You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Latter-Day Skeptics

Mitt Romney has a well-earned reputation as a flip-flopper. But it's one thing to flip-flop on your politics, and quite another to flip-flop on your faith. So it came as something of a surprise when, during an interview earlier this year with George Stephanopoulos, the presidential candidate disputed the suggestion that Christ would someday return to the United States rather than the Middle East. Mormons, he said, believe that the Messiah will come to Jerusalem. … It's the same as the other Christian tradition.

This was both technically correct and completely misleading: The church's position is that, while Christ will indeed appear at the Mount of Olives, he will also build a new Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri, which will serve as the seat of his 1,000-year reign on Earth. Romney had conveniently neglected to mention this part of his church's doctrine.

Needless to say, his fellow Mormons were none too pleased. “Brother Romney is playing a little bit of a political game with his answer,” one church official told Lee Benson of the Deseret Morning News—in a column noting that Romney's comment had “caused more than a few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ... to scratch their heads as if to say, 'What the flip?'” Callers to a Utah talk-radio show lambasted the candidate for misrepresenting church teachings. And the Mormon blogosphere—known as the Bloggernacle—buzzed with discussion of the quote. One post on the blog Mormon Mentality condemned Romney for being “evasive,” while another complained, “If he were so proud to be a Mormon, he should tell the truth.”

Ever since they made their peace with the federal government and won statehood for Utah more than a century ago, Mormons have strained to overcome their status as outsiders. And Romney's run for president could represent a major step forward in that quest, accomplishing for Mormons what John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign did for Catholics: signaling that they are finally legitimate players in American life. “There's a feeling that this signifies, in some sense, that we've arrived,” says Mormon historian Richard Lyman Bushman.

There's just one catch. Romney has vaulted to the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire largely on the strength of backing from evangelical Protestants—historical adversaries of the LDS Church, not to mention competitors in the worldwide race for converts. Worse, Romney is winning evangelical support by talking about his faith in a way that downplays its differences with mainstream Christianity—in other words, in a way specifically intended to make Mormons' beliefs sound like those of their longtime tormentors. Such rhetoric cannot help but vindicate evangelical feelings of superiority. No wonder a small but angry minority of Mormons are souring on Mitt Romney.

IN SOME WAYS, Mormons can understand Romney's predicament. Given that they spend two years of early adulthood seeking converts, most Mormons are well aware that connecting with people who are suspicious of their faith is no easy task. “A lot of us sympathize with Romney,” says Elbert Peck, the former editor of Sunstone, a Mormon magazine. “We're a proselytizing religion, so we identify with what he's trying to do—find common ground.”

But seeking common ground with adversaries doesn't always endear you to your own side—particularly when animosity between two groups runs deep. At the most basic level, Mormons regard themselves as Christians and want others to do the same. But a recent Pew survey found that a plurality of evangelicals do not consider Mormons to be Christians. “I understand he has to appeal to them for political purposes, but it makes me, as a Mormon, feel very, very queasy to see him doing it,” says Greg Kearney, a computer programmer in Casper, Wyoming. “These people hate us, and they are so vitriolic—they think they get to decide who's Christian. I don't know if it's worth it.”

Especially irksome to some Mormons are Romney's efforts to minimize the differences between their religion and traditional Christianity—differences that, in some cases, define the very essence of the Mormon faith. In a cover story last month in Newsweek, Romney was asked whether he had ever performed baptisms for the dead, a Mormon ritual in which the deceased of all faiths are posthumously baptized as Mormons in order to permit them to enter heaven. Romney, according to Newsweek, “looked slightly startled and answered, 'I have in my life, but I haven't recently.”” This is not surprising—baptisms for the dead tend to be performed mostly by younger church members—but Romney's response made it seem as though he was embarrassed by an important church practice, one in which many Mormons have personally participated. “Baptism for the dead is really a fundamental Mormon doctrine, and for Romney to downplay it like that did alienate people,” says Boyd Petersen, coordinator of Mormon studies at Utah Valley State College.

Even the religious language Romney has adopted on the campaign trail sounds alien to some Mormons. For instance, he refers to Jesus, as evangelical Protestants often do, as his “personal savior." The phrase is not directly at odds with LDS theology, but Mormons almost never use it among themselves—both because it implies a born-again experience not central to Mormonism and because church doctrine, like Catholicism but unlike evangelical Protestantism, maintains that faith in Christ must be matched with good works in order to attain salvation. “I think most Mormons would be a bit puzzled to hear him use language like that,” says Peck.

Romney has also alienated Mormons when speaking about their history. In a “60 Minutes" interview in May, he told Mike Wallace, “I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy.” Polygamy was banned by the church in 1890, and the few splinter groups that still practice it today have been excommunicated. But many Mormons hold a more nuanced view of poly-gamy as practiced by their ancestors in the nineteenth century. “With polygamy, you're talking about people's families,” says Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, an LDS advocacy group. “Some Mormons, though certainly not all, have been offended by what he's said. He should probably be more careful recognizing the historical context of the practice. Historian Audrey Godfrey was more blunt. “If I were one of his relatives,” she said, “I would be upset with him.”

FOR NOW, THE majority of Mormons remain favorably inclined toward Romney—partly because of his role in organizing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, which most regarded as a highly successful coming-out party for the faith. To date, his campaign has raised more than $4.6 million from Utah residents, more than his total haul from New York and Texas combined. And nearlyeveryone I spoke with cautioned that their concerns about Romney are not widely shared in the LDS community.

But, as the primaries draw closer, Mormons might well begin to ask themselves if Romney's strategy bodes well or ill for the faith. In this sense, there is perhaps one more parallel between Romney's campaign and Kennedy's. Some Catholic leaders, and at least one Catholic journal, opposed Kennedy in 1960 because they thought that the bargain he had made in order to assuage voters—advocating a high barrier between religion and government—gave away too much. To Catholics who considered strong links between private morality and the public sphere to be an integral component of their faith, Kennedy's election wasn't a sign that Catholicism had become part of the American mainstream; it was a sign that true Catholicism remained anathema to most of their countrymen.

It remains to be seen whether many Mormons will come to have similar qualms about Romney—whether they will end up concluding, in the words of Jan Shipps, a historian of Mormonism, that the candidate is “giving away the store” in pursuit of evangelical votes. But, with the GOP contest starting to look like a two-man race between him and Rudy Giuliani, Romney may increasingly seek to portray himself as the evangelical-friendly alternative to the famously secular New Yorker. And the bolder his courting of evangelicals, the more pressure he will feel to conflate his beliefs with theirs—further unnerving his fellow Mormons. “There's an inclination to give him a free pass, because he's managed to achieve so much in a difficult climate,” says Kearney. “But I think more and more people are starting to realize that he's going to do whatever it takes to get elected—whether it's good for the church or not.”

This article appeared in the November 19, 2007, issue of the magazine.