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“From Todd Akin To Jerusalem”: Mitt Romney And The End-Times

There’s a lot of chatter about a video, made in 2007, when Romney was running for president the first time, that has (naturally) surfaced again just a few days before the election. Apparently filmed by hidden camera, it shows Romney arguing with conservative Iowa talk radio host Jan Mickelson, in studio but off the air, about his Mormon beliefs. Mickelson appears to be goading Romney into admitting or explaining ways that Mormonism differs from evangelical Christianity, and Romney gets pretty angry and heated throughout.

Earlier this year, Joanna Brooks wrote about how journalists who focus on, for example, Romney’s citation to Mickelson of Cold War-era Mormon figure W. Cleon Skousen (long a religious right, tea party, and Glenn Beck favorite) miss the mark about the Mormon world in which Romney functions, “a powerful multinational network of financial and political influence brokers connected by a profound common bond: their multigenerational membership and service in the LDS Church.”

This week, one part of the Mickelson video in particular has generated some discussion: Mickelson asks Romney about the end-times, and about whether he believes the Second Coming of Christ will happen in Missouri. In the video, Romney tells Mickelson that, no, the LDS Church teaches (as do evangelical churches) that the Second Coming will happen in Jerusalem. He then goes on to explain, rather clumsily and without much detail, “what the church” teaches about this.

Mickelson seemed inspired to broach the topic by an interview Romney gave to George Stephanopoulos. Here’s part of that transcript:

George Stephanopoulos: In your faith, if I understand it correctly, it teaches that Jesus will return probably to the United States and reign on Earth for 1,000 years. And I wonder how that would be viewed in the Muslim world. Have you thought about how the Muslim world will react to that and whether it would make it more difficult, if you were present, to build alliances with the Muslim world?

Former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass.: Well, I’m not a spokesman for my church. I’m not running for pastor in chief. I’m running for commander in chief. So the best place to go for my church’s doctrines would be my church.

Stephanopoulos: But I’m talking about how they will take it, how they will perceive it.

Romney: I understand, but that doesn’t happen to be a doctrine of my church. Our belief is just as it says in the Bible, that the messiah will come to Jerusalem, stand on the Mount of Olives and that the Mount of Olives will be the place for the great gathering and so forth. It’s the same as the other Christian tradition. But that being said, how do Muslims feel about Christian doctrines? They don’t agree with them. There are differences between doctrines of churches. But the values at the core of the Christian faith, the Jewish faith and many other religions are very, very similar. And it’s that common basis that we have to support and find ability to draw people to rather than to point out the differences between our faiths. The differences are less pronounced than the common base that can lead to the peace and the acceptability and the brother and sisterhood of humankind.

Stephanopoulos: But your church does teach that Jesus will reign on Earth for the millennium, right?

Romney: Yes.

Mickelson asks Romney whether, contrary to what he told Stephanopoulos, he believes the Second Coming will take place in Missouri. After mentioning that a Skousen book explains LDS teaching on this, Romney seems either unwilling or at a loss to go into too much detail. Romney adds:

Christ appears, it’s throughout the Bible, Christ appears in Jerusalem, splits the Mount of Olives, to stop the war that’s coming in to kill all the Jews, it’s—our church believes that. That’s where the coming and glory of Christ occurs. We also believe that over the 1000 years that follows, the millenium, he will reign from two places, that the law will come forward from one place, from Missouri, the other will be in Jerusalem. Back to abortion.

A few things here. First, except for the part about Missouri, what Romney is saying about LDS belief about Christ’s return doesn’t deviate that much from what many evangelicals believe. I’m not in any way endorsing apocalyptic biblical literalism or proof-texting here, or saying that all Mormons or all evangelicals believe this. I’m just pointing out that Romney was relying on the same parts of the Bible many evangelicals do about Christ’s return. For example: “‘In the whole land,’ declares the Lord, ‘two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it.'” (Zechariah 13:8) and “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south” (Zechariah 14:4). I’ve seen preaching on this by evangelicals; I’ve talked to evangelicals who believe these verses to be true, accurate, and undeniable prophecy of what will happen in Jerusalem. (N.B.: Zechariah was not talking about Jesus, and what exactly he—or more than one he—was actually talking about is far from clear. But anyway.)

The question that’s being raised now, as this video resurfaces and generates discussion, is: does Romney himself really believe this? Does he somehow revel in a “war that’s coming in to kill all the Jews,” or see it as inevitable? I think that’s not evident from the video, or from his answer to Stephanopoulos. (Of course Romney’s a notorious liar, so we may never know.) Romney’s very defensive in the video, under questioning by Mickelson who clearly is trying to get him to admit that Mormon end-times theology is wildly different from evangelical end-times theology (which has many variants, incidentally, but none that include Missouri as a locus for anything except the second coming of Todd Akin). But Romney appears to be suggesting that “our church believes that” rather than saying, “I believe this is a literal prophecy of how world events will play out.” I’ve written before about how Romney’s public pronouncements on the Israel-Palestine conflict are out of touch with non-apocalyptic, contemporary Mormon thinking, but still, he’s never discussed his own beliefs on the end-times, or disagreements, if any, with LDS doctrine.

Apocalyptic beliefs are a Republican problem, though, not just a Romney problem; for example, George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Mike Huckabee are all evangelicals who forged relationships with apocalyptic preacher John Hagee. I would very much like to know whether they co-sign Hagee’s apocalyptic visions.

I want to know the same answers about Romney, but not because he’s Mormon. Equally as pertinent to what Romney himself believes is what he thinks his base believes, and to what extent, as president, he’d be worrying about placating them. Remember, he was trying to show Mickelson he believes the same things evangelicals do. He’s running for president, for Pete’s sake!


By: Sarah Posner, Religion Dispatches, November 2, 2012

November 3, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When Advantages Matter More Than Humane Ideals”: Does Mitt Romney’s Religion Condone Torture?

Nobody asked Governor Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama about torture during Monday night’s “foreign policy debate”—but someone should have.

Because recently disclosed Romney campaign documents are raising new questions about the candidate’s position, and the recent appointment of a Spokane, Washington LDS bishop who in his professional life as a psychologist pioneered so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11 has raised new questions about whether Mormonism condones torture.

Washington newspapers are reporting that Bruce Jessen was called and “sustained” (or approved) to serve as bishop by his Spokane-area congregation in mid-October.

In late 2001, Jessen and James Mitchell (both clinical psychologists with no previous interrogation or intelligence training; both members of the LDS Church) were contracted by the CIA to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to train interrogators during what one source describes as “brutal interrogations that effectively unfolded as live demonstrations.” Together, Jessen and Mitchell came to be known as the “Mormon mafia.”

Other LDS people involved in the development of Bush-administration torture tactics include Jay Bybee, who supervised and signed John Yoo’s 2002 “Torture Memo” effectively authorizing the United States’ use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq; and Timothy Flanigan, deputy White House counsel who participated with Alberto Gonzalez in Bush’s “War Council” and testified before a Senate panel that waterboarding and other torture techniques should not necessarily be “off-limits” and that “inhumane can’t be coherently defined.”

When dozens of religious leaders and organizations issued a 2005 statement calling on the Bush administration to rule out torture as anti-biblical, the LDS Church through a spokesman issued a statement “condemning inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstance.”

Romney, however, appears to be lining up with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and Flanigan.

Last month, the New York Times disclosed a September 2011 memo drafted by Romney’s advisors advocating the resumption of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” initiated under President George W. Bush but banned by President Barack Obama on his second day in office.

In a December 17, 2011 Town Hall meeting, Romney said, “I will not authorize torture.” But at the press conference after the Town Hall meeting, when a reporter asked him if he considered waterboarding to be torture, Romney responded “I don’t.”

Romney’s stance led one UN official to warn last week that his election would amount to “a democratic mandate for torture.”

While some LDS media observers have denied a pattern of Mormon involvement in torture, others in the Mormon community have called for closer consideration of this serious moral and ethical matter.

And it does matter. It matters because unlike in most contemporary American religious communities, Mormons are routinely expected to assess their own moral “worthiness” to participate in religious rites and to serve in their local congregations—including in positions of pastoral responsibility such as bishop (which both Governor Romney and Mr. Jessen have served). And moral worthiness in Mormon communities is now widely framed in terms of highly individualistic choices like payment of tithes, sexual chastity, and observance of restrictions on consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee.

It matters because it points to grave underdevelopment in the public morality and political theology of contemporary Mormonism. As Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told RD, Mormonism has “no systematic theology” on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is “highly individualized.”

And the torture issue matters to the question of how Romney will govern. We’ve consistently seen that the candidate will be essentially values-neutral in his approach to foreign and economic policy and centered on defending and promoting the interests of large institutions that reward loyalty. The chain of command and tactical advantages matter more than time-honored humane ideals. That’s a disposition Romney has in common with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and other Mormons who have been in a position not only to support torture but to develop and implement it.

Once again, the issue is not that Mitt Romney is unduly influenced by his faith. It’s that his faith has little influence when it comes to some extremely serious moral questions.


By: Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches, October 23, 2012


October 24, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Negro Matter”: Why Race Is Still A Problem For Mormons

“I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people,” sings Elder Kevin Price in the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.” The line is meant to be funny, and it is — in part because it’s true.

In a June 1978 letter, the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaimed that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” Men of African descent could now hold the priesthood, the power and authority exercised by all male members of the church in good standing. Such a statement was necessary, because until then, blacks were relegated to a very second-class status within the church.

The revelation may have lifted the ban, but it neither repudiated it nor apologized for it. “It doesn’t make a particle of difference,” proclaimed the Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie a few months later, “what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978.”

Mr. McConkie meant such words to encourage Mormons to embrace the new revelation, and he may have solemnly believed that it made the history of the priesthood ban irrelevant. But to many others around the country, statements of former church leaders about “the Negro matter” do, in fact, matter a great deal.

They cause pain to church members of African descent, provide cover for repugnant views and make the church an easy target for criticism and satire. The church would benefit itself and its members — and one member in particular, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — by formally repudiating the priesthood ban and the racist theories that accompanied it.

Mormonism wasn’t always troubled by anti-black racism. In a country deeply stained by slavery and anti-black racism, the church, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, was noteworthy for its relative racial egalitarianism. Smith episodically opposed slavery and tolerated the priesthood ordination of black men, at least one of whom, Elijah Abel, occupied a position of minor authority.

It was Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, who adopted the policies that now haunt the church. He described black people as cursed with dark skin as punishment for Cain’s murder of his brother. “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him cannot hold the priesthood,” he declared in 1852. Young deemed black-white intermarriage so sinful that he suggested that a man could atone for it only by having “his head cut off” and spilling “his blood upon the ground.” Other Mormon leaders convinced themselves that the pre-existent spirits of black people had sinned in heaven by supporting Lucifer in his rebellion against God.

The priesthood ban had sweeping ecclesiastical consequences for black Mormons. They could not participate in the sacred ordinances, like the endowment ceremony (which prepares one for the afterlife) and sealings (which formally bind a family together), rites that Smith and Young taught were necessary to obtain celestial glory.

Of course, while perhaps unusual in its fervor and particular in its theories, the rhetoric of Mormon leaders was lamentably within the mainstream of white American opinion. White Christians of many denominational stripes used repugnant language to justify slavery and the inferiority of black people. Most accepted theories that the sins of Cain and Ham had cursed an entire race. Indeed, those white Americans who today express outrage over Mormon racism should remind themselves of their own forebears’ sins before casting stones at the Latter-day Saints.

Most Protestant denominations, however, gradually apologized for their past racism. In contrast, while Mormon leaders generically criticize past and present racism, they carefully avoid any specific criticism of past presidents and apostles, careful not to disrupt traditional reverence for the church’s prophets.

To an extent, this strategy has worked. The church is now much more diverse, with hundreds of thousands of members in Africa and many members of African descent in Latin America. In the United States, not all Mormons look like members of the Romney family: Mia Love, a daughter of Haitian immigrants and the Republican nominee for a Utah Congressional seat, proudly states that she has “never felt unwelcome in the church.”

Nevertheless, regardless of how outsiders would respond (audiences will still enjoy that line in “The Book of Mormon”), a fuller confrontation with the past would serve the church’s interests. Journalists frequently ask prominent Mormons like Mr. Romney and Ms. Love about the priesthood ban. African-Americans, both members and prospective converts, find the history distinctly unsettling. Statements by prior church presidents and apostles provide fodder for those Latter-day Saints — if small in number — who adhere to racist notions.

The church could begin leaving those problems behind if its leaders explained that their predecessors had confused their own racist views with God’s will and that the priesthood ban resulted from human error and limitations rather than a divine curse. Given the church’s ecclesiology, this step would be difficult.

Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church’s past racial restrictions, except maybe for their duration. Their church, like most other white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.

Still, acknowledging serious errors on the part of past prophets inevitably raises questions about the revelatory authority of contemporary leaders. Such concerns, however, are not insurmountable for religious movements. One can look to the Bible for countless examples of patriarchs and prophets who acknowledged grave errors and moral lapses but still retained the respect of their people.

Likewise, the abiding love and veneration most Latter-day Saints have for their leaders would readily survive a fuller reckoning with their human frailties and flaws. The Mormon people need not believe they have perfect prophets, either past or present.


By: John G. Turner, The New York Times, August 18, 2012


August 20, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, Mormons | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Between The Sensational And The Sanitized”: Mormonism Meets The Press

It’s difficult to escape the sense that something is still missing from press coverage of Romney’s Mormonism.

Witness the Sunday New York Times above-the-fold front page article “Romney’s Faith, Silent but Deep” by Jodi Kantor, a long story that presents the candidate’s Mormonism as rules-oriented, wholesome, and prayerful.

That same day the Washington Post investigated the potential impact of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre—an attack by Mormons in southern Utah on a wagon-train from Arkansas—on the 2012 campaign.

This split between Mormons imagined as murderous bearded polygamists and clean-cut company men reflects a larger division in coverage of Mormonism this season between the sensational and the sanitized.

And it’s no wonder that political journalists and religion scholars alike are expressing hunger for something more.

Yesterday, in USA Today, religion scholar and author Steven Prothero lamented Romney’s own failure to engage the “Mormon moment,” blaming the quality of coverage on the general politicization of religion in the public sphere:

Not so long ago, Romney would have had to explain Mormon theology to voters in some detail. But now that religion has collapsed almost entirely into morality, all he has to do is assure us that its values are compatible with our own. I do not want liberals or evangelicals to use this election as an excuse to attack the Mormon faith… But I am chagrined to see our public square stripped of real religious conversation. Has the religious right pushed so hard to reinvest our politics with religion only to turn our religion into politics?

Prothero ends his essay with the expectation that he and others will continue to have questions about the Mormon faith this year and that “lots of people will doubtless step up to answer [those] questions.” Says Prothero, “One of them ought to be Mitt Romney.”

That’s doubtful. Whether by dint of his pragmatic personality or by official campaign strategy, Romney continues to studiously avoid open discussion of his religion, preferring instead to stress only the elements of his faith that align with campaign priorities. (Clayton Christensen, another Harvard-affiliated, business world-molded Mormon leader has emerged lately as a Romney media surrogate.)

Romney’s reticence can be understood as a feature of the late twentieth century LDS corporate culture that formed and rewarded him. Late twentieth century corporate LDS Church culture strongly emphasized disciplined messaging (also known as “correlation”) as well as individual obedience and cultural conservatism (call it “retrenchment”) in the service of institutional growth. It’s worth noting that correlated, retrenched corporate Mormonism (insiders sometimes call it the “MORG”) is not the only way to do Mormonism, but it is the way Mitt Romney has practiced Mormonism and it is the brand of Mormonism that found institutional ascendancy in the late twentieth century.

It’s worth noting too that late twentieth century corporate-institutional Mormonism openly discouraged and even stigmatized critical inquiry into Mormon experience. In 1981 a high-ranking Church leader admonished Mormon scholars that “some things that are true are not very useful.” Critical inquiry within a faith tradition lays the groundwork for critical dialogue about religion in the public sphere. Without a contemporary tradition of internal debate, Mormons like Romney may find ourselves less prepared to participate in a robust public give-and-take about our own faith.

There are, of course, some outstanding examples that countervail this general trend.

Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune has been providing thoughtful and nuanced coverage of Mormonism for decades, while more recently McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed has emerged as an invaluable source on the faith angles of Romney’s candidacy. Matthew Bowman [who recently wrote about the emergence of the LDS corporate culture], Kathleen Flake, Kristine Haglund, and Ben West are among the LDS scholars whose expertise on questions of Mormon history and culture should be featured in the press.

But it seems that the problem the press faces now is knowing what constitutes an informed and critical question about Mormonism—how to inquire probingly about a religion that is so young, so unfamiliar, without appearing anti-religious or anti-Mormon. What are the questions to ask?

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Mitt Romney represents one variety of Mormonism: a late twentieth century corporate institutional Mormonism focused on growth. Every corporate growth strategy has winners and losers, and there are losers in the institutional history of Mormonism too. Who lost? How were they treated? Where did they go? How do the winners of late twentieth century corporate institutional Mormonism (like Romney) relate to the losers?

If that sounds too much like a story about Bain Capital, let me translate these questions into religious terms. Conflict between individual conscience and institutional mandates is a timeless religion story—think Abraham, Augustine, the Reformation. How individuals process and manage such conflicts discloses important information about the nature of their faith, their methods of decision-making, and the quality of their moral deliberation. Is there any moment at which Mitt Romney found himself in conflict with his own church?

We know, for example, that Romney (like many other Mormons) celebrated the Church’s lifting of the 1978 ban on black ordination. How did he feel about the ban before that time? Did he experience a conflict between individual conscience and institutional policies? How did he understand the value and the costs of the Church’s segregation? How did he manage it? What did he learn about authority, fairness, and conflict from this important period in LDS history?

This is the rugged interior landscape of faith—scholars call it “interiority.” Regular people call it “soul.” I know that Mormonism has soul, and I’m quite certain Mitt Romney does too. But if Romney really is just a by-the-book decision maker who always finds himself in perfect harmony with the priorities of large corporations—religious or financial—voters should probably know that as well.

Perhaps this is the place for serious journalists to dig in.


By: Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches, May 22, 2012

May 23, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unreasonable Benighted Yahoo’s”: Why Mitt Romney Can’t Tell The Crazies To Get Lost

In the cliché of the season, Mitt Romney is supposed to be executing a graceful “pivot” away from the grating extremist stupidity of the Republican primaries, the better to persuade us that he really is a Massachusetts moderate, or a moderate conservative – or at least something less repellent to independent voters than a Tea Party yahoo. He stumbled in mid-pivot, however, when a woman posing a question to him at a Cleveland event on Monday said President Obama “should be tried for treason,” and Romney acted as if he didn’t hear her slur.

The presumptive nominee told reporters afterward that “of course” he didn’t agree with the woman’s remark — as if he had failed to check a box on a form — but his alibi was too late and much too little. When someone slanders the President of the United States as a traitor, the responsible reaction is to respond loudly and forthrightly. Shrinking from the duty to correct the extremism of your own supporters, as Senator John McCain did without hesitation four years ago, is yet another sign of weak character and poor judgment.

Romney’s instinct is to appease the same far right forces that his father George and other conscientious Mormons broke with many years ago, although such fringe ideological obsessions held sway at the highest levels of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He is entirely familiar with the John Birch Society paranoia and white supremacist bigotry that notoriously defaced Mormonism in those times, both of which exert an unwholesome influence on Tea Party Republicans today. Somehow, he cannot bring himself to speak up when confronted with that old nightmare mentality.

Instead Romney consistently seeks to ingratiate himself with anyone who expresses a distaste for Obama, no matter how demented. The same scenario has recurred again and again, as it did in the town of Bexley, Ohio in early March, where a man who claimed to have a concealed-carry permit asked whether the former Massachusetts governor will “allow me to keep my gun and protect myself and my family and my home and not come and get my gun? Because I want to keep it to protect myself and my wife and my family — and against a tyrannical government, which I think we are approaching and we are in, very close.”

While blandly answering that he “believes in the Second Amendment,” Romney failed to reassure this poor character that we are not, in fact, on the brink of tyranny. Is that what he believes? Of course not, he would reply – but why should he be expected to forfeit some crank’s vote by standing up for decent discourse?

The problem is not that Romney is missing opportunities to reach the benighted yahoos in his party, who are mostly beyond reason. It is that he lacks the fortitude to do so when he thinks honor and honesty might cost him. And it means that if the cranks continue to dominate Congress, as they do now, no moderating voice will emanate from a scared and silent Romney White House.


By: Joe Canason, The National Memo, May 5, 2012



May 9, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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