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DISPUTATIONS: A Response to Matthew Bowman on Romney, Huntsman, and Mormonism

Matthew Bowman has written a fine and thoughtful piece about the different “Mormonisms” of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, the two members of our faith who are, at present, making noise about their interest in pursuing the Republican nomination for president next year. Bowman’s basic thesis is that the differences between the two men in how they talk and relate to others in the context of their religious beliefs, and, consequently, their differences in how they may potentially reach out to voters in the Republican primaries and then the general election, is greatly a function of their ages: that there is a “generation gap” between a Mormon who came of age in the mid-1960s (as Romney did) and the late 1970s (as Huntsman did), and that this gap is meaningful.

I agree with Bowman that the gap is meaningful—but I disagree that it is as meaningful as he makes it out to be, and I also think he missed some of what, more crucially, actually makes it meaningful, to whatever degree that is.

Matt writes intelligently about the deeply patriotic “business Mormonism” that characterized the mid-twentieth-century Mormon elite. By the time polygamy had been dead (or at least strongly encouraged to seem so) for a couple of generations, you really did have a group of pioneer-stock Mormons—which Romney is; his own father was born in the Mexican Mormon colony of Colonia Dublán, which was founded by members of the faith fleeing anti-polygamy persecution—that was utterly committed to succeeding on the organizational, meritocratic terms of postwar America. And it’s true that you can see echoes of that legacy in Romney’s occasional awkwardness in dealing with, as Bowman put it, “the cultural diversity and religious pluralism evident in late twentieth-century America.”

But this video of Romney awkwardly campaigning in a black community lends a bit of even weightier evidence to Bowman’s thesis about the Mormonism Romney came from—evidence that Bowman, strangely, never touches upon. When Mitt Romney went out to proselytize to the world as a Mormon missionary in 1966, he was defending a church that still banned African Americans from holding positions of priesthood authority, which is an absolutely central part of the church’s administrative life. By the time Jon Huntsman when out on his mission in 1979, that policy had been changed. The removal of the single largest albatross around our church’s neck, in terms of moving away from its vaguely isolationist, communitarian, and theocratic past, and toward becoming one community among many in America’s hyper-liberal present, between the years when Mitt was a young Mormon man and when Jon was one, can’t possibly be ignored.

But this generation gap should not be made into a larger explanatory variable than it is for Romney and Huntsman’s relative appeal. Bowman writes a good deal about the legacy of President Gordon B. Hinckley, who led our church through the 1990s, and he’s correct to do so: Hinckley was in so many ways an unexpectedly savvy leader, a man comfortable with the media and how the “American way of life” was being transformed by globalization and technology. It’s absolutely true that American Mormons over the past 20 years have been led, in all sorts of ways both subtle and obvious, to accommodate themselves to being in a busy, diverse, individualistic world. However, Bowman chooses not to incorporate into his essay how the years under Hinckley were arguably spent fine-tuning and polishing the veneer on a process of moral retrenchment. After all, it was during those same years that Utah went from being an imbalanced but still politically patchworked state to becoming the most Republican state in the country, and the church developed the public rhetoric that has led directly to its engagement in the culture wars, particularly regarding homosexuality, to a degree which it hasn’t since the 1970s. So, while the church that shaped Romney may have been less comfortable with the structures and media of American pluralism than was the case when Huntsman was coming of age, it simply isn’t true that Huntsman’s church, a generation (or at least a decade and a half) later, was somehow significantly more moderate or flexible. It has simply chosen, for better and/or for worse, different battles than it did in the past—ones more in line with the general conservative movement that help shore up what many once assumed to be fundamental values.

So if the real explanation for the difference between Romney and Huntsman can’t be reduced to a generational difference, what is it? Probably simple piety: Huntsman doesn’t take his Mormonism quite as seriously as pioneer-stock Romney does. Bowman’s essay constructs a valid cultural-historical argument, but, as it chooses not to tell the most important part of a relevant history and not to touch on the most obvious religious variable at work between Romney and Huntsman, it is missing where the better reason for their differences lies.

Russell Arben Fox is an associate professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas.

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