The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith

With Mitt Romney the presumptive Republican nominee for President it is important to know something about his religion. As a practicing Mormon─ or the Church’s preferred name, “Church of Latter Day Saints” (LDS), Romney’s faith has shaped who he is and how he will approach the nation’s problems.

From a traditional Christian perspective Mormonism is not orthodox. LDS believes that they are the restoration of the Christian Church which early on went astray from the principles taught by Christ to his Apostles. Their beliefs regarding the Godhead do not cohere with the Creeds of Nicea (325 A.D.)  or Calcedon (451 A.D.). These documents, among other truths, define the nature of God, the Hypostatic Union (the Divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit as being consubstantial with the Father and the Son. Mormons do, however, emphasize that salvation comes through Christ’s atoning sacrifice but lack a theology of grace which enables human sanctification.

Matthew Bowman, holds a doctorate in Religious History from Georgetown University. In The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, he traces the history of the religion from Joseph Smith’s (1805-44) first encounter with the angel Moroni (1823) to the present. While Bowman makes no judgment on Smith’s character or the revelations he claims to have received, he relays a telling assessment of him from biographer Fawn Brodie. He says, Brodie, a Mormon, “…frankly admitted lack of belief in Joseph Smith’s divine calling, describing him as a brilliant improviser, a man with a life overrun by his own stories who came to believe in his fictions.” For this, Brodie has since been excommunicated from the Church.

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Be that as it may, Bowman says Smith’s theology, other than human deification and the promise of eternal life, is presently not a grave concern of the LDS hierarchy. Recently, for example, in a politically correct move, Mormon leaders have condemned the Church’s practice of proxy baptism (a living person baptized on behalf of the deceased) for holocaust victims in response to Jewish outrage. A perusal of the Church’s history shows its interests to lie more in moral living with a penchant for political accommodation when and where necessary. For example, the geographical utopia Mormons once dreamed of, has for the most part subsided in favor of a spiritual kingdom. Also, polygamy, once demanded by Smith, was abolished, in 1890, under pressure from U.S. government as a prerequisite for Utah’s admission to the Union.

On issues like abortion and contraception, Mitt Romney has been called “plastic.” But these issues can be viewed within the context of his faith. For example, while staunch on traditional family values, like marriage, LDS teaching is less so on human reproduction. While it encourages large families in order to find habitation for pre-existing souls (another tenet of their faith) it does permit abortion in the case of rape, incest or for the health of the mother. Contraception is discouraged but there is no absolute prohibition, as there is in Roman Catholicism. Hence, Mr. Romney’s ability to make political accommodations.

By the mid-twentieth century the institutionalization of Smith’s visions had gradually been formalized both organizationally and catechetically. Bowman outlines the various layers of the Church’s organization. He also shows how LDS theology became standardized in response to the needs of the Church’s foreign mission outreach through the process of “correlation.” He writes,

This version emphasized Mormonism’s claims to unique authority and truth and the incapacities of the rest of Christianity. It stressed the authority and revelatory power of the general leadership of the church. Because it sought to avoid the possibility of theological controversy it downplayed theology in favor of a strict moral code and conservative doctrinal beliefs about scripture, the supernatural, and the creation of the earth.

Mormonism is shown by Bowman to be adjustable to the times. He says that the Church was formed within a worldview that America was a perfect country, or at least had the potential to be. LDS embraced an optimism that solidified in the American Progressive Movement regnant in the early part of the past century. Bowman writes,

[Mormons] believed in rationality, science, and political reform. They believed that human organization could take on and defeat and social problem so long as it had access to the right expertise and dedicated bureaucrats. They believed that American democracy, American business, and American reform movements were well on their way to making the Unites States the most perfect country in human history.

This may explain the rationale for Romney-Care, enacted in Massachusetts. It also leaves open the possibility that some form of national healthcare would not be off the table in a Romney Administration. Consistent with Mormon emphasis on personal achievement, Bowman points out that Stephen R. Covey, an LDS graduate of Brigham Young University, published the national best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1998), “a self-help book that drew upon his experience as a missionary and lay leader in the Church.” These habits have been instrumental in the success of Mr. Romney’s business career.

Although Romney is not the subject of Bowman’s book per se, it is written with a possible Romney presidency in mind. The underlying thesis seems to be that Mitt Romney is a contemporary incarnation of Mormonism. As a religion, LDS is flexible and pragmatic. So is Romney! Mormonism finds security in family and is motivated by the American dream for a better life. It promotes good living, frowns on divorce, drugs and alcohol consumption. It also promotes an ethic of hard work and personal responsibility. So does Romney!

What is disconcerting about Mormonism is its reliance on a continuing revelation from the “Mormon Prophet” or President of the Church. Unlike the Pope, who is the conservator of the Tradition, the “Mormon Prophet” can discern something completely new. Once again, part and parcel with Smith’s additions to Sacred Scripture. This is definitely heterodox and inconsistent with Christian revelation that ended with the death of the last Apostle. Would a President Romney be bound to a new belief regarding, for example, the treatment of Islam or the State of Israel? Could this be presented as a negative point by Romney’s opponents in the general election? Perhaps a JFK-like disclaimer to the Houston Ministerium (1960) regarding the relationship of State and Church may be in order to fend off this type of assertion. Or, is there the possibility that the culmination of LDS’s history of accommodation to cultural mores might compromise Romney’s stance with social conservatives? For example, just as polygamy was abandoned for pragmatic reasons, could the same hold true in a future a “revelation” perhaps permitting gay-marriage, and jeopardize the federal Defense of Marriage Act (1996) which does not force reciprocity between the states in recognizing same-sex marriage?

Mitt Romney is no JFK. And this is the problem. Whereas Kennedy’s religious commitment was never fervid, Romney’s is. Romney’s faith has been instrumental in the formation of his character and his attitude toward life and government. His role as a Mormon bishop and as a “stake president,” one who administrates several congregations, has shaped him and will guide his public policy. Many contend that while Mormonism is an authentically American religion, it is still insular and has never connected with the American mainstream. Some speculate that this is the root of Romney’s inability to relate to the voters. The fact is that Romney is more Mormon than conservative. Bowman’s book can help us understand Romney and why he may not be elected.


The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith


  • Rev. Michael P. Orsi

    Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976. He has authored or co-authored four books and over 320 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida.

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