October 15, 2012
When Mormons Go to Washington
Because of the skepticism Mitt RomneyBs Mormon beliefs have caused voters, the G.O.P. nominee has likened himself to J.F.K., the U.S.Bs only Catholic president. But the cozy relationship between the L.D.S. Church and Mormon politicians, particularly Republicans, would make even the Pope blush.
By Michael Quinn
For not yielding to the wishes of the L.D.S. Church, in 1965, Mormon Congressman Kenneth W. Dyal said he received Babuse, threats, blackmail and vicious attacks on my integrity from corporations, church members and their leaders.B It was perhaps for this reason that resisting the Church was not common.
Mitt Romney is the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (L.D.S.) to be nominated by one of the two major parties as a candidate for the U.S. presidency. The ChurchBs adherents are nicknamed Mormons, because their founding Bprophet,B Joseph Smith Jr., published the Book of Mormon in 1830 as GodBs new revelation, a volume of BHoly Scripture,B equal to the Bible in importance. Today the L.D.S. Church has more than 14 million members in 138 countries, and 15 members of the U.S. Congress are Mormons.
Due to RomneyBs well-publicized loyalty to MormonismBfrom 1981 to 1986 he was bishop of his congregation in Boston, and from 1986 to 1994 he was Bstake presidentB for the Boston area, overseeing a dozen Bwards,B or congregations, with a total of 4,000 membersBmany have questioned whether his policies and decisions as president would be influenced by the dictates of the L.D.S. Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City. The question is not unreasonable: both in the distant past and in recent times the Church has tried to influence the political decisions of American Mormons holding public office. The Church is rigidly hierarchical, governed by 15 Bapostles,B 12 of whom form Bthe Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.B The Bliving prophet,B who is also the Church president, and his two counselors, constitute Bthe First Presidency.B Devout Mormons raise their hands several times a year to BsustainB these men as Bprophets, seers, and revelatorsB whose instructions are BGodBs wordB to Mormons.
Nonetheless, since the early 1990s, Romney and his supporters have wanted Americans to see his situation through a different lens, that of the objections raised in 1960 to electing a Roman Catholic as president. John F. Kennedy confronted those doubts in a September 1960 address, BOn Church and State,B given in front of the Protestant evangelical ministers of Houston, Texas. After announcing that BI am a Catholic,B J.F.K. told his skeptical listeners, BI believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absoluteBwhere no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act . . . 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. . . . I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic PartyBs candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public mattersBand the church does not speak for me.B It was a tough audience for this message, but the evangelicals gave J.F.K. a rousing ovation.
During his 1994 effort to unseat Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy, Mitt Romney tersely quoted J.F.K.: BI do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me.B And in May 2006, with Romney eyeing a bid for the presidency, U.S. News & World Report enthused that the candidate Bplans to copy, almost exactly, JFKBs winning approach. Romney says heBll give a similar address, in which he will pledge allegiance to the Constitution, not the Mormon Church.B However, the conservative weekly had to wait 19 months before it could proclaim that Bhis long-awaited religion speech impresses even the critics.B
In fact, U.S. News & World Report had conducted an interview with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which seemed to prod Romney into making the long-promised speech. Its reporter asked M. Russell Ballard, BHas Mitt Romney sought any suggestions from you, or have you advised him in any way to talk about the church? Have you urged him to give the BKennedy speechB and talk more directly about his faith?B Apostle BallardBs reply: BNo and no. ThereBs a real brick wall between the campaign and the church. HeBs going to have to make that decision about the BKennedy speechB all by himself.B
Perhaps it was merely happy coincidence that the speech, BFaith in America,B followed just three weeks later, in Texas. There Romney told his audience and the national media, BAlmost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith. . . . 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.B (Oddly, not until several paragraphs into his speech did Romney finally identify his religion, calling it simply Bmy Mormon faith.B)
But RomneyBs comparison of his situation to KennedyBs is dubious at best. The American Catholic tradition upon which J.F.K. based his claim to political independence is completely different from the tradition of American Mormons. In January 1899, the Vatican identified Bthe AmericanismB heresy in an encyclical, BTestem BenevolentiaeB (BWitness to Our BenevolenceB), which condemned the American embrace of separation of church and state. Despite this papal warning, Clarke E. Cochran and David Carroll Cochran have observed that America continued to produce Bcafeteria Catholics all across the political spectrum, those who embrace the elements of Catholic teaching that support their partisan preferences, while blithely ignoring the ones that do not.B
American Mormons present a far different history. In confronting the fear that for a Mormon president BSalt Lake City will call the shots, at least on the biggest issues,B Romney advocate Hugh Hewitt, in his 2007 book, A Mormon in the White House, claimed, BI have never heard evidence for its being a realistic problem,B but then immediately added, BIn the past, this issue was more salient.B
He was referring to Brigham Young, leader of the Utah Mormons after Joseph Smith was assassinated, in 1844. Hewitt accurately described RomneyBs public disavowal as a modern contrast with Brigham YoungBs role as the federally appointed governor of the Utah Territory from 1850 to 1857, but Hewitt didnBt comprehend the full scope of the political power this L.D.S. president and prophet wielded. From 1851 to 1869, more than 99 percent of Mormon voters supported Church-approved candidates in all but one election. In that year, nearly 96 percent voted for the candidates selected by the L.D.S. president. From 1851 to 1877, there were only three non-unanimous votes in UtahBs House of Representatives, occurring once in 1851, once in 1855, and once in 1861. During the same 26 years, the Utah LegislatureBs upper chamber voted unanimously on every motion and bill except for three dissenting votes on different days in 1852.
From 1851 until six years after Brigham YoungBs death, in 1877, the L.D.S. ChurchBs BGeneral AuthoritiesBBmen with authority over Mormons throughout the worldBconstituted up to three-fourths of the Utah LegislatureBs upper chamber, and as much as 26.9 percent of its House of Representatives. If those General Authorities didnBt introduce each bill or motion, they quickly indicated their support or opposition, which was followed by the unanimous voting of the Mormon legislators in response to the hierarchyBs unambiguous signals. The L.D.S. Church also sponsored its own political party in Utah, the PeopleBs Party.
In 1890 and 1891, as part of its accommodation to American norms in order to survive, the L.D.S. Church publicly retreated from two of its decades-long doctrines and practices. First, L.D.S. president Wilford Woodruff officially abandoned the Mormon practice of plural marriage. Second, he publicly disavowed theocracy, dissolved the ChurchBs political party, and urged Mormons to affiliate with either AmericaBs Democratic Party or its Republican Party. As a result, Utah gained statehood in 1896, and Mormons began their transition into AmericaBs political mainstream.
The greatest turbulence in that process occurred because the First Presidency consistently favored the Republican Party after 1890 and tried to restrain devout Mormons who were Democrats. The Mormon rank and file obediently fell in line, and today 70 percent of Mormons identify themselves as Republican or Republican-leaning, while only 19 percent say they are Democrats.
Though Mitt Romney and his supporters invoke J.F.K.Bs 1960 talk, most Mormons do not believe in the America of which Kennedy spoke. He described a nation Bwhere no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy fromB any Becclesiastical source.B By contrast, L.D.S. politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) have sought instructions from their churchBs leaders for more than a century. Republican officeholders have been most susceptible to such political Bcounsel,B while L.D.S. Democrats have often objected to itBsometimes stridently.
The great exception was Republican Reed Smoot, who was elected in 1903 to represent Utah in the U.S. Senate. Smoot was an apostle, so his election was the equivalent of MassachusettsBs sending a Catholic cardinal to serve in Congress, which has never happened and never will. The result of SmootBs election was the U.S. SenateBs three-year investigation of his eligibility, during which he repeatedly affirmed his independence from the political wishes of the First Presidency, even though it was the non-threatening independence of those who usually shared identical views about political matters.
When they disagreed with him, however, members of the First Presidency didnBt hesitate to pressure Smoot to make his votes conform to their views. To his great credit as a Republican loyalist, he stood his ground in the midst of several controversies, during the last of which he abruptly informed his fellow apostles, BI claim I have a right to vote on the League [of Nations] as my judgment dictates, and in conformity with my oath of office.B
More typical was local leader Nephi L. Morris, who abandoned the Republican Party for Teddy RooB-seB-veltBs Progressive Party. When the First Presidency wanted him to rejoin UtahBs G.O.P., Morris wrote a letter that began, BYou place yourself and the first presidency on the Republican side of the question, and consider my attitude as being in conflict with yours. I use the word BconflictB because you ask me if I wish to fight you and the brethren. To be arrayed against the leaders of the Church is one thing I have studiously avoided in the past, and have solemnly resolved never to do.B
After reciting all of his political reasons against the request to join with UtahBs conservatives, the hapless Republican Progressive concluded his letter, BI feel that my interests in and my love for the Church and Kingdom of God overwhelmingly [override] my interest in and devotion to political affairs.B
Wallace F. Bennett, a Republican senator from Utah from 1951 to 1975, was also eager to cooperate with the Church hierarchy. In August 1956, L.D.S. president David O. McKayBs office diary noted, BMet Senator Wallace Bennett. I took him into the meeting of the First Presidency so that he might make his report also to my Counselors. He discussed general matters pertaining to political affairs of the country.B In December 1957, Senator Bennett wrote to those BDear Brethren. . . . I would welcome an opportunity to cooperate with a person or persons who may be assigned by the First Presidency to make a broad examination of every vital phase of this problem [of securing a federal building for Salt Lake City] as a necessary first step to the development of a course of action, both for the Church and for my colleagues and myself.B
In 1975, after Republican Utah state legislator M. Byron Fisher sponsored a bill to ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the ChurchBs newspaper, the Deseret News, published a typically unsigned editorial, which opposed ratification. Within days, Fisher reversed himself and voted against the bill he had sponsored, explaining, BIt is my church and as a bishop [of a local L.D.S. congregation], IBm not going to vote against its wishes.B
In May 1981, U.S. senators Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a church-state conflict. The two Republicans had supported locating an MX-missile system in Utah, until the First Presidency announced its opposition to the proposal. Both quickly and compliantly changed sides, and Hatch later omitted this controversy from the discussion of BMissilesB in his memoirs.
By contrast, L.D.S. Democrats in public office have often rejected the hierarchyBs efforts to persuade them to vote contrary to their political principles. For 18 years after he defeated Reed Smoot in 1932 to become a U.S. senator from Utah, Elbert D. Thomas, despite his L.D.S. devotion, shrugged off every statement of the First Presidency against Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Democratic New Deal, every sermon excoriating F.D.R. and his successor, Harry S. Truman, by Church members, every similar editorial in the Deseret News, and every letter of that type that the Democratic senator received from members of the First Presidency. When they made a request he found objectionable, he would decline it with icy formality.
When Utah Democratic senator Frank E. Moss learned that the L.D.S. ChurchBs living prophet had publicly endorsed the election of Richard Nixon for the U.S. presidency, he wrote to McKay, in October 1960:
Respectfully and with deepest sorrow I ask that you rectify the unfair damage done by your endorsement of Vice President Nixon as reported in the morning press. For years we have been striving to convince Americans that our church is outside of and above politics. . . . But your endorsement of one candidate over another brings tumbling down our position of church nutrality [sic] and creates ill will outside as well as inside the church. I am heartsick.
As a chronicler of Mormon politics, IBm not aware of any L.D.S. Republican officeholder who has had the chutzpah to write such a letterBfrom UtahBs permanent adoption of the national parties in 1891 to the 21st century.
In June 1965, Senator Moss joined with four Democratic L.D.S. congressmen in publicly defying the voting instructions they had received from the First Presidency. At issue was the anti-union section of the Taft-Hartley Act, about which the First Presidency had written to each Mormon member of Congress, asking them to vote to sustain it. Moss and his Democratic colleagues responded, BWhile we respect and revere the offices held by the members of the First Presidency of the Church, we cannot yield to others our responsibilities to our constituency, nor can we delegate our own free agency to any but ourselves.B Their response added, BWe hasten to assure you that we stand ready at any time to receive your views . . . but we cannot accept them as binding upon us.B Congressman Kenneth W. Dyal, of California, confided that, as a consequence of signing this letter, he received Bonly abuse, threats, blackmail and vicious attacks on my integrity from corporations, church members and their leaders.B
Such willingness to listen did not guarantee the compliance of Mormon Democrats. In 1978, the First Presidency sent a letter asking every L.D.S. member of Congress to vote against the proposal to deregulate the airline industry. Although the Church owned stock in what was then Western Airlines and the L.D.S. BPresiding BishopB sat on its board of directors, this was hardly the kind of Bmoral issueB that L.D.S. presidents assert as the only condition for their political intervention.
In 2008, the L.D.S. ChurchBs Deseret News announced, BBefore each general session [of the Utah Legislature], GOP and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate sit down separately with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Special Affairs Committee, a group made up of Church general authorities, Church public relations officials, and their lobbyists, to discuss any item on the minds of both legislators and Church leaders.B Organized at L.D.S. headquarters in 1974, the Special Affairs Committee has directed the L.D.S. ChurchBs overt and covert political activism throughout the nation ever since.
While Mitt RomneyBs interactions with the L.D.S. hierarchy regarding his political fortunes will probably forever remain a matter of speculation, in October 2006 the L.D.S. ChurchBs newspaper nervously reminded its readers that Bproof of blatant support of any candidate puts the church at risk of losing its tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service and could damage RomneyBs prospects of getting the GOP nomination.B Why they were so nervous became clear in the next sentence: BThe Boston Globe over the past week has reported that an e-mail by Don Stirling, a Utah-based political consultant for Romney, said that LDS leaders, including church president Gordon B. Hinckley, knew about the meetings between Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and Romney supporters, including [Kem] Gardner.B
StirlingBs e-mail to the C.E.O. of the Church-owned Deseret Book Company outlined a covert strategy (which Apostle Holland approved) of BcoordinatingB donations for Romney through Deseret Book and Brigham Young UniversityBs Management Society of M.B.A. alumni, Bwhile not creating undue heartburnB (i.e., media attention).
In an obvious (but unacknowledged) response to that dustup, HewittBs 2007 laudatory biography replayed the following dialogue with Mitt Romney:
BWould you ever expect a call from [L.D.S.] President Hinckley or his successor?B I asked.
BNo,B [Romney] emphatically replied. BAbsolutely not. . . . For those sworn into national office, their obligation is to the nation.B
Romney was merely re-stating the verities of U.S. political discourse about church-state boundaries, but Americans should now ask themselves three questions.
Is there any evidence that L.D.S. headquarters has abandoned its interest in influencing the decisions of L.D.S. officeholders in Washington, D.C.?
Have Mormon Republicans departed from their historical patterns of embracing political direction from the L.D.S. Church hierarchy?
Is Mitt Romney an unwavering statesman who is resistant to such pressures?
Only time will tell, if AmericaBs voters elect him.