Is a Vote for Romney a Vote to Legitimize Mormonism?

In a piece posted at First Things on Friday, Richard John Neuhaus weighed in on the factors that influence whether believing Christians ought to vote for Mitt Romney. While the column meanders a bit, it appears that the crux of Neuhaus’s position appears in the following paragraph:

It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who, unlike Alan Wolfe et al., care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney. The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.

Fr. Neuhaus joins Al Mohler and others in suggesting that Mitt Romney should perhaps be opposed because his election would make an honest religion out of Mormonism, with accompanying downsides that must be obvious enough that they remain unstated.

Could it be true that the LDS Church would get a boost if one of its faithful members is elected as President? And would substantial rises in conversions follow from the added prestige, as Fr. Neuhaus suggests?

The argument gives rise to several familiar images: the door being closed after the horse has left the barn, the finger in the dike, and of course, Chicken Little. Each is discussed below.

First, the horse has already left the barn. Whatever future is in store for Mormonism, whether it be exponential growth as predicted by some, or fracture and oblivion, as hoped for by some, the present situation should not be overlooked. Mormonism remains one of the fastest growing faiths in America, showing signs of stability and vitality that will likely continue. Looking beyond considerations of sheer growth and size, the church has gained new visibility in the early part of this century due in no small part to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and the candidacy of Mitt Romney. Coverage of the church in mainstream media has exploded in recent years, from features in most of the major newsweeklies to several prominent books to the recent PBS documentary series and a upcoming movie attempting to implicate the church in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This confluence of coverage has prompted some commentators to dub the current era “the Mormon Moment.”

In short, the LDS Church is slowly leaving behind the obscurity that has surrounded it in former times, finding new recognition and scrutiny, both positive and negative, in America and around the world. This fact should not be read as evidence of Mormon triumphalism or arrogance. Indeed, the LDS Church faces larger problems now than it did just 20 years ago, challenges inherent in administering a global organization, as well as the public relations burden of explaining itself to a world that had mostly ignored it until now. Further, contra Fr. Neuhaus’s speculation, this increase in visibility and even respect has not translated to accelerated growth. Indeed, the Church’s growth rate, while still outstripping those of other denominations, has been basically static for the last decade. And it bears noting that traditional Christian denominations have not complained of any new difficulty in keeping their members from becoming Mormons.

In just the first few months of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, many Americans have already learned something about Mormonism, including that Romney shares his faith with other prominent Americans, like the Senate Majority Leader. This attention has not translated to widespread approval for the church. But if the question is how to stop Americans from coming to see Mormonism as a church for normal people, one must conclude that that process has already begun to mature.

Second, even if the LDS Church hasn’t necessarily arrived as a fully acceptable and mainstream faith in the eyes of many Americans, all signs suggest that it is only a matter of time until that occurs. Thus, those hoping to defeat Romney in order to stop the process are only putting their fingers futilely in a dike. That is to say, as the LDS Church continues to grow (with both conversion rates and birth rates higher than the averages of other American religions), everyone in America will soon come to be familiar with a Mormon or two. As the growth continues, Mormons will continue to rise to positions of prominence in every possible sector- athletics, the arts, academics, entertainment, and politics. Even if one believes that a Romney defeat would slow this incremental expansion, there can be little doubt that in 5 or 15 years, Mormons would continue to catch the public eye regardless. There is very little that could prevent this from happening.

This analysis is not meant as a finger in the eye to say that “the Mormons are coming so you’d better get used to it.” Rather, it is simply incontrovertible that Mormons are becoming more numerous and more prominent in America, and that America is slowly becoming better acquainted with Mormons. To focus on stopping Mitt Romney as a means to slow this process is a petty and ultimately hopeless endeavor.

Lastly, and most important to those of other religions watching anxiously for the fallout of all of the above, there is no evidence to support the claim that conversions will increase following the election of Mitt Romney. No such increases have been reported in Massachusetts or any other area governed by a Mormon, and there is no reason to think that Americans in general would make personal religious decisions based on the religion of their president (one should consider asking whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers saw new prestige and conversion spikes after the elections of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, respectively). Given the lack of actual evidence to support their claims, Mssrs. Neuhaus and Mohler look a bit like Chicken Little in this debate.

While Americans seem unwilling to be swayed on religious matters by the faith of their political leaders, the affect a Mormon president would have on missionary work abroad seems easier to predict. According to the accounts of numerous LDS missionaries, citizens of the world’s other countries tend to view the American president as a personal representative of America, attaching to him the blame for everything they see wrong with this country. Given the present global climate of distrust for all things American, some Mormon commentators have expressed anxiety about the Romney candidacy, as it may well turn many in the world against Mormonism and thus slow LDS missionary efforts abroad. Having served a mission myself in Portugal, I believe these predictions to be somewhat well-founded. That is, if the world’s most visible political leader is a Mormon, the average world citizen that is the target of LDS missionary efforts is quite likely to connect Mormonism with every unpopular U.S. foreign policy, resulting in a likely decline in worldwide public opinion about Mormons. The damage this might cause to worldwide missionary efforts would likely outweigh any small gains the Mormon Church could possibly make in America due to the predicted new prestige under a President Romney. To those that oppose the steady growth of Mormonism, this fact should come as some consolation. And again, even in America, the increasing mainstreaming and visibility of the Mormon Church in the last ten or fifteen years has not caused any acceleration in growth, disproving the prediction of increased conversions following increased prominence.

In summary, the idea that Christians should oppose Romney’s candidacy to prevent an explosion of LDS Church growth is both unsupported and futile. To add one more argument against this position, it is also borders on rank prejudice. While Fr. Neuhaus has stated his position respectfully enough, the pragmatic translation of his argument goes something like this: Any gains in success or prominence of visible Mormons hurt traditional Christianity, and therefore traditional Christians must seek to prevent visible Mormons from obtaining success or prominence.

While the commentators have so far limited their opposition to presidential candidates, it is clear that the argument could be applied to business leaders, entertainers, and other Mormons that might stand a chance of gaining the public eye. While prejudice in America has been historically common, it is a rare thing for sophisticated and Liberal commentators to call for an entire sector of society to remain under the radar and out of the public eye in order to protect the speaker’s own provincial interest. Good Christians should hold enough faith in their position to be generous with the American dream, allowing those of all faiths to share in the possibilities that make this country the envy of so many others. Refusing the presidency to a Mormon simply to prevent any speculative gains in Mormon prestige would run directly counter not only to American principles of equality and upward mobility, but to the Christian charity that is central to both of these faiths.

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