Netflix has released its much-anticipated documentary “Mitt,” an inside look at the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney. Critics and viewers seem to like the movie, emphasizing that Mormon filmmaker Greg Whiteley depicted a more relaxed and caring candidate than the Mitt Romney we saw in debates and TV ads.
“Mitt” allows me to introduce one of my favorite counterfactual scenarios: Suppose Romney, the first Mormon to be a major party presidential nominee, had won the White House? Would the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have welcomed his ascendancy? Or dreaded it, for subjecting a difficult-to-fathom religion — one recent Mormon church president called his flock a “peculiar people” — to unwelcome scrutiny?
Thinking of the Mormons, I am reminded of the sardonic catchphrase that attended Jews’ emergence into the American mainstream after World War II: “But is it good for the Jews?” Yes, it was salutary that Leonard Bernstein made a spectacular impromptu debut conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1943, but . . . would there be a backlash? Was success coming too fast? Would it be good for the Jews?
Jews and Mormons are about equally represented in the United States, yet the Mormon coming-out party has been much delayed. You might be able to name five or six Mormons: The Osmonds, Senator Harry Reid, Glenn Beck, quarterback Steve Young, maybe vampire writer Stephenie Meyer. But a president? That is another order of exposure entirely.
An outcome devoutly to be wished, or devoutly to be avoided?
My personal view is that the church’s 12 ruling prophets, seers, and revelators, who also call themselves the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, are greatly relieved that Romney came in second. While it is true that many wealthy Mormons, such as the Marriott family, or JetBlue founder David Neeleman, donated lots of time or money to Romney’s campaign, the church remained neutral. The church, which takes stands on some political issues, for example, on same-sex marriage, says it doesn’t endorse political candidates, and Romney was no exception.
“No one would ever come out and say it, but I suspect what you are thinking is probably true,” says Matthew Bowman, a Mormon professor of religion and author of “The Mormon People.” “The whole Romney campaign was a shock to the system for a church that generally wants to move very slowly and is used to hashing out things out internally over a long period of time.”
One of several bad campaign moments for the Mormon church occurred when a Brigham Young University professor tried to explain the church’s arcane, pre-1978 ban on admitting African-Americans into its ranks. The church quickly condemned the academic’s suggestion that the ban was a “blessing,” and just last month issued a statement disavowing its past racial theories.
“It was a rhetorical step taken because of the publicity the campaign attracted,” according Bowman. “The church issued a statement after some 30 years of relative silence on the issue.”
Even without a Romney presidency, the church’s conservative opposition to same-sex marriage is being sorely tested in Utah, where a state ban on gay unions may end up in front of the Supreme Court.
Richard Bushman, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia, and author of a comprehensive biography of church founder Joseph Smith, notes that when the church finally changed its policy on black membership, it did so ostensibly to accommodate its growing Brazilian membership, and not as a reaction to the US civil rights movement. “They don’t like to feel like they are moving with the tide,” Bushman says. “They like to swim against the tide.”
“Mormons have a deeply felt cultural anxiety,” he continues. “Does the world love us? Are we acceptable? So a Romney presidency would have proved that they were finally part of the American scene.”
Bushman says there was “casual talk” about the downside of a Romney presidency, and not much more. “Mormons spoke out of both sides of their mouths,” he explains. “Of course they were delighted to have one of their own on the national stage, but they were aware that when he came in for the buffetting that all presidents receive, that would reflect back on the church; ‘Oh, he made that mistake because he is a Mormon.’ ”
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.