Frank Sarsfield, the troubled hobo from Russell Kirk’s ghost stories, is caught stealing from churches’ poorboxes. He justifies his crimes on the theory that he is, after all, one of the poor — and, being Catholic, he prefers to steal from Catholic poorboxes. That’s my kind of religious particularism. If he were an actual man instead of a fictional character, I’d like to introduce him to Jon Meacham and the editors of Time magazine.
It had been a week or two since the last national-magazine cover reminding us that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, but if you missed Newsweek, Businessweek, et al., Time has you covered.
Meacham begins by quoting from a sermon on the relationship between religious faith and political liberty given some years ago by Romney — not Mitt Romney, but Marion Romney, a relative of Mitt’s who was born in the 19th century and rose to a position of prominence in the church. Meacham writes:
It’s tempting to think of Mitt Romney’s faith as that of John Winthrop on steroids — that the Republican presidential nominee’s religious tradition exalts America above all other nations, creating an exceptionalism that could invest American policy with a sense of divine sanction or lead to theocracy. . . . Yet the political implications of the Mormon understanding of American destiny are not so simple.
Thank heaven we’re not going to be too simple about that and start going on irresponsibly about theocracy!
Meacham notes that Mormons’ worldview incorporates a sense of persecution. It is not entirely clear why he believes this to be remarkable. Christians’ worldview also incorporates a sense of persecution, for precisely the same reason: persecution. “The story of the faith of Romney’s ancestors on the American continent is one of exile and redemption,” he writes, “of blessing and punishment and, perhaps above all, of struggle and endurance amid trial and tribulation.” (Also amid excessive oppositional pairings.) Exile and redemption, you say? “Which, when you think about it,” notes Meacham, “is a pretty fair description of a close-fought presidential campaign.” An election is something like a cosmic struggle between good and evil pitting man’s yearning for holiness and communion against his vices, his smallness, and the defects of his nature: That is precisely what I had not been thinking, though I suppose there are some who do think of elections that way. (Those people are insane.)
Given all of Mormonism’s peculiarities, surely there is something distinctively Mormon upon which to base an analysis of Romney. Meacham catalogues the greatest hits — polygamy, Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, Utah, Mexico, food in the cellar, etc. The Mormon church has changed its teachings and practices over time, and that — this will surprise you — explains Romney’s occasional personal inconsistency, according to Meacham. Seriously:
By the last years of the 19th century, the church had officially abandoned polygamy — not least in order to win statehood for Utah. Theology conformed to political reality; a tenet of the faith gave way to the needs of the moment. The decision on polygamy, announced in 1890, had a particular effect on the Romney family. Mitt’s great-grandfather went to northern Mexico and created a Mormon outpost at a time when the faith of the church included plural marriage. . . . It is possible that Mitt Romney’s tendency to conform to the world immediately around him is at least partly rooted in the history of his family and of his church.
Politician adapts to changing political conditions: Thanks for the Muppet News Flash, Time.
Still in search of something distinctively Mormon about Mitt Romney’s character, Meacham hits upon the extraordinary generosity and sense of community that prevails among Mormons. And this he finds potentially troubling. (It is an odd piece of journalism.) He writes: “We know how Mormons feel about caring for other Mormons. What about reaching out to others?” I suppose that giving away $1 billion in money, food, and other supplies around the world, as LDS Humanitarian Services has done, might be considered “reaching out to others.” Reaching out and handing them money, food, and medicine, in fact. So, there’s that. “And what is the proper role of government in caring for the least of these?” Another powerful insight: Romney, Meacham writes, “would not rule out a role for government, if a more limited one than Democrats favor.” Meaning: Romney is neither an anarchist nor a Democrat. So I’ve heard.
Still in search of something interesting to say about Romney’s Mormonism, Meacham hits upon the “White Horse Prophecy,” an apocalyptic scenario that, as he notes, comes from a “much-disputed report” that is “far from official church doctrine” and is of great interest to “a handful of Mormons.” Okay: A handful that includes Mitt Romney, who is running for president of the United States of America? Meacham is going to leave that to your imagination.
Mitt Romney belongs to the fourth-largest church in the United States, one that includes many kinds of people with many kinds of political views. Mormons tend toward conservatism, but the church itself is largely apolitical, and Romney’s membership in it tells us very little about what kind of president he would be.
Which is to say: The Romney-religion story is precisely the opposite of the Obama-religion story. Barack Obama belonged to a smallish and eccentric congregation with an explicitly political orientation, and an outlandish, racially obsessed one at that. And Time magazine’s coverage of the issue has been exceedingly careful about exploring the finer points of Jeremiah Wright’s “black-liberation theology.” To the extent that it was covered at all, it was largely covered as a potential political setback for the promising young savior, not as something that told us anything substantive about the candidate — which it obviously does. Twenty years in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s pews tells us a great deal more about what kind of political animal Barack Obama is than a lifetime of conventional Mormon piety tells us about what kind of political animal Mitt Romney is. The Mormon faith produces Mitt Romneys, but it also produces Harry Reids. Is black-liberation theology comparably diverse in its political consequences? No, it is not. Instead of acknowledging this bare fact, we have Joe Klein disputing the notion that Obama has much in the way of a religious orientation at all, which is very much of a piece with Amy Sullivan’s embarrassingly obsequious coverage of the question last time around.
Time might have rendered a service by doing Mormon thinking the courtesy of taking it seriously. And it definitely would have done a service by taking Jeremiah Wright’s poisonous output seriously four years ago. Instead, we have Meacham’s half-baked theory that the fact that Mormons abandoned polygamy in the 19th century explains Romney’s “comfort with expediency,” an example of thinking so shallow it hardly deserves to be called thought.