Mitt Romney's candidacy for president has occasioned reams of speculation on how his Mormon faith would influence his conduct in the White House—some of it reminiscent of anxieties about John F. Kennedy's Catholicism that were prevalent in 1960. In a recent cover story for The New Republic, Damon Linker, who once taught at Brigham Young University and presumably knows Mormonism well, argued that these fears are well-founded ("The Big Test," January 15). "[W]ould it not be accurate," Linker asked, "to say that, under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country—with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong?" According to Linker, Mormons believe their church presidents receive revelation from God; faithful Mormons have to comply with every directive from their prophet's mouth; and, therefore, to remain true to his religious beliefs, a President Romney would have to knuckle under to church leaders.
Linker's logic may sound straightforward, but, in fact, it has no grounding in reality. His concerns echo the controversy that greeted Mormon Church apostle Reed Smoot (he of the notorious Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1903. Before eventually seating Smoot, a Senate committee debated his qualifications for nearly four years. To allay their fears, the senators repeatedly questioned church President Joseph F. Smith (nephew of the church's founder) about his control of Mormon politics. Over and over, he assured the committee that he had no intention of dictating Smoot's votes in the Senate—until, eventually, Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and swung the balance in Smoot's favor.
A century later, we can judge the actual dangers of the Mormon Church to national politics from the historical record. Have any of the church presidents tried to manage Smoot or other Mormon politicians like Harry Reid and Gordon Smith? The record is innocuous. Like other denominations, the church has taken stands on political issues it considers to be moral concerns, but it does not pressure politicians to close ranks as Mormons. In fact, it explicitly releases Mormon politicians from compliance with the church's political positions. According to the church's website, "Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated Church position. While the Church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent."
The current concern about Romney recalls anxieties about Mormons and Catholics from the nineteenth century, when both churches evoked suspicion. Critics thought of them as "fanatics," a stereotype applied to Catholics, Mormons, Masons, and Muslims. They feared that leaders of these groups would employ their spiritual authority over blindly loyal followers to magnify their own power. Any prophet claiming to speak for God, they reasoned, must necessarily try to impose his beliefs on everyone else. But this argument, while based on logic, was impervious to fact. The real-world actions of Mormons and Catholics, and their protestations of innocence, meant nothing.
Linker wants to separate Mormons from Catholics and make them a special case. The problem with Mormons, he believes, is the absence of any check on their president's authority. Catholics, he notes, at least have a long tradition of natural law, which a Catholic politician could call upon to resist an outlandish demand from Rome. If Mormons had this kind of reasoning in their background, "[t]his rationalist tradition could then be used to check the veracity of prophetic pronouncements." Without it, he claims, a Mormon politician has no choice but to bow to dictates from Salt Lake City.
But this concern—rooted as it is in logic rather than reality—does not take into account how revelation actually works. In Mormonism and in biblical history, the prophetic tradition itself places heavy restraints on prophets. It makes a big difference that the moral law is enunciated repeatedly in Mormon scriptures. The Ten Commandments were restated in an early revelation, installing them as fundamentals of the church. Later, the saints were told that "no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned." Could all this be overthrown by a new revelation? Linker thinks that revelation negates everything that came before, but this is not the case. The best analogy is to the courts and the Constitution. Theoretically, five Supreme Court justices can overturn any previous interpretation of the Constitution on a whim. But, in fact, they don't, and we know they can't. Their authority depends on reasoning outward from the Constitution and all previous decisions. The same is true for prophets. They work outward from the words of previous prophets, reinterpreting past prophecy for the present. That was certainly true for church founder Joseph Smith, whose most extreme revelation, plural marriage, was based on plural marriage in the Bible. Prophets do not write on a blank slate. Like Supreme Court justices, they would put their own authority in jeopardy if they disregarded the past.
Linker knows enough about Mormonism to speculate on the implications of the church's belief in the role of the United States in world history. Like Jonathan Edwards and many American Puritans, Smith thought this country had a special place in the events of the last days. Mormons believe the Christian gospel was restored in the United States and will spread to the rest of the world. They also believe that, when Christ returns, he will come to the United States and govern the world from here. Linker fears that these beliefs will cause church leaders to seek control of the United States in order to advance their premillennial plans. That is why he urges voters to ask Romney whether he thinks "that, when the Lord returns, he will rule over the world from the territory of the United States[.]" The implication, of course, is that Romney will be encouraged to pave the way for Christ's government. For Mormons, this line of thought is a phantasm. When Mormons speculate on the millennium, something they rarely do these days, they conjecture that many religions will flourish after the coming of Christ—a kind of American-style tolerance of all faiths, including non-Christian ones. Christ may rule, but not the Mormon Church. To turn Mormon belief into a plan for world domination reeks of all the other theories about secret groups planning to take over.
Beliefs do matter. Romney's values, as he has said repeatedly, come from his Mormonism. But teasing out the possible implications of theological positions can verge on fantasy. We should ask Romney what he believes, but it would be wrong to predict his future course as president from inferences having little to do with reality.
Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University.