A quick post while I should be studying for the bar exam.
Yesterday, the Boston Globe published the first in what is to be an in-depth, six-day series on Mitt Romney. While the article was fascinating in its own right, exploring Romney's childhood and upbringing on through the beginning of his Latter-day Saint mission to Paris, what caught my eye was a letter the story linked to from then-LDS Apostle Delbert L. Stapley to Romney's father, George Romney, then-Governor of Michigan. George Romney was a well-known moderate in the Republican party at the time and an ardent civil rights advocate. In 1964, Governor Romney made a trip to Utah and, while there, gave a speech in support of the civil rights legislation that was making its way through Congress at the time. After that trip, Stapley wrote to Romney in reference to his remarks on civil rights. While making clear that he was writing as a friend and not as a Church official, Stapley's letter was clearly an attempt to influence Romney on this very hot-button issue. Stapley went on to characterize the pending civil rights legislation as contravening the will of the Lord, and he seemed to attribute the deaths of several well-known civil rights leaders to the fact that they were pursuing a course which was against the decrees of God. While Stapley's opinions here were clearly his own and didn't seem to have any effect on Romney's public position on the civil rights, the incident plays into an current debate on what sort of influence the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its officials would exercise over Mitt Romney if he were to be elected president next year.
Last fall, media allegations surfaced of some purported collusion between the Romney staffers and Church officials. And earlier this year, Damon Linker, a former visiting professor at BYU, published an editorial in The New Republic arguing that Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency should be carefully scrutinized because Mormon "theology" and the Church's belief in modern day prophecy and revelation raised the specter that Church officials might improperly influence Romney in political decisions. This charge spawned a vigorous debate that quickly led to a New Republic editorial countering Linker's premise and an online exchange between Linker and Columbia History Professor (and active Latter-day Saint) Richard Bushman). Concerns of this nature, however, have not fully been put to rest and it has led to repeated calls for Romney give a "Kennedy" style speech in which he proclaims his political independence from the Church (see, e.g., here).
The publication of Stapley's letter, a pretty clear instance of a Church leader trying to use doctrinal interpretations to press an elected official on a political issue, has the potential to add fodder to these resurfacing claims, even if the letter was written as "a personal friend" rather than in Stapley's "official Church position." Ironically, I'm certain most members of the Church would clearly be very uncomfortable with the content of Stapley's letter, both as to the claims he makes and the influence he tries to exert. While I personally would have a difficult time seeing a Church official today, especially one of Stapley's stature, push a political issue in this way, I say that as an active Mormon who comes from within the religious tradition. Others outside of that tradition may not be as convinced. Even with the strong emphasis the Church has recently put on political neutrality, the heavy conservative tilt of its membership causes some to wonder whether Mormonism carries with it a de facto partisan dictate, the Harry Reids of the world notwithstanding. Beyond partisanship, others worry about what other de facto dictates Mormon doctrine might carry with it; which creates an odd situation where both secular liberals and religious conservatives are aligned as having an underlying suspicion of active Latter-day Saint candidates. The question is whether this letter, even though it's 43 years old, will exacerbate those suspicions.