WITH MITT Romney’s candidacy for president, the Mormon church approaches an epochal moment in its deep engagement with American politics. The nation, too, is at a threshold - entering, perhaps, a more spacious public understanding of many once-marginal groups.
In the Mormon case, it’s been a long time coming. Romney may be a front-runner for the Republican nomination, and his father George may once have been a serious candidate for president, but the first Mormon to run for president was the first Mormon himself.
In 1844, as the head of a burgeoning new religious movement that identified the US Constitution as a sacred text inspired by God, Joseph Smith saw politics as a mode of missionizing. He was the mayor of the Mormon enclave in Nauvoo, Ill., where he proposed, to cite one position, that the freedom of slaves be bought with sums raised by the auctioning of public lands. But Smith’s real concern had to be the protection of his own movement from harassment by mobs, which were abetted by local and federal authorities. He ran for president as an independent, and his candidacy was marginal. No matter what, he would have had little impact on an election that gave the nation James K. Polk. But in June, while under arrest, charged with treason, he was murdered in jail.
The early story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a saga of confrontation and dispersal. When the church finally settled in Utah, it went from being a despised minority to a regional power. When challenged by the federal government over polygamy, and when polygamy was then abandoned, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, came into its own as the permanent political pillar of Utah, with ever-increasing influence in neighboring states.
The figure who symbolized the Mormons’ move into the national mainstream was Ezra Taft Benson, who was Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture and whose great-grandfather was a close associate of Brigham Young. While in Eisenhower’s cabinet, Benson also served as a member of the church’s governing Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and he would go on to be the church’s president from 1985 until his death in 1994. Mormonism may have begun as a dissident counterculture, but Benson was an icon of the American conservative consensus. In 1966, for example, he authored a pamphlet entitled, “Civil Rights: Tool of Communist Deception,’’ reflecting the right wing’s dual obsessions with communist infiltration and racial integration.
Benson’s time as president of the church coincided with the making of a new alliance with an old LDS antagonist, evangelical Christianity, for Mormons emerged as an essential faction in the so-called religious right. Bible-believing Christians who took cues from Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell had long deplored Mormon heresies, but the esoterica of Smith’s revelations had come to mean as little to the onetime enemies of the LDS church as it did to - well, many of the Saints themselves. Especially as so-called “family values’’ came to dominate US political rhetoric, the Mormons who were once hounded as sex fiends were reborn as the American family ideal. Emphasizing the near-complete embrace by the LDS establishment of the Ronald Reagan ethos, Benson suggested that a Mormon’s membership in the Democratic Party was a form of apostasy.
In Arizona, however, Mormon political power came to wear a different face. There, and in neighboring states, the Udall clan achieved a dynasty that quietly outshines even the Kennedys. The political paterfamilias was David King Udall, who was elected as a Republican to the Arizona territorial legislature in 1899. Two of his four sons were elected to public office, and two served on the Arizona Supreme Court - all as Democrats.
David King Udall’s grandsons included Nick, who became mayor of Phoenix; Stewart, who served in the US House of Representatives and as Secretary of the Interior under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; and Morris, who served in the House for three decades and was a leading Democratic presidential candidate in 1976. Stewart Udall’s son Tom is a Democratic US senator from New Mexico, while Mo Udall’s son Mark is a Democratic US senator from Colorado. The Udalls hold to their Mormon heritage to varying degrees, but the family gives the lie to the assumption that Mormons are steadfastly conservative.
Indeed, the most powerful Mormon in America today is a Democrat from Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Unlike most other Mormon politicians, Reid embraced the LDS faith as an adult convert, and the story reiterates the great Mormon virtue of friendly outreach. Raised in an unchurched family and enrolled in high school in another town, Reid was befriended by a pair of Mormon classmates. In college, he joined the Mormon church, and then so did the Jewish-raised woman he married.
Reid is an observant Mormon, although not so rigidly as to prompt his disapproval of gambling, which is as forbidden by the church as it is a cornerstone of Nevada politics. Before an audience of thousands at Brigham Young University in 2007, Reid rebutted the assumption that Mormons must be Republicans. “My faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined,’’ he declared. “I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.’’
Now, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are vying with each other to be the Republican nominee for president. Romney is openly devoted to his Mormon faith and practice; he famously responded to a church call to take over the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Huntsman apparently sits somewhat looser to the faith, but it is notable that his first qualification to be President Obama’s ambassador to China was a fluency in Mandarin Chinese that dates to his youthful service as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. Whatever their present convictions, both men come from the heart of the LDS tradition. They share a relative, for example, in Parley P. Pratt, who was an associate of Joseph Smith and a first emigrant to Utah. Pratt is commonly regarded as a Mormon martyr, though the man who murdered him was the enraged legal husband of one of his twelve wives.
It was commitment to polygamy that prompted Mitt Romney’s forebears to join a Mormon colony in Mexico, and it was there that Mitt’s father was born in 1907. George W. Romney eventually settled in Detroit, where, as CEO of American Motors, he was an early prophet of fuel-efficient small cars. A successful Republican governor of Michigan, he was briefly seen as a moderate alternative to Barry Goldwater, and then emerged as a leading candidate for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. His campaign imploded in 1967 when, opposing the war in Vietnam, he explained his earlier support by saying he had been “brainwashed’’ by military officials. His Mormonism had not surfaced as an issue, but brainwashing was an undetonated depth charge in American attitudes toward the little-understood religion (“You have to be brainwashed,’’ the attitude went, “to believe that stuff.’’). In that way, George Romney’s faith may have been a decisive factor after all.
Mitt Romney’s status as an early leader in this year’s campaign puts Mormonism to the political test again. Despite their alliance with Mormons in the post-Reagan religious right, evangelical Christians may be hard put to stifle suspicion of LDS heterodoxy. And just as George Romney’s brainwashing gaffe may have touched subliminal currents of prejudice, Mitt Romney may have a related problem. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has adapted to survive. Has it done so at the expense of core, if unpopular, convictions? The charge most commonly lodged against Romney is that he has flip-flopped on various hot-button questions, from medical reform to immigration to abortion to the war in Iraq. Last week it was climate change.
Pandering to various constituencies is one thing, and Romney’s record does suggest a certain expediency. But presidential politics can punish even the authentic evolution of a public figure’s thinking. Romney may be doubly vulnerable. Mormonism has a mechanism for change that is unique among religions, with church leaders empowered to receive fresh revelations that can overturn doctrine on a dime. It happened most famously in 1890 on polygamy, and again in 1978 when the church admitted blacks to the LDS priesthood (a revelation, Romney says, that made him weep with relief). When other religions change, it is often with the pretense that the new dogma is not really new.
The politically loaded question - what does Mitt Romney actually believe? - carries an echo of a broader question: What do Mormons actually believe? But the church’s history in the United States suggests a different question still: What do Americans actually believe? Mormonism, it turns out, is a block on which the American idea has stood, even if many of us are only seeing this for the first time.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.