In evaluating a presidential candidate, the most crucial question to consider is why this person wants to be president. In the case of Mitt Romney, one cannot answer this question without understanding his religion and the role it plays in his life.
Recently a diarist suggested we leave Romney’s religion out of our discussion. I somewhat agree with the sentiment—as the diarist correctly points out, there is no religious test for president in this country. However, Romney has repeatedly asked the voters to consider his faith, most notably in his well-publicized Texas speech, the last time he ran for president. In Romney’s own words, “There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator.” Putting aside the vagueness of this statement (which founders, what crisis, and what kind of “blessings”?), it’s clearly an invitation—an insistence even—that we examine his religion.
Romney’s speech in Texas was supposed to be a nod to the famous speech Kennedy made about his Catholicism in 1960. But Kennedy’s speech was meant to assure people his religion would not be a factor in his presidency. As Kennedy said in his speech:
“Contrary to common newspaper usage, 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.”
Contrast that with what Romney said in 2007:
“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”
Get that? Freedom requires religion. No religion, no freedom. According to Romney.
In his speech, Romney went on to mimic some of the language from Kennedy’s speech, assuring us that as president, his oath would be to the republic and not his religion, but that was something of a straw man, as no one was suggesting Romney would be “taking orders from Salt Lake City” (whereas many feared Kennedy would be “taking orders from Rome.”) Rather, the concern with Romney was that his religion was perceived by many as being more than a little weird. He never directly addressed that in his speech, although he certainly made great efforts to cast himself as thoroughly mainstream.
The most common conception, or misconception is that Mormons practice polygamy. Of course, they abandoned this practice long ago, and many who practiced it did so with reluctance, in the interest of increasing their numbers. But the practice of polygamy in itself misses the point. The underlying philosophy behind this practice remains ingrained in Mormonism, and is crucially relevant to understanding Romney and what drives him.
Mormonism is ultimately a religion about patriarchy. Central to the belief of Mormons is the idea of the man being in charge, and not just being in charge of one or two people, but being in charge of as many people as possible.
And indeed, Romney kept a traditional Mormon home, in which he was “the decider,” the head of household, the earner, and his wife did the cooking, the cleaning, the chores, and took care of the children (of which she produced as many as reasonably possible, also a part of her religiously mandated duty). Was this Ann Romney’s choice? Well, it was her choice to belong to a religion in which she had no choice. So I guess the answer is sort of, yes.
Mormon patriarchy goes quite a bit further, mind you, from the type we see in the Catholic church. It is far more aggressive in its implementation; ingrained in its culture. There is a kind of manifest destiny about it, and for Americans especially. Mormon’s believe the United States constitution is a religious document, divinely inspired. When Romney said that “God created America,” he didn’t mean, along with the rest of the world. He meant that God created America as a kind of special holy land, distinct from all other nations. That’s the Mormon belief. As a male, you were meant to be in charge, and as an American male, to be in charge of the world, essentially.
As for his professional life, I suspect he was a fairly decent manager in many ways. That’s not to say I’d want to work for him, because I know he’d fire me if a spreadsheet told him to. And I doubt he’d feel the slightest tinge of regret. But my understanding of him is that he’s organized, dedicated, and runs a tight ship. He did his job for the winter Olympics, and he got health care passed in my home state of Massachusetts. And that shouldn’t be discounted. He has some managerial skills.
I may get some hell for saying this, but if I were president, I would consider tapping Romney’s shoulder to head FEMA. He might be good in that role. He’s a problem solver, numbers cruncher. He’s generally on the ball. As you may have noticed, he’s not very political or partisan (only now is he desperately trying to seem so). You may argue that he’s not very compassionate—as I eluded to earlier, he has no problem firing people. But he does, as a matter of his faith, give to charity, and volunteer, and it wouldn’t be fair to paint him as totally heartless. As it happens, during hurricane Katrina, he was extremely critical of FEMA’s mismanagement, and arranged to house thousands of refugees on military bases on Cape Cod (only a couple hundred ended up coming).
But if you were to give Romney a position such as Secretary of Defense, you can bet he would get out his protractor and slide ruler and get to work solving the problem of how many people he could kill as efficiently as possible. Which is what happened when Kennedy hired a confrere of Mitt Romney’s father to be Secretary of Defense—another managerial guy from Detroit, the head of Ford Motors. A guy named Robert McNamara.
McNamara and Romney have a lot in common. Aside from their connections to Detroit and the auto industry, they both attended Harvard Business, and became successful as managerial number crunchers. McNamara, of course, went on to be the architect for the Vietnam war.
Like McNamara, Romney says that he “loves diving into the data.” There is a lot of data in war. Munition stockpiles, troop numbers, assault time-lines, casualties... I’m sure he would enjoy sifting through all that information. Fun!
You can parse through all the beliefs and commandments of Mormonism, but that won’t give you a real understanding of Mormon culture, any more than examining the Torah would give you an understanding of Jewish culture. In practice, Romney’s religion is not so much about what to do, but how to do it. Whatever you’re doing, be a strong man, be a leader, whether it be helping people or hurting them, no matter. This is the religion of rugged individualism, adopted by American frontiersmen.
Romney’s religious calling is to be in charge.
And this is where I can’t help but wryly smile at Romney’s current predicament. The thing about managerial types is they’re not accustomed to having to explain themselves to their piddling underlings. They don’t have to be likable. They just have to take care of the bottom line. But now Romney has to go out there and grovel—and the people he’s groveling to just happen to be total lunatics. It’s an amusingly painful spectacle.
Strictly managerial types may make profitable businessmen, and may even make accomplished governors (I’m not weighing in on Romney’s overall performance as governor in this diary). But when choosing a president, for better or worse, voters consider managerial skills as an afterthought. What matters more is whether or not you connect with people in a meaningful and personal way—whether or not you have a story and vision that resonates. If you manage to run a decent campaign, voters will take that as enough evidence your managerial skills are sufficient. This may be a tad foolish—it may be that voters should really consider more carefully a candidate’s managerial skills. But without a compelling vision, those skills are meaningless. A president without dreams is a corpse-in-chief.
It’s possible that if the economy tanks again, people may look at Romney and say, “Well, he seems competent, can’t do much worse, right?” That strategy depends on circumstances being exactly right for Romney. Not a good campaign strategy. If he hopes to compete against Obama—the master storyteller, the man with the vision—he’s going to need a vision of his own. And Romney’s primary vision is of himself as the leader.
He is a problem solver, and there’s one big problem he’s working on. How to get elected. And watching Romney try to solve this problem is really turning off the voters. In a strange sort of way, Romney's religion is a problem for him, but not because the voters are prejudiced. It's because it has established in him a frame of reference that can only get him so far.
The more I understand Romney, the more I doubt his chances in November. He simply does not seem capable of communicating with people on a visceral level, and I don’t see how a candidate like that can win.
But what if he somehow pulls it off? As for the role Mormonism might play in a Romney presidency, the story isn’t how it guides him, it’s how it doesn’t guide him. His religion will not inspire him to use government as a means of ensuring fairness—necessarily. It will not inspire him to use government as a means of maintaining a safety net—necessarily. The only thing it will really tell him to do is be in charge. Be a strong male, and make sure everyone around him knows their place.
Markos likes to say that Romney has no moral compass. I don’t entirely agree—he does have a moral compass, sort of. And like any compass, if he moves west, the needle moves east. If he moves east, the needle moves west. Romney’s compass points to the Whitehouse. The Whitehouse is Romney’s magnetic north. The problem is, once he arrives, the needle will just spin around in circles up there. And then what?