The Elephant in the Race

Romney should address what his faith means for the rest of us.
June 18, 2012 |
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Earlier this year, when Mitt Romney ventured that he relies on his wife, Ann, to tell him what American women are thinking, many of those women no doubt rolled their eyes and thought: Ah yes, the wife card. Male politicians (President Obama included) are fond of invoking their wives’ experiences and insights to make the case that they, the politicians, understand women and the issues that concern them. While sincere, the comment may have been especially unfortunate for Romney, reinforcing his reputation for insularity and making him seem oblivious to the possibility that he, too, might seek out women and their viewpoints rather than assigning the majority of the electorate to a single, unpaid advisor.

But when Matthew Bowman, a religious historian and scholar of Mormonism, heard Romney invoke his wife in that manner, he thought something else: How Mormon.

Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Romney is an active, engaged member, there is a patriarchal structure in which men hold the important leadership positions, assisted by a women’s auxiliary called the “Relief Society.” Each ward—a congregation of several hundred people—has a bishop, or lay male leader, who selects the relief society president for his ward. “The president is the head woman in the ward,” explains Bowman, and when the bishop wants to know what women of the ward are thinking, he will go to the head woman and ask her. So when he heard Romney channel Ann on what America’s women are concerned about, Bowman could not help but think: “Ann is the Relief Society president for America.”

This interesting observation raises a familiar yet surprisingly unanswered question: the extent to which Romney’s views on women—and his policies affecting them—are influenced by his Mormon upbringing and beliefs, consciously or even just instinctively. So far, it’s hard to know because Romney doesn’t get into specifics about his religion or, frankly, about women.

For voters who are interested in gender issues, it’s fair to say that at this point there is only one presidential candidate whose positions are pretty clear. Looking at Obama, you can easily discern his take on, say, working women. Repeatedly, the president and his proxies talk about how more and more women are breadwinners in their households; how women often are supporting dependents on less than a man might make; and how we need, therefore, a government push for gender pay equity, paid sick leave, Pell grants, and other measures that will keep women in the workplace and enable them to earn more money. You may or may not agree with the president’s activist-government approach, but you know where he stands.

With Romney, you don’t, or not so much, which is all the more reason it seems natural to wonder whether we are to ascribe to his worldview the very specific roles his church promotes for men and women.

The Mormon church has historically maintained that men and women have distinct functions, and in the mid-1990s made this separate-spheres philosophy explicit by issuing a proclamation on the family stating that the chief role of the father is to preside, provide, and protect, while the role of the mother is to nurture children. Despite some recent liberalization, the view holds sway; according to the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of Mormons say the best marriage is one in which the husband works for pay and the wife stays home, an opinion held by fewer than one-third of Americans overall. Kristine Haglund, a Mormon feminist and editor of Dialogue, an independent academic quarterly, says: “Mormons in all kinds of surveys since the 1960s tend to have reasonably egalitarian views about women’s capacity and whether women should be educated and whether women can do certain jobs. But for whatever reason, Mormons tend to think that children will suffer if they’re not with their mother in the home when they’re small.”

Does Romney agree with the church’s mothers-should-be-home directive, which certainly prevailed during his time as a church leader in Boston? If so, would a Romney presidency bring a dialing back of efforts to close the gender wage gap or even a campaign to quietly drive women out of the work force by, discouraging paid childcare? Would Romney decline to hire women with small children as staffers? Or, in a Nixon-goes-to-China scenario, might this pragmatic candidate do more than you might expect to help working families? Might he pressure employers to provide longer maternity leaves and to give moms their jobs back when they return?

One of the strengths of the Mormon church is not only the emphasis it places on family life but the belief that there is more to life than paid employment: The belief that, even as he is providing, a Mormon father should be engaged, available, and caring, and that men and women should volunteer to help the needy. Might a President Romney coax employers to let workers dial back hours in the office, provide more flexible time, offer telecommuting, and create more opportunities for working mothers—and fathers—to spend time with children and communities?

Maybe that’s all a stretch for a laissez-faire business Republican. But the point is we can all play this parlor game—speculating on how Romney’s Mormonism would affect his outlook and policies as president—because he hasn’t told us. And that’s partly because we haven’t really been asking him.

This line of questioning shouldn’t be taboo. Romney has been more involved with his church—as a missionary and a leader—than any president in recent memory has been involved with any church, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, whose push for human rights was very much grounded in his personal Christianity. And yes, whether fairly or unfairly, the church in question, and its beliefs, are less familiar to most Americans than mainline Protestant denominations or Roman Catholicism.

Romney might want to fill us in. So far, the candidate has deflected questions about his faith, dealing with it only in controlled settings; in a 2007 speech, for example, he said he would not let church authorities influence his decisions as president. In interviews, though, he tends to avoid further inquiry. To a certain extent it’s understandable, given how skeptics tend to go for the low-hanging fruit. “For many people, you hear ‘Mormon’ and there are all these questions about polygamy and whether Jesus and Satan were brothers and about Mormon underwear, and all of this esoterica, arcane stuff,” says Bowman, a professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College and author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. Himself a Mormon, he understands why Romney might want to steer clear of talk about revelations and prophets. This seems eminently fair: All religions at a certain point veer into the irrational—burning bushes, impregnation through the ear—and no churchgoing politician needs to enumerate ad nauseam what he believes and what he doesn’t. But given that Mormons, as Bowman observes, are more prescriptive than theological—more likely to sermonize about how to live a good life than engage in niceties of scriptural interpretation—it’s fair to ask how these prescriptions would play out politically. We accept that there are Catholic politicians who depart from their church over abortion, for instance, but we also expect them to make this departure clear.

Romney is not only an active Mormon but a veritable aristocrat of the faith. A growing number of Mormons are recent converts, but Romney, whose great-grandfather maintained a polygamous household in Mexico, is from what you might call one of its ancestral families. “Mitt comes out of the polygamous tradition; in Utah, that’s a proud tradition, that’s sort of the cultural elite of Utah. That’s the aristocracy,” says O. Kendall White, Jr., a professor emeritus of sociology at Washington and Lee University. Equally to the point, Romney’s wealth places him among the upper class of Mormons, a fact that adds even more resonance to the gender question. In past decades, Mormons have experienced all the social changes that America has gone through: Mormons divorce, Mormons are single mothers, Mormon women work, including Mormon mothers, who scramble for day care like anyone else, without much help from their church. But the more affluent a Mormon family, the less likely the wife is to work outside the home, and the more children she is likely to have. In contrast, among the general population, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be low-income. So the fact that an affluent wife like Ann Romney does not work outside the home makes her unusual among American women but usual among Mormons.

Intriguingly, there’s one force for gender liberalization within the church absent in Romney’s life: a daughter. “I know so many dads who blithely sat through sexist meetings with their wives, but then when their five-year-old daughter says, ‘When do I get to pass the sacrament, when can I give blessings?’ they have this mini-awakening,” says Haglund. Liberalization tends to come about as men react not as husbands but as fathers, seeing their daughters navigate a changing cultural landscape.

This is a point of difference between the candidates: As a father of daughters, President Obama cited the influence of Sasha and Malia in describing his journey to support of same-sex marriage. In contrast, Romney has sons, and invokes their boisterous presence to underscore that Ann Romney did plenty of hard labor at home.

During his tenure as a church official in Massachusetts, Romney counseled many couples. Among them, according to a New York Times article by Jodi Kantor, was a couple who wanted to adopt through the church, but were stymied because the church did not countenance adoption by working mothers. (It has since loosened that stricture.) Romney’s response was to help them figure out a budget that enabled the woman to stay home. But, Heglund points out, during his tenure, Romney also experienced the impact of a second-wave Mormon feminist movement that was especially vocal in the Boston area. At first, she says, he reacted “in mostly the way you would expect a Mormon patriarch to do,” which is to say with annoyance and exasperation: “some combination of not taking it seriously, of thinking that this wasn’t appropriate, the disapproving finger-wagging approach that Mormon men tend to take toward uppity women.” But over time, she says, he began genuinely listening, and responding with real seriousness, telling the women who came to him which reforms he felt were viable and which were not. “I know a couple of quite progressive women who worked for him in the statehouse in Massachusetts, who really felt that he did great with women as colleagues.” She doesn’t find this hard to believe: Among Mormon men, she says, there is this “dual strain of thinking” in which patriarchal power is important, but so is fairness and gentle behavior. She’s fascinated by young Mormon couples who adhere to the men-should-earn-and-women-nurture idea, yet when the men walk through the door, they instantly take the babies and immerse themselves in the life of the family. Within the patriarchal structure, she says, “there is always that space for relatively egalitarian relationships between men and women.”

When asked whether Romney should talk more about his faith, and whether doing so might benefit him, many Mormon academics say no: There is no good way. It would be too easy to get bogged down in talk about angels and golden plates, which might put off secular voters. At the same time, Romney has to woo evangelicals, who tend to be skeptical of Mormons—and compete with them for converts. But Romney’s faith could help him fend off the elitism label. “He has more personal experience with poor people than anybody gives him credit for,” says Haglund, pointing out that the congregations he led included some devastatingly poor neighborhoods, and that Mormons have a sturdy tradition of volunteerism and active charity.

Romney clearly feels he checked “Mormon speech” off his to-do list during the last election cycle, and that he shouldn’t be asked to do so again; that doing so would amount to some prejudiced double standard against his faith. The media largely seems to agree; at no point in those endless primary debates was the candidate asked if he embraced his church’s proclamation on the family, or the concept of separate spheres for men and women, or what he learned from his congregation service in Boston.

It’s unfortunate for so much to be off the table, rendering Romney a blank slate in many ways—a cipher with so little to talk about besides Obama’s economic record that he’s reduced to reciting patriotic songs or talking about the height of Michigan’s trees to fill air time.

Hiring a president is not like hiring a corporate manager, whose spiritual life needn’t concern us. It’s not even like hiring a governor. We deserve to know our presidential candidates, to have them explain to us their formative experiences, associations, and influences. Mormonism has clearly been important to Romney throughout his life. What that means for a Romney presidency is a legitimate question: one we shouldn’t be left to draw our own conclusions about.

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