Seth Perry: Romney's Religious Dilemma

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Seth Perry is a Ph.D. student in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who passed away January 27, spent a lot of his unusually long life trying to get non-Mormons to stop seeing people of his faith as strange. As he told Mike Wallace in 1996, "We're not a weird people." Hinckley spent an equal amount of time, though, getting his flock to remain "peculiar." Like the author of 1 Peter, whose words he often cited, Hinckley believed that Christ's chosen would stand out from the world, and that "peculiarity" would only grow as society declined. Hinckley was relentless in pursuing those two seemingly opposed goals.

If Mitt Romney's campaign accomplished anything, it was to remind us that political speech is a blunt instrument, incapable of registering distinctions like that between weird and peculiar: He worked so hard to avoid the stigma of weirdness that he lost any shot at the benefits of peculiarity.


As immigrant groups have discovered throughout American history, assimilation comes at the risk of losing the essential self that one is trying to define. That has not been lost on the LDS Church, and, particularly in the last 40 years or so, it has pursued a double strategy of accommodation and what scholars call "retrenchment." The 20th-century church has emphasized the Christian nature of Mormonism, aligned politically with evangelical Protestants, and pursued ecumenical cooperation.

Meanwhile, among the faithful, leaders have renewed emphasis on uniquely Mormon elements such as dedication to the Book of Mormon as revealed scripture, the prophetic status of the church's leader, and the essential importance of temple attendance and all that goes with it — the lifestyle required to earn entry into the temple and the significance of the ordinances and work performed there.

The challenge is that the two audiences, the wider public and church members, inevitably intersect. The church's public-relations efforts are not disingenuous — it is impossible to read much LDS theology honestly without seeing that Jesus is at its center (despite repeated charges during the campaign that Mormons are not Christian). But like all exercises in what communications theorists call "impression management," those efforts emphasize elements known to be more agreeable to outside audiences at the expense of others less so. And that means that when elements of the retrenchment thread reach the wider public, rumor and innuendo can make it look like the church is hiding something — something weird.

That is where Romney's religion played a role in his campaign's failure. As a candidate for president, Romney was required to negotiate the distinction between weirdness and peculiarity, a distinction to which he appeared to remain tone-deaf throughout the campaign. Worried about perceptions of Mormon weirdness, Romney was determined not to discuss the details of his religion — and details were what the news media and facetious fellow candidates wanted to talk about.

The pointed questions started before Romney was officially in the race. In the September 2005 Atlantic Monthly, a reporter asked him, "How Mormon are you?" Then, "Do you wear the temple garments?" Romney's response — a civil answer to what Mormons consider a very rude question — was a hallmark of the campaign's initial strategy on the subject of religion: "I'll just say those sorts of things I'll keep private." An interviewer on CBS's The Early Show last July asked about the Mormon belief that Missouri will play a role in the end times and got the response Romney came to use most often: "You know, why don't you talk to my church about the doctrines of my church." On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer picked up a similar thread about Missouri and got a similar response. The opening of a Newsweek profile in October showcased what had developed into a real problem: As Romney sensed that religion questions were coming, the reporter commented, "Never has a man so polished looked so uncomfortable."

In December, when Romney gave what was called his "religion speech" in Texas, commentators inside and outside the campaign presented it as a concession: Tired of being hounded, he would talk about his religion. In reality, there wasn't much new in the speech. Romney continued to swear never to distance himself from his faith while making it abstract by calling on all of the resources available to an American candidate: the supposed religious devotion of the founders, Lincoln's "political religion," a generic set of Judeo-Christian "values," and the "nation's symphony of faith."

What could possibly have been gained with such platitudes? Because the church has, in fact, retained its peculiarity in details that voters have repeatedly heard about, Americans weren't going to be convinced that Romney's faith was interchangeable with their own. The suspicion of weirdness was always there.

The church has rightly defended its public-relations strategies by asking its own question: Other than in missionary activity, what can be gained by going into details with the public? Why belabor points of sacred doctrine with a world that misunderstands and mocks them?

The church is not running for office, though. The church is doing what it sees as God's work, and it conducts public relations only to ensure that the public doesn't hamper that work any more than is unavoidable. A politician is doing something very different.

I think Romney was entirely correct when he said, repeatedly, that no candidate should be expected to go into the kind of details he avoided. But then I don't think — as one of the "secularists" he railed against — that his ideas about Jesus have much to do with him being president. It seems that by appealing to those who do believe such things matter, on their own terms, he put himself in the position of owing them the details....

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