Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mitt Romney's Faith and
the Evangelicals

Noah Feldman wrote an interesting article about a "soft bigotry" apparent in American politics that may be causing problems for Mitt Romney. The article, "What Is It About Mormonism," appeared in the January 6 New York Times Magazine. (The link may not remain active for very long. The New York Times site requires registration, but it is a free site.)

The article describes how the Latter-day Saints or Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS) have used secrecy to assure their survival and to deflect religious discrimination. Feldman's theses are 1) that evangelical Christians are wary and unaccepting of Latter-day Saint belief, 2) that the LDS Church has a culture of secrecy about its esoteric practices, and 3) that the LDS Church presents itself to the public in a way to minimize its religious differences from other Christian faiths.

Feldman's commentary is right on target. It certainly reflects my own experience in the LDS Church. I don't think that members of the LDS Church consciously misrepresent their faith, but they are culturally tuned to talk about it in ways that don't reveal the breadth of their belief or the difference of their practice. As converts, or neighbors, or critics discover the larger truths of the Latter-day Saint faith, they may feel that they've been knowingly mislead. In fact, Church members and missionaries never tell the whole truth to outsiders.

While some of this reluctance is culturally ingrained (members don't even know that they appear to be dissembling with associates who are not members of the Church), it is also fed by a deeply held belief of Church members that "You can't run before you can walk," and a belief in continuing revelation from God through Church leaders, beginning in the home, and extending to the words of their living prophet.

That is, Latter-day Saints realize (at some unconscious level) that their esoteric beliefs do appear odd to outsiders, and that they have to lay a foundation of acceptable propositions, before outsiders can understand these divine truths. Latter-day Saints also believe and expect their leaders to continue to instruct them in deeper, larger truths. Their reality is rooted in a richer revelatory experience. God continues to speak to them in a tangible way at every level of their priesthood within the Church.

Mitt Romney is having problems because of his religion. No matter how he explains his religion, it will sound odd to outsiders. If he says he believes "... Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind," that won't work with evangelicals, because they know that his declaration of that truth (and Mr. Romney really does believe it) is only the beginning of a number of propositions that lead to additional conclusions about the nature of Jesus and God that are far outside of mainstream Protestant theology. Evangelicals are a very fussy sort when it comes to Christian orthodoxy, and they don't much like LDS heterodoxy.

Mr. Romney cannot comment much on his religion. I personally think this is great, because I don't think that religious discourse should be present in the political arena. The Founders prohibited a religious test in our Constitution for good reason. Mr. Romney cannot comment on his personal beliefs because his religious culture prohibits it. One phrase heard among Latter-day Saints is "sacred, not secret." What that means is that their sacred, esoteric beliefs can only be shared with other believers. Their temples are closed to outsiders, not because they are "secret," but because they are "sacred." That same practice extends to Latter-day Saint beliefs.

Take a look at, an official web site for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The teachings on this site give the reader a vocabulary and a rationale for the LDS Church without revealing many of the fundamental differences between Latter-day Saint and Protestant belief. Those differences that the web site does portray are couched in language familiar to a Christian reader. However, the LDS church has a fundamentally different theology than Protestant or Catholic Christian theology.

For example, Latter-day Saints believe that they can become perfected and become Gods, themselves. They believe that numberless Gods and those Gods' creations co-exist with the creation in which we live. They believe in a literal blood atonement for some extremely grievous sins that they claim are not covered by Jesus's atonement. Neither Mitt Romney nor Church leaders can erase this divide of belief without fundamentally changing the nature and focus of Mormon theology.

This all puts Mr. Romney between a rock and a hard place. Although his social and cultural values certainly reflect those of many evangelical Christians, he will have a very difficult time convincing them that he's one of them. He's caught up in the institutional and cultural secrecy of his faith, and evangelical voters can't get around that fact. I believe that those voters will interpret his religious secrecy as being dishonest, and Mr. Romney's faith as being inauthentic and heretical. Ultimately, I think Mr. Romney will be unsuccessful in his attempt to capture the hearts and votes of America's evangelical Christians.