[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Matt Bowman, a Mormon blogger I know slightly (in the same way, I suppose, that just about all Mormon bloggers know each other at least “slightly”), has written a fine and thoughtful piece about the different “Mormonisms” of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, the two members of my faith that are at present making noise about their interest in pursuing the Republican nomination for president next year. His basic thesis is that the differences between them in how they talk about and relate to others in the context of their religious beliefs, and consequently their differences in how they may potentially reach out to voters in the Republican primaries and then the general election, is greatly a function of their ages: that there is a “generation gap” between a Mormon who came of age in the mid-1960s (as Romney did), and the late 1970s (as Huntsman did), and that gap is meaningful. I agree with Matt that the gap is meaningful–but I disagree that it is as meaningful as he makes it out to be, and I also think he missed some of what more crucially makes it meaningful, to whatever degree it is.
1) Matt writes intelligently about the deeply patriotic “business Mormonism” that characterized the mid-20th-century Mormon elite; by the time polygamy had been dead (or at least strongly encouraged to seem so) for a couple of generations, you really did have a group of pioneer-stock Mormons–which Romney is; his own father was born in the Mexican Mormon colony of Colonia Dublán, which was founded by members of the faith fleeing anti-polygamy persecution–that were utterly committed to succeeding on the organizational, meritocratic terms of postwar America. And it’s true that you can see echoes of that legacy in Romney’s occasional awkwardness in dealing with, as Matt put it, “the cultural diversity and religious pluralism evident in late twentieth-century America.” But the video I just linked to lends a bit of even weightier evidence to Matt’s thesis, some evidence which he, strangely, never even touches upon: when Mitt Romney went out to proselytize to the world in 1966, he was defending a church which still banned African-Americans from the hold positions of priesthood authority, which is an absolutely central part of the church’s administrative life. But, by the time Jon Huntsman when out on his mission in 1979, that policy had been changed. The removal of this, the single largest albatross around our church’s neck, in terms of its moving away from its vaguely isolationist, communitarian, and theocratic past, and into becoming one community amongst many in America’s hyper-liberal present, between the years when Mitt was a young Mormon man, and when Jon was one, can’t possibly be ignored.
2) But nor, however, should it be made into a larger explanatory variable than it should be. Matt writes a good deal about the legacy of President Gordon B. Hinckley, who lead our church through the 1990s, and he’s correct to do so: Hinckley was in so many ways an unexpectedly savvy leader, a man comfortable with the media and the ways the “American way of life” was being transformed by globalization and technology. (I wrote some thoughts about his legacy here and here.) It’s absolutely true that American Mormons over the past 20 years have been led, in all sorts of ways both subtle and obvious, to accommodate themselves to being in a busy, diverse, individualistic world. However, Matt chooses not to incorporate into his essay the way those same years under President Hinckley were arguably years of fine-tuning and polishing the veneer on a process of moral retrenchment. It was Hinckley who famously demanded a “raising of the bar” for American proselytizing missionaries; and of course, it was during those same years that Utah went from being an imbalanced but still politically patchwork state to becoming the most Republican state in the country, and the church developed the public rhetoric (most particularly the Proclamation on the Family) which has led directly to our church’s engagement in the culture wars, particularly regarding homosexuality, to a degree which it hasn’t since the 1970s. So the church which shaped Romney may have been less comfortable with the structures and media of American pluralism than was the case with Huntsman, but it simply isn’t true that Huntsman church, a generation (or at least a decade and a half) later was somehow more moderate or flexible. It has simply chosen, for better and/or for worse, different battles, ones more in line with the general conservative movement to shore up what many once assumed to be fundamental, “established” values, than it did in the past.
So if the real explanation can’t be reduced to a generational difference, what is it? Probably simple piety: Huntsman doesn’t take his Mormonism quite as seriously as pioneer-stock Romney does. Matt’s essay constructs a valid cultural/historical argument, but as it chooses not to tell the most important part of the relevant history, and then chooses not to touch on the most obvious religious variable at work between Romney and Huntsman, is missing where the better explanation of their differences lies.