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.
Nauvoo Mormon Temple, photographed on May 24, 2012 and dedicated in 2002 as a close facsimile of one built in the 1840s. Mitt Romney’s family traces its American history to Nauvoo and the temple. (Photo by Lucas Anderson/UW Election Eye)
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.