Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Matters: Part Two -- American Exceptionalism

Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Matters:
Part Two – American Exceptionalism

We’re accustomed to hearing flag-pinned political candidates of all parties spout patriotic pabulum:  greatest country and/or democracy ever, shining city on a hill (a misquote from John Winthrop), God bless the United States of America.  Perhaps it’s unfair to call this ‘pabulum,’ as one would hope that people running for political office do believe that serving the country is a noble calling precisely because the country is a noble – even exceptional – nation.  For most politicians, ‘American Exceptionalism’ is a concept based on the history of democratic governments and the history of the United States as ‘good guy’ (more often than not) in international affairs as well as the recognition and/or mythologizing of our path towards a more perfect union. 

For faithful Mormons like Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, American Exceptionalism means all that – and more.  The ‘more’ centers on the belief that God and Jesus Christ had, have, and will have a unique relationship with the United States.  According to the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants (another foundational LDS scripture):

--The Garden of Eden was located in the vicinity of Independence, Missouri; after expulsion, Adam and Eve relocated to Daviess Country, Missouri.  Thus, God selected a site near the geographical center of what would become the continental United States as the perfect place to create mankind. 

--Jesus visited America after His resurrection in order to teach and bring peace to the inhabitants – then-warring descendants of a Lost Tribe of Israel who had migrated from the Near East to the New World around 600 B.C.E.  The peace lasted only a few generations.  (See the Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi.)

--During the Millennium (inaugurated by the Second Coming), Jesus will set up His Kingdom in two places, Jerusalem and Missouri, a belief that Governor Romney affirmed explicitly during a 2007 radio interview in Iowa, in the early stages of his first run for the Presidency. "Christ appears in Jerusalem, splits the Mount of Olives to stop the war that's coming in to kill all the Jews--our church believes that," he explained. "That's where the coming in glory of Christ occurs. We also believe that over the thousand years that follows, in the Millennium, he will reign from two places. The law will come forward from one place—from Missouri--and the other will be in Jerusalem."

--Precisely because of the United States’ privileged position in Mormon eschatology, the ‘Founding Fathers’ were specific vessels of Divine Will, rather like Old Testament prophets, like Joseph Smith [note:  Joseph Smith was the founder of the Mormon religion, the discoverer and translator of the Book of Mormon.], or like Jesus Himself.  Therefore, the United States Constitution is divinely inspired – almost akin to Holy Scripture – and needs militant protection.  Joseph Smith’s “White Horse Prophecy” predicts that the U.S. Constitution will one day be ‘hanging by a thread’ and will need to be rescued by American Mormons. Although this prophecy has not been adopted as official LDS Doctrine, Mormon leaders and commentators from Brigham Young to Glenn Beck have discussed it with approval.

These doctrines are not secret.  They form the core of the distinctive amalgam of patriotism, secular history, and sacred narrative that characterizes the Mormon vision of American Exceptionalism.  The real-life story of Mormonism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as its adherents moved from New York to the Midwest and finally to the new Zion of Utah, restaged the pre-historical travails and triumphs recounted in the Book of Mormon.

It’s easy to speculate in general terms how the distinctive LDS view of American Exceptionalism might impact a Romney Presidency.  Given the sacralized view of the Constitution, the most obvious impact point in the domestic sphere is judicial appointments. Certainly, Candidate Romney has been straightforward about his commitment to appoint conservative judges and Supreme Court justices.  But if one believes that the Constitution is a quasi-religious document, the need to appoint jurists who espouse ‘originalism’ – that the Constitution has a fixed and knowable meaning, coordinate with its authors’ original intent – becomes paramount. 

Already, the Supreme Court contains four Federalist Society members (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito) who almost always apply originalism to their decisions. [Note:  the Federalist Society is a ‘conservative’ association of lawyers and judges dedicated to promoting originalist legal ideology and grooming future jurists who will put it into practice.]  Mormon convictions about the nature of the United States Constitution and its exegesis make it doubly certain that, under a President Romney, any new appointments to the Federal Judiciary will be the strictest of strict constructionists . . . which could threaten existing civil rights for Blacks, Latinos, women, and the LGBT community. After all, the Founding Fathers – no matter how progressive they may have been in their era – were all white, well-off, straight (as far as we know), and  (duh) male.  Their ‘original intent’ was shaped by these factors (as the exclusion of women and non-whites from full participatory citizenship demonstrates). 

Yet Mormon concepts of American Exceptionalism may be particularly felt in the realm of foreign policy.  If the United States is not only favored by God but also specifically selected to be both the cradle of humanity and the platform for its ultimate redemption, it cannot just be primus inter pares, one country (albeit richer and stronger) among other countries (which may account for widespread Mormon dislike of the United Nations).  The LDS Church holds that the U.S. has a divine mandate to remain absolutely sovereign and, in multi-national situations, to lead with uncompromising conviction.  Therefore, a President Romney might be expected to eschew diplomacy for decisive action, as also indicated by Candidate Romney’s often bellicose and hasty pronouncements about foreign affairs . . . and to ‘going it alone’ rather than building coalitions.

As mentioned above, Mormon eschatology charts two seats of power for the kingdom of Jesus Christ during the Millennium:  Israel (Jerusalem) and the United States (Northern Missouri).  This belief puts a new spin on America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel.  No longer is Israel our strong Middle Eastern ally primarily because of shared democratic and cultural ideals, not to mention the necessity of having a strong partner in a volatile area crucial to our national interest.  Now Israel is also the staging ground for the ultimate reign of Christ upon Earth, a reign that evidently will be controlled from the United States (from whence, according to Governor Romney, will issue ‘the law’).  New Zion needs to protect Old Zion in the present to preserve it for its future role. 

Such belief has important potential consequences for today’s geopolitics:  commitment (or lack of such) to a two-state solution; willingness (or lack of such) to take a nuanced view of Palestinian claims, complaints, and factional differences; support (or lack of such) for moving Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and – maybe most urgently – willingness  (or lack of such) to sanction and/or participate in preemptive military strikes against Iran. 

I’ve delayed finishing and posting this blog until seeing the last Presidential Debate, which was focused on foreign policy.  Candidate Romney’s odd decision to agree with President Obama on just about everything frankly surprised me.  But after taking a day or two to think about it, his tactics began to make sense . . . not in light of American Exceptionalism per se, but in light of Mormon history in this country.

One thing that documented Mormon history shows is a survivalist instinct. Persecuted and thrown out from one place?  Move to another.  Lose a religious-freedom-argument case in the Supreme Court?  Change doctrine from endorsing polygamy to outlawing it (and in the process, establish the State of Utah).  Undergo increasing criticism about doctrine that prohibits non-whites from assuming positions of authority?  Revise the doctrine.

In other words, do what you have to in order to preserve the essential mission:  to maintain and strengthen the Church of the Latter Day Saints in the exceptional United States so that it can play its pivotal role in the End Times.  Then it’s hardly surprising that a Mormon candidate for President will easily change positions in pursuit of the perceived greater good – in this case, to be elected.  I’m not suggesting that Mitt Romney sees himself as the potential central player in the drama outlined in the White Horse Prophecy (in fact, he has downplayed its importance).  I am suggesting that the Mormon history of shedding inconvenient skins, presumably to keep the essential body intact, may partially underlie Governor Romney’s stunning ability to reverse and abandon positions he has fervently embraced previously.

Here’s a final thought about how the Mormon concept of American Exceptionalism showed itself during the last debate.  Mitt Romney’s only real ‘gaffe’ was asserting that Iran needed Syria as a route to the sea, a comment revealing abysmal geographic ignorance, as Iran has its own seaports.  As far as debate gaffes go, this was middle-level, I guess, not on par with, say, Gerald Ford’s about the absence of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe in the 1970s.  Nonetheless . . .

What Governor Romney’s cluelessness about how Iran occupies a map suggests is a basic disinterest in the brute and incontrovertible facts about our world.  Countries have borders (which sometimes bump up against bodies of water).  These borders have histories.  These histories influence how a country thinks of itself and its sovereignty.  Nothing in Mitt Romney’s on-the-record statements or writings indicates that he has any knowledge of or interest in world history whatsoever.

No one would argue that the Governor is a stupid man.  But he seems to be a profoundly incurious one when it comes to the world outside the United States or outside business deals and financial transactions.  The singular Mormon view of world history, one that may be supported by faith but is not supported by any sort of objective evidence (scientific, archeological, medical, linguistic, etc., etc.) puts America as the alpha and omega of historical process.  If someone believes this, it makes sense that he would not be interested in the histories of other parts of the globe.

And it might make for a U.S. President incapable of clear-eyed assessment of this country’s place in and responsibilities to the global community of which we’re so inextricably a part, no matter how exceptional we may be.

Part One, published earlier this month:  Women
Part Three, coming up:  The Deseret Ideal and the 47%
(plus selected bibliography)

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