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Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America”

By February 1, 2012 9 Comments

Last year I enjoyed a visit to Brigham Young University to give a lecture and lead a faculty workshop.  The hospitality was marvelous, the conversation engaging, and I was surprised to learn how much the dynamics of an intentionally Mormon university parallaleld my own institution.  My gracious hosts sent me packing with several books to read, including a couple of little gems that I devoured on planes and in airports on the way home: Richard Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction and Terryl Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction.  I commend them both to you in this election cycle. 

I left BYU with an interest in continuing the sorts of conversations my friend Rich Mouw has had over the years.  I think there are especially reasons why Reformed folk might be able to foster Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue in unique ways.  Given that my familiarity with LDS theology and philosophy is in its infancy, I know I have a lot to learn.

However, I can’t shake one impression that has stuck with me: Mormonism might just be the great American religion.  An indigenous religious product, Mormonism seems primed to make a religion of America, to enshrine “America” in ways that are perhaps more integral to the Book of Mormon than the Bible carried by evangelicals.  (Granted, there’s been plenty of Protestant evangelical kitsch that would rival LDS painter Jon McNaughton’s “One Nation Under God” above.)  

This came back to me last night while listening to Mitt Romney’s victory speech in Florida–which, in turn, reminded me of a speech he gave 4 years ago, during the last Republican nomination contest.  The speech was entitled “Faith in America,” and I was asked to comment on the speech for the PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly blog, “One Nation: Religion and Politics.” It seems to me the ideas still have some legs, so I reproduce it here:

The God of Americanism

A lot can hang on a preposition. Mitt Romney first promised a speech about his faith, then backed off to offer a broader take on America’s religious landscape and its heritage of religious freedom. So rather than offering an apologetic for his own faith, Romney instead offered an account of “Faith in America.” But the speech has me wondering whether there’s a difference; more specifically, I wonder what’s at stake in that “in.” From where I sit, it looks like Romney’s “own” faith is faith in America. Americans needn’t worry about Romney’s Mormonism because, at the end of the day, the faith that trumps all others is “Americanism.”

Don’t get me wrong: this religion has a long and illustrious history (documented in David Gelertner’s recent book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion). It is a noble faith that feeds off the blood of its martyrs—in particular “the greatest generation” to which Romney first appeals—who made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of the religion’s highest value: freedom (understood, I should note, in largely negative terms as freedom of choice). Indeed, “freedom” and “liberty” are the mantras of this faith, and Romney’s speech invokes these shibboleths no less than thirty times (God or “the Creator” or “divine author” comes in at a close second with 21 references). And Romney doesn’t fail to allude to the great artifacts of this religion. Americanism has its own sacred documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), its own saints (“the Founding Fathers”), and has even birthed its own cathedrals and grottos (just stroll the National Mall).

So if Mitt Romney was looking to quell concerns about his religion, I think he’s performed admirably! He has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that he is an “Americanist” like almost every other presidential candidate (from I don’t care which side of the aisle). He is an American before he is a Mormon. He is primarily interested in conserving America’s role as a hegemon (“preserving American leadership” is the guise under which he segues to talk about religion). And he enthusiastically adopts Sam Adams axiom that it’s not the specifics of piety that matters, but rather whether one is a “patriot.”

If conservatives were worried about his Mormonism, I think Romney has laid his cards on the table and said to them: “Look, don’t worry. Mormonism doesn’t prevent me from being an Americanist. We’re brothers in that cause.”

In a way, this is refreshingly honest theology. In fact, if one pays close attention to the actual theology at work here—that is, if one starts asking just which God is being invoked—one finds that it is a particular deity: “the divine ‘author of liberty.’” The god of the culture warriors has always been a generic god of theism (precisely like the god of the Founding Fathers): a “God who gave us liberty” (to do what we want). The “Creator” is a granter of inalienable rights and unregulated freedoms, a god who shares and ordains “American values.” If evangelical culture warriors had worries about Romney’s faith, his jeremiad today should confirm that he pledges allegiance to the same “God of liberty” that they do. We’re all Americanists now.

But I hope Mr. Romney and his culture warrior friends (whether on the Right or Left) won’t be surprised if some of us find it hard to believe in Americanism and its God of liberty. Some of us just can’t muster faith in the generic theism that is preached on the campaign trail, whether from the Right or Left. Some of us Christians have a hard time reconciling the Almighty, all-powerful, law-giving God of liberty with the crucified suffering servant born in a barn and executed at the hands of the elite. Some of us are trying to figure out what it means to be a people who follow one who relinquished his rights rather than asserted them, who considered submission a higher value than freedom. We serve a God-man who wasn’t concerned with “preserving leadership” and the hegemony of the empire’s gospel of freedom, but rather was crushed by its machinations for proclaiming and embodying another gospel.

We’re not out to win a culture war; we’re just trying to be witnesses. We’re not out to “transform” culture by marshaling the engine of the state; we’re trying to carve out little foretastes of a coming kingdom. And so we can’t share Mr. Romney’s evangelistic zeal for the god of Americanism.




  • David says:

    Dear Dr. Smith,

    I am a British Christian who has enjoyed and found helpful the little bits of your work I've read. This is interacting more with your introductory remarks on contact with Mormons and BYU than with your repost on Romney and Americanism.

    Whilst studying in the UK I met up with some LDS missionaries and through this had contact with local Mormons, at least a couple of whom have become genuine and ongoing friends. In retrospect I'm not totally sure how ethical my interaction with the missionaries was, in that I probably led them to believe I was a prospective convert (though never said so) when this was not the case. I tried to engage them respectfully and to treat them as real people in order to learn how they saw the world with some degree of empathy, whilst still challenging their views on occasion. I've found that this balance is perhaps easier in the context of a longer term friendship with LDS members other than current missionaries, and that it's difficult to wear the hats of academic curiosity, human friendship, and evangelistically motivated apologist for Christian orthodoxy at the same time during an hour-long missionary appointment with set teaching points.

    Through all this, I've acquired a fascination with Mormonism and with the diverse strands of the Mormon subculture, including BYU and Mormon academics such as Bushman and Givens. Whilst I still believe Mormon doctrine is heretical and so would strongly discourage anyone from joining the LDS Church, I rather like some aspects of Mormon culture, such as Family Home Evening and their children's song about "popcorn popping on the apricot tree".

    I note that you use the phrase "Mormon-Christian Dialogue". I suspect a lot of Mormons would be unhappy with this phrase, as it implies that Mormons aren't Christians, which they sincerely believe themselves to be. I try to avoid saying that Mormons aren't Christians (without asserting the opposite either) as it causes offence over what is essentially a semantic issue before we get on to discussing more substantive issues. One can recognise that Mormons are in a sense Christian using a sociological definition without thereby adjudicating their salvific status. LDS scholars would probably prefer "Mormon-Evangelical dialogue" or "Mormon-Reformed dialogue". I'm not totally comfortable with this either, since the connotations of this suggest somewhat that Mormonism is an equally legitimate Christian tradition, but it seems this may be the less bad option.

    I am also interested in the kind of dialogue with Mormons undertaken by Richard Mouw and co, and might be interested in engaging in such dialogue given the opportunity, but have some unresolved misgivings. I would have mixed feelings if invited to present at BYU as you were. From an academic perspective, it would seem worthwhile, as I recognise that Mormons are not intellectually deficient and that BYU produces some great scholars worthy of respect and scholarly interaction. From an apologetic standpoint it seems to be a golden opportunity to articulate Christian truth as we understand it at the invitation of Latter-Day Saints. However, I am a little wary that for non-LDS Christians (as we are seen from their perspective) to participate in LDS-sponsored ventures might serve the PR function of mainstreaming Mormonism (and thus making it seem a valid variety of Christianity to the broader public), regardless of the actual content of what we say. It may well be that all three of these things are true. I'd be interested to know whether any of these thoughts went through your mind.

  • "We are all Americanists now." Indeed. I'm afraid that's as true for as many of my fellow Catholics as it is for evangelicals.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is very much a home run.

  • Norma says:

    Take another look at the Founders, their faith, and particularly the role played by pastors. It might be refreshing to drop your culture of accepting government intrusion in all areas of your religion and look at what Christians in the 18th century had to say about the English monarchy interfering in the church and religious convictions. Then reread the Gospels without your own cultural bias. Romney is a Morman, but his faith in action/public looks and sounds a lot like that of Reagan, Clinton, Gore or Bush, but not at all like Obama's, and that's what I care about right now.

  • James K.A. Smith says:

    David raises a good point above: I should have said Mormon-Evangelical dialogue, and have corrected the post to reflect this. That's not to decide matters (even Rich Mouw recently commented in the New York Times that LDS theology is still outside the bounds of Trinitarian orthodoxy), but I also wouldn't want to unnecessarily prejudice the dialogue either. Thanks for noting that.

  • Michael says:

    Americanism has it backwards. We need to be Christians before we are americans. The phrase "Jesus Christ is Lord" very simply states this. Othewise we are giving our soul over to Cesar and it is not his to have. Romney et al's "Amercianism" is blasphemous and we better start calling it such. This blessing of american exceptionalism is starting down the road of the german churches in the 1920's and 1930's and look what happened to them…either persectuted or rightly shamed by history. This path of Americanism is perilous to the soul of every american follower of Jesus Christ. BTW I am a quite "orthodox" Roman Catholic who is having NONE of it.

  • "Romney is a Morman, but his faith in action/public looks and sounds a lot like that of Reagan, Clinton, Gore or Bush, but not at all like Obama's, and that's what I care about right now."

    That more or less proves the point, doesn't it?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    In reading this I find myself referencing the analysis and predictions in Harold Bloom's ornery and but enlightening book, The American Religion. Highly recommended. On the matter of the Mormon heresy, it's remarkable to me how we have lost the sophisticated use of the word "heresy". Perhaps because "evangelicals" have removed themselves from churchly categories and vocabulary. In classical terms, Mormons are Christians, but they are heretical Christians. Typically, like the Arians, they are dangerous as much from their political associations as from their theology, but that does not mean we should not engage them with respect and love.

  • Eric says:

    Very helpful post, James

    As a citizen of the world's last superpower, I'm all too aware of how faith and State become unhealthily entwined. As an Anglican from the UK, whilst this year I celebrate the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which I love – I am all to aware of its occasional tendency to baptise the state.

    However I think it goes much deeper than being Christian before being American, or British. These state identities are just one example of clinging to an identity which makes us feel secure. There are many more of these waiting to take the place of the State. Focussing on this Front door challenge can leave us well off guard regarding the seventy seven sneaking in through the back.

    Blessed are those who don't even have the money to buy a scrap of wood with which to carve an idol.

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