How Mormon History has Shaped Mitt Romney

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Daniel J. Herman is professor of History at Central Washington University. He is author of Hunting and the American Imagination (2001) and Hell on the Range: A Story of Honor, Conscience, and the American West (2010). A sequel to the latter book, Rim Country Exodus: A Story of Conquest, Renewal, and Race in the Making, will be released by University of Arizona Press in October 2012. This article is a condensed version of a longer piece which appeared in the April edition of Common-place.

In 1886, Miles Park Romney, great-grandfather to Mitt Romney, found himself giving three cheers to the Mexican flag and delivering a patriotic oration on Benito Juarez, hero of Mexico during its struggle against French occupation. Romney—who had spent several years in Britain as an LDS missionary, had helped Brigham Young colonize southern Utah, then helped colonize Arizona in the early 1880s—had been uprooted yet again. Having fled Arizona to escape prosecution for illegal cohabitation, he now sought to establish Mexican refuges for his fellow polygamists.

Miles Romney’s flight—in fact his several flights—is old history. It is unlikely—despite the fears of Senator Orrin Hatch—that Democrats will use the “outlandish” deeds of long-dead Mormons to strike blows at Mitt in the presidential election. Yet the story of Miles Romney is far from irrelevant; it tells us much about modern Mormons and about Mitt Romney in particular.

From Isolation to Acceptance

When Miles Romney had helped colonize Arizona, Mormons still sought isolation from other Americans. Though Mormon leaders viewed the U.S. Constitution as something sacred, they prophesied that the U.S. would dissolve in a second civil war. Though they had given up on making their vast Western realm—“Deseret”—into a separate nation, they counseled Mormons to avoid interacting with outsiders. When Mormons quarreled with other Mormons, they were told to take their case to ecclesiastical courts. When Mormons sold land, they were told to sell to other Mormons. When Mormons bought manufactured goods, they bought them from a Mormon cooperative.

Mormon isolationism led Miles Romney to publish articles in his 1880s Arizona newspaper, The Orion Era, in undecipherable script, perhaps some version of the Mormon alphabet that Brigham Young sought to create. Though Mormon scripture inveighed against “secret combinations”—conspiracies and cabals—Mormons were drawn to secrecy. The “mission” to colonize remote parts of Arizona, and then Mexico, was part of that pattern.

In Arizona, hiding proved impossible. New Mexicans, Texas cowboys, railroads, and big cattle operations contested the range. Beatings, killings, stock theft, and vigilante justice ensued. New Mexicans and Texas cowboys sought to run Mormons out of the country. Miles Romney himself experienced persecution. On one occasion, someone fired a bullet into his home. On another occasion, a man beat him senseless. On still another occasion, a New Mexican man thrashed Romney’s teenage son. In response, Romney used his newspaper to “denounce vigorously the merciless war waged against a righteous people.”

Despite those vigorous denunciations, Romney was compelled to move again when faced with prosecution for polygamy. Once loyal to Deseret, then loyal to Utah, then to Arizona, and now to Mexico, Romney had to adjust—just as his own father, a British citizen, had to adjust when he converted to Mormonism, moved to Nauvoo, then to St. Louis, Missouri, then to Salt Lake, and then to St. George in southern Utah.

Perhaps Miles Romney’s theater experience helped him metamorphose. In St. George, where he lived prior to his arrival in Arizona, he “bestrode the theatrical world like a giant colossus.” In Arizona and in Mexico, he continued to act and to organize theatrical events. Theater was part of Mormon culture. Even as Mormons sought to separate themselves from the world, they played worldly roles.

The new role that the Romneys were forced to perform in Mexico was not the last of their dramas. Miles Romney died in 1904. Only a few years later, Mexican revolutionaries forced his progeny to abandon their colonies. Though some Mormons were able to return in later years, Mitt’s father, George, was not among them. He accompanied his own father, Gaskell—Miles Romney’s son—back to the U.S., where he remained.

Wherever they went, Mormons found that they could not exist in isolation. Perpetual flight required them in the long run to fit in. Mormons were forever changing skins, serving Deseret, the U.S., Utah, Arizona, Mexico, the all-Mormon People’s Party, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and always the church. In seeking isolation, they made themselves chameleons. They made themselves, ultimately, mainstream.

In the twentieth century, the LDS church pushed the flock in just that direction. It renounced polygamy. It countenanced patriotism. It gave up isolation. Mormons sought respectability. They sought to fit in. To fit in, in turn, demanded likability and moderation. Mormons presented themselves to the wider world as impeccably honest, hard-working, well-mannered pragmatists.

It is that history, one might argue, that gave us Mitt Romney. Far from craving isolation, he wants recognition. To earn it, he has become likable and pragmatic. His “etch-a-sketch” persona allows him to slough off political skins and assume new guises. As governor of Massachusetts, he created universal health insurance with a mandate. As the Republican nominee for president, he repudiates the same mandate and labels himself a “strict conservative.” In 2008, he supported bailouts and stimulus; in 2012, he thinks they were bad ideas. In past years, he favored allowing gays to serve openly in the military and a woman’s right to choose; as Republican nominee, he opposes both.

That is not to say he is fake. From another perspective, Mitt Romney truly is a “strict conservative.” Like most Mormons, he believes deeply in market capitalism. With his millions from Bain Capital, he is the product of worldly ambition. So was his father, George, who became president of American Motors, then governor of Michigan. Ambition made the Romneys—like other Mormons—into conservatives. And to understand that ambition and conservatism—and the contradictions they entail—we must again step into the world of Miles Park Romney.

From Socialism to John Birch

Worldly ambition was not always the Mormon norm. Before sending Miles Romney to help colonize southern Utah (and then Arizona) in the 1870s, Brigham Young asked him whether he wanted to go to heaven. When Romney said yes, Young instructed him to join the “United Order of Enoch,” a socialist society premised on the godly city of Enoch in the Book of Mormon. Romney was forced to sell valuable property in Salt Lake before embarking on his “mission.” Members of the United Order—including all the early Arizona colonists—worked for one another rather than for gain. They gave up private property to the collective.

As Romney added wives and children to his retinue, however, he sought desperately to provide for them. In his eventful and adventurous life, he married five women who bore 30 children.

Most Mormons provided for their families by farming. Miles Romney was not among them. Gaskell Romney (Mitt’s grandfather) recalled that his father “never acquired the practical habits of a pioneer in handling horses, cattle, in hunting or fishing…. I am sure he never milked a cow, cut a stick of wood, or cut a chicken’s head off.” What Miles Park Romney did know how to do was to build houses and furniture and to buy and sell commodities. Wherever he went—even Mexico—he achieved at least modest prosperity. Even with four families and five wives, he was a good provider.

Jesse Smith, one of Romney’s fellow leaders in the colonization of Arizona, had told Mormon pioneers that “the kingdom cannot be established on the credit system.” By the 1880s, those same pioneers—including Miles Romney—had abandoned the United Order. For a time, they stood between economic worlds; they were both capitalist and socialist, both individualistic and corporate. They sought profit in dealings with “gentiles” (non-Mormons), but among themselves they continued to engage in barter and sharing. In the twentieth century, they took another leap. They began to celebrate worldly success. They became, in short, like Mitt Romney.

Those who made money, Mormons came to believe, were those who lived their faith. Mormonism became “the Protestant ethic on steroids,” according to a Mormon economist. After Congress dissolved the LDS church as a corporation in 1887, church leaders worked ever more closely with leaders in business. Without any seminary to train and ordain its ministry, the church called on entrepreneurs and professionals to become bishops. Bishops, in turn, filled higher ranks. Leaders in the private sphere became inseparable from those in the public. Following their lead, the church renounced socialism (even as relief societies remained active in helping less fortunate Saints).

That shift led Mormons into the Republican Party. In the 1830s and 1840s, most Mormons were Democrats. As Zion grew, however, the church had taken control of politics and established a one-party system (the “People’s Party”). Not until the late nineteenth century did LDS leaders tell lay Mormons to participate in the dominant two-party American system. Instructed thus, many Mormons resumed ties with the Democratic Party (President Grover Cleveland encouraged that affiliation by pardoning convicted polygamists). Some Mormons flirted with socialism. As church leadership and business leadership became entwined, however, Mormons moved en masse to the right.

W. Cleon Skousen—FBI agent, friend to LDS church presidents, and de facto Mormon political philosopher of the Cold War era—provided theological rationale. In a series of books—The Making of America, The 5000-Year Leap, and The Cleansing of America—Skousen suggested that free enterprise was God’s plan. By developing talents here and now, Mormons advanced the fortunes of the church.

Not only did wealthy Mormons gain public respect, they also made the church richer by paying their 10 percent tithing. Tithing enabled Mormons to send missionaries throughout the world (in the final days, explained Skousen, converts would gather in a U.S. cleansed of gentile sin). In the millennium, Mormons might be socialists, but in this world, ambition was key. Skousen’s friend, Ezra Taft Benson, president of the LDS church in the 1970s, went so far as to say that no good Mormon could be a liberal. Skousen himself, though not a member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, endorsed its message.

With his ambition and conservatism, Mitt Romney epitomizes the drift of twentieth-century Mormonism. Indeed he has praised some of Skousen’s work. But—despite the contradiction—it is also Mitt’s likability and moderation that epitomize twentieth-century Mormonism.

Voters may not know quite what to think. They may be mystified by Romney’s many transformations. What Romney offers is the contradictions of Mormon history. Perhaps more important, he offers Mormon pragmatism. That may not win him the election, but it has made him a powerful politician.

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