position is not permanent, though his tenure tended to be a bit longer back then. Nowadays a bishop serves for about five years, and it is quite uncommon for one to serve a second “term” any time thereafter. The other congregational leaders are also laymen. In fact, the only paid employee of my ward was the janitor. Mitt’s congregation in his earliest years was a branch consisting of a few members meeting in his father’s home; later the Church in his area grew to the point where a small ward could be organized. His father was the branch president and then (I believe) bishop of his ward. Later the elder Romney became a stake president, supervising several wards and branches, a position I’ll discuss more in a future post.

Boys in the Church are ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood sometime at or after age twelve. Their role in this “lesser priesthood” is rather like that of an altar boy in a more traditional Christian faith. The 12- and 13-year-olds serve as deacons, whose primary visible duty is distributing the bread and water of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. (Which is almost always spoken of among Mormons simply as “the sacrament”, since it is a weekly ritual in a Church that has almost no other weekly rituals or liturgy.) The 14- to 15-year-olds serve as Teachers (a formal priesthood title) who make the preparations for sacrament meetings. They also begin their formal teaching ministry, by joining in home teaching, a program of monthly visits to every family in the ward. The home teachers present a short religious message, see how the family is doing, and (generally) socialize a bit. Home teachers can sometimes be assigned to visit the same family for many years, and they often develop strong bonds of friendship with their assigned families. Indeed, it is not unheard of for a home teaching relationship to end after decades with the home teacher as an honorary pallbearer at the member’s funeral. As Adam G. would say, it’s all part of the sweetness of Mormon life. Boys who participate in home teaching invariably are partnered with a mature man chosen to be a mentor to them, often their own father.

At age 16 to 17 the young man is ordained a priest. At this point, he is qualified to perform baptisms, administer the sacrament, and ordain other deacons, teachers, and priests. He is beginning to accept adult responsibilities and is working towards becoming a full-fledged adult member of the Mormon community. However, he is not yet qualified to confirm those who have been baptized or to give inspired blessings, duties that are reserved for full-fledged adult males who have been ordained elders. More about that in a moment.

Girls are not ordained to the priesthood, which is strongly identified with the ideals of fatherhood. (They have their own organizations, which are beyond the scope of this post.) Furthermore, the modern Church has enthusiastically adopted Scouting as the activities program for its young men. The entire young men’s program in the Church is a thus a program of intense male bonding that would put Robert Bly to shame.

It is a healthy form of male bonding, though. Young Saints of both sexes, who are generally baptized and confirmed at age eight, are taught the usual Christian virtues, plus abstinence from alcohol. tobacco, coffee, tea, illicit drugs, and any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage. In the case of the young men, the ban on sexual activity is accompanied by a considerable amount of placing the fair sex on a pedestal, with carefully chaperoned coeducational activities intended to teach basic courtship skills. The result is that an astonishing fraction of Mormon first marriages are marriages between two virgins.

One does not really expect an eight-year-old to fully understand his or her commitment to Christ. My own deeper conversion to Mormonism took place in my mid-teens. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that it was helped along by a certain amount of Mormon cultural kitsch, including the notorious Saturday’s Warrior. In any case, a real commitment took hold before I reached adulthood, was ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, and was called on a mission.

Young men are ordained to the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood sometime after their 18th birthday. If the Aaronic Priesthood is a kind of apprenticeship, the Melchizeked Priesthood is “the real thing.” Like the Aaronic Priesthood, it has several offices, but the two ordinary offices are elder and high priest. It is to the office of elder these new adult men in the Mormon congregation are ordained. I cannot really fault members of traditional Christian denominations who snicker at our 19-year-old elders, but we are using the word in a perfectly respectable sense, denoting someone who has reached full adulthood in the Mormon community. Elders can confirm those who are baptized, can give inspired blessings, can ordain other elders, and can (in time) participate in the full range of temple ordinances.

Temples play an important role in the Church. They are the places where we perform vicarious baptisms for the dead, as has been much (and mostly poorly) discussed in the news lately. The Mormon belief is that the strict law of God requires every soul that would be saved to receive baptism; while the justice and boundless mercy of God requires that no soul be denied the opportunity to receive salvation. This is a bit of a problem in a world where the vast majority of human beings have died without ever hearing about Jesus Christ or baptism. The solution is to perform such baptisms vicariously for every departed human soul we can identify. It is clearly understood that the departed retain their moral agency, and each can decide for himself whether to accept vicarious baptism, a point that seems to be lost in much of the popular discussion. Our youth regularly participate in such baptisms, which are the only temple ordinance in which they can normally participate.

But there is another significance to the temple. It is here that we receive the endowment, which is a series of ordinances meant to prepare the soul to return to God. We don’t talk a lot about it; indeed, we specifically covenant with God that we will not describe the core elements of it. It is most sacred, and the temple likewise becomes a sacred space, as fully apart from the world as any place on Earth can be. The endowment is also a preparation for marriage, which when performed in a temple is believed to last beyond the grave. Finally, departing missionaries are expected first to receive their endowment, as a kind of spiritual reinforcement against the challenges of their missions.

I do not know how closely my experience as a young Mormon matches Romney’s. His congregation was smaller than mine, and my impression is that its young mens program was not as fully organized. For example, there is no hint of any Scouting activity in his Wikipedia biography. Romney also attended a private high school where he was the only Mormon, in contrast with my experience growing up with a mixture of Mormon and non-Mormon friends. Finally, Romney seems to have not developed his deep commitment to the Church until he was already on his mission, though it is clear he was living by the Church’s standard of conduct as a teenager. I doubt he had much contact with Mormon kitsch, the lucky boy.

Missions are hugely transformative experiences for most young men who accept the call, even if (as in my case) they were already deeply committed to the Church. As a shy and awkward teenager, I was terrified of the thought of going out into the world to share some very personal beliefs, but I did it out of the conviction that God required it of me. My mission proved a very hard lesson in basic social skills, but I feel it was the second smartest decision I ever made. I may even have done some good here and there, though I was no standout. Romney seems to have quickly deepened his religious commitment on his mission, and by all accounts he was an extraordinary missionary.

Education has always been important to Mormons, who hired a Jewish professor to teach them Hebrew at Kirtland, tried to establish a university at Nauvoo, and did establish Deseret University soon after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley. Deseret University eventually became the University of Utah, which is no longer affiliated with the Church (and how), and the Church’s flagship university became Brigham Young University. I attended BYU for my entire undergraduate education (which, if you were wondering, is the first smartest decision I ever made.) Romney attended BYU only after his mission, and primarily to court the future Ann Romney. Neither of us continued our education at BYU past our bachelor’s degrees; both of us took our graduate degrees at prestigious universities of a decidedly non-Mormon character.

What does this background tell us about Romney? As I said in the first post of this series, I believe Byron York got it right when he surmised that church and family were at Romney’s core and were the two things he would give up all his worldly success for. Romney’s record as a missionary demonstrates his deep commitment to his religion. His record also demonstrates his enormous drive to be successful at everything he puts his hand to. His upbringing in a pioneer Mormon family in a non-Mormon community suggests he may have an unusual ability to work with people who do not share all his beliefs while still holding to his Mormon values. Romney’s subsequent record displays the tension between the strong social conservatism implied by the Mormon code of conduct and the strong Mormon belief in agency and natural rights: On issues like abortion, where his public position has shifted over time, I suspect his personal convictions have in fact been quite solid (and consistent with his present political positions), while his past political positions reflected the Mormon belief that God has given humans the right to make their own mistakes. I would also guess that a President Romney would look for creative ways to work within the system, playing hard but by the rules. I’ll take up that topic in greater depth in a later post.

 

Comments (4)
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May 07th, 2012 11:29:56
4 comments

Agellius
May 7, 2012

Very interesting description of Mormon culture.


Agellius
May 7, 2012

Very interesting description of Mormon culture.


Adam G.
May 7, 2012

Brilliant description of the Mormon male experience. Reading this felt like looking into a mirror.

One note for the uninititated. A “branch” in Mormon jargon is a congregation that is too small to be a regular congregation, or a ward.


Vader
May 7, 2012

I was tempted to slip in a couple of hilarious stories about deacon misbehavior between early morning Priesthood meeting and Sunday School, but they’re not really topical and they would probably have given me away. Some other day, some other context.

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