After avoiding much talk of his religion previously, for the past month, the Romney campaign has put forth a series of "Mormon Moments." We are told this is in response to polls that say Mitt is unlikable. Thus, we are treated to displays of Mormons telling of how they know Mitt to be kind, or TV clips with Mitt speaking about emotional Mormon memories intended to "humanize" him and to alter the image he has so-far projected of a cold and selfish candidate. But as he takes to exposing his brand of Mormonism, Mormons don't like it. They don't like the way he is cherry-picking our religion. We find it offensive that he is selecting particularly beloved parts of our culture and tradition and turning them on their heads in ways that he may find useful to his image but that don't represent how we feel about them.
For example, we treasure the image of the iconic Mormon missionary, who goes fearlessly into the world with an eye single to serving the Lord. We say, Mitt, "Stop suggesting that what those innocent missionaries are really doing is boning up on future strong-arm foreign policy positions that will someday bring lost glory back to America!"
At a recent gathering of Mormons, I asked a man who had reportedly lived in Mexico in 2006, what he had observed about the rallies in the zocalo when Obrador's supporters challenged the victory of Felipe Calderon. He is a well-informed man, but he laughed. "Judy, I am a returned-missionary. I served there in 2006, but you know what rules missionaries live by! Our mission president explicitly told all missionaries to avoid getting caught up in those very demonstrations and to stay out of the center of Mexico City. President Thomas reminded us that our primary purpose was to continue to teach the Gospel, and not to get involved in politics. One elder got in trouble for asking permission to go check out the crowds. What I know about Mexican politics is what I studied before I went and since my return."
Said another, "On my mission in Spain in 2006, our mission president was afraid we would get too engaged in the world cup soccer matches and made it a point to say that we were to keep focused on missionary work – not sports!"
A woman who had been a missionary in Russia explained that she and her missionary companion had been transferred out of Moscow when the crisis in Chechnya was at a peak. The Church transferred all "sister missionaries" elsewhere, partly because of violence towards Chechens and also because of what was going on in Georgia. She said, "To tell you the truth, I learned far more about the conflict between Russia and Georgia after my mission than while I was serving in Russia."
Said another, as the conversation went on, "I was a real political junky before being called on my mission to Italy. But I had to remember that to be really successful at being a missionary, I had to avert my eyes and ears from the politics there. "
Returned missionaries seldom follow politics while on their missions. The personal stories are consistent with what I know from returned missionaries over decades. Mormons understand the expectation for missionaries while serving the Church for their two years is that they pay little attention to politics. They are expected to come home having missed some dramatic political events where they served, to have learned to focus on "important things" and to have acquired some mastery of self-discipline.
Thus, it is surprising to hear Romney's campaign staff boast about his vast foreign policy experience by saying that he had extensive experience living abroad while a missionary for the Mormon Church. This is after they repeatedly make the point that Romney was a very devout missionary for his church. He was either the latter (which is more consistent with the record) or the claim that he gained the foreign policy advantage he needs to be President from being a missionary in France, is ridiculous. In defending Mitt Romney's national security credentials, it was reported that foreign policy advisor (Robert O'Brien) insisted that Romney had spent considerable time abroad which has helped him craft his foreign policy positions. He even spoke French, and had learned the language while living in France while serving as a Mormon missionary in the late 1960s. Speaking French fluently apparently made his understanding of France society much deeper, even his understanding of Europe broader. O'Brien further explained that his foreign policy expertise was supplemented by his traveling abroad on innumerable business trips:
"The Governor is an extraordinarily well-traveled businessman, he lived overseas as a young man, he speaks French, he understands the world and he's written extensively about foreign policy and national security. The idea that he's this naive guy at 65 years old, given his experience heading the Olympic Winter Games and everything else, I just don't think that's going to play."
To me, a Mormon, what is not playing well at all, is the idea that Mitt has foreign policy experience worthy of qualifying him as a possible Commander-in-Chief, by being a Mormon missionary in France. Claiming that he actually has some foreign work experience confuses the previous portrait given of him as selfless, devout, and giving himself to the service of "spreading the Gospel" in France.
The same is true with combining his "Mormon Story" about paying tithing with his image as a generous man who gives selflessly to the poor and the deserving-needy. Mormons have some very clear teachings about tithing. They don't jive with what Mitt and Ann say about Mitt and "his" 10 %.
As kids we learn that when we earn something, "the Lord’s part comes off the top." In fact, we learn that our income does not even really belong to us. Since it is God who gives us all that we have, RETURNING 10 percent to the Lord is an obligation that shows our willingness to acknowledge the Lord in all things.
This weekend, I heard a Mormon mother tell this poignant story about a conversation she had with her small son whom she had taken on the T in Boston for an urban adventure. It was a blissful time until an insistent vagrant asked for a dollar for food. The boy was less disturbed than the mom by the ragged man's determined approach, but was very distressed by the man's obvious poverty. When the man asked for money, the boy tugged at his mom's arm and asked her to give the man a dollar. She quickly pulled her son away. "I have no dollar." She insisted. The boy was distraught, more so when, at the end of their ride, he saw Mom take a dollar out of her purse for a donut. Upset, the child asked why his mother had lied about not having a dollar for "the poor man" when she had, in fact, a dollar bill right in her wallet, ready to pay for a donut. The child brought up Jesus. He had some idea that Jesus taught us to give to the poor, he said. Mom was embarrassed and went at great length to explain that "as Mormons, we all give 10% of our income to the Church and the Church takes care of the poor in the way that is best for all of us." The child was unconvinced. The following week when the family was caught in a knot of cars inching down a clogged street, the boy recognized the same ragged man from the T with a sign going from car to car. The sign said, "Please - I am hungry. Help me feed by kids." Something in the Mormon system Mom had described hadn't worked. The church hadn't found the needy man. "Look, Mom, the man is still poor. The Church didn't find him." The 10% his Mormon family gave hadn't come to the one in need. Their way to reach the needy was not working. He rolled down the window and waved his own dollar at the poor man. He vagrant thanked him. Now, as often as possible they return to that street and give the man a dollar for food. Both seem to have learned that direct giving teaches a different kind of lesson about generosity. The Mom has rethought her habit of being able to give 10% of one's salary to the Church and trusting it to get that money to the right needy people. It can actually habituate us to being miserly and to pull away from need when come directly to us. We learn to turn away from the needy before our eyes. Mom had to be honest, at least to herself. Tithe-paying does not always trickle down to the needy. If that is all we pay, we miss many of the Lord's children in need of our gifts.
Mitt and Anne pay tithing. It must be a lot, unless they don't pay on the money they have stashed away in foreign bank accounts (a question that many Mormons ask.) If they meant to shelter money from taxes, maybe they also sheltered it from the church's tithing system. But, even if that is not the case and the Romneys pay a full 10% on all they have earned, and are therefore "good Mormons," this has not habituated them to being generous people. Mitt has a reputation of being "tight" with money and not giving to charities outside of his tithing to the Mormon church. It is part of the Romney penchant for duplicity that they claim to be generous because they pay tithing. Some Mormons say it shouldn't even qualify as a charitable contribution.....it should be classified as dues in a church where Mitt is expected to be a leader.
Many Mormon tithe-payers have decided that for a particular period of time, they will give a generous donation to another organization or person. Bishops routinely congratulate members on that, but point out that it is not the same thing as tithing. We donate to other causes in addition to tithing, not instead of it. Tithing is distributed by the Church to needs around the world. For generous people, tithing is a commandment, as is charitable giving, but they are different. Had Mitt and Anne understood as most of us do, they might be giving generously to hundreds of needy in the world.
Another area where Romney's team has really picked narrow images from among the most beloved of traditions that Mormons hold dear, is when they talk about our Mormon Pioneer heritage. We love the stories of Mormons crossing the prairies and then mountains to find a place of peace in the Salt Lake Valley. But Mitt is messing up that story, too. He may like the Clint Eastwood/Dirty-Harry image of the tough and rugged individualists who were the pathfinders and trailblazers that chopped their way over the mountains and into the West. But the qualities most of the rest of us revere that our pioneer ancestors symbolized are the qualities of caring for one another along the trail and surviving because they lifted one another up along the path. What allowed them to survive in the barren lands of the rocky West was a determined communalism and willingness to share all and give all to one another. Mitt's message of how the financially successful "do it on their own," ignores the great Mormon ideal at the center of the success of those who "made the dessert blossom as a rose" in the 19th century – that quality of unity in trials and oneness in purpose. This ideal was further built on the principle explicitly stated by early Mormon pioneer leaders who warned that the accumulation of wealth is dangerous and evil, and that successful "saints" should never forget to give what they had to lift up those who suffered more.
Mormons are proud of something never mentioned in the Romney story. It was what Mormon leaders called the "Perpetual Emigration Society" when they set it up in 1847 to support European converts coming to the US and then going on the Utah. The purpose of what was actually incorporated was to provide economic assistance to more than 30,000 pioneers who sought to emigrate to Utah and surrounding regions. The idea was that those who received funds form the Perpetual Emigration Fund<http://www.mormonwiki.com/Perpetual_Emigration_Fund> would use it long enough to get established in the West, and they return the amount of the load to the PEF so that someone else could use it to bring a family West.
"Converts seeking aid were ranked by their useful skills and by the duration of their membership in the church. Limits on funds led to innovative preparations and travel methods, including the establishment of handcart companies, to reduce expenses. Once established in their new homes, the converts were expected to repay the funds to the company in cash, commodities, or labor, with minor interest, so others could receive help." wiki
Mormons were perceived, correctly, as being bound by a theology that requires cooperation and a sacred duty to care for the poor. It is best explained in an early "proclamation" from our leaders in 1875:
"THE EXPERIENCE OF MANKIND has shown that the people of communities and nations among whom wealth is the most equally distributed, enjoy the largest degree of liberty, are the least exposed to tyranny and oppression and suffer the least from luxurious habits which beget vice. Under such a system, carefully maintained there could be no great aggregations of either real or personal property in the hands of a few; especially so while the laws, forbidding the taking of usury or interest for money or property loaned, continued in force.
ONE OF THE GREAT EVILS with which our own nation is menaced at the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals. The very liberties for which our fathers contended so steadfastly and courageously, and which they bequeathed to us as a priceless legacy, are endangered by the monstrous power which this accumulation of wealth gives to a few individuals and a few powerful corporations.
By its seductive influence results are accomplished which, were it more equally distributed, would be impossible under our form of government. It threatens to give shape to the legislation, both State, and National, of the entire country. If this evil should not be checked, and measures not taken to prevent the continued enormous growth of riches among the class already rich, and the painful increase of destitution and want among the poor, the nation is likely to be overtaken by disaster; for, according to history, such a tendency among nations once powerful was the sure precursor of ruin."
Wow! This is the challenge put to Mormons that contributed to the settling of the West by those pioneers, and it is consistent with contemporary teaching in our church about the need to make sure "there are no poor among us." This is doctrine. Most Mormons find Mitt's insinuation that he represents the best of Mormonism, not only offensive, but far from the perimeters of our teachings about our history. While he stands as one who seeks to represent us by being a model for accumulation of wealth, Mormons admire the ones who seek to use wealth to lift up others – as our pioneer ancestors did.