As we begin to approach a new presidential election season I thought I’d write up my thoughts on this controversy. This is not intended in any way to be an endorsement of Mitt Romney or any political candidate. I don’t think Gov. Romney has much hope in becoming the Republican candidate much less win the presidency (because Evangelicals won’t vote for him). But his candidacy offers the opportunity to talk about some larger issues. There are two objections I most often hear expressed against voting for a Mormon.
1. When Salt Lake City Calls
“When Salt Lake City Calls” is the name of a book that supports this line of reasoning. Its premise is that because of the covenants made in LDS Temples a Mormon President would have a higher oath to the Mormon Prophet than to the people of the United States or the U.S. Constitution.
I don’t disagree at all that such oaths are made by Mormons who attend their temples. Investigating the wording (and penalties formerly associated with the covenants) will reveal that they are serious, literal and binding. Mormons are indeed asked to place allegiance to their church, its prophet and its message at the highest priority.
The question unanswered is “If a Mormon President holds to this covenant as rigidly as we might imagine, does it pose a threat to the United States?” I don’t think it poses any threat at all. Knowing that the LDS Church and the President are going to be carefully watched and scrutinized about the nature of their relationship, I don’t think either would be interested in abusing this oath. The image-savvy Mormon church is already quite sensitive about being accused of being a cult. They don’t show a pattern of wanting to reinforce that stereotype. If anything, I imagine there would be a distancing in the relationship between Salt Lake City and Washington DC while a Mormon sits in office.
Second, let’s suppose the worst. Let’s imagine that the LDS Prophet receives a revelation that all religious organizations in the United States should come under his control and he calls on every Mormon to make that vision a reality. Let’s further suppose that the Mormon President makes such legislation a top priority in his administration. The chances of him enacting such a law would be infinitely small. He would be unable to find cooperation from the House of Representatives or the Senate. He’d stand no chance before the Supreme Court and the state houses of 49 states would find their own ways to nullify such a law. He then would likely be impeached for not upholding the Constitution. I can’t really imagine the LDS church asking a Mormon President to do anything that might harm the values of the nation, but if it did, the President would have little support from our (very intentionally) separated powers.
The truth is Mormonism is perhaps one of the only religions in the world that recognizes and cherishes the United States Constitution. When Mormons have been persecuted it has always been their belief that the Constitution (and Heavenly Father) would save them. Joseph Smith many times would extol the virtues of the Constitution and even predicted that there may come a time when the Mormons are the only people left to preserve it. The Mormon church used to make American Independence Day celebrations part of its worldwide curriculum because Mormons recognize that they were able to form a new religion precisely because of the religious environment afforded by the US Constitution. It would be out of character for the Mormon Church or a Mormon President to harm or change it.
Most of these issues were previously discussed in our history during the Reed Smoot Hearings in which it was decided if Mormons could qualify for federal public office.
2. Won’t a Mormon President Legitimatize Mormonism and Make it Mainstream
In truth, I think it will. Evangelicals will need to hold this in tension as they weigh their political choices. But I would like to question if a mainstreamed Mormonism would be something Evangelicals should fear.
The first concern is that an increased awareness of Mormonism might cause more people to investigate the LDS church and consider becoming members. History doesn’t really bear this out. George W. Bush and William Howard Taft were by far the most outspoken Presidents about their Evangelical faiths. Neither caused an increase in attendance at Evangelical churches (if anything their presidencies might have set the Evangelical movement back). I don’t believe any evidence exist that John F. Kennedy was able to drive a spike in Catholic conversions in his presidency either.
The second concern is that Mormonism would likely lose it’s image as an “outsider religion”. Evangelicals might very much like to do what they can to keep the LDS church from gaining that sort of credibility. I can appreciate the concern for aiding or boosting the heresies taught by Mormonism. But I think an investigation into Mormon history might convince Evangelicals that a mainstreamed Mormon church might inspire reform within Mormonism.
Culturally there is a large portion of Mormons who want nothing more than to be viewed as normal. They are aware of some of their church’s previous difficult doctrines and practices but because they don’t have to live with them they are able to pretend they don’t exist. Many of these Mormons are actually unaware of the origins of some of these practices and assume the folk explanations they’ve heard must be true. A Mormon President would cause Mormon origins to come to light. An increased public discussion of these issues is exactly what is needed to cause Mormons to distance themselves from their spiritual ancestors.
When Mormonism interacts with mainstream American culture it has a habit of conforming. Mormonism wants to survive and it has a clear history of doing whatever is necessary to survive. Polygamy (Reed Smoot Hearings), the black Priesthood ban (NCAA boycotts against BYU) and even temple death oaths (The GodMakers) are all examples of how Mormonism caved to public pressure once broader public awareness was brought to those issues. Even former LDS prophet Gordon Hinckley denied specific Mormon doctrine when asked about it in front of a national audience and claimed he didn’t know if they even taught such doctrines. Mormons will insist that these changes were made as a result of Heavenly Father’s direct intervention and communication. That may indeed be the case, but it’s peculiar that these changes occurred after outside pressure was exerted on the LDS Church.
Currently the LDS church growth rate in the United States is about the same as its birth rate. The church’s missionary efforts seem to be faltering in countries with widespread internet access. Free access to information about Mormonism doesn’t help the LDS church’s efforts. Particularly when that information contradicts the LDS church’s faith-promoting version of the story. A larger public discussion of Mormonism would only bring that information to further light.
David Clark recently stated on this blog “For now, I’d be satisfied if Mormons would be more open and honest about their history and doctrine at their public church meetings. If that were to happen, I think the LDS church would reform in short order.” I tend to agree. There are a great many Mormons who have knowledge of and a great love for Mormonism’s many peculiarities. They will never want anything to change. But I do not believe that is true for the majority of Mormons. A Mormon presidency coupled with an organization’s desire to survive might be just the thing to cause a Mormon reformation.
As we speak, individuals and organizations opposed to Mormonism are forming materials and strategies to use a Mormon candidacy against the LDS church. Add to that a candidate’s political opponents who are willing to use anything to hurt him and I think the LDS church has reason to hope there is never a Mormon president.
Compromise is demanded of every person who enters into democratic politics. This even extends to individual voters. A perfect candidate who matches every one of a person’s values is not likely to exist. If it does, that person may not be electable (you might as well write your own name in on the ballot). It’s an Evangelical’s duty not to vote for the candidate that perfectly matches their values, but instead to vote for the candidate from the available and viable choices that most closely represents their values. I think if a Mormon candidate matches an Evangelical’s political values and they think that candidate has the best possibility of winning they should feel more than comfortable in voting for that candidate.