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God And Mitt Romney

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There’s a good NYT piece today about how Mormonism shaped Mitt Romney. Here, thanks to reader MC, is the most interesting anecdote it relates:

Nearly two decades ago, Randy and Janna Sorensen approached Mr. Romney, then a church official, for help: unable to have a baby on their own, they wanted to adopt but could not do so through the church, which did not facilitate adoptions for mothers who worked outside the home.

Devastated, they told Mr. Romney that the rule was unjust and that they needed two incomes to live in Boston. Mr. Romney helped, but not by challenging church authorities. He took a calculator to the Sorensen household budget and showed how with a few sacrifices, Ms. Sorensen could quit her job. Their children are now grown, and Mr. Sorensen said they were so grateful that they had considered naming a child Mitt. (The church has since relaxed its prohibition on adoption for women who work outside the home.)

What’s telling about this is that Romney was not going to violate church orthodoxy, not even out of compassion, but he worked to find a way within his church’s teachings to help this couple, with whom he plainly sympathized, achieve their goal. I find that a commendable frame of mind.

I find in most respects, Romney’s fidelity to the LDS Church is the most attractive thing about him. I say that as someone who, theologically speaking, doesn’t believe the LDS faith is strictly Christian. But I generally find Mormons, in practice, to be good people who live upright lives based in sincere practice of their faith. I liked this from the story, about how seriously Romney takes prayer:

“I remember literally kneeling down with Mitt at his home and praying about our firm,” Bob Gay, a former Bain colleague and current church official, told Jeff Benedict, author of “The Mormon Way of Doing Business.” “We did that in times of crisis, and we prayed that we’d do right by our people and our investors.”

Mr. Romney also prays before taking action on decisions he has already made, asking for divine reassurance, a feeling that he is “united with the powers above,” Dr. Hassell said. Sometimes Mr. Romney would report that even though he had made a decision on the merits, prayer had changed his mind. “Even though rationally this looks like the thing to do, I just have a feeling we shouldn’t do it,” he would say, according to Grant Bennett, another friend and church leader.

The one aspect of his Mormonism that concerns me is what you might call theologized nationalism. From the NYT:

Or take Mr. Romney’s frequent tributes to American exceptionalism. “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag,” he said in announcing his bid for the presidency last June. Every presidential candidate highlights patriotism, but Mr. Romney’s is backed by the Mormon belief that the United States was chosen by God to play a special role in history, its Constitution divinely inspired.

“He is an unabashed, unapologetic believer that America is the Promised Land,” said Douglas D. Anderson, dean of the business school at Utah State University and a friend, and that leading it is “an obligation and responsibility to God.”

It is one thing to believe that one’s nation has a responsibility to God; all nations do, as a collective representation of the individual souls within the nation. But I don’t believe America is the Promised Land, and I think it’s heresy and hubris to profess that. I think we can get into all kinds of serious foreign policy trouble from American exceptionalism. But this has to be admitted: there is nothing about American exceptionalism that is limited to Mormon believers. Most Republicans, and many Democrats, would agree with Romney on this, and consider their belief nothing more than ordinary patriotism. This is garden-variety American conservatism, exactly what you would get from any GOP presidential candidate who is not Ron Paul — and indeed, some version of it is what you would get from any presidential candidate, including the Democrats. American exceptionalism is so deep in the American psyche that no politician hoping to be president can challenge it. As the foreign policy realist Stephen Walt has written, it’s deceptive and harmful to America’s interests:

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America’s global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities — from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom — the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law, or America’s tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

I point this out to acknowledge that as nervous as Romney’s Mormonish devotion to American exceptionalism makes me, it seems entirely of a piece with mainstream American political thinking. All things considered, though, I find Romney’s true-believing Mormonism, fairly considered, to be more of a reason for cultural and social conservatives to vote for him than not. I may be critical of Mormon doctrines, but Romney clearly and demonstrably takes his faith quite seriously, and in most cases, I think, this will lead him to act in ways that orthodox Christians and other cultural conservatives will approve of. And personally, I would hope that the historical Mormon experience of persecution would make a President Romney acutely sensitive to religious liberty concerns, and act accordingly when appointing judges and choosing Supreme Court nominees.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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