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Former Mormon: What Americans Need to Know About Mormonism

How might Mitt Romney’s faith affect his social, economic or diplomatic priorities?

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We have a bit of interesting history regarding the Romneys and the authority of the church. George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, was governor of Michigan in the 1960s, and supported the civil rights movement. He received a letter from Delbert Stapley, a member of the Mormon twelve apostles, asking him to withdraw his support from the movement in accordance with Mormon teachings regarding race. Romney actually defied Stapley, and continued to support the Civil Rights Act.

I think that Mitt Romney is much more in-line with the positions of the church on social issues than his father was, but it does go to show that you can’t predict how an individual would govern merely based on their religious affiliation. Take Rick Santorum and John F. Kennedy, for example. They’re both Catholic, but where JFK said that he believes the separation of church and state to be absolute, Santorum said that the thought of it makes him “want to vomit.”

Tarico: What are the most important things to Americans to understand about the Mormon religion and how it might affect a Romney presidency?

Amini: In the temple ceremony, Mormons do make a covenant to obey the church absolutely if they were ever asked, essentially giving the church veto power over your life. That possibility is scary to people who are looking at Romney as a president, but Roman Catholics essentially give the papacy the same power; and Evangelicals give the Bible (as interpreted by some leaders) the same power.

Many kinds of Christians have managed to govern according to the laws of the land in spite of religious commitments and covenants. At the same time, religious people are definitely influenced by their beliefs. We could ask, for example, whether George Bush’s Evangelical beliefs about the Middle East adversely affected our policies there – or whether a Santorum presidency might adversely affect the health of American families if men and women are less able to choose when to have children.

Tarico: How might the Church leadership seek to affect a Romney presidency?

Amini: Well, again, many kinds of churches seek to influence the presidency. The Catholic Bishops have regular meetings with U.S. presidents, and the Evangelical community is allowed to hold an annual prayer breakfast with the President. The Mormon church, however, rarely takes political stands. They did strongly oppose (and may have caused the defeat of) the ERA, opposed the Civil Rights Act, and now fight against Gay Marriage, but otherwise, the Church is largely silent. The people of the church are generally strongly conservative, though.

Tarico: Why is the culture so conservative?

Amini: The philosophy is in line with a conservative way of thinking. If you are not a Mormon, you must either be ignorant of the faith, or have some personal issue preventing you from belief. There’s no such thing as an honest intellectual disagreement with the Church. It’s a very insular community, and those on the outside aren’t trusted like those on the inside. That kind of hierarchical thinking and tribalism is very resonant with the conservative world view.

It’s also difficult to question the church, or have a nuanced view of its truth claims. Believers encourage education but decry people who “trust to their own understanding” as learned fools. They discourage critical questioning of the Church to the point that any materials that might challenge the truth claims of the church are labeled “anti-Mormon,” and regarded as “spiritual pornography.”

Mormons also have a historical impetus toward patriotism. Having establishing what was nearly an independent country in Utah, they eventually needed to reintegrate to the United States around the turn of the previous century. At this time, they began abandoning some of their distinctive doctrines, and took great steps to portray themselves as deeply patriotic.

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