Mitt Romney can trace his membership in the Mormon Church back to its founders. Yet he is tight-lipped — to an unprecedented degree among recent presidential candidates — about his faith. Will this change at the Republican National Convention in Tampa?
NAUVOO, Ill. — Mitt Romney is Mormon. Most Americans know this, polls tell us.
But voters haven’t heard it from Romney, who almost never talks publicly about his religious beliefs and who for the first time yesterday — after more than five years of running for the White House — invited the press to share his church-going experience.
To understand Romney’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell religious policy, I came to this town on the Mississippi River in western Illinois. All roads — personal, theological, political — collide here for the presidential candidate, who will deliver the most important speech of his political life next week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
In 1841, Romney’s great-great grandparents Miles and Elizabeth Romney arrived in Nauvoo from Lancashire, England. The Romneys were among the first English converts to a distinctly American religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Joseph Smith founded this faith, also known as Mormonism, when he claimed to receive visions from God in the 1820s in upstate New York. Smith and his followers traveled to the Midwest to settle, eventually landing in Jackson County in western Missouri, where they hoped to create Zion, a New Jerusalem. The Saints sought to deeply integrate religious beliefs, economics, and politics, and their close-knit, outspoken ways were not well received.
The locals were so hostile that in 1838 Missouri’s governor issued an Extermination Order, which made it legal to kill or expel Mormons, a law that stayed on the books until 1976. Running for their lives, literally, Smith and followers crossed into Illinois, where they settled in Nauvoo in 1841. There they grew, with European converts like the Romneys arriving.
And then things really got bad.
Miles Romney and his fellow believers built a spectacular temple on a hill in Nauvoo and Smith developed a theological revelation that placed great weight on sacred rituals conducted privately and only among Mormons inside the temple. This “Temple Theology” frightened and offended many outside the faith, and they responded with violence. In an attempt to quell matters, Smith and his brother reported to a jailer in nearby Carthage. It didn’t work: A mob stormed the jail and killed the leaders, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, in June 1844.
A few months ago I visited the jail, which is now a historical site owned by the Mormon Church. A kind couple working as missionaries pointed out the bullet holes in the doors. Visitors took photos by the statues of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. During the summer months, tours among Mormon faithful move like clockwork through the site, I was told.
Two very difficult years of transition followed the Smiths’ deaths, and ended when Brigham Young led the Romneys and most of the remnant Saints west to Salt Lake City, where they settled. The temple in Nauvoo eventually was damaged by a tornado and fire. The Mormon Church reacquired the land in 1937 and built a new temple closely modeled upon the original one. It opened in 2002, on the date of the 158th anniversary of the deaths of the Smiths.
It is an impressive building, easily seen from some distance. It is accompanied by a number of homes and buildings that have survived from the 1840s. It’s the Latter Day Saints’ historical parallel to Colonial Williamsburg.
More than 100 years after most of the Saints left Nauvoo, George Romney became governor of Michigan and was the first Mormon to be a serious candidate for the White House, in 1968. Now his son, Willard Mitt Romney, has roughly a 50% shot to be president.
The Romneys are legacy Mormons, which means their position in the faith can be traced to the Smiths and Young. But Mitt Romney certainly hasn’t told us this. I study American politics, with a particular interest in expressions of religiosity, and I can say definitively that no major-party presidential nominee in recent memory has talked less about his religious faith than Romney.
For example, Romney has been running for president for five years, more or less, and in that time he has delivered only two major addresses about religious faith. The first came in December 2007 and was titled “Faith in America.” In it, he said the word Mormon once.
The second came this May when he delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, a major conservative evangelical enclave in Virginia founded by the late Jerry Falwell. In that address, Romney didn’t utter the word Mormon a single time.
Philip Barlow, a Utah State University professor and leading scholar on the history of Mormonism, happens to know Romney personally from when both served in church leadership roles in Boston. Barlow explains Romney’s approach this way:
“Talking about his faith is almost a lose-lose situation for him. Any topic that is very important is easily caricatured. That’s true of any religious symbol or belief. Any of it can be made to look absurd. And Mormonism is more subject to that more than most because it’s foreign, it’s not part of the mainstream culture. To be a theological explainer isn’t going to happen in a presidential campaign without it being a mess.”
Barlow is right, and it’s unfortunate.
Romney may be the next U.S. president. He could tell — and teach — America much about the Mormon faith. Maybe in the stretch run of this campaign he will do so; after all, something prompted him to invite the press to church yesterday. But if he stays quiet, I’ll understand why.