Is Romney’s Foreign Policy Problem a Product of his Mormonism?

When Mitt Romney used the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya to criticize President Obama for sympathizing with anti-American interests, his remarks confirmed for many observers not only the candidate’s tone-deafness, but his seeming rudderlessness when it comes to difficult foreign policy matters.

Where are his moral bearings? There was a time just last year when pundits who didn’t know very much about Mormonism worried out loud that the writings of Cleon Skousen or LDS teachings about sacred history of North America might impact Romney’s foreign policy in unpredictable and worrisome ways. But after Romney showed more interest in scoring political points than statesmanship last week, the question has morphed. What if it’s not that Romney is too Mormon, but that faith has played virtually no role in shaping his approach to foreign policy issues? 

There have been serious foreign policy thinkers in Mormonism, like J. Reuben Clark (1871–1961), Coolidge’s undersecretary of state, whose memorandum on the Monroe Doctrine contributed the development of the “Good Neighbor Policy” scaling back US military intervention in Latin America. What would happen if Romney took a cue from Clark, and other foreign policy thinkers and theologians in the LDS tradition? I spoke to Professor Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont University and editor of a new volume of essays War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives (2012).

 

RD: How would you characterize Mormon thought on war, peace, and foreign policy? 

PM: There has not been a systematic body of thought. Over the past 100 years, Mormons have been all over the map from the pacifism of J. Reuben Clark to a not-very-well-thought-out ‘just war’ position held today by a majority of US members. LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) told Mormons that we should trust political leaders as having more information than we do, and defer to their judgment. At the same time, LDS Church leaders have counseled LDS people to live peaceably and harmoniously with their neighbors. This seems to me a classic expression of late 20th century Mormonism in that the level of analysis focuses entirely on individual morality.

Exactly. There is little structural or systematic analysis.

There has not been, for example, a systematic analysis of structures of poverty or imbalances of power. Rather, the focus has been entirely on the need to be a good person and live a holy life, to be subject to the government in the country where you live, do your duty, and you’ll come home from war with no sin on your hands. It’s a very individualized ethic.

Which perhaps might give some context to Romney’s seeming rudderlessness when it comes to navigating these difficult foreign policy situations. He’s used to thinking about individual morality but the rest is all pragmatism.

He’s not just getting this from Mormonism, of course. He’s a more complex figure than just Mormonism can account for. But I’m guessing that his Mormonism—late twentieth-century Mormonism—did not give him systematic tools to think about how to apply personal morality in public sphere. Mormonism in the late twentieth-century does not have a political ethic. There is nothing to compare to, for example, strong Catholic social teachings.

And in the absence of a strong systematic theology about what morality means in a public and global context, there has been general conservative drift among Mormons—influenced a little bit by ultra-conservative thinkers like Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen, but just as much or more by broader American trends towards polarization.

Clearly, the easy thing to do in the absence of other evidence is to go along with nationalism, which American Mormons have done. In 1976, LDS Church President Spencer Kimball (1895–1985) critiqued members of the church for their nationalism. He reminded Mormons that the nation-state is not our north star for morality: Jesus Christ is. Mormons generally have not done a good job thinking of Jesus as having a political ethic.

If you could recommend Governor Romney read just a few essays before the next foreign policy crisis strikes, what would they be?

The LDS Church First Presidency 1942 statement on war is extremely articulate, but it ends up saying that while the LDS Church is against the war, individual members should go to war. I would recommend Eugene England’s collection Making Peace. Hugh Nibley has a lot to say in Approaching Zion. And of course, there is Spencer W. Kimball’s 1976 bicentennial year sermon “The False Gods We Worship” that warns American Mormons against their worship of war, the nation-state, and the military.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.