I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and have been my entire life. That being said, most people would not consider me your "typical" member; my interests, politics, and non-religious (and sometimes even religious) values often differ from people that others would consider a "typical" Mormon. (Case in Point: I am drinking soy milk and planning on recycling the can when I am finished while reading a pro-Socialism article right now.) That is one thing I love about the Church, though: the doctrine nor the leaders have never told me who to vote for, admonished me for being myself, or discouraged me from pursuing my dreams. I want to make this very clear: it is a small population of ignorant people who comprise the Church that are disillusioned by extremities that do those things. ("So, are you married yet?" "Why would you ever want to travel to Morocco? That's a Muslim country, you know." "You know that God supports the War on Terror, right?" - Yup, these are all verbatim comments from the more colorful pool of church-goers I have encountered.) Unfortunately, it is often this narrow culture that others see rather than the fundamentals of the Church itself and hence what they base their judgments of Mormonism on.
Mormonism makes up about 0.06% of the world's population, so naturally, a group this small would find a lot of strength in solidarity--one reason that so many members have flocked to, or have chosen to remain in, the western United States, especially Utah. What are the benefits of this polarization? Strong community roots, common values, more filial and social support than in a mixed community--I can see why it appeals to people who want to live, learn, work, and raise children in a healthy environment. But what are the drawbacks? Lack of diversity, lack of opportunities for sharing the Gospel, and possibly exclusion of people within the community that aren't LDS or--a topic we will return to later in this post--"less LDS" than others.
One thing that has always bothered me was the fact that so many LDS people root for BYU sports teams that have absolutely no connection to the school itself. If you attend BYU, if you graduated from BYU, if your parents or siblings go there/went there, then fine--I can completely understand why you would sport navy and white and shout "GO COUGS!" However, there are so many members of the Church with no connection to the school itself that root for BYU just because it is a private university endorsed and funded by the Church, and believe that its association with the Church warrants support from the members.
What is wrong with these attitudes, and how are the ideas that I have just mentioned connected? This brings me to the point of this post: Members of my church are too ready to support groups, ideas, and individuals simply because of their association with religious affiliation. I could probably write countless other posts illustrating a much larger point: People in general fear what they do not know and always prefer what they are familiar with, and these unfounded predispositions carry over into political decisions.
Mitt Romney (left), Jon Huntsman (right)
I am increasingly fascinated with the upcoming GOP presidential race. This early in the running, the scene is mostly being dominated by wackjobs like Donald Trump (who has just announced he won't actually be running). As we all know, most early poll numbers are utterly meaningless, and the real GOP nomination will turn out being a relative surprise. Mitt Romney--a prominent LDS member--announced his candidacy via Twitter. Romney also ran during the last presidential election, and everyone and their mom at church fell head over heels for him. It wasn't as simple as "Finally, someone is representing us!" but more of a widespread sentiment that the state of the nation would somehow become rainbows and unicorns if there was an LDS Commander-in-Chief. I literally heard a Sunday School teacher once say, "Wouldn't it be great if we had a President that was a member? Think about how much better the world would be." And everyone nodded in agreement.
This year, a man named Jon Huntsman has emerged as another viable candidate for the GOP. He didn't run last year; he served as Utah's governor and then stepped down--not because he is shady like Sarah Palin--but because Obama appointed him as the US Ambassador to China. Huntsman is also LDS, served a mission in Taiwan, is fluent in Chinese, and has a strong background in business, foreign affairs, and executive positions--similar to Romney. Interested in Huntsman and wanting to increase my knowledge on someone I knew fairly little about, I found this interesting article comparing the two from the Washington Post.
I enjoyed the article. I actually found it fascinating. There are some things I agree with and some things I do not, however. Here are my two main objections:
1) The article is inherently biased in the way that it assigns LDS affiliation to the two candidates. This is one thing that sickens me about our political process. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are not seen by the media (and hence, us) as men, or entrepreneurs, or fathers, or even Americans--they are Mormons. Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin are not seen as politicians or public speakers or legislators, they are women. Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson are black. The Kennedys are Catholic. What is so important and divisive about these divisions? Why do we spend our time talking about Hilary's pantsuits vs. Palin's conservative skirts, or Obama's birth certificate, or the "sacred undergarments" worn by Romney? Since when did America become a circus where people were grouped together based only on their gender, race, or religion and identified with a single label?
...Oh, right, it's always been that way.
That being said, I do understand that part of the point of the article was to educate those not familiar with Mormonism. In that perspective, the article didn't fail but didn't succeed either. It made several references to polygamy, the giddy uptightness of the members and BYU students, and again the "sacred undergarments" jab that were very half-hearted attempts to explain LDS history and culture. It was clear to me that the author found Mormonism peculiar, if not wacky. And you know what? It is. But so is every other religion on the face of the planet--I'm thinking specifically of Jihadists, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, and the Crusades as some more extreme examples...need I go on? By selecting a few irrelevant, under-explained details which cast Mormonism in a slightly conspiratorial light--and then trying to extend that to the candidates--the author lost his credibility to me. I was under the impression that the point of being a good journalist was to remain objective.
In conclusion, we are so ready to assign people to groups and then immediately speculate about who they are and what they will do because of their affiliations. What we are forgetting is that these candidates are Americans no matter what anybody speculates, and no matter what group they belong to. This article only enforces that kind of mentality. And I do realize that this problem is pervasive and much of the responsibility lies with us, and not just the media.
2) The members quoted in the article--along with those I have met in my own experiences--are viewing these candidates and their Church membership completely inappropriately. When asked about their devotion to the Church, Romney and Huntsman differ. The article accuses both Romney of attaching himself so readily to the Church just to win over the LDS population and Huntsman of trying to distance himself from the Church in order to appear more "normal" to all American voters. Romney is very open about his religious leanings: he is a fully active member, culturally and religiously, and possesses a temple recommend. He has come to the Church's defense many times, explaining--and almost justifying--his membership. Many of my fellow Mormons find this behavior admirable. Huntsman, however, is fairly quiet about his religion. He comes from the same roots as Romney (the article focuses heavily on their common ancestors) yet treats his affiliation with the Church much differently. He has repeatedly declined to make statements about his personal spiritual life, will not publicly confirm if he has a temple recommend, and when asked about religion replies with, "I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies."
As the article points out, these facts are very important to the way that LDS members view the two candidates: Romney is the overwhelming favorite. Why? As a man interviewed at BYU states, "Who goes to church more? Who follows his religious lineage more? Romney."
My take: I feel sorry that Romney feels that he has to be the PR punching bag for the LDS church. I think his heart is in the right place, but ultimately, the fact that he has spun his personal, religious, and spiritual values into an AP bulletin doesn't sit right with me. It borders on being distasteful. Huntsman's relative silence on his religious values--which are really nobody else's business--appeals to the views that I hold that the Church is more about your personal relationship with God, your willingness to follow Christ, and the day-to-day actions, thoughts, and attitudes taken upon yourself rather than tacking a label on yourself and making choices that only draw attention to that label.
What most members don't realize is that most of us are like Huntsman! In my singles ward in Oregon, the activity rate is 45%. Based on this sample, it seems that over half the members struggle with their own membership. Not many of us are what Romney attests to be, and ultimately, it does not matter who goes to church more. I know tons of people that go to church every Sunday but are also sleazy bastards that couldn't lead their way out of a paper bag. It reminds me of that ridiculous debate over whether or not Obama is "black" enough. If Obama was "blacker," would that make him a better president? If Huntsman was "more" Mormon, would that make him a better president? No, because he could also be a sleazy bastard.
There was one quote from a BYU student mentioned in the article that stuck out to me: "Why play the Mormon card?...Just leave it out." Let me reiterate that:
"Why play the Mormon card?...Just leave it out."
I would totally be friends with that dude.
I like Romney. I really do. I find him much more agreeable than the crazy alternatives in the GOP. He is intelligent, has a good track record as governor, and seems to be a pleasant person capable of making good decisions. All of these things are true of Huntsman as well. Does the fact that either of them are Mormon factor in to my decision making when it comes to choosing a candidate? No. Does the fact that Romney wears his faith on his sleeve factor in to my decision? Absolutely. Negatively. Does the fact that Huntsman does not? Absolutely. Positively.
When it comes to Jon Huntsman, I am impressed by his respectful attitude. He gets my pick out of the two.
Neither Mitt Romney nor Jon Huntsman is God's candidate for president just as the BYU Cougars are not God's football team (contrary to popular belief). In fact, these men are not even the Church's candidates. They are just candidates. They are Americans. My plea to everyone in the Church and everyone else living in this country is to try to defy human nature for once and choose someone based on the qualities they possess that would actually make him/her a great leader, not just because he/she is safe or familiar. Casting a vote for the sake of religion is just as bad as casting a vote for the sake of a race, gender, or political party. It's ignorance and it's prejudice.