Stuart Parker is a postdoctoral fellow with the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Toronto where he wrote a dissertation entitled, “History As Seen Through Seerstones: Mormon Understandings of the Past, 1890-2000” to be published by Greg Kofford Books. Active in Canadian politics (and a former Green Party leader, the youngest in its history) Stuart is also a former Bushman Fellow at BYU for the Joseph Smith Summer Seminar of 2007.
A recent Gawker.com article, only slightly hyperbolically, characterized Mitt Romney as follows: “Mitt Romney, though, is an insult even to the process of being insulted—a giant, grainy Xerox of a forgery of a human being. The problem voters have with him isn’t that he’s fake; it’s that he’s inauthentically fake…The fakeness is Romney’s all the way down, layers of opaque lacquered bullshit poured onto plexiglass or Lucite or another unnatural transparency.”
I want to suggest, perhaps uncomfortably for some, that Romney’s palpable fakeness arises from his Mormon identity. This is not to generalize his deceptiveness to all Mormons or even to make the case that there is something about Mormonism that magnifies personal inauthenticity. Instead, I want to suggest, that the times and places Romney has found himself in the course of his career have interacted with his Mormonism to produce this uniquely stiff, robotic disingenuousness. As Matthew Bowman has pointed out elsewhere, none of Romney’s stiff, unnatural deportment was evident in fellow LDS GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.
Bowman is very much on the right track in identifying the difference between the two men’s style and deportment as being generational. But whereas Bowman’s piece concentrated on generational differences within the LDS, I would suggest that we might gain more understanding by casting our eyes to generational differences within the larger US culture within which Mormonism is situated.
Although a generation younger, Romney shares something important with my great aunt Connie that may help us to make sense of his startling inauthenticity. The daughter of a black father and a white mother, Connie was abandoned by her mother in the early 1930s after the death of her father and was sent away to reform school. Reform school didn’t just separate Connie from her family; it taught her a number of skills that enabled her to become a professional woman and work as a telephone operator in Chicago, where she lived in a white neighbourhood. In other words, reform school taught my aunt Connie to act white, to take advantage of the improbably white skin that she and I shared, to “pass.”
Many of us today think that the phenomenon of racial passing, which remained a significant black social strategy into the 1980s (and persists today in pockets), was held in place by Jim Crow state laws and corporate policies. But the reality is that passing, concealing one’s membership in a subaltern or underprivileged group, was woven into the cultural fabric of America for more than a century following the Civil War. And that, as America’s most successful gerontocracy, this culture has persisted longer in the LDS Church than elsewhere.
Thomas Monson and his quorum of apostles are not much younger than my great aunt. They too came from a time when passing was an important part of American life. Passing for white was just the riskiest and most rewarding form of passing; until not long ago, passing for straight was common, as was passing for Christian. Jews barred admission to universities passed for white Christians; gay Americans settled down and married people of the opposite sex. Mormons, who academics have variously described as a colonized people, an incipient ethnicity, and a non-Christian religion had as many reasons to pass as anyone and, from the days of resisting federal anti-polygamy policies, they had a cultural tradition of “lying for the Lord” that gave them excellent equipment for passing successfully.
The wave of racial persecution that swept the South following the collapse of Congressional Reconstruction was contemporaneous with the crescendo of anti-polygamy persecution in the Intermountain West. And I would argue that LDS culture responded more self-consciously and thoroughly in adopting passing as a social strategy in the Gilded Age than did black or Jewish Americans. While black and Jewish passing was common, Mormon passing was more systematic.
Passing was not about barefacedly lying about one’s racial, sexual or confessional identity. If things reached the point where one was being questioned about such things, you had already failed to pass. To pass was to so perfectly fit the mold of an upstanding white/straight/Christian American that it would not occur to anyone to even suspect that you were passing. Passing was not about lying in response to questions; it was about conducting oneself in such a way that difficult questions of identity would never be asked, that one’s Christianity or whiteness was a self-evident truth. Populated, as it is by people much like Romney, educated men with prestigious degrees from eastern universities, selected for their business (as opposed to theological) acumen, today’s Mormon decision-making elite is filled of men who have spent significant portions of their lives passing in order to achieve their financial and educational success.
It is for this reason that we see ongoing efforts by Mormons to prove themselves just like their evangelical neighbours and sometime allies. Beginning with Joseph Fielding Smith’s realignment of the LDS with the creationist movement in the 1920s, Mormons elites have sought to pass among conservative evangelicals by immediately joining the next bandwagon to round the corner, hoping that by being more shrill and vehement in their performance of conservative religiosity than Christian fundamentalists, they could blend in with the angry mobs denouncing evolution, communism, miscegenation or gay marriage.
But until his recent alignment with religious conservatism over the past five years, Romney was engaged in a subtler and far less shrill form of passing, the kind that involves strategically segregating one’s social spheres so that Family Home Evening never overlaps with the Board of Trade breakfast meeting, so that one is just the guy who happens not to drink for health reasons when the hiring committee takes an applicant out for drinks. It is this kind of passing that has taken place in the nation’s board rooms, universities and professional conferences that shaped Romney and the Mormon success stories of his generation, the kind that involves extra care to conceal one’s temple garments when changing at the health club.
Bowman speaks of Huntsman moving with ease as a Mormon through a non-Mormon world, an ease that Romney repeatedly tries to convey and fails to. No matter how relaxed one’s exterior, someone who has passed for decades is never really at ease; there is a vigilance to many successful passers that can never be fully disguised. That stated, passing is never a wholly conscious process – because those who pass are more successful than those who do not, many inevitably internalize the host culture’s discriminatory beliefs. Thus, many black people who passed came to believe that the whiteness of one’s skin was a proxy for virtue and competence; their own lives were testimony to this self-evident truth. The vigilance we associate with passing is as much about remembering that one is not straight, white or Christian even as one internalizes the superiority of these identities as it is about remembering to act straight, white or Christian.
Conservative evangelicals are neither crazy nor bigoted for their gut reaction to what Democrats are branding Romney’s lack of a “core.” Tone, body language, cadence – it is these things from which conservative evangelicals are deriving much of their discomfort; what is happening is that they are literally watching Romney pass and not enjoying the experience, because the mask is slipping. And unlike conventional pandering and other more common and accepted forms of political dishonesty, the way that he is now representing himself, after many grueling months of campaigning, has a pervasive defensiveness that Newt Gingrich is masterfully contrasting with his consistently shameless public persona.
Of course that is not to say that much evangelical opposition to Romney’s candidacy is not simply religious discrimination. Among opinion leaders within the South Carolina GOP anonymously polled by CNN two days before the state primary, 13% listed the candidate’s Mormon faith as their main reason for not supporting him. And likely, this number was higher, not lower, amongst rank and file conservative evangelicals, closer to the rates approaching 20-30% rates Gallup and other pollsters have measured.
Unfortunately for him, the Romney campaign does not have the capacity to forcefully hit back against apparent religious bigotry on the part of key opinion leaders in the GOP primaries as in the case of the notorious Robert Jeffress’ denunciation of Mormonism at the Values Voters Summit in the way that the Obama campaign was able to respond to instances of racial prejudice in 2008. This incapacity, I would suggest, arises from the ways in which the culture of passing has infused the LDS Church, especially at the top of its leadership structure.
The greatest act of Mormon political passing in the past generation has not been either of the Romney presidential bids; it was, I would suggest, the notorious 2008 Proposition Eight referendum on gay marriage in California. Strongly backed and well-funded by the LDS Church, the campaign’s supporters were overwhelmingly evangelical Christians and not the tiny Mormon minority in the state. Here was a great opportunity for Mormons to pass politically, as part of the conservative evangelical movement, because if there is one reliably-employed strategy amongst people who are passing, it is to direct the attention of the community in which they are passing towards persecuting or excluding other, more hated, outsiders. By being the most enthusiastic in attacking gay marriage, Mormons not only sought to direct attention away from their own difference but to demonstrate group loyalty by leading the charge against the latest scapegoats, homosexuals, for the persistent imperfection of the American family.
Others have written about the delicious irony of the LDS Church declaring that marriage has always been between one man and one woman and that this eternal order was mandated by God. That his view should be forwarded through the Republican Party, founded to extirpate the “twin relics of barbarism,” slavery and polygamy, through the power of the federal government, is not an accidental irony. Rather, it dates back to the early twentieth century, when the prophet Joseph F. Smith encouraged Mormons to move from the Democrats to the GOP as part of an explicit, programmatic strategy of passing. That Romney, a descendant of polygamous refugees who fled to Mexico to escape the federal government’s persecution, would today support an amendment to the Constitution to define marriage as “between one man and one woman,” is not bizarre or hard to explain but the epitome of rational behaviour by someone habituated to passing.
One of the things that makes passing such a dangerous yet tantalizing strategy for achievers like Romney is the fact that it undercuts appeals to community solidarity or collective morality; it is a self-centred and individualistic approach to bigotry and inequality. A passer feels that they get by on their merits and their merits alone.
As such, it stands in sharp contrast to the response of the black church to bigotry and persecution.
Cornell West reminds us that the power of the black voices in contemporary America comes from a civil rights heritage in which black people described their efforts at equality as something greater than protecting their community from discrimination. It took on the hue of a transnational, multiracial crusade for a shared freedom that would elevate everyone, including former oppressors. Whereas passing directs shame inwards as passers instinctively absorb the dominant group’s sense of what is shameful about their identity, discourses in the black church do the opposite and direct shame outwards, instilling pride while shaming dominant groups for their bigotry.
In the aftermath of 9/11, discrimination against religious minorities and discrimination on religious grounds has become increasingly acceptable in America. No doubt fearing, at least subconsciously, that resurgent evangelical bigotry could place Mormons in the national crosshairs again, the LDS culture of passing has not permitted Mormons to respond with the necessary moral authority or outrage when they are on the receiving end of religious discrimination. Emblematic of this was senate majority leader Harry Reid’s advice to Muslims associated with the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy to halt construction in order to avoid the wrath of their neighbours, despite their constitutional right to proceed. Like Romney, Reid comes from a generation of Mormons for whom passing was synonymous with success.
No matter how bad things get for Romney on the religious front this year, he and his supporters lack the moral authority necessary to denounce whatever bigotry they might suffer. And this lack of authority does not merely stem from his own strategy of passing; it is because his faith community has made passing rather than shaming their response to the rising tide of religious bigotry in America. Indeed, as vigorous campaigners against the Equal Rights Amendment, as a group that sponsored Proposition Eight and whose congregants overwhelmingly support a national constitutional amendment banning both gay marriage and polygamy, and as the last major church in America to admit black people to its hierarchy (fifteen years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act), Mormons would be well-advised to look to the oft-quoted words of Martin Niemöller to understand how few allies Romney will have when Mormonism comes under more serious attack in the next eight months. Passers, at their best, are silent when it is risky to denounce another’s persecution and, just as often, see that persecution as an opportunity to fit in with the bullies. As such, they elicit little sympathy when their time inevitably comes.