The latest polling in Utah’s senate race has Mitt Romney up by some 36 points over Jenny Wilson, his Democratic opponent. Barring an enormous upset, Mr. Romney will join the United States Senate. This will put him a few checks and balances away from a president — the leader of his party — whom he once called “terribly unfit for office.”
Mr. Romney has unmistakably muted his resistance to President Trump during the senate campaign. But just when he seems to have signed on with the Republicans’ quiet chorus of enablers, he sounds another critical note — like last Thursday’s essay on freedom of the press, in which he called out the president explicitly and his misguided political base by implication.
As Mr. Romney prepares for Washington and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona concludes his congressional service for Arizona, I keep getting questions about what it means for devout Latter-day Saints to participate in American governance.
I suppose these questions come to me because I am a scholar of American religion and because, as a Latter-day Saint, I share Mr. Romney’s and Mr. Flake’s religious faith. People seem to think I have the inside scoop on how these men relate their devotional lives to their public service.
Perhaps the only responsible answer to such questions is that religious identities and their political implications cannot be so simplistically reduced. Political orientations are shaped at the intersections of race, class, geography and history and a tangle of other currents with which religious commitments become inextricably intertwined. For many people, the role of religion in politics is less about a set of prescriptions to which decisions can be confidently ascribed and more about a set of resources that individuals can choose to bring to bear on their decision-making process.
Individual Latter-day Saints make these decisions differently. Mr. Romney, Mr. Flake and I share a theology but not a political party.
Latter-day Saint responses to Donald Trump underscore the tensions of our faith’s political implications. During the 2016 campaign, exit poll numbers from the Pew Research Center suggested that Latter-day Saints reacted more negatively to Mr. Trump than other faith groups normally receptive to Republicans. Church members’ support for Republican presidential candidates, which had been hovering around 80 percent in previous elections, fell by 17 points.
In 2016, Mr. Romney gave a high-profile speech against the Trump candidacy: “Let me put it very plainly,” he said at the University of Utah. “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.” Jeff Flake later took to the Senate floor to cast the newly elected president as the enemy of decency, democracy and truth.
There certainly are aspects of Latter-day Saint culture that help account for this resistance. A collective memory of religious persecution has generated a sense of solidarity with the Muslims that Mr. Trump has vilified. Missionary service in early adulthood often gives church members like Mr. Flake and Mr. Romney a commitment to God’s global family that is at odds with the president’s splenetic nativism. A unique theological emphasis on human agency makes many Latter-day Saints nervous about Mr. Trump’s autocratic instincts. Our religious community’s ideals of kindness have been offended by the vulgar cruelty of Mr. Trump’s behavior.
Like everything else in this country, however, that portrait of principles over partisanship has been battered by the winds that swirl around this presidency. In a poll earlier this year, Latter-day Saint approval of President Trump stood highest of all religious groups. Senator Flake demonstrated that his rhetorical denunciations of President Trump would not translate into effective opposition to administration policy. Mr. Romney has repeatedly proved willing to make peace with the president and the powers that be. His most recent rhetorical contortions on immigration — which he has variously described as more “compassionate” and more hawkish than the president’s — exemplify the difficulty of pinning down Mr. Romney’s politics generally let alone of drawing straight lines between his religious identity and his relationship to this administration’s agenda.
When people ask me about Mr. Romney and Mr. Flake, they are often well aware of these severe limitations on Latter-day Saint opposition to the White House. Still, at the very least, they want to make sense of the rhetoric.
The politically charged resources that we share can push in multiple directions. The same memory of religious persecution that recoils at Mr. Trump’s Islamophobia also generates profound states-rights distrust of a federal government that once sent armed troops into Utah. The same theology of eternal family bonds that balks at Mr. Trump’s misogynistic lechery can only with great difficulty accept his opponents’ pro-choice platforms. Despite appearances in the “reddest of red states,” Latter-day Saint values have never fit perfectly with the political divisions of the two-party system, but the age of Trump has made that misalignment much more pronounced.
Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing publicly displayed some of the choices Latter-day Saints face in the age of Mr. Trump. Mr. Flake’s very public agonizing over the nomination became a vivid symbol of the struggles many of my coreligionists feel when they allow the current political moment to incite deeper forms of civic soul searching.
At the same time, Orrin Hatch’s conspicuous absence of agony symbolizes the decisions of many of my coreligionists not to allow any such thing.
Assuming Mr. Romney wins a seat in the United States Senate, he will have to decide when and how to make common cause with the leader of his party. Will he draw on his experience as a missionary in France to resist isolationism and xenophobia? Will he utilize his memories as a lay church leader in Boston, where he devoted untold hours of ministry to vulnerable individuals and communities, to temper the president’s brutalizing rhetoric of winners and losers? Will he let a distinctly Latter-day Saint reverence for the United States Constitution embolden him to check abuses of executive power?
If he wants to counteract the man to whom he once attributed the potential “unraveling of our national fabric,” he will have plenty of religious resources to bring to bear. Whether he will use them is up to him.
David F. Holland is a professor of religion at the Harvard Divinity School.
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