Romney’s Peculiarly Mormon Elitism

At first blush, it’s difficult to equate Mitt Romney’s faith with his recent comments that he’s powerless to convince America’s victim class–that 47% of the country he says are dependent on government entitlements–to vote for him. Isn’t Mormomism predicated upon the missionary effort to convert complete strangers (not to mention redistribution of wealth, through tithing)? Indeed, when the 47% video surfaced, many simply assumed the candidate was just pandering to the crowd of $50k/plate donors. The Real Romney was back somewhere in 2006.

But in his excellent piece on Romney’s work as Mormon stake leader in Massachusetts, New York’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells makes a convincing case that Romney’s faith and his elitism are in fact closely linked. Wallace-Wells reports that Romney’s missionary work in Lynn, Massachusetts, during which he oversaw a mostly failed attempt to convert a Cambodian community, never discouraged him. While others in his Church grew frustrated at their fruitless efforts, Romney seemed satisfied with their minimal progress, telling a colleague that “if you only get a handful of members, that’s still a good result.”

Romney’s missionary efforts were guided by the belief that if one was able to correctly follow Church guidelines, he would achieve salvation. If not, oh well. As Wallace-Wells put it: “What he offered was salvation via a rule book, a recipe for getting ahead in America that had less to offer the doubters, the uncommitted, the foreign.” Romney, perhaps swayed by the influence of party elites and his running mate Paul Ryan, has now lumped 47% of America into that same category.

In this way, Romney conceived of himself as a member of a series of overlapping elite clubs–Mormons, businessmen, suburban family men–who have played by the rules, and justly reaped the benefits. Quoting the Mormon scholar Claudia Bushman, Wallace-Wells writes that Romney seems to abide by the traditional Mormon perspective that he is something of a chosen one, inhabiting “an island of morality in a sea of moral decay.”

But the idea of elite membership–of exalted status–goes beyond this. Mormon faith holds that men don’t only wish to please God, they can eventually join him, be him. As Harold Bloom–that sometimes scholar of Mormonism–wrote last fall in the New York Times, “Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts…the Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells.”

This is not to say Romney thinks Mormonism represents the only path toward material success. Rather, Romney’s own Mormonism–and his success by it–simply reinforces the merits of the “No Apology” elitism he’s adopted on the campaign trail.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.