Exploring the Mormon Difference

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Much journalistic ink has been devoted to the issue of Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. At first, the big question was whether his religion was hurtful to the former Massachusetts governor's chances of winning the Republican nomination for the presidency. More recently, though, almost as much attention has been focused on whether Romney's campaign might be damaging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon faith is officially called.

According to some church members, all the speculation about Romney and his campaign fundraising juggernaut has brought to the surface many of the old suspicions about the Mormon "difference"—and does so at a time when both real events and popular culture are feeding a similar uneasiness. Recent charges brought against practicing polygamists and the HBO program Big Love have both dredged up a part of their history that most Mormons wish was securely behind them. (Although officially banned in 1896 in order for Utah to qualify for statehood, polygamy has been on the rise during the past 50 years, with the result that roughly 2 percent of people in Utah now live in such families.)

Drawing attention to another dark chapter in Mormon history is the ominously titled film September Dawn. Set for release in August but already creating a buzz, the film treats the Mountain Meadows Massacre of—some coincidence—Sept. 11, 1857, when Mormon militiamen and Indians slaughtered more than 120 men, women, and children passing through Utah in a wagon train. Most controversially, the film suggests that the great Mormon patriarch Brigham Young was complicit in the massacre, a charge that Mormon historians say is groundless.

Whether or not all of this constitutes a perfect storm of bad publicity for Mormons, it comes at a time when a contender for the highest office in the land is trying to assure "gentile" America that his religion is fundamentally at one with other Christian denominations. And though Romney has met with some success in wooing evangelical leaders with talk about shared values, it is evangelicals in particular who have been insistent that Mormonism is beyond the pale of orthodox Christianity. Not only are evangelicals concerned about the Mormons' "other" sacred text (The Book of Mormon); they also voice concerns about a theology that suggests that humans can become divine beings in the life to come. An interesting notion, perhaps, but to orthodox Christians, it is reminiscent of the ancient Gnostic heresies.

Would Romney do more for himself and his church by being more forthright about what he thinks makes Mormonism different and even, presumably, special? It is hard to say. But such candor might be a better strategy than vague generalities, which arguably have had the effect of heightening suspicions about both Romney and his church.

Non-Mormons who are curious about the religion might read the transcript of a conference that took place last month in Key West, Fla., under the auspices of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Institute and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In his opening address, Richard Bushman, a professor of history at Columbia University and a practicing Mormon, talked about one of the defining features of the Mormon tradition, going back to the church's founder, Joseph Smith. "What is not recognized about Joseph Smith," Bushman explained, "is that there is a very deep strain of what I am calling 'civic activism' in him, by which I mean the construction of a new kind of urban society that would embody Christian principles more thoroughly." This civic activism is something that Bushman believes Mormons take more seriously than any particular partisan program or allegiance. Indeed, Bushman noted, when Utah became a state, church leaders arbitrarily assigned Mormons to either the Democratic or the Republican party. "There are Democrats in Utah to this day who are Democrats only because their great-grandfathers were told they should be," Bushman said.

But what does all this mean for Romney's candidacy? In Bushman's mind, the answer largely depends on whether Romney can tap into a larger vein of American civic idealism without making his convictions seem too Mormon. "His 19th-century Mormon heritage gives him plenty to work with," Bushman said. "And I can assure you, from what I know of him, it's his natural bent to seek to be a good president in the moral sense. But the question is, Is his Mormonism a help or a hindrance?"

To that question, the coming primaries will provide at least a partial answer.