Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Matters: Part One -- Women

Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Matters:
Part One – Women

[I’ve been mulling over this entry for months.  It’s dangerous to attempt to write seriously, and potentially critically, about religion.  In attempt to be accurate and non-polemical, I’ve expanded this blog entry into an article much longer than anyone could be expected to read at one sitting.  Thus I’ve broken it into three parts, with this being the longest as it deals with background and caveats.  The Third Part will have a ‘References’ Section citing key sources.]

Last night (October 9, 2012), PBS aired a documentary about the U.S. candidates for President.  The documentary aimed to interrogate the deep strata of beliefs and experiences that make these men who they are.  Mitt Romney’s Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, or LDS for short) was one focus.

Barack Obama’s faith had been an issue during the 2008 election – particularly in regard to his membership in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s activist church.  Thus the current PBS documentary paid less attention to the President’s religion than to the Governor’s, which has not been as publically debated.  Even more important, Mitt Romney’s religion seems both to be a core component of his being and a component he is quite uncomfortable addressing. Somewhat surficially, I believe, the PBS documentary attributed Governor Romney’s reticence about discussing his faith to the fact that his great-grandfather’s relocation to Mexico, although seen as pioneering and inspiring by Mormons in general and by the Romney family in specific, was motivated in large part by the need to escape prosecution for polygamy and illegal land deals.

No one disputes that Mitt Romney is an observant and dutiful member of the LDS Church, that his missionary experience deepened his faith, that he carried out his duties as Bishop [a temporary but highly important lay office, akin in responsibility to a Diocesan Bishop in Roman Catholicism, designated by the most senior Mormon leaders], that he honors his family’s history, and that he tries to live according to his religious convictions.  But his reluctance to talk about these things – at least until now, when his campaign is taking a more ‘personal and open’ turn – is due to more factors than the specter of polygamy (which has been renounced by the Mormon Church for over a century).

The Mormon faith is shrouded in mystery, myth, and misunderstanding, to a significant degree because the religion itself does not invite exploration by outsiders (for example, no non-Mormon can enter a Mormon temple) and has propagated an aura of secrecy.  Its history involves fleeing U.S. laws, enduring violent attempts at suppression, and being considered a ‘cult’ by the more mainstream Christian denominations whose members have largely controlled government and industry in the United States (barring in the heavily Mormon state of Utah).  Some idiosyncratic Mormon beliefs strike non-Mormons as peculiar at best, as they are part and parcel of a very new religion that doesn’t have centuries of tradition to ‘naturalize’ it. 

For these and additional reasons, Mormons (like other formerly persecuted groups) have found it wise, and profitable, to nurture extremely close-knit communities that depend on Mormon-dominated businesses, academic institutions, and civic polities:  ‘us’ and ‘them’ writ large.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that Governor Romney – nurtured within and living as an adult as part of such communities – prefers not to discuss his religion with non-Mormons (who would be most citizens of the country he wants to lead).

I do not want to debate Mormon theology here.  The very nature of faith presupposes a commitment that exceeds, or circumvents, or exists in an alternate reality to, provable fact.   This is as true of Christianity in its many forms (or Judaism, or Islam) as it is of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.  That said, some aspects of being a believing Mormon – now, in the early 21st century – seem to me important to consider when thinking about a potential U.S. President.  And they might be important for such a candidate to confront directly.  So far, Governor Romney has not done so.  John F. Kennedy (first major-party Roman Catholic nominee for President) and Barack Obama (first major-party African American [allied with an activist, U.S. Protestant version of ‘Liberation Theology’] nominee for President) did.

Part One:  Women

I’m NOT referring to polygamy-as-practice here.  That’s old history, except for fringe LDS groups and icky TV programs like Sister Wives.  I am referring to the reason why polygamy was embraced by the Mormon founding fathers:  to produce Godly progeny to populate this land (remember that the LDS Church is a 19th-century American phenomenon) and the next land, the ‘next’ land being both the United States, as transformed by the Second Coming of Jesus to His favored place (here), and the celestial realms existing beyond the material earth.  Women are vessels for progeny propagation.  Men are the prime movers. 

To this day, the Mormon religion remains uncompromisingly patriarchal.  Not only is the Church hierarchy exclusively male, the LDS Church has no particular veneration of the Mother of God . . . no institutionally sanctioned, respected organizations of female believers . . . no flotilla of female saints and martyrs (as in Roman Catholicism), whose existence in fact and/or in ecclesiastical teaching testifies to the ability of women to effect their own beatification . . . and certainly, as in many but not all Protestant Christian denominations, no female priests or pastors.  When Mormon women marry, they are ‘sealed’ to their husbands for eternity; it’s only when a righteous husband ‘calls’ them to the highest heaven (after his death) that a woman can enjoy the afterlife (and her role and duties remain more or less the same in the celestial as in the terrestrial realm).  Unmarried or divorced women, as far as I can tell from reading Mormon Scriptures, are consigned to a sort of purgatory.  There they await an exaltation that can be effectuated by the community of believers, along the lines of efforts to ‘baptize’ and therefore save non-Mormons.

Why is any of this relevant to the upcoming United States Presidential election? 

As a voter, I would like to know whether Governor Romney thinks that women are truly equal human beings, and equal U.S. citizens.  Would they have significant roles in his administration and in his inner council (family members do not count)?  Would single or divorced women be considered as ‘worthy’ of official responsibility ad regard as married women?  How would female heads-of-state from other countries be treated, apart from with politeness?  Would Mitt Romney’s religion’s views about women as, basically, subservient to men influence his own views and actions about issues such as equal pay and women’s health and aid to single-parent families and public education? 

I have no doubt that Mitt Romney loves his wife with all his heart and genuinely believes that he honors and respects women. I do have questions about whether he can love, honor, and respect . . . whether he can really even conceive of . . . adult female citizens who are not sealed into eternal heterosexual marriage, who may face all sorts of challenges that most people in his fairly insulated community have not confronted, and/or who have talents and ambitions outside of raising a family.  And if he can conceive of such fellow female citizens, so different from the female paragon set forth by his religion, what does he think governmental obligations to them are? 

Mitt Romney began his tenure as Bishop as an ‘iron-rodder’ – an inflexible proponent of his religion’s rules and dogma.  Most reports suggest that, partially in response to female Mormon activists demanding more agency and more theological adaptability, and partially in response to repeated contact with women in crisis, the Governor became less rigid.  He began to listen to his female parishioners’ grievances and recommended some adjustments.  How far this went, and to what extent it represented a permanent change in attitude rather than an expedient swerve to avoid worse problems, is not at all clear.  But if I were a debate moderator . . .

Well, I’m not a debate moderator.  All I can do is raise some questions that I honestly think deserve to be raised.  My purpose is not to bash the LDS (indeed, members of my extended family are Mormons).  But because the United States is unique among Western Democracies in pushing religion to the forefront of political debate, I’m bemused at the silence of U.S. political commentators and analysts about the impact of Governor Romney’s religious beliefs on his political beliefs and potential political practice. 

Part Two, coming up:  American Exceptionalism
Part Three, coming up:  The Deseret Ideal and the 47%
(plus selected bibliography)

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