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Romney's Speech Addresses His Mormon Faith

NEAL CONAN, host:

This morning, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech in Texas addressing his Mormon faith.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers. I'll be true to them and to my beliefs. There's one fundamental question about which I'm often asked: What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.

CONAN: And that was almost all that Romney had to say about the beliefs of Mormons. But yesterday, when we were talking about the upcoming speech with Ken Rudin on our Political Junkie segment, we received a flood of comments and e-mails from listeners about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We decided to address those comments and questions with NPR rural affairs correspondent Howard Berkes, who covers these issues as he's based on Salt Lake City and has been for quite some time.

If you're Mormon and if you've been listening to coverage of Romney and his faith, what do you think? And if you are not Mormon, do you have questions about the faith that you'd like answered? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address: talk@npr.org.

Howard Berkes has joined us now from his office in Salt Lake City. And Howard, always nice to have you on the program.

HOWARD BERKES: It's always a pleasure. Thanks.

CONAN: And let me read you one comment we received from a listener in Denver. Quote, "the president of the Mormon church has much more power over the members than people realize. My daughter converted to the LDS church to be married to a Mormon. Not only did the elder of the church changed the wedding date after the invitations had been printed and postponed the wedding for three months, for our daughter and her fiance, we were not allowed to attend the wedding in a temple since we are not Mormon. We'll not be able to attend the weddings of our granddaughters either."

Howard, let's address those comments about Mormon traditions. She went on to say, they must also wear approved underwear sold only through the church. How much power do church elders have? And a lot of people have questions about the underwear.

BERKES: Well, there's a lot in there. Maybe we should Dr. Laura or Dear Abby on the phone to answer the wedding question. But…

CONAN: The postponement, I can understand. But go ahead.

BERKES: Yeah. There's a little - there's some conflict there that we can't address. But, okay, the underwear question. Faithful Mormons, very orthodox Mormons wear what are called garments. They're sacred garments. They're believed to help protect them, and it's a longstanding tradition. They are purchased through the church because they are sacred. They are believed to be sacred.

And some Mormons don't wear them, many Mormons do. Not much mystery about them. That's basically what they are. People choose to wear them. And if they don't wear them - I've never heard of anybody being punished for not wearing them.

CONAN: And the first part of that comment about the president of the Mormon church has much more power over members than people realize, well, here's Mitt Romney again from his speech today, addressing part of that concern.

Mr. ROMNEY: Let me assure you that no authorities of my church or of any other church for that matter will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

CONAN: So how much power does the president of the Mormon church have?

BERKES: Well, it's - this is a complicated question, and I'll try to make it as simple as possible. Mormons do believe that the president of their church is a prophet of God and does receive revelations from God. Direct revelations are actually somewhat rare. They don't occur that often. They often address some major aspect of policy or theology, but they're not very common.

Mormons also believe that, generally speaking, like many Christians believe, when they pray, they are guided by God. And Mormons believe that that's something that's invested in them and their leaders as well. But this notion of power is kind of - it's a relative thing. If you're a member of the faithful and you believe that what your leaders say is meaningful to you, you would tend to follow what they say. But there are plenty of examples generally speaking, and in Mitt Romney's own history with his faith, in which Mormons and Mitt Romney have not necessarily followed the dictates of the leadership of the church.

His earlier position on abortion, for example, contrasts with the position that the church had on abortion at the time. And he was a leader of the church at the time. He was a bishop in the Boston area. Actually, I believe he was stake president, which would have made him the highest ranking Mormon official in the Boston area at the time.

There are examples in recent history here in Utah, where the church leadership has sent a signal: We want the voters of Utah to vote a certain way on an issue - indecency on cable television, for example - and the voters went against the church leadership on that. So it's a complicated thing.

Mormons are taught that they have free agency - that's what they call it, free agency - which gives them the ability to make their own choices. They're supposed to pray for guidance and proceed as their own conscience and faith dictate. And many Mormons will disagree with church authorities. They cross the line in the eyes of the church when they criticize a church position or a church leader publicly. But there's plenty of dissention and people going their own way within the Mormon faith. And the church is very clear that they are not in the habit of having church leaders dictate to the president of the United States what he should do.

CONAN: Now let's get Blair(ph) on the line. Blair is with us from Provo in Utah.

BLAIR (Caller): Yes, I grew up in the D.C. area. I'm a lifelong member of the Mormon church. I'm now in law school at BYU. And I'm just very concerned by this talk that people think that the church has some sort of control over its members' lives, that the members have no choice over (unintelligible).

I've never been forced to do anything by my church. I've always been encouraged to make my own decisions and to find out for myself whether they're correct or not. And just - I'm just concerned that people think that we're, you know, we're some sort of cult that had this control and it's - plainly, it's just wrong.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Howard, cult, which Blair just mentioned, that's a word you hear a lot tossed around at least by people who are very skeptical about Mormonism.

BERKES: It comes in two forms, I think. One is it comes from evangelical Christians who will parse the tiniest aspects of Mormon theology, draw distinctions between Mormon theology and Fundamental Christian theology, point out inconsistencies and say then - conclude then that Mormons are outside the mainstream Christian culture and therefore are a cult.

And then there are others who believe, as the question that you read implies, that only people who can be blindly led would accept the Mormon faith, would accept the story of Joseph Smith and how the faith was restored in the minds of Mormons or founded in the minds of non-Mormons.

But I think as Blair says so well - I know many people like Blair who are intelligent, who think for themselves and who have made a choice. They may have grown up in the faith and face the choice later in life where they made a choice to join this - the Mormon faith. I'm not a Mormon. I have not made that choice myself. But they've made that choice. They believe in the stories. They follow what leaders say when they agree, and sometimes they disagree, as Blair suggested.

It's - I think anyone who would get to know people who are Mormons and followers of the faith would not come to the conclusion that these are, you know, people blindly following some ridiculous thing they don't understand. And that's what you do hear many people say. But it's hard to say that once you interact with Mormons as I have for more than 25 years.

CONAN: Blair, thanks very much for the call, and good luck with your studies.

BLAIR: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an oft-repeated accusation, Howard, from a commentator on our blog. So how long has Mormonism been inclusive - less than 20 years? Any religion that believed blacks were evil up until the early 1980s is more than suspect in my opinion. So what about diversity in the church?

BERKES: There are a couple of factual inaccuracies in that question. In 1978, the president and prophet of the Mormon church had a revelation that then - that permitted people with dark skin - African-Americans, Africans in other countries, people in Latin America with dark skin - to attain full membership in the church.

The church never banned people with dark skin, but it did have a belief that they were cursed and that they would not be able to attain full membership. The men who had dark skin couldn't become deacons or members of the priesthood in the Mormon faith and so they were limited in the depth of their participation in the faith. And that continued until 1978.

When this revelation occurred, the effect of that is the president of the church says God has told me that this is no longer something that should be believed and it's - and we dispense with it. And since then, people with dark skin have been able to attain full fellowship in the church. There are many, many, many Mormons who fit that description in Africa, in the United States and in Latin America.

CONAN: And in the church hierarchy?

BERKES: Not many in the church hierarchy. That has not happened yet that African-Americans or others with dark skin have made it into the church hierarchy. But - and I don't think that necessarily that doors are closed. It's a matter of you have to - you serve for a period of time before you serve in the church hierarchy. That is a criticism that is leveled against the church, and it may be one that is deserved.

But some people have asked this question in reference to Mitt Romney. They say, well, 1978 wasn't all that long ago. He was still an adult essentially when that was an issue; what did he think about it? I don't know how he would answer that question. But what many Mormons say is this is a revelatory faith. It does change. That was then and this is now. And it does appear that, well, many, many African-Americans and Africans and people elsewhere in the world who have dark skin joined this faith. And they joined it willingly and they embraced it.

CONAN: Questions and answers about Mormonism with NPR's Howard Berkes. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Joseph(ph) on the line. He's in Lawrence, Kansas.

JOSEPH (Caller): Oh, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOSEPH: I have a couple of questions: one, about Mormon belief on the afterlife. I've heard that Mormons believe that when a devout male Mormon dies, he gets his own planet to lord over, like a god, and that the God of Earth is just a dead Mormon from another planet or something in that - along those lines.

CONAN: Well, Howard, does that make sense?

BERKES: Well, I don't want to - I don't - one thing that Mormons justifiably resent is non-Mormons describing their faith and especially the tenets of that faith. And from what I understand, there is some aspect of reality in what Joseph describes, but I would send people to a Web site, the official Web site of the Mormon faith, lds.org, to burrow into specific beliefs like that. I think that's the best way to really learn whether that - what that belief really is.

CONAN: And an e-mail from Tom(ph) in Cincinnati, Ohio. I think a question that gets lost in these conversations is the importance of America in the grand scheme of things in Mormonism. As I understand it, America is viewed as sacred and important to Mormons. I don't know or profess to understand the Mormon apocalypse viewpoint, but how important is America to their religion? I would like to know how America falls into their apocalypse plans. Do they believe America will instigate it?

BERKES: That is a far deeper question than I can answer. I've not heard of the notion of America instigating the apocalypse. But America clearly is an important part of the - of Mormon theology.

Mitt Romney spent a lot of time today, talking about the values that he has developed as a Mormon that fit with values that many Americans have in terms of patriotism, in terms of the role of religion and the founding of the country and in the ongoing governing of the country.

It's interesting you know, the historians talk about this. There was a time when Mormons were really outside the mainstream of American life when they were establishing theocracies on the Mississippi River at Nauvoo in Illinois and then here in the Salt Lake Valley, when Brigham Young arrived with the pioneers. Those places were established as theocracies and were out of the mainstream.

But when Utah became a state in 1890, the message was pretty clear. If you want to be accepted into America, you have to act like other Americans and not be theocratic in the way you behave. And Mormons actually went from this hard theocracy to really embracing the - the patriotic notions of America at that time and often were viewed as some of the most patriotic people in the country. Their theology is mixed up with the notion that America is a divinely inspired place. And that when the apocalypse comes, that part of, you know, part of the restoration will be here, you know, on this continent in this place.

CONAN: Howard, we just have a few seconds left. But Mormons, to whom you speak, are they encouraged by this talk about people finding out more about their religion or worried about it?

BERKES: Oh, I hear very mixed feelings about that in the blogs. The Mormon blogs are the same way. Some people are, you know, some people just don't want the attention because they feel that it will only be bad. It will only result in reinforcing the negative interpretations people already have. Others welcome it as an opportunity for people to learn more about the faith. There's this notion that every Mormon is a missionary. This has a kind of missionary function. But yeah, it's a real mixed bag and I think it will actually turn out to be a mixed bag.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Howard.

BERKES: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Howard Burkes, NPR's rural affairs correspondent, with us from his office in Salt Lake City, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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