A response to Stuart Parker’s Mitt Romney and the Politics of Passing from Armand Mauss.
ROMNEY AND THE “PASSING” PROCESS
I found Stuart Parker’s take on Romney’s problems a combination of interesting insights and dubious observations. I tend to agree with some of what he had to say, but I had a problem, first of all, with his tendency to conflate the individual and the collective levels of analysis. I have always considered the “passing” phenomenon as occurring primarily at the individual level, rather than at the collective or institutional level, where I prefer the term “assimilation.” Within any collective category, some individuals will have the necessary traits (physical or otherwise), the resources, the opportunity, and the motivation to “pass,” but others in the same category will not. Ultimately it is an individual decision to try “passing,” well before it is ratified by the majority into which the passing is attempted. Perhaps assimilation could be considered simply a collective accumulation of individual “passes,” but in the Mormon case, as in many others, assimilation was an institutional decision; it was made and carried out by the leadership of the Church during the first half of the 20th century. The leadership has always shown some ambivalence about this process and has taken the Church back and forth, toward and then away from, assimilation since mid-century.
I don’t think Romney’s political fortunes (or those of any other Mormon so public) can be understood apart from that institutional context, but neither do I think that context is the ultimate factor in shaping those fortunes, whether for Romney, Huntsman, Udalls, Harry Reid, or any other Mormons. Instead, I think we must look first to their respective personalities, not ignoring, of course, what their religious experiences have contributed to their personalities. In Romney’s case, I have seen several claims by his close friends and family members that his persona is much warmer and more engaging in his informal encounters (especially with them) than in his political encounters and appearances. It is in the latter that the pundits have declared him “stiff,” unable or unwilling to “connect” with his audiences, or to project the necessary “authenticity” in what he has to say. I confess to sharing somewhat in that critique of Romney’s public performances, and I’m not sure I know how to explain the problem he seems to be having.
However, among the possibilities that occurred to me was that perhaps he retains a little too much of what I have come to call the “priesthood leader persona” (PLP), which I have observed across the years as a common trait in Mormon men who have spent many years in the parallel (if secondary) church career track, beginning as bishop, followed by a term in a stake presidency, then as stake president, “regional rep” (as it used to be called), or (now) area authority. In the PLP, we see an affability that is somewhat contrived and restrained in order to maintain a certain social distance; an expectation of (and comfort with) deference; a preference for titles, rather than first names, in all church social transactions, even the most informal ones; a somewhat didactic and imperious mode of addressing crowds and groups; etc. The PLP works well in the LDS ecclesiastical culture and is doubtless ingrained in a leader as he moves through the ranks and learns the “unwritten order of things” (to borrow a phase from Elder Packer’s instructions at BYU in 1996). Spending years in this culture can produce a “trained incapacity” to relate to others in an open and genuine way, at least outside a rather small and intimate circle of colleagues, friends, and relatives. I would not, of course, claim any inevitability about all this, for I have seen a few exceptions in my lifetime — but fewer yet who can discard the PLP after leaving high office, even at the stake level. In any case, the PLP is my hypothesis about Romney’s problem (one which would have been reinforced by his roles in the business world). It might also help explain the contrast between Romney and Huntsman Jr., who never became a priesthood leader, as far as I know.
At the collective or institutional level, as I indicated above, I’m not sure that the “passing” concept has any usefulness beyond the more conventional “assimilation.” I think Parker is right in seeing the downside (for the LDS public image) of the Church’s interventions in such issues as the ERA and Prop. 8, but when he resorts to explaining such political interventions as part of an effort to “pass” into evangelical Christianity, he ignores the Church’s own ideological motivations, which are entitled to the same respect as anyone else’s, even if leftist observers like Parker regard these as politically retrograde. Mormon leaders might be understood as simply taking seriously their prophetic imperative when they inject themselves into national issues which they regard as especially crucial. Otherwise, what are prophets for? The cost paid by the Church in public relations is a separate issue. If Parker wants a truly historic example of “passing” (or “assimilation” in my terms) by a “Mormon” denomination, he might look to the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS). Presumably he would see the RLDS accommodations to liberal Christianity (including even their name-change) as more palatable politically than the LDS accommodations to Evangelical Christianity (if that’s what they were).
Even in light of Niemoller’s plaintive plea, experience indicates to me that “moral authority” comes not from being on the apparently “progressive” side in any short-term political controversy but rather from the verdict of history in the long term. Correctly or not, Mormon leaders of recent decades have understood their resistance to legally mandated equality across the board for the sexes and homosexuals as resistance against the erosion of the family as a foundational institution of both the society and the Church. Whether their thinking on this has been truly prophetic or only retrograde might require a couple of more generations to determine. Time has not always ratified the politically “progressive” in our history. For example, in both the U. S. and Canada, it was once considered politically acceptable to deal with our indigenous aboriginal peoples through genocide, followed eventually by the more “progressive” ethnic cleansing, or forced assimilation. Does that chapter in the history of our countries disqualify us forever from condemning the genocide and ethnic cleansing now occurring in other parts of the world? Similarly, if Mormons once shared in the racist national consensus about black people, and lagged, by a decade or so, in keeping pace as that consensus changed, will Mormons never be entitled to criticize religious bigotry? And so on . . .