Two nights ago, my class on Mormonism talked politics. We asked the question, “Would the election of Mitt Romney as President of the United States help or hurt the Mormon church?”
I say “church” and not “faith” purposefully; there is a valid argument that faith is something internal, which hopefully would not be impacted by the results of an election. The church, though, has plenty to be gained or lost: reputation, understanding, and civic influence (influence of the church on the world, and the world on the church).
Two Mormon students in my class did some research regarding this question, and their initial answer was… neither. They believe that most of the change that the church would experience has already been experienced as a result of Mitt Romney’s campaign. They explained that the campaign has brought a spotlight to Mormonism, and there has been a good amount of positive exposure as a result. Only ten years ago, they remember when Evangelical clergy would accuse Mormons of being of the devil, evil influences who must, at all cost, be avoided. There are still some Evangelical clergy who feel this way, but the sentiment is not nearly as widespread, and most certainly not as vocalized. They feel this is one impact of Mitt Romney’s candidacy.
Having Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for President has put a face to Mormonism. These students explained that, before Romney’s campaign, any man who would “come out” as Mormon would immediately be stereotyped as some crazy guy who had many wives. When people see Mitt Romney and his family, the stereotype begins to fade. But it is more than that. It is easy to visualize a person as the enemy, as a villain who is absolute evil, when there are no personal experiences to pull from, only accusations and misrepresentations. However, when you see a person giving speeches, being interviewed, debating, and especially joking around with others, you begin to realize that this person is… well… a person. He (or she) has qualities you like as well as qualities you don’t. There are strengths and weaknesses to be considered – just like with any of us.
I imagine the impact is greater for those who are in the Republican Party. This person who they now see on television and the Internet every single day represents them: their ideals, their positions, their morals. Yes, of course it is rare to find someone whose positions match on all counts, but the point is that we tend to vote for the person with whom we most identify. For most Republicans, this Mormon is that person. When you identify with someone, you no longer consider them to be “the enemy.” Granted, Mitt Romney is just one Mormon, but it is when we become more familiar with one person that we begin to realize the whole group of people might not be so bad. Just in the past 20 years, I have seen this happen with many communities: African-Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals. It is when we meet someone from that community that the barriers begin to come down and the stereotypes become less powerful.
And so, the students argued that, win or lose, the Mormon church is not likely to feel much of an impact at this point. They were careful, though, to not use absolutes. They believe that some of the impact that is being felt now is likely to continue should Mitt Romney be elected. For example, they have already noticed a difference in the recognition of Mormonism as a Christian faith. Although there are still many who would not consider Mormons to be “Christian,” people generally speaking now understand that Mormons do, indeed, believe in Jesus as divine. This recognition also extends to people who previously did not even know that Mormonism WAS a faith. Many missionaries who travel internationally have been met with quizzical looks when introducing themselves as Mormons. People did not know Mormonism existed. This is more rare now, and the students expect it would become even more rare if Mitt Romney is elected. This is exciting for the Mormon church, since it potentially means more successful missions, which is a huge part of their faith and calling.
Now, with this said, depending on how a Mitt Romney presidency would fare, success for Romney could also hurt the Mormon reputation. I don’t know any presidents who come away from their presidential term unscathed. There are always criticisms, finger-pointings, and mistakes to be long remembered. Any decision, statement, or act that Mitt Romney as President would make would be associated with Mormonism, whether it should be or not. If Mitt Romney loses, Mormonism will no longer be in the spotlight. If he wins, Mormonism will continue to gain our attention, for good and for bad alike.
But this is all about how Mitt Romney’s run for presidency impacts the Mormon church; how about how Romney’s Mormon faith impacts Romney’s run for presidency? I have been surprised to see that it doesn’t seem to be all that impactful. I was not alive for President Kennedy’s campaign, but I understand that his Catholicism was a topic that could not be avoided. It was a huge focus, and many people would not vote for Kennedy because they were fearful that the Pope would run our country. Although there was an initial “shock” regarding Mitt Romney’s run, there really hasn’t been much said since he received the nomination. Perhaps this is because Mitt Romney seems to avoid the topic. He presents himself as a person who is running for President and happens to be Mormon, not as a Mormon running for President (see 3:40 of this video).
To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed. Despite the fact that I did not vote for Romney (mail ballot), I originally felt defensive for him. I do not believe that someone’s faith should determine whether that person is elected, and I was worried this would happen. However, as the campaigns unfolded and Romney’s faith was not a topic of conversation, I realized that I DID want to hear about how Romney’s faith impacts him as a leader. I have many of the same questions that are outlined in this article, but are left unanswered. I am particularly interested in this topic because there are many positions that Mitt Romney takes that are NOT the Mormon church’s positions (immigration and social issues in general). Let me be clear, I am not faulting Romney for sometimes disagreeing with his church. I simply would like to better understand how Mitt Romney’s faith has helped form who he is and how he considers issues of civic responsibility (especially regarding the poor).
In fact, because of these differences, I asked whether the Mormons in the room believed that most Mormons are supportive of Mitt Romney for President, and they said, “Yes.” Even though many Mormons disagree with some (many?) of Romney’s positions, they are, generally speaking, excited by the idea of a Mormon in the White House. The Mormon representatives in the room believe that most Mormons (but not all – there is a more liberal contingent) will vote for Mitt Romney. Of course, this is not the first time we have seen this phenomena (Catholics for Kennedy, Blacks for Obama). And, for the record, I do not blame them. If a woman was running for President who I thought was capable, but maintained some positions where I disagreed, I just might vote for her anyway. Of course… it would depend on the positions.
In the end, the impression I walked away with is that Mormons are excited. Having one of their own running for President in a close race makes the election more personal for them… and makes them seem a bit more personable for the rest of us, too.