Most people do not associate the word “progressive” with Mormonism. From the conspiratorial libertarianism of the Mormon Glenn Beck to the church’s staunch stand on social issues like gay marriage (the Mormon Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid notwithstanding), Mormons have given Americans ample reason to reflexively associate them with political conservatism.
But the political polarities that dominate American public discourse today are of relatively recent vintage, and there is a particularly Mormon version of classical American progressivism to which Mitt Romney stands heir. These progressives believed that effective organization and the promotion of virtue went hand in hand; they are two manifestations of a single commitment, and the former can indeed promote the latter. In a nutshell, these progressives believed that public organization can promote a moral imperative, that technocratic bureaucracy can in fact change lives for the better.
The Mormon affinity for American progressivism dates to start of the twentieth century, when the movement itself began. Advocates of the early twentieth-century progressive movement eschewed partisan commitments in favor of expertise, education, and a clear-eyed confidence that trained bureaucrats and voluntary associations could perfect American life. They created the Federal Reserve, the eight-hour workday, the NAACP, the women’s suffrage movement, Prohibition, and dozens of other laws and organizations designed to solve social ills and instill American society with middle-class values of democracy, industry, and education. Progressives were not merely bureaucrats; they were, in their way, utopians, combining practical problem-solving with a faith that bureaucracy could promote virtue.
In these years, after decades of persecution and retreat, Mormons were hungry for entry into mainstream American life. In the progressive impulse of the early twentieth century, they found some of their own ideals. In progressive proclamations of a stable and harmonious society, they heard an echo of their dreams of Zion. They saw, in progressivism’s aspirations to moral uplift, the mirror image of Joseph Smith’s rejection of original sin; and both progressives and Mormons believed in the unlimited possibilities of human potential.
Mormon leaders threw themselves into the progressive project, embracing the notion that organizations could instill virtue in human beings. In 1913, for instance, the church formally affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, a quintessentially progressive organization founded on the notion that participation in a quasi-military hierarchy and group activities would teach young men self-discipline. In the same decade, Mormon leaders endorsed the Prohibition movement, and influential progressive leaders like William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt passed through Salt Lake City to commend the Mormons for their organizational talents and their embodiment of the American virtues that progressivism taught.
Mormons also constructed their own progressive movement in miniature. Like many other American churches, they organized programs designed to take on the social problems of their age: a Young Men’s and Young Women’s Improvement Association; a primary school for young children; a Sunday school—among others. Though participation was voluntary, these associations reached far in the 1910s, and today it is assumed that members of the church will participate in all such organizations for which she or he is eligible. By the time of the Great Depression, the Mormons had erected the Church Welfare Program, a charity system that encouraged recipients to offer labor in return for donations and cultivate habits of thrift and industry. For the Mormons, these efforts were helping to revitalize the creation of the Kingdom of God and to create a citizenry worthy of it. The impulse was their own, but progressivism provided them a structure.
Mitt Romney’s progressive genealogy passed from this period through the northeastern Republicans of the 1950s and 1960s, like his father, George, or Nelson Rockefeller, or Thomas Dewey: good government Republicans who were confident that their business-honed competence was not only the best hope of American politics, but also was simply another manifestation of their efforts to cultivate virtue . When Time magazine asked George Romney for the origins of his success, he responded: “My religion is my most precious possession … Sharing responsibility for church work has been a vital counterbalance in my life.” At the same time that the senior Romney was serving as governor of Michigan, Mormon leaders were furthering progressive-style reforms in their church, standardizing curriculum, and formalizing the duties of various leadership posts. One church leader explained that this process, called correlation, was not merely procedural but a necessary link in the “divine plan of saving souls.”
Today, Mormons thrive on appointments and forms and recordkeeping, carrying on the progressive goal of a better society through organized expertise. They track attendance at Sunday services and the number of books in chapel libraries. The average Mormon congregation schedules events several nights each week, administers programs for a dozen different groups, from children to singles, and runs like a well-oiled machine, tended closely by lay leaders that each commit ten to fifteen hours a week to its administration. Unsurprisingly, Romney himself served for most of his adult life in that lay leadership. He was bishop to a Boston congregation and later a stake president, an office charged with overseeing several congregations. These leadership roles tend to be filled by men (the Mormon priesthood is closed to women) like Romney: white collar, well-educated, experienced in business or a professional field.
The instincts that made Romney a success in American capitalism are derived from his progressive inheritance. As a businessman and politician he has proven himself a pragmatic technocrat committed to efficiency and ordered cooperative effort. He presents himself as a problem solver, confronts challenges through the deliberative consensus of meetings, and doesn’t offer only ten or twelve economic proposals when he can come up with 59. He believes that administration can change the world. But he is not merely a pragmatic technocrat; he is a pragmatic technocrat who believes that competent management can solve humanity’s problems, nourish civilization, and even cultivate virtue. He, like many Mormons before him, bears a profound faith in the efficacy of organizations.
Fearful of the wrath of the Tea Party, Romney has hesitated to use progressive language in his most recent campaign. But in his State of the Commonwealth address as governor of Massachusetts he promised that Massachusetts would remain “one of the most generous” states in caring for the poor and disadvantaged. Faced with a budget crunch in 2003, he asked for increased volunteer effort rather than absorb automatic cuts to social programs. But at the same time, he called for efficiency, streamlining, and asking aid recipients to offer even a token bit of work to preserve what he called their “dignity” and the “fairness” of the system. This is classically progressive language, reminiscent of the Church Welfare Program and the early twentieth-century Americans who fought for workers’ rights and organized private charities. It is also, likely, the language Romney would bring to the presidency.
Matthew Bowman teaches American religious history at Hampden-Sydney College. Random House will publish his book, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith in January.