The problem with Mitt Romney is that he isn’t Mormon enough. His unusual, unpopular religion is the one part of his public image that doesn’t feel like it came out of a focus group. Naturally, he does everything he can to minimize, marginalize, and neuter it. Most voters, he said at one point, “want a person of faith as their leader. But they don’t care what brand of faith that is.” He thus reduced his purportedly heartfelt beliefs to a brand name, just another toothpaste in the great big CVS in the sky. It might not be Colgate, but the important thing is that he brushes daily.
That’s a far cry from the other Mormons who have run for president. I’m not referring to Mitt’s dad, George, whose effort to be elected in 1968 was an unremarkable affair until he announced that Lyndon Johnson had “brainwashed” him into backing the Vietnam War. (With Romney, Eugene McCarthy cracked, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”) I’m referring to the church’s founder, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and to its most famous excommunicant, Sonia Johnson. They had real personalities, with all the eccentric texture that implies. Maybe too much eccentric texture, but too much is better than Mitt’s bowl of nothing.
Smith ran in 1844 on a platform that called for a larger country (he wanted to annex Texas and Oregon) and a smaller House of Representatives (he wanted to “reduce Congress at least one half”). He also believed the president should be able to suppress mobs—especially anti-Mormon mobs—without a governor’s approval. “The state rights doctrines are what feeds mobs,” he wrote. “They are a dead carcass—a stink, and they shall ascend up as a stink offering in the nose of the Almighty.” Perhaps offended by this choice of words, a mob killed Smith in an Illinois jail five months before Election Day.
Smith didn’t think much of imprisonment either. In a plank unlikely to appeal to Mitt “Double Guantanamo” Romney, Smith argued that only murderers should be incarcerated: “Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries, blessing them as they go, and saying to them in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more!” This wasn’t as radical as it sounds: Prisons were a recent invention in 1844, and they were closely associated with the same Yankee reformers who hated Mormons.
And Johnson? She came to prominence in the late 1970s, when her work for the Equal Rights Amendment prompted the church patriarchs to excommunicate her. In 1984 she was the nominee of the leftist Citizens Party. Pedants might insist that Johnson’s campaign came after she exited the church, thus disqualifying her from the list of Mormon presidential candidates. They should consider Johnson’s subsequent career, in which she abandoned liberal reform for a mix of anarchism, radical feminism, and militant polyamory.
Johnson eventually declared that any romantic relationship between two people—even two women—is a patriarchal “slave ship.” So like Joseph Smith before her she embraced a bigger love, only without the men and (in theory) without the hierarchy. She started a separatist commune out West, her own lesbian Deseret in the New Mexico mountains. You can’t remove your formative influences: Reading Johnson is like reading Brigham Young filtered through Valerie Solanas.
Will Mitt’s Mormon roots shine through someday? Will he suddenly spew something wonderfully strange? (I don’t count his revelation that L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth is his favorite novel, though his choice does suggest he’s ecumenical about those “brands of faith.”) Maybe he’ll start to talk about exaltation, my favorite element of Mormon theology. With enough work, the doctrine says, the faithful shall “be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.”
Huey Long gave us the greatest campaign slogan in American history: Every Man a King. Romney could one-up him by crying Every Man a God. Instead he promises “true strength for America’s future,” which isn’t incompatible with godhood but sure sounds a lot duller.
Jesse Walker is
managing editor of Reason.