‘Oath before God’: The role of Mitt Romney’s LDS faith in his politics

The retiring Utah Republican senator’s religion is at the center of who he is and how others view him.

(Evan Vucci | AP) Then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with congregants as he leaves a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse after service on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.

Mitt Romney paused to gather his emotions after telling his colleagues in the U.S. Senate, “My faith is at the heart of who I am,” pursing his lips and staring down for over 10 seconds at his remarks that lay on the lectern.

“I take an oath before God as enormously consequential,” the senator from Utah continued on Feb. 5, 2020. “I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced.”

Twice a presidential candidate, and the face of the Republican Party when he secured its nomination in 2012, the former Massachusetts governor had been making headlines since 2016 for his criticism of Donald Trump. But the relationship was complicated — Romney’s name had been floated for Trump’s secretary of state, and he’d accepted the then-president’s endorsement when he ran for Senate in 2018.

Now Trump was accused of soliciting foreign interference ahead of his 2020 reelection bid, and after a monthslong inquiry, the U.S. House had adopted two articles of impeachment against the president.

As the matter came in front of the Senate, Romney weighed for weeks which direction he would go.

His biographer, McKay Coppins, wrote in a piece for The Atlantic at the time that Romney would pray for guidance at night after poring over the evidence, trying to decide whether to vote in unity with the other members of the party or vote to convict the president and accept that he’d likely become a pariah among fellow conservatives.

“Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?” Romney told the other senators as he explained his vote, continuing, “I believe that our Constitution was inspired by providence. I am convinced that freedom itself is dependent on the strength and vitality of our national character. As it is with each senator, my vote is an act of conviction.”

He was the only Republican to vote “guilty.”

In an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News before the vote, he recalled the words of a song in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ hymnbook: “Do what is right; let the consequence follow.”

‘It’s remarkable when the conscience wins’

Throughout Romney’s political career, his faith as a Latter-day Saint has been a central part of his identity, as well as the public’s perception of him — whether Americans think his church makes him an intrigue, a heretic or a bigot.

But Benjamin Park, a history professor at Sam Houston State University who studies the intersection of religion and politics, especially among Latter-day Saints, said Romney downplayed his faith before representing Utah in the Senate, where, the scholar said, Romney talks about it “in much more concrete, specific terms.”

While campaigning for governor of Massachusetts, he told voters he held “moderate” and “progressive” views, and promised to not seek abortion restrictions (Bay Staters often refer to a Latter-day Saint temple in Belmont, Mass., as “Mitt’s Temple”).

(Charles Dharapak | AP) Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney walks with wife Ann as they leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Belmont, Mass., Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012.

And as he embarked on his first presidential run in 2007, he delivered a JFK-like speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas, explaining why he shouldn’t be elected — nor rejected — for his faith.

“There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines,” Romney said then. “To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.”

A decade later, Romney tried his political fortunes again in Utah, where nearly two-thirds of residents are members of his same church.

“When he’s representing Utah,” Park said, “he can actually speak about who he is, what his beliefs are and how his faith has structured his politics.”

And that faith’s influence has reached beyond highly publicized floor speeches to some of the policies he’s pushed and backed.

Romney proposed bringing a passport agency to Salt Lake City, and in June questioned Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter on the department’s passport processing capabilities, referencing the tens of thousands of Latter-day Saint missionaries who are sent abroad from the church’s largest training center in Provo.

The senator voted for the church-backed Respect for Marriage Act last November, which protects the right to same-sex marriage while offering some exemptions for religious institutions, although fellow Utahn and Latter-day Saint Sen. Mike Lee declined to back it.

Lee, an outspoken Trump supporter, isn’t the only church member in Congress who has voted differently than Romney. The rest of Utah’s all-Republican federal delegation, also Latter-day Saints, refused to vote against Trump either time articles of impeachment came to a vote.

But Jeff Flake, a Latter-day Saint and former Republican senator from Arizona who is now the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, decided not to run for reelection in 2018 after condemning the Trumpism that had begun to permeate the Republican Party.

He told The Arizona Republic ahead of his announcement that he had become convinced “there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.” Flake, who considers Romney “a good friend,” didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this article

“I don’t think it’s possible to completely get a candid answer out of people about the influence of their faith on their personal decision-making or the way that they behave in office, especially when they’re representing the state of Utah,” said Quin Monson, a political science professor at church-owned Brigham Young University whose company Y2 Analytics conducted polling for Romney’s campaign in 2018.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Ryan, Janna Ryan, Ann Romney and Mitt Romney wave at the close of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012.

It isn’t uncommon, he added, for lawmakers to be forced to weigh the political consequences of a vote against their personal beliefs.”

“For any politician, the politics win a lot of the time. That’s a fact of being an elected official,” Monson said. “And so it’s remarkable when the conscience wins, especially when everyone is watching.”

Let the consequence follow

After Trump lost the 2020 election, his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory. As those insurrectionists breached the Capitol, Romney said he feared for his life.

When the Senate reconvened later that evening, he urged his colleagues to proceed with certifying the results.

“We must not be intimidated or prevented from fulfilling our constitutional duty. We must continue with the count of Electoral College votes,” Romney told the senators, continuing, “Do we weigh our own political fortunes more heavily than we weigh the strength of our republic, the strength of our democracy, and the cause of freedom? What is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?”

Trump was impeached a second time for “incitement of insurrection” the week after the riot. Romney was one of seven Republicans to vote to convict.

His impeachment votes go back to the importance Romney places on his constitutional oath, Monson said. Public officials’ constitutional oaths, he added, can be seen as similar to covenants — or promises with God — Latter-day Saints make and renew starting as young as age 8 and continuing throughout their lives.

“You can imagine, for a guy that is serious about his religion, and serious about the covenants made as a very public, active and practicing Latter-day Saint,” Monson said " ... it was clear that that was a central part of his decision-making.”

Just months before the 2020 election, President Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the church’s governing First Presidency, spoke on the significance of constitutions at the faith’s General Conference, during which all members are encouraged to listen to sermons from top leaders.

He said loyalty should be “to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any officeholder,” and added that political power belonging to the people, not a sovereign, “does not mean that mobs or other groups of people can intervene to intimidate or force government action.”

Church leadership condemned the insurrection at the Capitol in a statement published nine days afterward, saying, “We urge all people to remember the precious and fragile nature of freedom and peace. As citizens of the United States look ahead to the inauguration of a new president, we urge our members to honor democratic institutions and processes, and to obey, honor and sustain the law.”

Still, Romney’s impeachment votes continue to reverberate in Utah’s Republican circles. As 2024 approaches, the senator has said he will not seek reelection next year.

Romney “realized that he is in the minority,” Park said, “even among conservative Mormons at this point.”

After an appearance at the Utah Republican Party convention a few months after his second impeachment vote, Romney was greeted with boos from many of the more than 2,100 delegates. Monson said he doesn’t think that reception mirrors the majority of Latter-day Saints’ feelings about the politician, though.

As Romney sat for an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier in front of the Latter-day Saint temple in Washington, D.C., in August 2022, he said, “I would much rather spend time here [at the temple] than in the Capitol building, but politics is exciting and there’s great work to be done.”

Baier replayed a clip from the interview with Wallace, and echoed the hymn, “Do what is right; let the consequence follow.”

“That little phrase has certainly connected for me throughout my life, which is try and do what’s right,” Romney said. “Don’t worry so much about what it means for your reelection or for your promotion or for how much money you’re going to get. Do what you believe is right, and that’s a reminder, I think, that is important for all of us.”

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