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Romney, Mormonism & American Exceptionalism

September 25, 2012

by Michael MacLeod
Oregon academic blog
Politics Among Friends

What does the emergence of Mitt Romney as a Presidential candidate tell us about the American political story? Regardless of whether or not the Republican ticket wins the November election, the possibility that the nation could elect a Mormon as President has much to tell us about what makes America unique. And there could be profound political implications that stem from these beliefs that we should carefully consider. Here, I’ll focus mainly on the foreign policy dimensions and leave the domestic implications for another post.

In Mormonism, we have a set of beliefs based on revelations given to a 19th century American in upstate New York that has given birth to a religion with millions of adherents. The LDS (Latter Day Saints) Church has, at its core, a very strong sense of American exceptionalism as part of God’s holy plan. As Malise Ruthven assessed recently in the “New York Review of Books,” Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith had views very similar to Christian fundamentalists raised on literal interpretations of the Book of Revelation, i.e. that the Savior’s return was imminent, presaged by a Great Tribulation and the restoration of Israel. The difference was that Mormons believed then that they were the lost Israelites, and that the Book of Mormon would be a vehicle by which to convert Jews into the Kingdom of God.

Moreover, America (and the Americas) was argued to be not only a land of promise but, according to the Book of Mormon and church leaders since, the world’s most exceptional land that was actually visited by Jesus Himself. The head of the LDS in 1987 said that:

“Our Father in Heaven planned the coming forth of the Founding Fathers and their form of government as the necessary great prologue leading to the restoration of the gospel. Recall what our Savior Jesus Christ said nearly two thousand years ago when He visited this promised land: ‘For it is wisdom in the Father that they should be established in this land, and be set up as a free people by the power of the Father, that these things might come forth’ (3 Ne. 21:4, the Book of Mormon). America, the land of liberty, was to be the Lord’s latter-day base of operations for His restored church … For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God.”

Thus, Mormonism is the perfect form (or offshoot, depending on your views) of Christianity for extreme nationalism. It believes Jesus visited America, that the Garden of Eden was somewhere in Missouri, and that sees the US Constitution as an integral part of the divine order (which Jesus apparently personally foresaw in his appearances in America two millennia ago, and blessed).

Does this have implications for American foreign policy today? It’s hard to say, especially given that there are Mormons on both the left and right (Harry Reid is a Mormon and leader of the Senate Democrats, for example). But what if the possible leader of the free world emerges from a church sect – and personally believes himself – that asserts America alone has divine permission to do what it wants in the wider world, that America is subject to different standards than everyone else, and that geopolitics is about the global supremacy of the modern world’s first divinely ordained nation? At the very least, these views are very symmetrical with those neoconservatives (in the Republican party) who helped push the United States into war with Iraq from 2003-2011.

Might a Romney administration go down the same road? Perhaps a clue comes from Mitt Romney’s views of Iran and his relationship with Israel’s current leader. In June, Romney suggested that an attack on Iran was a question of the very survival for the United States: “we cannot survive a course of action [that] would include a nuclear Iran. We must be willing to take any and all actions.” More critically, he is known to have a close relationship with the current leader of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who the retiring director of Israel’s internal security service Shin Beit criticized earlier this year for making decisions – such as potentially attacking Iran – based on “messianic feelings.” Will a President Romney undertake to attack Iran and forcibly prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons?

In fact, we don’t know much about Romney’s foreign policy at this point because the 2012 presidential election has been framed by his campaign as almost entirely one focused on domestic policy. Notwithstanding the recent crisis in the Middle East, foreign policy statements by his campaign have been largely platitudes and not very specific about how Romney would conduct his own foreign policy. And because Romney has been exceedingly private about his faith, we don’t really know the extent to which Mormonism and its dogma might specifically impact a potential Romney presidency. But we do know this: nominating a candidate for President – and potentially electing him – who emerges from a religion that explicitly, at its core founding and in its core beliefs, posits that America is not only divinely blessed but indeed an exceptional place with the most important mission to play before the Second Coming, is a revealing turn in American history. While we’ve elected Presidents before accused of being inspired by Christian fundamentalist beliefs of the “end times” – George W Bush was often attacked for this, especially after the invasion of Iraq – having one in office from a sect that was founded specifically on the principle of a divinely-ordained American exceptionalism is, simply, remarkable.

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Discuss this article

Trent September 25, 2012

Mormons don’t believe in American Exceptionalism, much less extreme American Exceptionalism. Your statement ” The LDS (Latter Day Saints) Church has, at its core, a very strong sense of American exceptionalism” is patently false.

The LDS core is a belief in Jesus Christ, and the only belief about America is that it was prepared as a place that would have religious freedom, so that a “new” religion, namely Mormons’ faith, would be able to start there without being squashed by secular leaders there. Nowadays most countries have religious freedom; America is not exceptional in that way.

Richar Cannon September 25, 2012

Interesting perspective. I recently read Mathew Bowman’s synthesis of Mormon history “The Mormon People, the Making of an American Faith.” Bowman’s presentation of Mormon history resonated with other historical accounts of a religion that was constantly evolving and being reinvented by its leaders to address external and internal circumstances. Given this fluid basis for belief and practice, it is not surprising that different political views from the left and right might be comfortable in this unique culture. Early leaders ran for president, courted political favor, emigrated in mass and declared war against the United States. Rather than declaring American exceptional, Mormonism apparently fosters an obsession with their own exceptionalism as saviors of the world and humanity restoring the Christian church, giving departed souls from history past a chance to become Mormons (baptism for the dead), becoming God’s ruling class during a millennial rule here on earth and for those who can meet the challenge progressing to godhood. Romney’s views of American exceptionalism are the least of our worries.

KTC John September 25, 2012

This blog repeats some common errors. Early Mormons, nor current Mormoms, believe themselves to be of the lost tribes of Israel. Those tribes are still lost. The Book of Mormon peoples are not asserted to be of the lost tribes of Israel. The Book of Mormon contains a partial religious history of three different migrations to the Americas. The first came from the Tower of Babel and thus pre-dated the Israelites of all tribes. A second migratory group came under the leadership of a Jew named Mulek, and they became the most numerous. The record deals primarily with a third group who were descendants of Joseph who was sold into Egypt, through his sons Ephraim, the blood line for the females in the group,and Manassah, the blood line for the males in the group. Mormons do not consider the United States to be any more exceptional than the first half dozen presidents of the United States, but they all felt it was quite exceptional and each recognized the hand of God in its establishment.

Raymind Takashi Swenson September 26, 2012

Mormons have served in Congress for over a century. There are currently a dozen, half from outside Utah. Mormobs have headed Federal agencies for 50 years, from Agriculture to HHS to Treasury to EPA. There us no secret Mormon political agenda. The work Mormons do to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ is missionary work, and storing emergency food. They.know God can take care of polutics all over the world when He wants to. It is not their job. Mormons do NOT think they have any charter to take government power over anyone else, and an article of faith is teligioys freedom and equality for all people.

Mitt Romney’s radical idea is to make government run rationally, so it serves us, and is not our master. His personal character has involved lifelong service. Steve Jobs put his business first, but Rpmney devoted 20 hours a week to taking care of the poor and vulnerable, feeding them and helping them with housing and jobs.

A Chipman September 26, 2012

I agree completely with Trent’s remarks. You cannot focus on one characteristic and think that defines a whole religion or the people participating in it. This article also completely ignores the fact that the LDS Church has more members outside the U.S. than inside. It sees itself and operates as a global church. In the earliest decades members were urged to move to be with and strengthen others in Illinois and then Utah. But for decades now the Church is focused on building up where people live all over the world. America was a fertile ground to start a church in the 1800s. But it is now a global church that happens to have its headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Richard Cannon September 26, 2012

Chipman. There can be little doubt that the LDS religion continues to redefine itself as leadership and members confront and reconcile the history and teaching of its past. It’s growth worldwide has provided difficult challenges particularly in Africa and countries like Brazil with large populations that bore the mark of Cain – black or dark skin. The 1978 revelation that men of all races were now ready to be granted priestly ordination conveniently addressed a major impediment for expansion. The availability via the internet of early historical documents that clearly demonstrate major inconsistencies among scared documents and pronouncements from living prophets and the stunning lack of external evidence for the validity of the Book of Mormon have required creative interpretations from apologists and church leadership. The “Thus saith the Lord” pronouncements that all other churches were an abomination have been parsed to all religions may have some truth (LDS have been given the fullness of the Gospel). Separation from the Gentiles has given way to “I’m a Mormon” just another Christian denomination.

Ernest September 26, 2012

Whether mormon’s beliefs are outdated or not does not matter. Mormon leaders will always pick and choose doctrine to conform to their current agenda – like blacks having priesthood, polygamy, and ruling the world by theocracy. Some old prophet’s words, or any prophet’s, including present-day, can eventually always be rebuffed later. What flexibility their church has to control the doctrine (and its members) to fit their needs. Mormons who brush off as outdated doctrines such as polygamy, United Order or compelling each of to someday bow and confess they are right, omit the fact that they still are mormon doctrine blaring to the world from the pages of their scripture and awaiting an appropriate moment to be reinstated. This dilemma is thus conveniently and purposefully managed to decieve and change anything they want. The more we all learn of their plan the more their gig is up.

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