Most of the coverage of Mitt Romney’s big speech this weekend described a warming relationship between the presidential candidate and a Christian right whose enthusiasm he badly needs.
Delivering a commencement speech at the Moral Majority’s finishing school, that academe of “modesty” standards, room inspections, R-rated movie bans, and no kissin’ bearing the Orwellian cognomen “Liberty,” Romney did his best to avoid talking about the biggest point of contention between himself and his audience; his Mormon faith.
Romney’s speech was no Kennedyesque reassurance that he wouldn’t be taking orders from church authorities. It was a lot of pablum about values alongside a gay marriage applause line and shout-out to Chick-fil-A (the chicken sandwich of choice for evangelicals), albeit delivered with considerably more finesse than he’s shown so far this campaign season.
He has to hide his faith under a bushel, so to speak, to keep up the uneasy connection he’s made with the key Republican constituency. And the Obama campaign knows that the most oblique shot at Romney’s weirdness will backfire and be taken as an attack on his faith, so they’re not going to talk about it either.
All this means that a potentially historic occurrence–the election of a President of that quintessentially American faith–is not going to get the kind of discussion that it deserves.
Which is a shame, because Romney would be the first president of a religion that views this country as imbued with prophetic significance. Mormons have no monopoly on the American prophetic tradition; it goes back to the Puritans’ shining city, but Romney himself has shown a penchant for prophecy of the self-fulfilling kind:
The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.
The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters. (link)
He’s right, of course. But I’m a little put off by his emphasis on the family as an economic arrangement. Because it’s not the first time the economic benefits of faith and culture seem to have taken precedence over their intrinsic value to Romney. He flirted with prosperity theology during his mission work in France, where he put together a pamphlet based on the famous Andrew Carnegie-endorsed self-help classic Think and Grow Rich. The Christian Science Monitor had an article yesterday making the connection between Mormonism and business savvy:
In laying groundwork for a successful business career, it helps to become a religious leader at age 12.
That’s when Mormon boys receive the first mantle of authority as deacons in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which has no professional clergy but vests ordinary people with religious duties, at young ages. Boys conduct meetings, raise money, and give talks for adult crowds while they’re still settling into middle school.
Shouldering responsibility from childhood, according to scholars and observers, helps account for extraordinary success among executives such as Mitt Romney, who built a fortune in venture capital before seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
Romney, at the very least, has been steeped in this culture and has personally shown an interest in popular achievement philosophies. Taken together they form a sort of teleology, the end of which is a paragon of Perfected Man, a cosmic CEO if you will. I know very little about Mormonism, so I don’t want to go through the Book of Mormon and pick out verses that support these ideas. Suffice it to say that like many Christians, I find the account of Jesus Christ found there to be completely incompatible with the one in the Bible. But I think it’s fair to say that the Mormon culture of clean living–perfectionism, if you’re feeling less charitable–is not unrelated to these ideas.
If one believes that a level of perfection deserving of planetary dominion can be achieved, then the world will contain a small number of virtuous people that are somewhere close, and a huge number that fail. This explains the parochialism of the Mormon church, and the psychological damage of ex-Mormons who have failed to live up to the church’s high standards. It’s a convenient belief system for a hedge fund executive. It also represents a major break with traditional Christian theology in which everyone’s a sinner and redemption can only come through grace.
What I’m saying is Mitt Romney needs a sense of the reality of sin. Maybe a Roman Catholic VP pick like Bob McDonnell or Chris Christie would help. As Noah pointed out yesterday, Romney has a weird inability to express remorse. He suggests that there’s some Mormon way of expressing it that we’re not picking up on, but I’m not so sure. What if it’s just a belief system that tends to ignore the fallenness of Man?