The Corner

Frank Rich’s Mormon Problem — and Mitt’s

It’s a cold day in hell when I recommend anything my old chum Frank Rich writes, but this long piece in New York magazine entitled “Who in God’s Name Is Mitt Romney?” is most definitely worth a read — especially for the Republican leadership — if only as a preview of a coming leftist line of attack against the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney: his Mormon heritage and faith. If you hoped, wished, or thought his religion would be off the table, think again:

As this narrative has it, Americans are at least comfortable with old, familiar Mitt — heaven knows he’s been running long enough. He may be a bore and a flip-flopper, but he doesn’t frighten the ­horses. His steady sobriety will win the day once the lunatic Newt has finished blowing himself up. As one prominent Romney surrogate, the Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, has it, Romney is “the most vetted candidate out there.” Maybe — if you assume there will be no more questions about Bain, the Cayman Islands, the expunged internal records from Romney’s term as governor, or his pre-2010 tax returns. Or about the big dog that has yet to bark, and surely will by October: Romney’s long career as a donor to and lay official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Surely will by October. The issue is not whether Romney’s religious affiliation ought to be a problem, especially given the Constitution’s proscription against religious tests for federal office. The issue is that it already is, either overtly or sub rosa; and the question is how Romney and his surrogates are going to combat it.

That faith is key to the Romney mystery. Had the 2002 Winter Olympics not been held in Salt Lake City, and not been a major civic project of Mormon leaders there, it’s unlikely Romney would have gotten involved. (Whether his involvement actually prompted a turnaround of that initially troubled enterprise, as he claims, is a subject of debate.) But Romney is even less forthcoming about his religion than he is about his tax returns. When the Evangelical view of Mormonism as a non-Christian cult threatened his 2008 run, Romney delivered what his campaign hyped as a JFK-inspired speech on “Faith in America.” This otherwise forgotten oration was memorable only for the number of times it named Romney’s own faith: once.

In the current campaign, Romney makes frequent reference to faith, God, and his fierce loyalty to “the same church.” But whether in debates, or in the acres of official material on his campaign website, or in a flyer pitched at religious voters in South Carolina, he never names what that faith or church is. In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name. . . .

His campaign is intent on enforcing the redaction of his religion, not least, one imagines, because a Gallup poll found that 22 percent in both parties say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. . . . Like Romney’s evasions about his private finances, his conspicuous cone of silence about this major pillar of his biography also leaves you wondering what he is trying to hide. That his faith can be as secretive as he is — Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed to attend the religious ceremony consecrating her marriage to Mitt — only whets the curiosity among the 82 percent of Americans who tell pollsters they know little or nothing about Mormonism. 

You can bet that people like Rich will be only too happy to fill them in between now and the election. In fact, they’ve already started. Back in the summer, you may recall, there was an outbreak of the word “weird” used in reference to Romney by various unnamed Democratic arras lurkers — “weird” in this case being a code word for “Mormon.” 


And “weird” was just a dry run for what’s coming; for the Left, “by any means necessary” is not simply a slogan, but a way of life. Rich’s piece is a good advance indication that, when the time comes, liberals are prepared to pound Mitt into the dirt with Joseph Smith’s golden plates. It’s all about driving up his already high stealth negatives. As Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, noted at the time (August 2011):

The crucial thing to understand here is that Romney’s Latter Day Saint affiliation isn’t just a potential liability among evangelical voters in Republican primaries. It’s a potential general election liability as well. In a recent Gallup poll, 18 percent of Republicans described themselves as unwilling to vote for a Mormon candidate — but that number actually climbed to 19 percent among Independents, and 27 percent among Democrats.

Even as the Left howls about “smears” — which in its case mean pretty much anything unflattering said about Barack Obama — you can bet that you’re going to be hearing a lot about Mormonism as the campaign ramps up — and about Romney’s own family history. It’s not like any of this information is secret. In 2007, during Romney’s first run for the presidency, the Salt Lake City Deseret News (which is indirectly owned by the Church of Latter-day Saints) ran this story about the incidence of polygamy in the Romney clan and why Mitt’s father was born in Mexico:

While Mitt Romney condemns polygamy and its prior practice by his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Republican presidential candidate’s great-grandfather had five wives and at least one of his great-great-grandfathers had 12.

Polygamy was not just a historical footnote but a prominent element in the family tree of the former Massachusetts governor now seeking to become the first LDS president.

Romney’s great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, married his fifth wife in 1897. That was more than six years after LDS church leaders banned polygamy and more than three decades after a federal law barred the practice.

Romney’s great-great-grandfather Parley P. Pratt, an apostle in the church, had 12 wives. In an 1852 sermon, Parley P. Pratt’s brother and fellow apostle, Orson Pratt, became the first church official to publicly proclaim and defend polygamy as a direct revelation from God.

Romney’s father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, where church members fled in the 1800s to escape religious persecution and U.S. laws forbidding polygamy. He and his family did not return to the United States until 1912, more than two decades after the church issued “The Manifesto” banning polygamy.

The late Christopher Hitchens turned his atheist’s gimlet eye to Mormonism and Romney’s potential problems last fall in this typically provocative piece for Slate:

In any case what interests me more is the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS, discussion of which it is currently hoping to inhibit by crying that criticism of Mormonism amounts to bigotry.

The founder of the church, one Joseph Smith, was a fraud and conjurer well known to the authorities of upstate New York. He claimed to have been shown some gold plates on which a new revelation was inscribed in no known language. He then qualified as the sole translator of this language. . . .

Saddling itself with some pro-slavery views at the time of the Civil War, and also with a “bible” of its own that referred to black people as a special but inferior creation, the Mormon Church did not admit black Americans to the priesthood until 1978, which is late enough — in point of the sincerity of the “revelation” they had to undergo — to cast serious doubt on the sincerity of their change of heart. . . .

The Mormons apparently believe that Jesus will return in Missouri rather than Armageddon: I wouldn’t care to bet on the likelihood of either. In the meanwhile, though, we are fully entitled to ask Mitt Romney about the forces that influenced his political formation and — since he comes from a dynasty of his church, and spent much of his boyhood and manhood first as a missionary and then as a senior lay official — it is safe to assume that the influence is not small. Unless he is to succeed in his dreary plan to borrow from the playbook of his pain-in-the-ass predecessor Michael Dukakis, and make this an election about “competence not ideology,” he should be asked to defend and explain himself, and his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.

So you can see it coming. Still smarting over the so-called “swiftboating” of John Kerry, the media wing of the Democratic party is already laying out a guilt-by-association Romney indictment: cultism, classism, racism, sexism, etc. Naturally, Rich adds his pet cause, gay rights, and the Mormon church’s support for Proposition 8 in California in 2008:

And these days, no major faith puts more money where its mouth is in battling civil rights for gay Americans. Its actions led Stuart Matis, a faithful graduate of Brigham Young University who’d completed his missionary service, to commit suicide on the steps of a Mormon chapel in 2000 in anguished protest of his dehumanized status within his religion. Unchastened, the Mormon church enlisted its congregants to put over Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Mormons contributed more than $20 million to the effort and constituted an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the campaign’s original volunteers. Romney, who endorsed gay rights when running as a moderate against Kennedy in 1994, has swung so far in the other direction that he ridiculed gay couples when pandering to South Carolina Republicans a few years ago. (“Some are actually having children born to them!” he said with horror.) Did some of his yet undivulged Mormon philanthropy support the Prop 8 campaign?

The Times, where Rich worked for years, probably has a team of crack reporters on the case right now, itching to drop its own October surprise on Romney when the time is right.

The Mormons do a very skillful job of defending themselves, and no one can deny their track record of accomplishment. They’re both devout and disciplined, and while it’s easy for a nasty, amoral, secular culture like ours to mock their straitlaced personal code of conduct, it would be tough to deny that it’s not a critical ingredient of their success.

Which is why Romney’s in for a rough, dirty, and ugly ride. The Left cannot abide a faith such as Mormonism, whose adherents by example give the lie to just about everything it stands for — moral relativism, abortion, sexual license, personal irresponsibility — and so it attempts to marginalize Mormons in the press and in pop culture (Big Love, The Book of Mormon) in a way that it would never dare to do with Muslims.

Obama’s recent paeans to the military in his State of the Union address and to his own offbeat version of Christianity in his National Prayer Breakfast appearance are an attempt to present him as “normal” and frame the all-American Mitt as the “other.” Someone who is, in short, “weird.”

So go ahead and laugh at the hypocrisy of offering a man with Obama’s background and as many holes in his life and résumé as unexceptionable, while wondering who in God’s name Mitt Romney is. But be ready for it. Team Romney sure had better be.

Michael Walsh — Mr. Walsh is the author of the novels Hostile Intent and Early Warning and, writing as frequent NRO contributor David Kahane, Rules for Radical Conservatives.


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