Monday, June 25, 2007

The Church, Politics, and Damon Linker

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.

22 comments:

Marc said...

J. Stapley over at By Common Consent wrote a good post about the Stapley letter I thought I should link to.

Logan said...

Honestly, I don't think this will bother most people who aren't already bothered by Romney's Mormanity. (Which isn't to say that the other campaigns won't try to make as much as they can of it, of course.) Mormons have a tendency to worry that others will automatically interpret everything about them in the worst possible way. My experience is that nearly everyone I talk to is much more forgiving of the foibles in the Church than I am myself.

The worst part of this might be that it's yet another reminder of the Church's civil rights record. But even then, I find that most people readily assume Churches are going to have a lot of weird positions that most members don't agree with.

(Damon Linker notwithstanding,) I just haven't seen improper-influence concerns gain much traction as a major issue that people care about. My guess is only those who would never vote for Romney anyway will pay much attention.

Marc said...

With regard to secular liberals, I wholeheartedly agree. No way in hell they're voting for Romney. On social conservatives, I'd have to disagree. Many are torn with regard to Romney and could go either way. There are a lot of fence-sitters with regard to Romney in Evangelical circles and, since they're already skittish about his faith, news like this is part of what might push them toward other candidates. There's a reason why Fred Thompson, a man with next to no legislative accomplishments, a voting record indistinguishable from McCain's, and a reputation for being lazy, has walked right into the lead in many presidential polls nationally before even formally announcing his candidacy. There's a vacuum in the GOP in part due to the dissatisfaction of social conservatives with the current crop of candidates.

Logan said...

You could be right. Here in New York most people are almost radically tolerant--even the most conservative of us. (Though, admittedly, "most conservative in New York" isn't really saying much!) So my perspective may well be skewed.

That said, this seems like it would take some real rhetorical acrobatics (or a persecution complex) to make very much of it. It doesn't directly provide any evidence that Romney would be dictated to by the Church, does it? I still think the only real attention this will get is from those who are already playing the anti-Mormon card and from skittish Mormons who keep it in the news by freaking out about how others might react.

When Romney's campaign finally peters out, I doubt it will have been because voters were afraid that the Church would control the White House. Charges of flip-flopping and a more generalized anti-Mormon bias will play a much bigger role in his defeat.

But again, that's just me.

Robere said...

Shouldn't this be on Law Students for Romney? Just kidding, Marc - I know you're now a law school graduate so you couldn't post it there...

More seriously, do you know exactly which quotes from Joseph Smith the letter refers to? It's hard to not read that letter from a 2007 perspective and not wonder how an LDS Apostle could have those feelings about civil rights. But the letter was written in 1964 by a man born in 1896, over 80 years before I was born.

blondemama said...

I'm kind of sick of the whole religion conflict with Mitt, no offense Marc. Even though being mormon and the whole history of the church bit makes him controversial it is just getting silly.

BA said...

Good post Marc. I don't know how it will play out and have no strong feelings on it...so I can't even offer an offensive opinion.

Marc said...

Logan - I'm not arguing that this letter will end up doing anything, I just noted that I think it has the potential to. I don't think it takes any rhetorical acrobatics. The letter doesn't have to be direct evidence of Romney's interaction with the Church to cement the idea in key primary voters minds that Romney's Mormonism is a red flag. It's troubling, but ultimately its part of the dynamic of presidential politics. Irrelevant issues often go a long ways toward defining candidates today (See, e.g., John Kerry and his windsurfing). As you point out, other issues may well end up playing a bigger role in the longevity of Romney's campaign, but part of me thinks you underestimate just how much Romney's Mormonism will impact his primary run, especially in the deep South.

Robere - I haven't looked up the quotes, but I suspect Stapley was referring to comments Smith made which (paraphrasing) said blacks, if they were given the opportunity, could be just as capable as whites, but that the races should be segregated (pretty progressive views for his time when you think about it though). I think you're right to point out the different generations we are coming from though. In my first comment I linked to a post that makes that same point pretty articulately without justifying Stapley's comments.

Marc said...

Blonde - Not sure why I would be offended :P I don't think Mitt's faith should be an issue in the campaign. Unfortunately, up to this point it has been and probably will continue to be on some level.

BA - I stumped the might BA. Does that make this post a failure or a success?

Logan said...

Um, okay Marc. By now I think you've lost me. Let me see if I have this straight:

(1) You're saying the letter could affect people, not that it will. I can't argue with that, though the point seems pretty watered down stated like this.

(2) Next you say I underestimate the impact of Romney's Mormonness. If I wasn't clear before (I did say "a more generalized anti-Mormon bias will play a much bigger role in his defeat"), let me say that I think Romney's membership will be huge--one of the two insurmountable problems he faces (along with flip-flopping).

If this is right, I can't tell what we're disagreeing about. Too bad--if we really do agree, boiled down like this the points seem quite tame. :)

Marc said...

Logan - Perhaps I should clarify.

1) I do think this letter will very likely fuel the fire of those who have been arguing that the Church's influence over Romney is worrisome. Whether that significantly affects the electorate in key primary states like South Carolina, I think is up in the air. I'd keep an eye out for anti-Mormon tracts that include these claims being circulated anonymously come the end of the year.

2) I think these concerns play into the general anti-Mormon bias you referenced earlier. They are part-and-parcel of it. For those who are already wary of Romney's Mormonism, the fear that Church leaders might improperly attempt to influence him in this way might be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Ultimately, I don't think we're disagreeing on that much here. So much for fireworks.

Dennis said...

You make a good point. But however embarrassing the Stapley letter might be, I think what it shows is that the church does not dictate to its elected officials. Senator Moss really pissed off the brethren on a labor issue in the 70s, but then he wasn't active...

Alice said...

As I read the letter I wondered if the Romney family leaked the letter to show a history of their family standing up to religious influences ... after all, how DID this letter surface?

Marc said...

Dennis - If memory serves me correctly, a whole lot of LDS Congressmen split with the Church on the MX Missile system too.

Alice - A juicy question indeed. You think THEY leaked it?! Perhaps in an effort to highlight a Romney who stood up to a Church leader's influence?

Alice said...

Yes! If it were my family I would have.

Marc said...

Note to Self: Never write Alice a letter discussing controversial doctrinal and political views because she'll leak it to the press when she runs for office.

Alice said...

You seem to discuss controversial doctrinal and political views often enough out in the open that I can't imagine anything you were to write me in a sealed envelope that I would then leak to the press would come as much of a surprise to nearly anyone :).

Smaux said...

I'd love to see a post on the Church's involvement with "preserving traditional marriage and strengthening families" in California.

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