Romney's Mormon faith in spotlight
By EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE
5/28/12 5:06 PM EDT
Mitt Romney wants voters to see him as the man to save the economy and right the country, the redeeming American hero riding in on the proverbial white horse.
Just not that White Horse.
That’s the one in the old Mormon prophecy attributed to Joseph Smith, which predicts that after the banks fail and when the Constitution is nearing collapse, Mormons flush with wealth — the White Horse, in the prophecy’s metaphor — will rise and lead America back to greatness.
(Also on POLITICO: GOP to Mitt Romney: Own your Mormonism
Now that Romney’s essentially secured the Republican nomination, the media attention to his religious beliefs has already kicked off a sort of national Mormonism 101. Deep into his second run for president, Romney’s Mormonism remains one of his great mysteries — and obstacles — in many voters’ minds. The Senate has more Mormons than Episcopalians or Lutherans, but polls consistently show that Romney’s religion has remained a factor.
And with religion flaring up in the 2012 race recently amid revelations about proposed ads linking President Barack Obama to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright —some Democrats have lashed back with suggestions that discussing Romney’s religion is now fair game, too.
The White Horse prophecy itself was discounted by the church almost a hundred years ago but Mormon political figures like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and even Romney himself still get asked about it from time to time. And even though it’s long been discredited by the church, there are pieces of the prophecy that echo with important themes of mainstream Mormonism today: church members believe the Framers were divinely inspired, and Mormons have a special role to play in preserving the Constitution and the nation as a whole.
Yet Romney, for the most part, has steered clear of answering detailed questions about his religious beliefs—referring to “people of different faiths, like yours and mine” in his commencement address to the evangelical Liberty University is about as far as he’s gone in the 2012 campaign.
That leaves journalists and other observers searching for clues, and the attention already going to Mormon views of the Constitution, which has percolated up from the blogs to the New York Times, provides a window into how this can play out on the campaign trail.
The idea that one day Mormons will be called upon to save the country when they see the Constitution “hang by a thread” is the controversial prophecy’s best-known line, and the source of what Brigham Young University’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism refers to as “an important oral tradition.”
It is well-known to many church members, and continues to be an active topic of conversation among Mormons today. That sense echoes through the speeches of Mormon leaders and the beliefs of rank-and-file church members, including top LDS leaders in the church and politics. Among them: Romney’s father, who said at the outset of his own presidential run that he believed in the special role Mormons had to play in preserving the Constitution.
If Mitt Romney believed that himself, he would be much like most other members of his faith. He’s mentioned the divine influence on the Constitution several times on the campaign trail—as when a woman accused Obama of treason and asked whether Romney would “restore our Constitution,” Romney responded, “I happen to believe that the Constitution was not just brilliant, but probably inspired.”
His campaign didn’t respond to requests for elaboration.
Of the many things that Romney, a former Mormon bishop, could be asked about if his religion becomes an election issue, the prophecy is one of the most debated, even among believers.
Like jazz and baseball, Mormonism has a distinctively American heartbeat. According to LDS beliefs, the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri. Joseph Smith found the Book of Mormon in upstate New York. And it’s up to the Mormons to save America when the country begins to collapse.
After warning signs of trouble in the Middle East and anti-Mormon sentiment pervading the government, “You will see the Constitution of the United States almost destroyed. It will hang like a thread as fine as a silk fiber,” the prophecy has Smith saying.
But “it will be preserved and saved by the efforts of the White Horse,” who will “stand by the Constitution of the United States as it was given by the inspiration of God.” There will be a Black Horse — American blacks, as the text is commonly interpreted — that sides with England and France, but eventually they’ll all submit to the White Horse as the religion fulfills its world-conquering destiny in an Armageddon-style war with the Russians—while keeping an eye on the looming threat of China.
The prophecy is apocryphal — it was supposedly said in May 1843, but not recorded anywhere until 50 years later — but Smith’s separate, fully documented comments that believers would be “the staff upon which the nation shall lean and they shall bear the Constitution away from the very verge of destruction,” is key to Mormons’ mindset, even if they’re not sure what to do with the White Horse itself.
“That’s a folklore — we’ve heard it, and I think everybody’s heard it. It’s been out there for many years,” said Robert McKim, a Republican Wyoming state representative and a Mormon. “The next question some people ask me, ‘Well, you think Mitt Romney’s that person?’ I say, ‘I don’t have no idea about that.’ I really don’t worry about it, because I believe we have prophets at the head of the church, and I think if that time comes, they’ll tell us. It’s a passing comment that you don’t speculate on, because you have no way to prove or disprove it.”
David Campbell, a Mormon himself and professor at Notre Dame who has studied his fellow church members’ views on the prophecy, as well as the intersection of the church and politics, said McKim’s far from alone.
“If you asked a more general question, ‘Do you believe that one day the Constitution will hang by a thread and it will be a Mormon who saves it?’ we know from data that I’ve collected that many Mormons actually do endorse that idea, but they would not necessarily know that that came from something known as the White Horse prophecy,” Campbell said. “They just know that there’s going to be a time of Constitutional crisis maybe, and it will be a member of the LDS faith who will come and save things.”
McKim and a range of other Mormons interviewed say they have heard congregants at their churches and other friends bring up the prophecy as they talk about Romney’s candidacy. No, they don’t believe it themselves. Yes, they know people who do. No, they’re not thrilled to hear their fellow Mormons bringing up the prophecy, and they’re not anxious to have it get the wider exposure they’re confident Romney’s candidacy will create.
“I hear it from some of my colleagues who happen to be members of the church sometimes, and I choose to focus on the things over which we have control and try to do what I believe,” said State Sen. Jerry Lewis, a Republican and also a Mormon.
Romney’s only touched upon the issue briefly. In 2007, at the outset of his first White House run, he told the Salt Lake Tribune he hadn’t heard his name associated with the White Horse, and pointed out that the prophecy isn’t official doctrine. “There are a lot of things that are speculation and discussion by church members and even church leaders that aren’t official church doctrine. I don’t put that at the heart of my religious belief,” he told the paper.
Most people still don’t understand the religion — 50 percent surveyed in a November 2011 Pew poll said they know “not very much/nothing” about it. Some think it’s unnerving. Those Pew numbers showed 65 percent of people saying Mormonism was very different from their own religion, and nearly a quarter picking words to describe the LDS church like cult, polygamy, restrictive, strange.
That helps explain the undertow of anxiety beneath the wave of favorite-son pride washing through LDS wards around the country: They’ve already had more than their fill of polygamy jokes and mocking of temple rituals, and worry that the spotlight on Romney’s candidacy is about to produce many, many more.
“It is a mix of excitement and a little bit of concern, although I think most Mormons figure in the long run it will be for the good of the church. But with increased visibility will come more scrutiny, and probably more criticism,” said LaVarr Webb, a Mormon and former campaign manager for Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. “Deep down there’s still this concern about, ‘Will we be accepted? Will we be viewed as strange?’”
The LDS Church distanced itself from the White Horse prophecy almost immediately. “It is simply false: that is all there is to it,” then-President Joseph F. Smith (not the original Joseph Smith) declared to a church leadership meeting in 1918.
But 70 years later, Ezra Taft Benson, who became the first Mormon Cabinet secretary when Dwight Eisenhower appointed him head of the Agriculture Department and later rose to be the 13th president of the LDS church, was still talking about the main idea behind the White Horse.
“I have faith that the Constitution will be saved as prophesied by Joseph Smith,” Benson said in a 1986 speech at Brigham Young University celebrating the anniversary of the Constitution. “It will be saved by enlightened members of this Church — men and women who will subscribe to and abide by the principles of the Constitution.”
The “hang by a thread” idea has been a constant. It made several appearances in the last election cycle, including in a mysterious mailer promoting the Senate candidacy of Mike Lee, and in the end-times rhetoric of Glenn Beck, who converted to Mormonism in 1999.
Hatch didn’t get far into his 2000 White House campaign before feeling compelled to deny a White Horse connection. But when he referred to “the Constitution literally hanging by a thread” in a radio interview in the fall of 1999, The Salt Lake Tribune responded with a story headlined, “Did Hatch Allude to LDS Prophecy?”
“It becomes a joke, every time we have a prominent politician, Orrin Hatch or someone else, is going to save the Constitution,” Webb lamented.
George Romney got deeper and more direct early in his own run. In August 1967 — eight days before the famous Vietnam “brainwashing” comment that scuttled his campaign — the candidate was asked during an interview with a Mormon magazine for his interpretation of “a time when the Constitution will ‘hang by a thread’ and about the saving role of LDS leaders in the government during such a time.”
“Anyone can look at the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith in this respect,” Romney responded. “I have always felt that they meant that sometime the question of whether we are going to proceed on the basis of the Constitution would arise and at this point government leaders who were Mormons would be involved in answering that question.”
George Romney explained what he meant: “If that gets wiped out as a result of the state governments becoming dependent upon the federal government — mere appendages — you wipe out a major constitutional means of protecting human freedom and self-government.”
Aside from his comments to the Tribune in 2007, Mitt Romney’s only public discussion of the prophecy was in 1999, when Hatch was facing questions about the prophecy. Romney told the Tribune he’d heard similar questions during his father’s campaign and said his father didn’t believe in it.
The Romney campaign didn’t respond to questions about whether he puts any stock in the White Horse prophecy, his own take on the idea of the Constitution hanging by a thread or whether he agrees with the interpretation offered by his father.
“Maybe he believes the way I do, but for political reasons, he won’t say it,” said Rex Rammell, whose comment during his 2010 Idaho gubernatorial run about convening a meeting of church elders for a White Horse discussion drew a rebuke from Salt Lake City that the prophecy is “based on accounts that have not been substantiated by historical research and is not embraced as Church doctrine.”
The LDS church is eager to see the White Horse conversations stop.
“The Church perspective is this: It’s not our doctrine, it’s not taught in our meetings, and as we’ve said repeatedly, it’s not relevant to who we are as a people,” church spokesman Michael Purdy said in an email. “We’re certainly aware that there is a national (and perhaps international) conversation going on about the Church and its beliefs. We want to answer questions for those who have them but stay out of the politics.”
But for rank-and-file Mormons, the discussion about Romney, his place in the church and politics, and the White Horse prophecy is well underway.
“You’ll hear people say Romney has a special role to play, but the rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from general partisan rhetoric,” said Joanna Brooks, a Mormon writer and progressive Democrat. She said she’s heard the White Horse come up in her San Diego LDS ward and elsewhere but attributes that to most Mormons tilting toward the GOP rather than the prophecy. “Is this special Mormon influence, or is this just the way Republicanism sounds these days?”