BCC, Meet R&P

A guest post from Max Mueller–JI blogger, Eccles Fellow, and a very, very smart Mormon watcher.

This past Sunday (April 29, 2012), Mitt Romney’s eldest son—and his doppelgangertweeted to his some 7,500 followers a snapshot of his father. An Anthony Weiner moment, it was not. But for the buttoned-up and famously reserved GOP’s presidential nominee, Tagg’s picture—“busting” the former Governor for surreptitiously checking his twitter feed during Sunday school at the Belmont, Massachusetts meetinghouse—was as an intimate snapshot of Mitt Romney as we might hoped to get.

This tweeted picture, capturing only Mitt’s hands working his ipad, as well as what is probably Ann Romney sitting to his left (also on her ipad), brings us into the quotidian activity of Mormonism’s most famous couple. “The [Gentile] World”—the term Belmont some Mormons call the space outside of their Mormon geographical and spiritual enclave—might not know that starring down at ipads and iphones during Sunday school is acceptable behavior for Latter-day Saints. When I made my first visit to Belmont last summer, I was initially shocked that no one seemed to be paying attention to Tagg while he gave a Sunday school lesson on Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Instead the class, it seemed to me, was enthralled in their private worlds of facebooking or angry birds. I soon realized that these saints were, for the most part, engaged in the lesson; the smartphone or tablet has replaced the leather-bound “Quad” as the go-to scripture reference source. Those busy thumbs were scrolling to Matthew 14:27: “…Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”

Tagg’s photo is interesting in so many ways. Let me name just two. First, the photo provides “the world” a rare avenue into a space that millions of Latter-day Saints experience every Sunday—a space foreign, and thus suspect, to many outsiders. And with Mitt occupying this “Mormon” space (made less foreign, even mundane by the image itself), the photo also captures Mitt looking out, and into “the world” he hopes to govern, perhaps to see what the world thinks of him at that moment. The photo thus places the viewer not on an avenue, but in a New England traffic rotary.

Second, what made Tagg’s photo an éxposé (he titled it: “Busted! #mitt2012 sneaking a peek at twitter during Sunday school”) was that the former bishop of the Belmont ward was not following along, at least not for that exact moment. The picture thus echoes a presidential poll: a helpful tool certainly, but one that can only capture the country’s collective political mood on a particular day. Likewise, Tagg’s snapshot fails to tell the story of Mitt’s relationship with his faith, and in particular, his relationship with the religious community in Belmont that he helped shape, and a community that helped shape him.

This is a long way of introducing the BCC community to Religion & Politics, the online news and analysis journal of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. The journal’s goal—one based on the Center’s mandate—is to provide more than a snapshot of the religious and political lives of Americans. For example, in my first piece for R&P, “When Romney was a Mormon President,” I attempt to provide an in-depth accounting of Mitt Romney’s time as a leader of the Belmont/Boston Mormon communities. My argument is that while Romney has been reluctant to run as “pastor-in-chief,” perhaps more than any other recent major party candidate for the White House, Mitt Romney is a seasoned religious leader. As such, part of the American electorate’s vetting of Romney should include an analysis of his time as a local and regional Mormon leader.

Yet, as R&P’s editor, and director of the John C. Danforth Center, Marie Griffith suggests in her first “Editor’s Note,” investigating the “&” between religion and politics must be done with humility, self-awareness and “from a broad range of diverging view points.”

In this vein, I pose to the BCC community two related questions, questions that are at the heart of R&P’s work and questions on which we very much welcome the BCC community’s input.

First, how far into the religious worlds of our political candidates should we go?

Second, what should we do with the information and observations we make about these religious worlds?

We pose this set of questions in a different way on R&P’s first “Table”—as in the kitchen table—“a setting to debate the issues of the day.” We ask three leading opinion makers, with three different opinions—Michael Ruse, Amy Sullivan, and Timothy Dalrymple—to answer the following question: “What is fair game to discuss in the media about a candidate’s religion?”

We invite the BCC community to also participate in helping us answer this question, one that we think will continue define much of the coverage of “religion and politics” during this presidential cycle.

We also invite the BCC community to visit R&P—and participate in this project—as we attempt to make the two things “your mother warned you never to raise at a dinner party” Fit For Polite Company.


  1. Just so you can get a nice sampling, I will simply say that I am absolutely against the mixing of religion and politics. I feel that the two are irrelevant to each other, and the more they mix the more dangerous the world becomes. I addressed this in another thread–I believe that while religious people tend to choose their politics based on their underlying belief structure it is my contention that the political policies themselves should come under fire, not the underlying beliefs. Good luck! :)

  2. (Nice chairs in that building.)

  3. Also, on a semi-related note the Gospel Library app is one of my favorite apps of all time. I can bring my hymnbook, manual, and all of my scriptures with me just by bringing my iPod Touch. Women are already bogged down by the seemingly mandatory tote bag that we all must carry. Bringing all those books would cause me to need a stay in the Hospital as well!

  4. We had chairs like that in my ward in the North California Sierras. I think they came with the building style of the mid 80s. Their purple is nice (ours were bright orange), but for all the wood and curved lines, they were a pain to sit on for three hours.

  5. I always thought we were super fancy because we have an elevator outside the Bishop’s Office. Those seats Of Mitt’s do look pretty fancy though.

  6. Chris Gordon says:

    Hear, hear! for the gospel library app.

    My answer to question 1: an exploration can fairly and properly made to discover to what extent, if any, a candidate’s religious views inform his or her values generally and only then to the extent that his values relate to his or her qualification as a candidate. Part 1 allows for discovery based on political reasons, part 2 allows for each individual to vote with conscience as to why and how that might matter to their own vote.

    My answer to question 2: err towards discretion more than we do. One’s personal religious beliefs are sacred ground and should be treated respectfully and with understanding as much as possible.

  7. Chris Gordon says:

    Also, let’s not overlook that Mitt was rocking a pink tie like a real man. Love it.

  8. Am I alone on feeling this is a) much to do about nothing and b) hardly worth any attention. That it became the substance of an entire OP and, shockingly, an attempt to analyze said tweet… Its beyond me. Truly.

  9. Well, the fact that Mitt was checking Twitter in Sunday School is hardly worth mentioning, but it is my understanding that the OP is more related to how we feel about Religion and Politics. Maybe I missed something though.

  10. I think it’s fair to ask Mitt how he dealt with the priesthood restriction when it was in place, and how he felt about his father’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s legitimate to ask him if the world view implied by his line “I like firing people who provide services for me” is in tune with his religious ideals, and how he might nuance it to make it consistent with, say, King Benjamin’s discourse. I do not think polygamy is off limits. He is from a polygamous line, and questions of what constitutes a marriage are important right now. The president’s feelings on war and peace have religious/moral implications, and we should know what paradigms inform candidates’ positions.
    Like it or not, politics come from human thought–the same thoughts that define and manifest our faith.

  11. So Catholic candidates should answer questions about the Crusades then right? Perhaps scandals involving Priests and altar boys? Where does it end? I contend it ends by not beginning.

  12. Awesome photo by Tagg. Funny and revealing. I like the fact that Mitt isn’t always following along. I wonder though, how much nonmormons will understand all the nuance of the photo. It’s possible that many people of other faiths don’t think twice about checking twitter or other websites during church services, but I’m sure there are others for whom it would be a major sin. For Mormons, it falls somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

    In our ward, for a while, the bishop was asking people not to bring electronic devices to church at all, mostly because the youth and others were using them to text, play games, facebook or whatever, during church. That request fell by the wayside with the new scripture app, which is now available on practically every platform. Some of the older ward members still frown on everyone using their phones, ipods and ipads to read scriptures and even the manuals during class and other meetings. Last week, a younger guy was teaching elders quorum and asked someone to read from the manual by saying, “Do you have that on your…” then realized the older guy he was talking to was not holding any device. The older guy responded by saying, “It’s called a book. You’re probably not familiar with it but we used to use them back in the olden days.”

  13. EOR, those are false analogies. No Catholic presidential candidate was alive during the Crusades. Romney, however, was a missionary who probably taught the “extra” discussion about the Curse of Cain during his 1968-70 mission–a decade before the change came. I would think he’d welcome an opportunity to finesse the appalling statement about “liking” to fire people. My husband, who was in Romney’s stake, heard him speak about the balance between serving others and serving ourselves, and how difficult it can be to manage. That has everything to do with entitlements, pay for politicians, budgets, etc. Polygamy will come up because it is still a current issue, given the FLDS and the definition of marriage.

  14. Manuel says:

    Absolutely! Well said.

  15. Margaret Blair Young (13) I used analogies from different parts of Catholic History purposely. Crusades=Distant History, Polygamy=Distant History, Sex Abuse=More Current, Priesthood Ban=More Current. The fact that the FLDS still practice polygamy is hardly relevant to Mitt Romney who is not FLDS. They have their own Prophet and all. They share a history with the LDS but so do the Protestants with the Catholics, Christians with the Jews, and Christians/Jews with Muslims.

    What many people (not all) fail to take into account is that when we tangle up religion and politics we effectively alienate many fine people such as non-Judeo-Christians, Atheists, and Agnostics. Why exactly does it matter what a candidate believes? It is his policies that bear out what kind of politician he/she is. Many times they do go against the stated beliefs of their religion, so I say just cut out the middle-man and focus on the policies themselves.

    I dislike this mixing up especially right now because I especially cannot stand having to defend Romney in any way. I don’t want him to win, so I want people to focus on his record so I can happily not have to come to his defense.

  16. I think someone needs to bust Tagg for taking this picture and tweeting it. Which act is more disruptive to the class or the Spirit?

    #1: So how do you feel about the fact that Joseph Smith ran for President?

    I think politics are necessary to at least ensure freedom of religion.

  17. 16 If he were able to Preside without mixing the two then I would have been all for it.

    In my mind, mixing religion and politics hinders freedom of religion. Afghanistan, Israel, N.Ireland, etc…

  18. My first thought about the picture is that when you turn the device on the last app that was running is what comes up first. He probably turned it on and wasn’t paying attention yet.
    As to the firing comment, He said he likes to be able to fire people, and I feel that an employer should be able to do so if there is an employee that deserves such.

    Now as to the questions, We should go as far into their lives as they let us, there seems to be some sort of rule about discriminating employees about religion or something, and isn’t that what an elected politician is?
    And when we get a glimpse into their lives we should judge for ourselves how this will effect how they work for us.

  19. “It’s legitimate to ask him if the world view implied by his line “I like firing people who provide services for me” is in tune with his religious ideals, and how he might nuance it to make it consistent with, say, King Benjamin’s discourse.”

    Legitimate as anything else taken out-of-context in the cesspool of politics, maybe, but I’m kind of surprised to see Margaret jump on that one. Is it legitimate to crucify anybody who makes an unfortunate soundbite in their effort to make a rational point? It certainly rallies the troops. It also destroys legitimate debate when reasonable people join in stoning the Hilary Rosens and Mitt Romneys of the world.

  20. Martin, I agree that it was a faux pas, an unfortunate slip of the tongue which the media pounced on. I genuinely would like to hear him talk about what he said and what he actually believes. We LDS know that Bishop Romney dealt with many welfare issues and worked with people who were seeking employment. I personally believe that the whole context of inherited wealth/access might be the subject of a good play (in twenty years) about Romney’s secret conflicts. Bruce and I live in very modest circumstances by choice, but we’re aware that we have more than most people in our ward. I can’t imagine the kind of conflict a man of Romney’s wealth would feel while counseling a destitute single parent and perhaps simultaneously ordering new carpeting for his vacation home. Eric Samuelsen’s play _Gadianton_ approaches the conflict beautifully, though obviously with a different character.
    Of course, we have two wealthy contenders for president. Obama hasn’t made a similar slip of the tongue. I think this gives Romney more reason to speak heartfully and compassionately. Though I’m not a Romney supporter, I genuinely respect him. I’d like to hear him speak a bit more like a bishop.

  21. “First, how far into the religious worlds of our political candidates should we go?”

    As far as we can, as long as we are respectful and balanced and focused only on what is relevant to the political issues of the time. It’s not the depth I mind; it’s the near universal lack of breadth and general irrelvance of the depth that bother me. Racial and marital history? Fair game, as long as it’s respectful and balanced. Garments? Completely out of bounds.

    “Second, what should we do with the information and observations we make about these religious worlds?”

    Strive to present everything as charitably and respectfully as we can – and strive not to present only one view.

  22. I don’t think it was a faux pas — he simply phrased his point in a way that could be misunderstood, and his opponents made darn sure people did. Romney didn’t say he liked to fire people any more than Hilary Rosen said stay-at-home moms don’t work. Doesn’t matter, that’s how politics is done. Is it legitimate? I find it repulsive.

    However, Romney’s clearly playing by the same rules as everybody else, and it bothers those of us who think we’re nice guys, want to see the nice guy win, and want Romney to be that nice guy because he’s Mormon. Is he not living his religion because he doesn’t sound like the stake president he was? Part of me says yes, but part of me puts him in the same category as those basketball players who’d hang on my jersey or use their forearm whenever they knew the refs wouldn’t see it. I thought it was cheap and a little dirty, but they wanted to win, and that’s how winners played the game. And once you get to a certain level, there are only winners left. Were they not living their religion, or were they simply playing by the rules the winners all understood?

    Maybe it’s just me, but it seems winning Mormon politicians win the same way other politicians do.

  23. So if you interpret my last comment, you could glean I was holding Margaret to a higher standard because she’s a “nice guy”, but I’m considering cutting Romney some slack cuz he’s a “winner”. That could be awkward, but it’s because I’d rather self-identify with Margaret and not play the game Romney’s jumped into.

  24. Fwiw, I think we lose when we buy into the idea that he’s not living his religion now like he used to live it previously – especially if we don’t know him personally, never saw how he lived his religion previously and have no clue, really, how he lives it now. I know him from my time in his stake when he was the Stake President – but I don’t know him now. There’s no way I’m making that judgment, privately or publicly.

    Also, I separate my religious beliefs from my political beliefs in many ways – including in how I see moral issues when they become political issues. (http://mormonmatters.org/2008/06/11/when-moral-issues-become-political-issues/) I hope I am not held to the standard of my personal beliefs and how I live my own life if I ever run for office to represent others with different personal beliefs – especially if I am a political pragmatist (which I am) and believe in actually trying to govern according to the wishes of the people who elect me (which I do).

  25. Stan Beale says:

    The real religious issue with Romney may not be Mormonism but may be his pandering to the religious right. They do have a political agenda: Ban nearly all or all abortions, not funding birth control, teaching creationism, rolling back any rights that gay people have, bringing mandatory prayer back in the schools, banning books, etc.

    If the way he folded like a cheap accordian on the appointment of Ric Grennel is any indication, the uber fundamentlalists would have a tremendous influence on his administration if he was elected. Now that concerns me

  26. I think EOR is on to something. I agree with Margaret when says that political beliefs and religious views come from the same source. It doesn’t follow that religious beliefs are fair game as a means of judging the man in a political context. Rather, the assumption should be that one could learn about the mind of the man from his political beliefs as much as from his religious views – the political views being on the table, the religious views off the table.

  27. queuno says:

    I don’t have to answer for my father’s choices and Mitt Romney doesn’t to answer for his ancestors’ choices.

  28. #27 – Amen, queuno. Perfectly said.

    Also, it’s interesting that the focus is on his ancestors, NOT his father.

  29. Queuno, that’s a good answer. It applies to the polygamy, but not to the race issue, which Romney dealt with in his own life.

  30. But, Margaret, it’s how he sees race now that matters, not how he might have seen it 40 years ago. There is no proof whatsoever that he has a racist bone in his body now, so whether he did or didn’t back them is irrelevant.

    Also, if we use his own father (his closest ancestor) as an indicator (which we shouldn’t do), and if we have any sense of objectivity at all, wouldn’t his own family history make one asusme he isn’t racist? I knew him when he was my Stake President (although not well and intimately), and there was nothing that indicated he was racist in any way back then. There is nothing I’ve heard in his time as governor of MA that indicated he is racist in any way. Finally, the recent flap over his openly gay staffer who resigned due to the bigoted evangelical wing of the GOP indicates he doens’t discriminate against homosexuals in terms of political service. Iow, there isn’t anything, outside of how some people would classify his stance on gay marriage, that gives any evidence of bigotry in the man, as far as I can see.

    Again, going back to question in the OP, that’s what bothers me the most – the extremely selective criticism that ignores just as, if not more, compelling evidence for the more charitable conclusion.

  31. Ray, you know I love you, but I actually do have concerns about the lack of diversity in Romney’s camp. I thought the way he responded to the race question four years ago was evasive, and I’ve heard nothing to indicate that he will help the racial gap between the haves and the have-nots. I can’t judge his heart. For me, there are red flags. I would love to hear him address race in the same ways he addressed faith four years ago.

  32. “I’ve heard nothing to indicate that he will help the racial gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

    I haven’t either – but I can’t say there’s been a POTUS who are done so in my lifetime, including our current one. I just don’t see that as related to his religion – certainly no more than an evangelical candidate who is likely to belong to a specific denomination in which most congregations still are racially segregated in a state with a gap that is larger than average.

    “I can’t judge his heart. For me, there are red flags.”

    I agree – but, for me, those flags aren’t larger or redder than for anyone else. Again, I don’t see them as based on his religion in any way, especially, again, in comparison to others’ religions.

    “I would love to hear him address race in the same ways he addressed faith four years ago.”

    We agree completely on that.