Now that the GOP presidential campaign is pivoting from internal competition to the race for November, it is past time for Mitt Romney to address relevant questions about his religion.
These are not questions about the afterlife or sacred clothing, but questions about how some of the distinctive aspects of doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints might inform his approach to governing.
President Obama, not that it gets him traction among his more rabid critics, has labored mightily to explain how his understanding of Christian social gospel has helped inform some of his policy decisions. Romney has been less forthcoming about how Mormon beliefs have shaped him.
The only major candidate in recent memory where such questions were as relevant was Mike Huckabee during his run for the GOP nomination. Huckabee is a former Southern Baptist pulpit pastor. Romney held a post of much broader authority in his church.
The LDS church has no professional clergy. So all of the running of the local congregations -- the wards -- are done by volunteers. Romney served as the bishop over his local ward, then as stake president over several wards.
His responsibilities were roughly comparable to a priest or pastor and an administrator in other faith traditions. He was not simply a knowledgeable and observant Mormon. He was a recognized, theologically defined church authority in the Boston area -- for more than a decade.
Even today, the average American's knowledge about Mormon doctrine is probably less than what they'd know about, say, the religious differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims. I'm not going to go into a long account here of what is a fascinating and uniquely American faith.
(One of the best explanations I've ever seen was in, no kidding, an episode of the cartoon South Park. Goofy jokes aside, the account of the church origin is remarkably straightforward and accurate.)
Romney should now be prepared to answer some questions that he has thus far deflected or ignored. Recently, he was attacked by a guy at a town hall meeting about a racist but now-reversed aspect of Mormon theology. (Until 1978, blacks could not be ordained into the Mormon priesthood and interracial marriages were discouraged.) Romney cut him off.
Later he said: "This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion. I'll talk about the practices of my faith."
Which is almost fair enough. The "almost" is about those doctrines that deal with aspects of worldly life in which the government may have some role. How have those doctrines helped shape (or not) Romney's policy positions on such matters?
As a parallel example, see: "Catholic Church" and "contraception, abortion and birth control." Rick Santorum, famously a Catholic, has made the nexus of his faith and his policy positions pretty clear -- both the influences and the limits of how doctrine has shaped his politics.
This isn't a new line of inquiry for me or for other journalists. In 2000, I asked the same basis question of vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, whose Judaism was a central part of his public persona.
Four years ago, I was one of many reporters analyzing candidate Obama's writings and statements about his faith and writing about his connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Last election cycle, as Romney was stepping into his unsuccessful run for the GOP nomination, I sent a letter to his campaign asking about several matters of faith and practice. I got a polite "no comment" then.
I've not seen the questions answered since. So I'll repeat them here with a few clarifications. For each question, I cite official LDS doctrine and then pose my query:
1) LDS teaching about gender: "All human beings -- male and female -- are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."
Has this teaching informed Gov. Romney's thinking about homosexual rights generally or gay marriage specifically?
2) LDS teaching about the role of men and women in families: "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children."
Has this teaching informed his thinking about the rights of women, tax breaks for families, or other family-related legislation?
3) LDS teaching about the U.S. government: The structure of the U.S. government, as reflected in the U.S. Constitution, was literally and directly inspired by God.
Has this teaching informed his thinking about what the judicial philosophy should be for federal judges or Supreme Court justices? (And I'll add in 2012: How has this affected his position about possible amendments to the Constitution?)
4) LDS teachings about self-sufficiency and charity. I found an interesting dynamic in the teachings, offering strong theological support for both. For example:
A. Members who are temporarily unable to provide for themselves may need to alter their standard of living until they are self-reliant. They should not rely on Church welfare to insure them against temporary hardship or to allow them to continue their present standard of living without interruption.
B. Just as each individual is accountable for his choices and actions in spiritual matters, so also is he accountable in temporal matters. If we have been frugal and saved for a rainy day, then we can more easily weather the financial storm. If we have lived beyond our means, then we pay the consequences of our own actions when the bills come.
C. A measure of members' love for the Lord is the love they show to others by serving and blessing them in their times of need. (Church Handbook 2, 1998)
I could imagine these teachings informing his thinking about issues ranging from homeland security to welfare. Have they?
5) LDS teaching about racial equality: From the church declaration issued in 1978: "He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood... Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color."
Gov. Romney was 31 years old when this revelation was announced and proclaimed a new and radical (in the sense of it being absolute) theological equality of all races. How did he feel about the prior teaching and the new? Did this event inform his thinking about racial issues?
6) LDS teaching about abortion:
"The Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience. Members must not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for an abortion. The only possible exceptions are when:
1. Pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
2. A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.
3. A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.
Even these exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer."
Has this teaching informed his thinking on this issue? (And I will add in 2012: Was he ever called upon as a bishop to help a woman through such a decision? Media accounts say he did.)
7) LDS teaching about medical and health practices: "Members should not use medical or health practices that are ethically or legally questionable. Local leaders should advise members who have health problems to consult with competent professional practitioners who are licensed in the countries where they practice."
Has this teaching informed his thinking about funding for the National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
So what about it, Mr. Romney? And what about it, you reporters in the field and who will be asking questions at the upcoming presidential debates?
Maybe his answer is that none of this has influenced his thoughts about governance. Maybe he has answers that indicate how his thinking was affected by some of these teachings -- either in support or to a reasoned-through disagreement.
In any case, it's a window into a central part of the candidate's identity that voters deserve to have.
Jeffrey Weiss is a columnist from Dallas, Texas. He wrote this essay for RealClearReligion, and it's used here with permission.
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