Would LDS Church influence Romney if president?
Washington • Switzerland still welcomes tourists and investors from abroad, but no longer welcomes foreign missionaries. New employment rules that went into effect at the start of the new year ban religions from sending even unpaid missionaries to the small corner of Europe.
Thirteen members of Congress who are Mormon sent a letter to the Swiss ambassador, objecting to the ban and pleading for an exception.
"We respectfully request that senior leaders of the LDS Church be given the opportunity to discuss this matter at the highest levels of the Swiss government," the letter, sent in late 2010, reads.
The Swiss ambassador sent a respectful, yet perfunctory, letter in response, and while some meetings took place, the rules went forward.
"To me that was very disappointing, and that battle may not be over yet," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
But for some, the fact that Mormon lawmakers waged the battle at all is troubling and they point to it as evidence that if elected president, Mitt Romney may use his post to promote his faith and protect its interests.
"I think it is a very serious problem that would arise if he is president," said Fred Karger, a gay-rights activist from California running a fringe campaign for the Republican nomination. He argues top officials at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints coordinated the letter to the Swiss ambassador. He also says it shows the influence the faith's First Presidency can wield simply by picking up a phone, an influence that would grow greatly if, instead of calling senators, those church leaders could call the White House.
"How can a President Romney turn down a call from the First Presidency?" Karger asked. "He has been an obedient, faithful Mormon his whole life; he won't just disregard it. I think the separation of church and state is designed to prevent exactly that."
Aware of the spotlight • Mormon lawmakers and scholars say there is nothing illegal, unethical or untoward about the LDS Church petitioning its government for help on such matters, though they recognize that a Mormon in the White House would bring new levels of scrutiny from Republicans uneasy about the faith and Democrats concerned about its conservative political posture.
"In the event that Romney were elected president, both sides would be anxiously looking for any signs that he was promoting his faith or doing the bidding of the LDS hierarchy," said Grant Hardy, a history and religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.
Hardy, a member of the LDS Church, expects a Romney administration would be reluctant to nominate Mormons to top government positions or to invite too many to participate in White House events. And while most would expect him to work with prominent Mormons in Washington, such as Hatch, his interactions with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is also Mormon, would likely draw extra attention.
"Any reaching out to Harry Reid would be carefully scrutinized for indications of putting religious ties above party loyalty," Hardy predicted.
Romney's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but the former governor of Massachusetts talked extensively about the intersection of his faith and politics in a 2007 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
"I don't try and distance myself in any way shape or form from my faith, but my church doesn't dictate to me or anyone what political policies we should pursue," Romney said during his first run for the White House. "There has never been a time in my four years as governor, that anyone from my church called me or contacted me and asked me to take a position on an issue."
Karger has heard Romney say similar things before and his rebuttal is brief, albeit subjective. "I don't believe him," he said.
He isn't the only skeptic.
The comfort level • Alice Ross of Butler, Pa., is a Republican voter who says she won't support a Mormon presidential candidate, in part because she distrusts the top-down and tightknit structure of the worldwide faith.
"They are a very strong movement in America," she said. "The president would make decisions based on his Mormon beliefs, and that would not be good."
Ross participated in a Salt Lake Tribune national poll commissioned in mid-December that showed 60 percent of likely voters would be comfortable voting for a Mormon presidential candidate, but 26 percent were uncomfortable to some degree and 14 percent said they didn't know. That percentage jumped to 76 percent as comfortable and only 14 percent as wary in the Republican Party, which has two Mormons Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman seeking the nomination.
The survey asked the people who were uncomfortable with a Mormon candidate to explain why. The most common responses were polygamy, concerns the faith isn't Christian and that its members were too conservative.
Count Karger among the 2 percent who said it was because they disagreed with the faith's views on homosexuality. His constant jabs at Mormons stem from their involvement in California's Prop 8 fight on gay marriage. As an activist, Karger was upset at the faith's hefty financial involvement in the 2008 ballot measure. He has since worked to highlight Mormon donors, leading to boycotts of their businesses.
He just started top10craziestmormonbeliefs.com and is using his presidential bid to question the role the LDS faith would have in a Romney presidency.
Romney backers strongly deny such accusations. Hatch says anyone questioning Romney in this regard should examine his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, where he enforced abortion laws, which he disagreed with and, while he fought against gay marriage, he didn't stand in the way of any same-sex unions after the state Supreme Court deemed them legal.
"Anybody who thinks Mitt Romney is governed by church leaders is just plain wrong," said Hatch, who said LDS authorities don't pressure elected officials. "Give me a break. I've served in the Senate for 35 years now. I never had any leader in the LDS Church tell me what I've had to do. Never once."
Legislating the faith • Hatch has not shied away from promoting legislation that would benefit the LDS Church or its adherents.
Recent examples include a 2006 bill sponsored by Hatch and then-Sen. Barack Obama that allowed people to continue paying religious tithing during the course of a bankruptcy. Two years later, Hatch sponsored legislation that required higher education accrediting agencies to respect the religious missions of private universities, such as Brigham Young University. And just this year he invited LDS Apostle Dallin Oaks to testify in the Finance Committee in favor of keeping the charitable-donation deduction as Congress looks to simplify the tax code.
"Almost every action I've taken on religious freedom benefits all churches," Hatch said.
Former Sen. Bob Bennett, who is Mormon and a Romney supporter, said it shouldn't shock anyone that the LDS Church asks national politicians for help on occasion.
"Quite naturally any organization of that size is going to have issues requiring contact with their elected officials," he said.
The former senator from Utah said it wasn't uncommon for him to speak with foreign officials in places like Russia and Ecuador on matters involving missionaries or LDS land disputes. He also authored at least one bill at the request of the LDS Church that expressly removed any legal liability for churches when their "religious volunteers" turn out to be undocumented immigrants.
The senator said the faith was worried about being sued or having federal agents charge top LDS leaders with assisting undocumented immigrants if missionaries turn out to be here illegally. That bill became law.
The hot buttons • Bennett predicted the LDS Church would be more hesitant to weigh in on a political issue if Romney was in the White House.
"I think the brethren would be sensitive to the fact they were dealing with a Mormon, and Mitt would be sensitive to the fact he would not want to subject the church to criticism," he said.
Hardy, the history professor, said he expects that gay rights and immigration are the two hot button issues most likely to put Romney and the LDS Church in a bind.
Because of the LDS Church's involvement in the Prop 8 fight, Romney would be "constantly questioned" about his views on a variety of gay rights issues from the Defense of Marriage Act to the rules governing gay soldiers. Romney's views on this topic have stayed close to that of his faith, namely that gay marriage is bad, but that legal rights for gay people are acceptable.
On immigration, the LDS Church has called on the government to reduce the influx of undocumented immigrants but to treat those in the country with compassion, creating a legal framework that would allow them to get a job lawfully.
It's a position that both Bennett and Hatch noted is softer than the one staked out by Romney, who wants to require such immigrants to return to their home country and apply for legal status.
The church's stance "seems to be a little to the left of Romney's position," Bennett said. "It is not one where the church is dictating to him."
Contrary positions • Romney, in his 2007 interview with The Tribune, cited one example of taking a position that ran contrary to that of the church: legislation that would allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays in Massachusetts.
"I signed it," Romney said. "I believe that in our state allowing the sale of alcohol on Sunday is good for the consumer and therefore I didn't oppose it. That isn't saying that I disagree with my church. I simply did what I thought was in the best interest of the state, which I was elected to serve."
Reid, the Nevada senator, has used his position to protect his state's powerful gambling interests, despite the fact that LDS Church leaders have repeatedly admonished its members to forgo games of chance. Reid and other Mormon lawmakers must take practical stands, representing all the people, while living within the tenets of their faith, Hatch argued.
"He wouldn't be there long if he didn't recognize that gambling is legal and accessible in his state."
About the series
With the Iowa caucuses Tuesday and an LDS candidate seen as the GOP front-runner, The Salt Lake Tribune is publishing a series of occasional stories exploring the intersection between Mormonism and politics.
Sunday • Mormonism and government
Monday • Mormonism and the economy
Tuesday • How their faith influences LDS politicians