July 26, 2005
Mitt Romney for President?
Posted by Gordon Smith

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has presidential aspirations. He is a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. He is the son of George Romney, three-time Michigan governor who famously tanked his own presidential campaign by claiming that his initial support for the Vietnam War was due to the fact that he had been "brainwashed" by the U.S. military. Like his father, Mitt Romney has been a successful businessman. (He founded Bain & Company, a private equity firm). He also has a JD and an MBA, both from Harvard. And he gave Ted Kennedy a surprising run for his money in the 1994 Senate race.

Romney's official bio touts his work in resuscitating the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee as his greatest pre-gubernatorial achievement. Unless you followed that story closely, it is easy to forget what a job Romney did with it. This from Rocky Anderson, the Democrat mayor of Salt Lake City, who is not known for praising Republicans:

He was absolutely spectacular. He was a strong leader, extremely competent. He walked into an utter disaster, and slashed spending without cutting corners on what was necessary to put on an absolutely extraordinary Olympics. With his unique management skills we came out in the black--which no one ever dreamed.

More important than all of this to some people, however, is the fact that Romney is a member of of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Predictably, some people are starting to ask: Would America elect a Mormon as President?

The big concern is that Romney may feel beholden to follow instructions from Church leaders: "So would Romney likewise feel obliged to follow the dictates of the church's president, whom Mormons believe to be a divinely inspired prophet?" Of course, this question reminds us of a similar question posed to Jack Kennedy about his relationship to the Pope. Kennedy responded:

I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic . . . I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me.

Could Romney give a Kennedy-esque response? I doubt that would suffice in today's political environment, at least on a national stage (see more below), but if that is Romney's intention, he had better tell his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, who offered this statement:

[Governor Romney's] first obligation is to fulfill his duty of office, and that would take precedence over anything.... This is a governor who has signed a law permitting Sunday alcohol sales, and who has been open to an expansion of gaming. This is by no means someone who is marching in lockstep with his church.

My impression is that Romney, like all Mormon politicians, usually tries to walk a thin line. He does not want to be portrayed as the Church's puppet, but at the same time, he does not want to defy the Church. Most Mormon politicians avoid this dilemma by noting that the Church has never told them how to vote on a particular piece of legislation. And as far I can tell, it is true that Church leaders do not attempt to exert direct influence on Mormon politicians. This was essentially Kennedy's position with respect to the Catholic church, and it still works in local and state elections.

Fehrnstrom's statement, however, does not take this tack. By asserting that Romney was not "marching in lockstep with his church," Fehrnstrom staked out a position of defiance. Consider Romney's actions with respect to gaming. The Church has an official policy in opposition to gambling and urges members to oppose its legalization. [UPDATE: this portion of the post has been edited to remove a quotation from the Church's General Handbook of Instruction, which is not a public document.] This anti-gambling message is repeated often in Church publications. To the extent that Romney "has been open to an expansion of gaming," he appears to be in direct conflict with the Church's teachings. Not being all that politically savvy, I wonder how being portrayed as a hypocrite helps Romney. This reminds me of John Kerry's cafeteria Catholicism, which raised more questions than it answered.

Would America elect a Mormon as President? Perhaps. But as noted above, I doubt that Kennedy's elegant fudging of the role of faith in politics would suffice today. As Ann Althouse has observed, the world today is much different than Jack Kennedy's world, and "personal moral questions have become central" to politics in a way that they were not in 1960. In that milieu, I have serious doubts about the ability of a faithful Mormon to win an electoral majority, and I sincerely hope that no Mormon would be elected President on a platform that defies Church teachings. If so, it would be without my vote.

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