More than 160 years ago this week Mormon settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley of what is now the state of Utah after years of religious and political persecution, the assassination of the faith’s founder, and after having been chased out of the United States due to the kind of theistic prejudice that should be foreign to America given its founding principles.
Back then, it would have been hard for Latter-day Saints (LDS) to imagine the rise of one of their own to the pinnacle of American political power – even for a faith predicated on the notion of prophetic visions–given the height of religious animus directed toward them, including an 1838 Missouri executive order authorizing the liquidation of Mormons, which was finally rescinded in 1976.
But could a faith of self-described “peculiar people” have foreshadowed the day when one of their adherents would shatter the religious ceiling of American politics and stride into the Oval Office?
Though Mormons have run for president before, beginning with the faith’s progenitor, Joseph Smith, none have come quite as close as Mitt Romney, who first ran for the White House in 2008, 40 years after his father, also an LDS member, made the attempt in 1968.
Smith prophesied in the early 1800s that “in the last days the Constitution will hang by a thread” and it has been added by the church’s faithful that “it will be the Melchizedek priesthood that will restore it.”
Smith, of course, is referring to the country’s top legal document, but the reference to the Melchizedek priesthood, for the uninitiated, pertains to an ecclesiastical level of authority, which derives its name from a prominent figure in the Bible, granted to certain male members of the church to perform such tasks as baptisms, weddings, and other sacred ceremonies.
Mitt Romney is a member of the Melchizedek priesthood.
Political right-wingers have for years lamented the perceived threat to constitutional liberties by an ever-encroaching federal government, health care reform notwithstanding, and have for the first time in Mitt Romney a candidate for president who not only shares their view ideologically, but perhaps theologically too.
Romney has already stated his view that the Constitution is “probably inspired.” That, coupled with the Americentric Mormon view that the United States is a hallowed place that was reserved for white settlers to bring forth the gospel and will be the site of the so-called New Jerusalem, should raise questions about how Romney would enact policies as president.
Does Romney see himself as the Mormon savior of the Constitution alluded to by Smith long ago?
How will the Americentric outlook of the Mormon Church affect Romney’s foreign policy?
It is doubtful the Romney campaign will entertain such inquiries, or other questions about Mormonism, given its skittishness over addressing what it internally calls TMT, or That Mormon Thing.
What is certain, however, is continued belief in the American notion that anyone can rise from obscurity to national prominence and that members of any particular outgroup, even through stress and strain, can eventually become members of the ingroup and part of the American family.
In politics it was true for Catholics in the rise of John F. Kennedy to the White House; it was so for the Greek Orthodox during the candidacy of Michael Dukakis; it was the case for Jews after the nomination of Joseph Lieberman as vice president; and it became real for African-Americans with the ascension of Barack Obama.
“In America,” quipped two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, “Any boy may become president and I suppose it’s just one of the risks he takes.”
This November, Mormons, too, may finally be included in “We the People,” and Stevenson’s words will ring as one particular prophetic observation upon which we can all agree.