Mitt: Perfect-Mormon-Man

The Inlander | January 17, 2008
Despite his victory in Michigan, Mitt Romney has been drubbed in two primaries he expected to win. Mormons are frustrated. One Mormon woman wrote in a letter to the editor: "He is the best that Mormonism has to offer." She was referring to his professional success, his perfect family, his education, his "can do" style, as he proved by saving the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, and, most importantly, his pious devotion to his faith.

Predictably "the Saints" have unnecessarily overreacted, just as they did when Jon Krakauer published his flimsy expose, Under the Banner of Heaven. Wagons have been circled in support of Mormonism's Favorite Son. Church leaders defended America's fourth largest church against charges that Mormonism is not Christian by asserting that critics are applying a "narrow reading of Christianity."

As a matter of fact, Mormonism proclaims a radical theology that effectively rejects 2,000 years of Christian tradition and, by extension, much of Western civilization. Mormons believe in a God who is not the Creator as most Christians understand the term, but rather a kind of cosmic organizer whose role it is to facilitate man's "progression." Mormons believe in an anthropomorphic God of "body, parts and passions." They actually believe that man can "progress" to himself actually become a god. They reject the mystery of the Trinity. And that's just for starters.

Understandably, theology remains a problem for many voters, the evangelicals most of all. But could it also be that people are troubled by Mitt the person? Former Mormon Kenneth Anderson, writing in the Weekly Standard, says of the flip-flopping Romney that "...he is a man of principles so pragmatic that he lacks any unshakable political foundation." Anderson’s observation leads us to a related question: Is Mitt the problem, or is Mitt-the-Mormon the problem? More to the point, can the two be distinguished, let alone be separated? When we see Mitt, do we see Mormonism? Alternatively, when we see the religion do we see Mitt? If so, do we conclude that to not like Mitt is to recognize an intransigent problem with Mormonism?

It does appear that voters, subliminally perhaps, are uncomfortable with Mitt-the-Mormon, most especially Mitt-the-Perfect-Mormon, which must mean that they have problems with traits that Mormonism values most. So what’s not to like about Mitt and Mormonism?

Here's my take: Mormons are admonished, as are most Christians, "to be in the world but not of the world." But the meaning of this edict is not self-evident. Too much "being in this world" and one flirts with heresy, the belief that salvation on earth is distinctly possible. On the other hand, to weigh in on "not of this world" leads to life in a monastery. In any case, it's a fine line that calls for thoughtful distinctions.

For Mormonism "not of the world" has come to mean avoidance of corrupting influences. But because the church continues to wage war against philosophy, humanities, social sciences and most of the arts -- the disciplines that could provide help in fleshing out the meaning of corrupting influences -- the important distinctions between social convention and virtue are lost altogether, resulting in proscriptions reflecting blinkered outlooks. Along the way, Mormonism loses contact with human experience in all its unevenness, its trials and tragedies and also its beauty and nobility. So much of the stuff of life is off limits. For examples: Have you ever seen or heard a funny, let alone profane, Mormon comedian? (Devout Mormons have never heard a profane comedian, period.) Ever read a good Mormon novel? (Write one that raises any doubt about the church and you risk excommunication.) Ever tried to discuss an R-rated, serious film with a Mormon? (The Mormon leadership has announced on any number of occasions that all R-rated movies are "pornographic.") Ever seen an important play written by a Mormon (who hadn't been excommunicated, that is)? Rhetorical questions all.

I suggest that Romney hasn't caught on because as the Perfect Mormon, he has isolated himself "from the world," Mormon-style. As a result, he seems alien to many, a man who can’t relate to their experiences. His "perfect" comes across as corporate, staged, orchestrated, opportunistic, contrived, marketed and, for the most part, unrecognizable. Non-Mormons wonder how such a man could possibly identify and empathize with them and their concerns, inasmuch as they live lives both in and of this world. They don't see themselves in Romney -- and they doubt Romney can see himself in them. That's a formula for alienation.

Mormons haven't always been so pietistic, so sanitized. Consider the profane and irrepressible early 20th-century church leader, J. Golden Kimball, a Mormon who had his own take on "being in but not of." The great writer and observer of Mormonism, Wallace Stegner, became friends with Kimball, whom he called "an original."

Stegner tells this story about his Mormon friend (bookshelves are filled with J. Golden stories): At lunch one day with Golden, he watches "The Swearing Apostle" order a drink; "I mean a drink!" recalls Stegner. "Golden," he says, "I thought you weren't supposed to drink."

Without missing a beat, Golden replies, "Wallace, I've already repented; I think I'll have another."

Radical theology notwithstanding, I'd bet people would be drawn to a J. Golden Kimball. Mormons frustrated over Romney's difficulties connecting with voters might want to consider the implications.

Robert Herold, who teaches political science at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., is a former Mormon himself who is completing a book about modern Mormonism.

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