Opinion
11:54 am
Tue June 14, 2011

The Nation: The Missionary Position

Molly Worthen is writing a book about modern American evangelicals.

When Joseph Smith, the religious genius and sometime-treasure hunter who founded the Mormon faith, announced in 1844 that he was running for president of the United States, international affairs were not his top priority. In a pamphlet outlining his campaign platform, Smith quoted James Madison's inaugural address declaring that he would "cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations." But he never got the chance to elaborate on his foreign policy: Later that year, while Smith was in jail awaiting trial on charges that he had ordered the destruction of an anti-Mormon newspaper, a mob of armed men stormed his cell and fatally shot him as he jumped out of the window.

On the face of it, the Mormons angling for the White House in 2012 could hardly be more different from the founder of their faith. Where Smith turned to seer stones and wildcat banking schemes to raise money, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are paragons of fiscal caution and big-business capitalism — one a self-made millionaire, the other an heir to a billionaire's chemical fortune. Smith was a charismatic prophet who commanded his followers to accept new scriptures and doctrines, like polygamous marriage and baptism of the dead, distinguishing the Mormon faith from mainstream Christianity. Romney and Huntsman, by contrast, appear to be respectable and rule-bound to a fault.

Both have distanced themselves from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' more idiosyncratic beliefs, and Huntsman has implied that he is no longer devout. Yet their domestic records and approaches to politics speak volumes about the Mormon worldview and what a Mormon president might mean for U.S. foreign policy. Despite the partisan rhetoric that the campaign trail may require, they are realists whose international experience and instinctive prudence would rein in their commitment to any ideological grand strategy.

Smith's risky and mercurial behavior — and the conspiracy theories of today's most famous Mormon guru, Glenn Beck — are exceptions in the church's history and culture, not the rule. The early Latter-day Saints (so called because they believe that Smith restored the true church in the "latter days," the last era before the Second Coming of Christ) did not build a self-sustaining empire in the Salt Lake Valley without a fair dose of caution and business sense. Some historians argue that Smith's schemes were more pragmatic than they seem: His church's survival and subsequent thriving suggest he did something right. In part, Mormons have prospered by adapting their beliefs to changing times. When doctrines like polygamous marriage and the prohibition against blacks in the Mormon priesthood became politically untenable, the LDS church denounced them: New revelations indicated God had changed his mind. Mormons' talent for careful planning and flexible strategy has contributed to the rapid growth of their church around the globe and the expanding influence of Mormons in the corridors of Washington and the business world.

This is not to say that Mormons are opportunists. On the contrary, they tend to be stalwart defenders of conservative social values and American exceptionalism. After all, the LDS church teaches that Jesus Christ appeared in America, that the true faith was restored in upstate New York when Smith uncovered the golden plates, that the Garden of Eden was in present-day Missouri — as is the site of Christ's future Second Coming. It's no wonder that Leo Tolstoy saw in Mormons the quintessential "American religion." Today, popular culture stereotypes Mormons as teetotalers proud of their enormous families and patriotism. Rumor has it that the CIA and FBI treat the Mormon faith as a de facto background check and recruit more heavily on the campus of Brigham Young University than almost anywhere else.

Yet while America plays a prominent role in Mormon theology and history, Mormons have always been missionaries with no intention of stopping at any border. Over the past century and a half, the LDS church has become one of the most international organizations in the world. The church claims about 14 million members worldwide, more than half of whom live outside the United States. Of the 25 announced locations for new Mormon temples, 14 are abroad (most in Latin America). The church is increasingly non-American and nonwhite. That global missionary ethos has implications for how a Mormon president — especially ex-missionaries like Romney (France) and Huntsman (Taiwan) — would view foreign affairs.

Missions demand a paradoxical combination of ideological commitment and pragmatic flexibility. The two years (or, in the case of female missionaries, 18 months) that young Mormons are urged to devote to full-time mission work often send them overseas and leave them not only fluent in new languages and charged with a saintly esprit de corps, but sensitive to the challenges of communicating in a culture different from their own. Successful missionaries in any religion are nothing if not farsighted and practical: They are inured to doors slammed in their faces and realistic about the compromises and adjustable expectations that their work requires. Romney, for example, learned to put aside his church's disapproval of alcohol and approach patrons in French bars.

Experiences like these teach Mormons to temper the American exceptionalism inherent to their theology. Neither faith nor patriotism stopped the church-owned newspaper, Utah's Deseret News, from recently bucking the region's nativist tendencies by protesting growing hostility toward illegal immigrants (it so happens that those immigrants are a growing Mormon constituency). A similar streak of apolitical pragmatism — and, it must be said, human compassion — marked Romney's tenure as Massachusetts governor: He defied ideological taboos by pioneering a model for government-mandated universal healthcare. Huntsman, for his part, accepted an ambassadorial nomination from a Democratic White House, presumably because he was more interested in representing American interests in China than in toeing a strict party line.

But these candidates' preference for pragmatism over politics seems to cut little ice with the Republican faithful. Many evangelical Christians, in particular, view the Mormon faith as a non-Christian cult. When Romney first ran for the country's highest office four years ago, he tried to quiet rumors that a Mormon president would be the puppet of the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City or that a Mormon is too "weird" to be president. "We share a common creed of moral convictions," he told an audience at Texas A&M University. (Never mind that shared morals do not mean shared doctrine: Yes, the LDS church seems to focus more on outward obedience than on theological details, but the faith's fundamental tenets include some very distinctive ideas. For starters, Smith taught that God is an "exalted man" of flesh and bone and that humans themselves can ascend to godhood, while the Book of Mormon describes Christ's visit to the Americas after his resurrection — notions that would make most Christians blanch.)

Given the lingering suspicions of such a core Republican constituency, it should come as no surprise that Romney has given his 2012 campaign, including his foreign policy, a partisan makeover. His hawkish manifesto, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, opens with an epigraph from Dwight Eisenhower, but the main tone of the prose is pure Ronald Reagan: Romney calls the Gipper "brilliant" and declares that "history proved Reagan right," an exemplar that the next president ought to bear in mind if America is to remain "the leading nation in the world." (The LDS church, incidentally, considers Reagan a "true friend": His administration employed at least 14 Mormons in prominent roles.)

No Apology tries to dispel the notion that Romney is a technocrat without the guts to defend America's superpower clout (though, with graphs of home prices and test scores, the book hardly hides his wonkishness under a bushel). He writes that unless Washington reverses the country's economic downturn and ramps up defense spending and war on fundamentalist Islam, America faces a terrifying fate: "I suspect the United States will become the France of the twenty-first century — still a great country, but no longer the world's leading nation." The thought of middling-power status and Gallic godlessness may give Romney a special fright: During the late 1960s, he served as a missionary in France, where student riots and Sartre-style atheism may have hardened his conservative views.

None of this is to say that Romney won't follow through on his pledges to expand America's armed forces if he is elected. However, his current foreign-policy fulminations are probably as much an effort to find daylight between himself and Barack Obama as they are a reliable indication that he would pursue another round of ill-conceived, George W. Bush-style wars of ideology. Likewise, Huntsman may warn that U.S. troops are "deployed in some quarters in this world where we don't need to be," but his criticisms of mission creep in Afghanistan and military action in Libya are unlikely to translate into a White House staffed with America-firsters.

In the end, however, the main problem facing 2012's Mormon candidates is not mainstream America's suspicion of their faith, but the fact that ideology has increasingly polarized voters — and voters seem to enjoy the rancor. Detailed PowerPoint presentations rarely win primaries. And in these dark days of economic woe, when Americans are feeling impatient and desperate, voters are especially liable to be attracted to heated, rather than sober, arguments. Americans may simply be too committed to the religions of red and blue to heed the gospel of pragmatism.

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