Mormons, Romney, and the New York Times

So I read the New York Times article on Romney’s candidacy today. I have to say, it was one of the more balanced things I’ve read about Mormons in the national press since this campaign season began. The author took a novel step: she asked actual Mormons about church doctrine and culture. Wow!

I quite enjoyed reading the piece. One note, though: I was always taught as a kid that Christ would return to the Mount of Olives, but that he would later go to Missouri, from which he would direct the Millennium. And in any case, while I don’t particularly like the idea of Romney as president (I’m a Leftist, but I vote Democrat out of practicality, so he’s really not my speed), I can’t imagine feeling that he’d committed some sort of grave theological betrayal because he didn’t agree with my Primary teachers on the location of Christ’s return to Earth. Who cares? For that matter, who cares if he’s happy we dropped polygamy? Hey, aren’t most of us happy about that?

Moving on: I was thrilled about the Amish bit at the end of the article. People in California used to ask me why I didn’t wear my “Mormon clothes”. At first, I assumed they were talking about the garments, but someone eventually clarified – she expected me to wear shapeless, long, dark dresses and straw hats. And that was a woman whose own church did all kinds of ecumenical stuff with the California Oakland stake. Seeing references to that kind of misunderstanding in print was enjoyable.

Dear BCC readers, what did you all think of the article?

Addendum: please also see John Fowles’ lengthier post on this article. I didn’t see his post before I wrote my own, and I didn’t intend to poach.’  Sorry, John!


  1. Stephanopoulos:

    In your faith, if I understand it correctly, it teaches that Jesus will return probably to the United States and reign on earth for 1,000 years…


    [T]hat doesn’t happen to be a doctrine of my church. Our belief is just as it says in the Bible, that the messiah will come to Jerusalem, stand on the Mount of Olives and that the Mount of Olives will be the place for the great gathering and so forth. It’s the same as the other Christian tradition.


    This is the quote in question, and the context was whether this would inflame Muslims (Jesus in America, aka the Great Satan). Romney’s reply is…creative.

    But, hmmm, well, is this really important?

    All I’ll say is: Mormons and Romney = complicated. The international Mormon perspective on a President Romney is an interesting one, too…

  2. Oh, wow. That’s egregious, after all.

  3. Mark IV says:

    I agree with you, Taryn. That was a pretty good article, and I appreciate a reporter who actually bothers to ask questions directly of the people involved, rather than just recycling second and third hand rumors.

    One small question – the article said that 66% of Utah’s electorate is Mormon, and that 59% of Mormons vote republican. 66 x .59 = 39. Less that 40% of voters in Utah are LDS republicans? That may be true, I don’t have solid data to refute it, but it is hard to square that with the stories of Utah being the reddest state in America.

  4. Mark IV says:

    Ronan, I spoke just yesterday with a missionary recently returned from Argentina. He opposes Romney’s candidacy solely on the grounds that there is already too much of a connection in the Latin American public eye that LDS = USA. After hearing some of his stories, I’m inclined to agree with him.

  5. Thanks for the link- one of the better articles I’ve read…

  6. Mark IV,
    I don’t know where the numbers come from, but in order to get less than 40% of the voters in Utah being Mormon, you’d have to assume that 100% of the non-Mormon electorate in Utah is not Republican. Like you, I don’t have any data on this, but I’d assume that at least some non-Mormons in Utah also vote Republican.

  7. Sorry—less than 40% of the voters being Republican.

  8. Taryn,

    One note, though: I was always taught as a kid that Christ would return to the Mount of Olives, but that he would later go to Missouri, from which he would direct the Millennium.

    Actually, Christ will go to the temple first, in Missouri and meet with the Brethren, before his glorious Second Coming at the Mount of Olives. But that first appearance will not be known to any but the elect. This I understand from Bruce R. McConkie’s “Millenial Messiah.”

  9. Here is the problem, Stephanopoulos’ question wasn’t exacty true either. Perhaps Romney could have been a little more exact, but its not completely wrong. My only problem is “[T]hat doesn’t happen to be a doctrine of my church.” It would have been better if he had said not “exactly” a doctrine of my church. Combine the question with the answer and it would be more accurate.

    Then again, I find the question politically suspect. There isn’t any precident for that kind of question for any other presidential candidate in history. The fact that Stephanopoulos came back to refute what Romney said from unnamed Mormon sources makes it even more suspect. For me, it highlights why I think Romney should bypass all theological questions.

  10. As a Romney supporter, I actually thought the article was pretty good. The reporter got most of the facts right, which is a novelty these days when reporting on Church issues and Romney.

  11. Jettboy,
    I may have to agree with you to a point: it does seem unfair that Romney has to field theological questions and no-one else does. But you have to understand that no-one knows the first thing about Mormons, and when they think they do, they imagine Mormonism to be a polygamy cult. So, tough though it may be on Romney, it’s par for the course when a new religion enters the national stage. People want to know what their President believes. If Tom Cruise were running, people would want to know whether he believed in Lord Xenu’s DC-8’s.

  12. Romney seems to have thought that Stephanopoulos was implying that Latter-day Saints do not believe that Jesus will appear at the Mount of Olives but rather in America. It is clearly not the case that Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus will appear in America rather than at the Mount of Olives. Latter-day Saints believe that he will appear at the Mount of Olives, just like creedal Christians do, and also that he will play a role in the New Jerusalem that Latter-day Saints believe will be located in America during the Millenium. In other words, Romney was answering what Stephanopoulos was really asking: “But don’t Mormons believe that Jesus will come to America instead of the Holy Land in the Second Coming?”

  13. In other words, with only a few seconds of time, Romney had to diffuse the mischaracterization that Stephanopoulos, whether intentionally or unintentionally, was creating with the question. With only a few seconds, Romney cannot explain what I have expressed above in 13.

    When he said “That is not a doctrine of my church”, the most reasonable reading of the statement, given that we all know that we believe that Jesus will play a role on the American continent during the Millenium, and we know that Romney knows this, is that Romney was saying that with reference to the idea underlying Stephanopoulos’s question that Latter-day Saints don’t believe as “other Christians” do that Jesus will appear in the Holy Land at the Second Coming.

  14. Nick Literski says:

    I’m disappointed that Ken Godfrey is quoted in the NYT article as saying Romney “represents the best of what the church can produce.” I’ve known Ken for a long time. I also know his wonderful wife, Audrey, who is quoted more sensibly in the article (saying she’d be upset at Romney’s polygamy comment, if she was one of his relatives).

    Does Romney really represent “the best of what the church can produce?” Somehow, I don’t think that’s much of a compliment to the LDS church. It seems to reflect a high value placed on Romney’s material success as a measure of Mormonism’s worth.

    While (as most of you know) I’m no longer a member of the LDS church, I’m rather protective of its early history and heritage. Romney’s comments really irritate me, and would have done so even more back when I was active in the church. I don’t think they reflect honesty on his part. Coupled with his clear and repeated policy changes, depending on which electorate he’s running for, I don’t feel like I can trust the man.

    As for the whole Jerusalem vs. Independence thing, Romney’s comment may have been correct in a very narrow sense (i.e., the “world premier of Jesus the Sequel), but it was also misleading. Mormonism clearly teaches of two world “capitals,” with Jesus ruling from both. Smacks of “depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

    I think Ken Godfrey really missed the mark on this one, and I’m disappointed that he would say such an ill-considered thing. But then again, I’ve seen Ken Godfrey teach a student that Joseph Smith’s last words had nothing to do with Freemasonry, and that they were the result of Joseph having a last-second vision of Jesus “coming to take him home.” Ugh.

  15. What were JSJ’s last words?

  16. Very nice article. It’s nice that a wide range of Mormons are noted and quoted, conveying to the reader that there is actually a spectrum of opinion within Mormonism on many topics. This is a refreshing departure from the media’s habit of using “Mormons believe that …” as if every single Mormon thinks and believes the same thing.

    The article does use the term “political liberal,” and I wish more people would distinguish the political use of conservative and liberal from the religious use of the same terms. The ubiquitous term “liberal Mormon” refers primarily to a person’s religious thinking vis-a-vis Mormonism, but I get the impression that most conservative Utah Mormons take it as a political description. Clearer thinking on this point would be helpful, but I’m not optimistic. The more that LDS leaders stress the distinction between political and religious speech and opinion, the more Utah Mormons conflate the two.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the link, Taryn. It’s a good article.

    I personally am inclinded to cut Mitt a lot of slack on his responses to Mormon theological issues, which are almost impossible to discuss in any sort of a coherent way in the public press. This is sort of like the criticism GBH endured for saying we don’t know much about God once having been a man, or agreeing that Mormons don’t drink caffeinated drinks. Given the context of the remarks, I thought what he said was perfectly appropriate. An interview with national media requires sound bite answers, and there is no room for nuance or background or context.

    For instance, the role of Missouri in Mormon eschatology has been undergoing a very slow diffusion over time, like the air leaving a tire through a slow leak. It is not at all clear to me that it is contemporary LDS doctrine that Jesus is going to come to Independence to rule over the world in the Millennium. How is Mitt supposed to explain slow shifts in doctrine like this?

    And I didn’t have any problem with Mitt saying he couldn’t conceive of anything more awful than polygamy. I don’t interpret that as not honoring the sacrifice of ancestors who lived it, and it is a sentiment that is probably shared by most modern Mormons, whether they are willing to express it that way or not.

  18. Couple of things.

    Christ first in secret to Miss and then publicly to the Mount of Olives like in Zech in the OT. George S was way off base on this one.

    The article said that 59% of LDS voters in UT. are Repubs. I understand from my studying this issue that about 60% of the LDS in Utah are REGISTERED Repub.

    Another percentage of the LDS is not registered Repub but votes that way. Adding up to 80-85%.

  19. Tracy: “oh, Lord, my God.” Which is evidently the beginning of a Masonic cry of distress, something like: “Oh, Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow’s son?” A classic paper on the subject, never formally published as far as I know, is found here.

    It’s also worth noting that Taryn inadvertently poached John Fowles’s post on this article. Taryn and John have some similar perspectives, but also some differences.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Tracy M., Joseph’s last words as he fell from the upper window at Carthage Jail were “Oh, Lord, my God….”

    This has led many scholars to suggest that he was attempting to give the grand hailing sign of distress in Masonry, which is “Oh, Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow’s son?”

    Reed Durham for instance famously suggested this at an early MHA conference at Nauvoo.

    This suggestion is controversial and not everyone accepts it. Personally, I do; I think he was attempting to give the grand hailing sign. And of course, it didn’t work, and he didn’t receive any help, and it was too late at that point anyway.

    My understanding is that there were actually some proceedings in the local lodge dealing with the failure of Masons in the mob to respond to the sign. Nick, can you enlighten us on this subject?

  21. Tracy,

    I think his last words were “Oh Lord my God!” which was the first half of the masonic cry for help “Oh Lord my God is there no help for the widow’s son?” or something like that.

  22. Oh, gosh, John Fowles, I’m sorry. I didn’t see your post. Thanks to JNS for linking it; I’ll link it in the body of the post, as well.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    OK, with three replies to Nick’s threadjack I think we’re firmly required to move back onto topic.

  24. Party pooper.

  25. Nick Literski says:

    Do I dare respond to Kevin’s question?
    (1) John Taylor, a fellow Freemason who we know was at the jail with Joseph, wrote in the Times and Seasons the week after the martyrdom that Joseph was giving the Grand Hailing Sign of Distress. Taylor’s article shamed the masons in the crowd for not responding to it. Several other contemporaries said the same thing about what Joseph was doing. Nobody suggested otherwise until B. H. Roberts put a footnote into the History of the Church, suggesting that it was really a prayer. It’s only “controversial” to those who have a problem with Joseph being a Freemason.
    (2) The Nauvoo Lodge, of which Joseph was a member, had already lost its dispensation to work as an authorized masonic lodge. Rumors at the time of Joseph’s plural marriages would also have been seen by many masons as a violation of his obligation. Most importantly, however, the masonic obligation to respond to this cry of distress is not universal. The obligation explicitly states that it does not apply when you (as a mason) are more likely to lose your own life, than to actually succeed in aiding your masonic brother. Given the mood of the mob, any attempt to save Joseph would surely have resulted in bloodshed for the would-be rescuer.

  26. Nick Literski says:

    Oh…and yes, I’ll stay on the topic now. :-)

  27. jothegrill says:

    There are also the LDS voters who are registered republican but who never actually go to the polls. I know some personally.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Sally Denton’s opinion piece in the LA Times is also relevant to this topic.

  29. Can anybody remember this much press attention on the church?

    I wonder what the missionaries are hearing as the do their work….

  30. Kevin, thanks for pointing out Denton’s piece — which is amazingly good for the author of the much-derided (although I can’t say much about whether the derision is just or unjust, since I’ve never read it) American Massacre book about Mountain Meadows. Let me pull a few highlights.

    It’s not a church’s eccentric past that makes a candidate’s religion relevant today, but its contemporary doctrines. (And it’s worth noting that polygamy and blood atonement, among other practices, are no longer condoned by the official Mormon church hierarchy.) …

    As for Romney and Mormonism, there seems only one legitimate and relevant question: Do you, like the prophet you follow, believe in a theocratic nation state? All the rest is pyrotechnics….

    In an ironic twist, Romney unsuccessfully challenged JFK’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, in 1994. In the campaign, the senator raised the issue of Romney’s Mormonism, to which Romney responded that he was not running as a “spokesman for my church.” Grasping the significance and historic weight of the remark, Kennedy backed down.

    When asked recently if Romney’s religion would be a factor in the 2008 election, Kennedy was quick to respond. “That died with my brother, Jack.”

  31. The dead language grammar Nazi says:

    “Do you, like the prophet you follow, believe in a theocratic nation state?” Translation: Are you a closet theocrat, or do you reject the teachings of your prophet?

    And this is an “amazingly good” article?

  32. The dead language grammar Nazi, Joseph Smith certainly did teach a principle of “theo-democracy” and organized a theocratic political government for the world in the form of a “Council of Fifty” before he died. So our founding prophet did believe in, and teach, the idea of a theocratic nation state. It seems reasonable to me to ask Romney whether he thinks the same — the answer is probably an easy no, since Wilford Woodruff changed the church’s position with relation to politics definitively a long time ago.

  33. bbell,
    I don’t know what the missionaries are hearing but I certainly am hearing a lot whenever I try to have missionary moments with Romney and Cheney combined. I’ve got a few gems. Here’s the most recent one:

    “Wasn’t it the mormon guy on the debates the one who said he wanted to double guantanamo? And wasn’t it a university that is run by your church that gave Cheney a doctorate in civil service? No thanks, I’m not interested, I don’t want anything to do with that. Your church seems pretty bent on supporting torture.”

    To which I should have replied, “No, it isn’t…unless you count the whole three hour block thing.”

    In all honesty, Romney’s candidacy has been a trainwreck for me at least. So many people take his stance to be the church’s stance. The best thing I can say I’ve heard so far in my presence was a republican who was complaining about how much Romney has flip flopped on several issues and he said, “I’d expect a Mormon to be much more morally consistent.” That was a good thing.

  34. Ugly Mahana says:

    Ummm… Right now the prophet I follow is Gordon B. Hinckley. Does he believe in a theocratic nation state?

  35. Mahana, fair enough. But it’s not necessarily unfair to claim that we also follow Joseph Smith — and that’s clearly who Denton was talking about. Consider this additional quote:

    In fact, in 1844, Smith announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, advocating theocratic rule for the entire nation. Challenging the Whig and Democratic parties, he advocated what he called a “theo-democracy where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteous matters.”

    It’s in context of that information that Denton asked the question I quoted above. I know this stuff is quite different from our modern experience — but that’s exactly why it’s an easy question for Romney to answer. And, hey, questions that rub us the wrong way but are based on clear, mainstream scholarly interpretations of Mormon history — like this one — are probably not something we should complain about too vociferously.

  36. Mark B. says:

    He should have said that of course Jesus Christ would not return to the United States, because when Christ returns (or at some time before then), the U.S. will cease to exist as a political entity. And then he should have told Stephanopolous that, since the U.S. would have ceased to exist at that point, what difference did it make what a President believed about it.

  37. As for the statistics about the voting registration–I’d be curious to find out how many are registered members of the Libertarian party, and other parties like whatever Bo Gritz’s party is. I imagine that there are a bunch of independent voters who always vote Republican too. And I’d bet that most of the Democrats are in SLC and Park City. In my little town, twenty – thirty years ago, when the election results were published in the paper there’s be about 120 votes. 4 would be for Democrats. We knew they were my mom, my dad, the guy who ran the little store, and my grandma. My grandpa always told her to vote Republican, but she would ignore him when she got into the booth. :)

  38. cj douglass says:

    All I know is every presidential election I’ve been alive for, the state of Utah is red. In addition, while serving a mission in the boon docks of southern Utah I heard on more than one occassion that registration in the Rep Party was a requirement for temple worthiness. Still, it was a good article that really pointed out the fine details of Romney and the Church. The part about him being more conservative than his church was my favorite.

  39. Norbert says:

    Mark B —

    He should have said that of course Jesus Christ would not return to the United States, because when Christ returns (or at some time before then), the U.S. will cease to exist as a political entity.

    That would be hilarious. Of courser, he’d give that slightly panicked-looking smile he produced during the debates.

    I didn’t know about the ‘double Guantanamo’ line until my neighbor, who works at Amnesty, approached me about it this week. Yikes. Mitt, say goodbye international credibility. (Does that really fly in the states? I’m really out of touch.)

  40. Mitt, say goodbye international credibility.

    International Mormons, say hello to a real disconnect with the perceived values of your American brethren.

  41. ed johnson says:

    Utah county went 86% for Bush in 2004 (vs. 12% for Kerry). It seems likely that over 90% of active Mormon voters in Utah county voted for Bush. That’s pretty one sided.

  42. About Utah politics:

    At the Utah Republican state convention last week, Romney got 80% of the delegate votes in a straw poll.

    Until a few years ago, 85% of Utah voters were unaffiliated. Party affiliation was not needed to vote in primary elections. It is now required, but about half of Utah voters remain unaffiliated.

    Salt Lake City is heavily Democratic, but Salt Lake County is about evenly split.

    Nebraska is also heavily red, as are most other inland states, even without Mormons. Mormonism, by itself, doesn’t explain Utah’s votes. In the 1970’s, the Democrats had a majority of Utah’s legislature and its Congressional delegation.

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