Washington • Insulted by former presidential adviser Steve Bannon’s verbal attacks this week on Mitt Romney, Mormons, elected leaders and scholars decried the rhetoric as “disappointing,” “unjustified” and “ugly politics.”
Bannon, who formerly served as top White House strategist for President Donald Trump, blasted Romney on Tuesday night at a rally for embattled GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore in Alabama. Romney had tweeted earlier that Moore would be a “stain” on the Senate if elected.
“By the way, Mitt, while we’re on the subject of honor and integrity, you avoided service, brother,” Bannon said, according to The Washington Post. “Mitt, here’s how it is, brother: The college deferments, we can debate that — but you hid behind your religion. You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam.”
Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee who now lives in Utah, received draft deferments to serve an LDS mission in France.
Bannon, who also received deferments but served in the Navy after he graduated from college, also criticized Romney’s family.
“You had five sons, not one day of service in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Bannon said. “... Where were the Romneys during those wars? You want to talk about honor and integrity, brother, bring it. Bring it down here to Alabama.”
Hatch, a Mormon who has said he’d not seek re-election if Romney wanted to run, shot back at Bannon on Wednesday morning.
“Steve Bannon’s attacks on Governor Romney and his service are disappointing and unjustified,” Hatch said in a statement. “Mitt is a close personal friend, an honest leader, a great American, and someone who has sought every opportunity possible to serve our country.
“I also resent anyone attacking any person’s religious views, but particularly our own Christian LDS faith and the selfless service of missionary work,” Hatch continued. “I’d be more than happy to sit down with Mr. Bannon and help him understand more about the LDS Church at his convenience. I’ve got a copy of the Book of Mormon with his name on it.”
The Book of Mormon is the signature scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For his part, Trump phoned Romney on Tuesday — after the president’s visit to Mormon-dominated Utah on Monday — to chat, the first time the two have spoken for quite some time, a senior White House official told The Salt Lake Tribune. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the conversation, said it was “cordial call” and didn’t last long.
“Both the governor and the president were in good spirits,” the official said.
They discussed tax cuts and Trump’s actions to shrink two Utah national monuments, but the official wasn’t sure if the two talked about Bannon’s comments or whether Romney was interested in running for Senate.
A Romney aide declined to comment on the call.
While Bannon’s statements may turn off or irritate those in the West’s Mormon Belt, it could play well in the deep South, including Alabama, where a key constituency of evangelicals see the LDS faith as heretical. And it could be a concerted effort to drive evangelicals to the polls for the special election Tuesday. Moore holds a small lead over Democrat Doug Jones.
Bannon’s remarks drew rebukes from Latter-day Saints outside the political arena.
“If this is an attempt to sway Mormon voters toward Trump and away from establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney, this is the absolute wrong way to go about it,” said Cincinnati-based Mormon writer, researcher and commentator Jana Riess. “It implies that Mormons are unpatriotic, when, in fact, Mormons have very high rates of military service compared to other religions. What Bannon has done is not just shooting from the hip, but detrimental to Bannon’s own cause.”
Riess’ groundbreaking 2016 research of Mormon millennials shows that LDS men ages 18 to 36 were more than three times as likely to have served in the military as non-Mormon men.
Matt Bowman, associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkansas, author of ”The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” said Bannon’s account doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Romney did receive a draft deferment while a missionary and student deferments before and after,” Bowman said. “In 1969, he was entered in the draft lottery and drew a very high number, making being drafted unlikely.”
Bowman said the allegation that the former Massachusetts governor became a missionary to avoid military service is “simply a misreading of Romney.”
“He in all likelihood would have become a missionary whether the war was on or not.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tweeted in response to Bannon’s speech, though he did not call him out by name.
“Mitt Romney is a good man,” Lee said in his tweet. “Whether you agree or disagree with him on any matter of public policy, you can’t credibly call into question his patriotism or moral character — especially on the basis of his religious beliefs or his outstanding service as a missionary.”
Rep. Mia Love, a Utah Republican and Mormon, called Romney and his family friends.
“They love their country; they are participating members of a religion many of our Utah families share,” Love tweeted. “To question their devotion to either is unacceptable.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also chimed in.
Romney “and his family are honorable people and represent the very best of Utah values,” the governor tweeted. “Utahns reject the ugly politics and tactics” of Bannon.
Herbert and all the members of Utah’s congressional delegation are Mormon Republicans. The newest member of that delegation is Rep. John Curtis, who issued a statement Wednesday calling Bannon’s comments about Romney “an indefensible disgrace.” Curtis also said he believed in Moore’s accusers and hopes that voters in Alabama “hold Judge Roy Moore accountable on Election Day.”
Bannon’s attack was likely sparked by Romney’s tweet earlier Tuesday.
“Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation,” Romney wrote. “Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”
Corfman has alleged Moore sought a sexual relationship and touched her inappropriately when she was 14 years old and Moore was 34.
W. Paul Reeve, a Mormon studies professor at the University of Utah, had an LDS brother killed in action during the Vietnam War. He noted that Trump himself received a variety of deferments through the years, one of which was for a bone spur.
“Is that more noble than missionary service?” Reeve asked. “Regardless, honor and integrity do not automatically come from serving in Vietnam, but they do come from treating all people with respect.”