In Our Time
While Americans face the possibility that their next president might be a Mormon, most admit to knowing almost nothing about the religion. A 2012 Brookings Institution study reported that 82% of respondents knew “little” about Mormonism. This means that for the vast majority of voters, the 2012 presidential race will provide a rowdy introduction to Mormon thought.
There has already been snickering about the oddities of Mormon history. These include the Mormons’ 50-year experience with polygamy and the 150 years blacks were deemed spiritually inferior. Yet the public airing of these peculiarities seems to have made little difference.
There has also been heated speculation about what it will mean to have a Mormon in the White House. Since Mormons believe their “president” — the head of their church — is God’s prophet on earth, will a Mormon president be bound to obey him? Again, Americans do not seem much astir about such things.
Still, with these concerns laid aside, many voters may not recognize an often undervalued feature of the faith: how it might help a Mormon lead well in the Oval Office. This possibility arises from the emphasis the Latter-day Saints place upon patriotism, civic duty and morality in government—American government in particular.
These civic virtues spring from the fact that Mormonism is more a religion of America and about America than any other religion on earth. In fact, some scholars, such as UCLA historian Fawn Brodie, see Mormonism as little more than the values and symbols of America spun into a religion. This, they say, is what has made the Saints of recent decades such super-patriots and it may also be what could make a Mormon candidate for president an attractive choice.
Mormonism carries within it a spiritual vision of the U.S. and its meaning in the world. Most Mormons believe that the nation is divinely ordained, that the Constitution was drafted under divine guidance, and that the U.S. will play a divinely predestined role during the millennial reign of Christ. Many also believe Native Americans are descendants of ancient Hebrews and that this extends to the U.S. a divine blessing once intended only for ancient Israel.
These beliefs — combined with the Mormon commitment to honor God by enduring hardship, leading and serving society — have over time made the Saints into champions of the American vision. Their CEOs lead some of the nation’s most successful companies, such as J.W. Marriott Jr. of the hotel chain and David Neeleman of Jet Blue. Their politicians, U.S. Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah for example, wield unprecedented influence. Their constitutional scholars, historians and jurists have been among the most influential in the nation. Their children are taught that America has a unique and holy purpose. Mormons are even devoted to the core principles of an American-style free market. They have been called “free-market apostles.” One scholar, Gratham University’s Mark Skousen, insists that “Mormonism is the Protestant ethic on steroids.
Even critics of the faith, like Mark Twain, have explained Mormonism in secular terms by tethering it to the American experience. If Mormonism was not born, as the Saints insist, in a series of revelations given to Joseph Smith in the 1820s, then where did it originate? Critics answer that it came from the spiritualized life of early America.
It is not hard to imagine. In the Book of Mormon, settlers from the east come west by ship to escape an evil system. They settle in a New World and must battle for survival against a darker-skinned enemy. A democracy springs up. The New World is called “a land of liberty.” Men must conquer a wilderness, assure learning for the next generation, build cities and fight to preserve their faith. It is easy to see the Book of Mormon, as some scholars have, as an allegory of America: not a book of revelation but a tale of America spiritualized by the inventive mind of Smith.
This view makes Mormonism a religion built upon a mystical version of early America. It makes American values the values of God’s kingdom. It makes America one of God’s vehicles on earth. It even makes American government God’s model for all governments.
Is this what Americans want their president to believe? Many Americans do not. Others, though, may decide that if we are going to have a president whose religion is outside the mainstream, perfect it is better that his faith should be of a kind that instills devotion to country and seals him in some eternal way to his presidential duties.
Perhaps. Most important is the knowledge that as foreign as Mormonism is to all but 7 million Mormon Americans, it is actually the most unforeign of all American faiths. Indeed, it may be the most distinctly “American” of any religion. It is a point Mitt Romney might have made to much effect had he devoted more than three words to his faith in his GOP convention speech.
The larger question is whether such a faith can lift a president to greatness. We cannot know with certainty until a Mormon sits in the White House, but given what Mormons believe it is at least a possibility — one that the American voters will have to carefully consider in the 2012 presidential race.