The Mormon Thing

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You hear a lot more about Mormonism in this presidential cycle than I recall hearing when Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, ran for president 40 years ago. This morning the Washington Post ran a story on Romney's Mormon support, making the point that much of the $20 million plus he raised in the first quarter came from members of (to give its full name) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It starts off with a Romney fundraiser in Idaho, the state with the second-largest percentage of LDS members and includes for your inspection a nice map (unfortunately I don't find it in the online version) showing counties with 25 percent or more Mormons in red, those with 5 to 24.5 percent in yellow, those with 1 to 4.9 percent in gray, and others left white. Utah is–no surprise–all red, and so is eastern Idaho; there are red counties as well in Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, and the sand hills of Nebraska (a lot of counties there have less than 1,000 people; maybe some Mormon missionary converted half the town). The Post story seems to me pretty fair-minded.

The LDS Church is an in-depth organization, with those assigned to leading local congregations paying calls on all LDS households several times a year. The church operates a strong network of social services: a classic case of a communitarian institution in an individualist country. The connectedness of LDS members makes for easy fundraising for an attractive candidate who is also an LDS member. And many LDS members around the country remember Romney's yeoman work in rescuing the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Not all stories are as evenhanded. Radio talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt, author of A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know About Mitt Romney, contrasts here the snarkiness with which the New York Times treats Romney's fundraising among Mormons with its reverent treatment of Barack Obama's fundraising among blacks. The fact that each of them raised more than $20 million altogether shows the power of affinity groups in fundraising. Of course we don't know the percentages of their money that Romney raised from Mormons or Obama from blacks since contributors are not required (at least not yet) to list their race or religion.

It has often been said that Romney's religion will be a problem for him; it has been confidently asserted that many evangelical Christians regard the LDS Church as a "cult," and you can find polls that show that nearly half of all voters would not vote for a Mormon for president. I'm skeptical of those numbers. The LDS Church is a Christian and an American church (although it says that more than half its members now, thanks to its missionary efforts, live outside the United States). But I guess it's natural, in a period in which the demographic factor most highly correlated with voting behavior is religious belief (or lack thereof), for a candidate's religious beliefs to be important to voters. George W. Bush has talked much about his Christian faith; Bill Clinton probably talked even more about his. It's a marker that people look for.

In contrast, at least in my recollection, George Romney's Mormon faith was much less talked about when he ran for president 40 years ago. Remember that that was just seven years after the election of the first Catholic president, in an election in which 78 percent of Catholics voted for John Kennedy, descended from southern Irish Catholics, and 63 percent of white Protestants voted for Richard Nixon, descended from northern Irish Protestants. But after his election Kennedy proved to be both a highly popular and an utterly unsectarian president. His federal aid for education proposal conspicuously lacked aid to parochial schools, something the Catholic Church very much wanted at the time.It was defeated in the House Rules Committee by the opposition of Rep. James Delaney, from the same heavily Catholic Queens district that in 1978 would elect Geraldine Ferraro (it finally passed in the Great Society Congress of 1965). Americans in 1960 thought the difference between Catholics and Protestants was very important. Americans by 1961 or 1962 concluded that it wasn't, and so a few years later the Mormon faith of George Romney was no big deal.

I thought I'd check on my recollection by taking a look at Theodore White's The Making of the President 1968 (copies available from $5.59; my contemporaneous paperback was priced at $1.45). There's one entry for the Mormon Church in the index. Here's the text at pages 43 and 44:

"For the first quality that surfaced, and as one met and talked with George Romney over a number of years, was a sincerity so profound that, in conversation, one was almost embarrassed. In him the small-town ethic, the small-town morality of America's past seemed to be exaggerated to hyperbole. Yet, on probing, one discovered this morality to be pure, unfeigned and of innermost religious conviction. 1968 was to see two of the most religious men in American public life vie for the Presidency–Eugene McCarthy and George Romney. But Romney's religion–the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints–framed his every phrase and reaction. He would not talk politics or do business on a Sunday; he neither smoked nor drank; he believed, again in all sincerity, that the Constitution of the United States was a divinely inspired document. When he talked of stopping moral rot, he meant it, as much as an evangelist would–and, indeed, for two years in his youth George Romney had been a Mormon evangelist in the streets of Scotland and England."

White the city slicker seems to see Romney through the template of "the small-town" ethic rather than the more specific template of the Mormon Church, Romney's experience as an "evangelist" was and is standard practice for a young man in the LDS Church and doesn't warrant the "indeed." White seems to be wincing ("in all sincerity") at the idea, widely held beyond the LDS Church, that the Constitution was "divinely inspired." His view seems to be that people imbued with "the small-town ethic" were too unsophisticated to be president.

But White the reporter was alert to countervailing evidence, which he gives in the next paragraph:

"George Romney's religion did not make him a forbidding man, however; he added to it goodwill, jollity and warmth, and it was perhaps this human warmth that caused his only departure from the tenets of his church. His experiences with life, working his way up from humble origins (his father had been a potato farmer), had led him far from the harsh doctrine of the Mormon Church which consigns Negroes forever to outer darkness in the Hall of God; and it was on this issue of civil rights that he had come to acrimonious and blazing disagreement with Barry Goldwater in 1964. He spoke quite simply of his migration through life to the conviction of brotherhood. "I come from a Rocky Mountain background," he said to me later in the campaign. "I didn't know any Negroes, America was still pretty simple, still pretty uncomplicated. I spent some time in Washington later and we had a Negro maid, but we didn't know any Negroes. It was only after I got to Detroit that I got to know Negroes and began to evaluate them and I began to recognize that some Negroes are better and more capable than lots of whites. Whites and Negroes, in my opinion, have got to learn to know each other. Barry Goldwater didn't have any background to understand this, to fathom them, and I couldn't get through to him. I understand Barry and Ronnie Reagan, they come from the same background that I did–they just can't understand what we have to do, how to reach Negroes with programs of their own, how we have to know each other." This conviction had by 1964 penetrated even the Negro ghettos of Michigan, where Romney racked up a substantial 15 percent of the Negro vote in Michigan in a year when Goldwater was claiming less than 2 percent, and by 1966 Romney's claim on the Negro vote had risen to over 30 percent, unprecedented for a Republican."

This is a jarring passage today, which I can't read without considerable discomfort. And not just because of the use of the word "Negro," which was replaced by "black" in common polite usage a year or two after the book was published in 1969. White leaves out some things; for example, that the reason Romney "spent some time in Washington" was that he was the lobbyist for the Automobile Manufacturers Association during World War II, when the automakers had vast interests in government decision-making; their plants were all converted to defense plants. Romney was thus, in his late 30s, less of a naïf than one might think. Romney's statement that some blacks are more capable than many whites sounds intolerably patronizing today–how could one not have known that?–but was, I think, more goodhearted at the time. On Barry Goldwater, Romney was simply wrong on the facts; Goldwater insisted in the late 1940s or early 1950s that black employees and customers be treated the same as whites in his Phoenix department store. And Reagan was a man who never showed prejudice against blacks or anyone else. Fifteen percent of the black vote wasn't "unprecedented" in Michigan; Republicans got higher percentages in the 1950s and carried the black vote up until the mid-1930s (which were closer in time to White than we are to White today). White does not record whether Romney made this statement before or after the July 1967 riot in Detroit; it would be interesting to know. But his statement that blacks needed "programs of their own" strikes one as bizarre, or at least ill-stated. Separate segregated programs? Surely not. More generous welfare programs? That was what America was starting to embark on in the late 1960s, with disastrous results as just about everyone concedes now. Finally, it should be noted that the LDS Church changed its doctrine on blacks in 1978. People are still holding Mitt Romney responsible today for a doctrine his church renounced 29 years ago.

Now a few nice words about the Romneys. Back in 1994, when Mitt Romney was running against Sen. Edward Kennedy, I attended a lunch in Washington with the candidate and his father. George Romney at 87 was still vigorous and was beaming with pride at his son.

"This guy is the real thing," he said, in words I do not remember precisely. "He's much better than I was." I wasn't a fan of George Romney when he was governor–I was a partisan Democrat at the time–and I had known of but not really known Mitt Romney when he was a student at Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills three years behind me. In any case, it was still heartwarming to see the pride that this man had in his son and the love he had for him.

Footnote: Here's a Mitt Romney ad that's currently running. Romney's performance in the polls so far has been unimpressive; he'll need all the money he can raise to get his message across.

The AMT

Let me point to two pieces on the Alternative Minimum Tax, about which I have written before (follow the links for earlier posts). In the American, American Enterprise Institute's new magazine, former House Ways and Means staffer Alex Brill takes up my point that the upper middle-income people being swept into the AMT are concentrated in heavily Democratic constituencies. Two tables tell the story.

Brill makes the point that 3 of 8 national regions (New England, Mid-Atlantic, Pacific) are heavily hit by the AMT. His AMT regions are represented in the House by 114 Democrats and 48 Republicans in the House and by 24 Democrats and eight Republicans in the Senate. The non-AMT regions are represented by 119 Democrats and 152 Republicans in the House and by 27 Democrats and 41 Republicans in the Senate. In other words, nearly half the Democrats in their House and Senate caucuses have a vested interest in getting rid of the AMT.

Here's his explanation of who gets hit hardest by the AMT:

"Why do AMT receipts tend to increase in areas close to cold salt water? The biggest single factor that contributes to a taxpayer being hit with the AMT is his or her state's own fiscal policy. Because taxpayers are allowed to deduct from their taxable income the amount they paid in state income taxes, the more your state collects from you, the lower your ordinary federal tax liability. But if your ordinary tax liability gets "too low" the AMT kicks in, and the AMT does not permit you to deduct state income taxes. Which states are most impacted by the AMT? You guessed it: States with high state income tax burdens. Of course, in a tax system as complex as the AMT, there are other factors at play as well. Strange as it sounds, having many children greatly increases your chances of being hit with the AMT, and your income level certainly isn't irrelevant either—so far it has been a problem concentrated among those with low to mid six-figure incomes."

As I've pointed out, this creates a constituency with a vested interest in getting rid of the AMT: public employee unions. Application of the AMT as written would produce a big tax increase on politically pivotal voters in states where public employee unions have successfully raised their members' wages, and that tax increase would tend to create pressure to hold down state and local spending. That's the last thing public employee unions want, and they're a strong institutional force in the Democratic Party.

How many people stand to be hit? Here is AEI scholar Alan Viard's testimony on the spread of the AMT. The Democrats would like to see most of the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010 or sooner; their House and Senate budget resolutions envision obtaining more revenue from unnamed sources and don't envision extension of most of the Bush tax cuts. That sets up a clear issue difference between the parties, reflecting their genuine convictions on tax levels. But the AMT complicates things for the Democrats. Politically, they need to get rid of it. But under the budget rules, they're going to have to raise other taxes a lot more than they'd like (or cut spending correspondingly) in order to do so.

Nancy Pelosi's Scarf

Nancy Pelosi is taking a lot of flak in the right blogosphere for wearing a head scarf in Damascus. But the pictures showing her wearing a scarf appear to be pictures of her visit to a mosque. Wearing a scarf over her hair there seems to me to be a courtesy, like not wearing your shoes in a mosque (the pictures don't show her feet) or, for a man, taking off your hat in a Christian church. You behave as believers do in their sacred places as a matter of courtesy, not to show submission to their beliefs. My question is: Was she wearing a scarf on her other rounds in Damascus? I doubt it; Power Line has a photo of her wearing the scarf around her neck while outside the mosque. I think she should get a pass on this. So does Jim Geraghty at National Review Online. But I should add that I do think her trip to Syria was ill advised.