Mitt Romney is having an important moment. It’s worth pondering whether his faith is having one, too.
Last week, the two-time Republican presidential candidate and current junior senator from Utah unloaded on President Donald Trump’s abrupt removal of the modest buffer of U.S. troops who stood between the Turkish army and our Kurdish friends.
“The decision to abandon the Kurds violates one of our most sacred duties. It strikes at American honor. What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a blood stain in the annals of American history,” Romney said in a carefully phrased, nine-minute speech.
His words were plucked from what we once called our civic religion: Sacred. Honor. Blood.
“Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America?” Romney asked. “Turkey?”
On Sunday, in an interview with “Axios on HBO,” Romney broadened his indictment of Trump. “The places where I would be most critical of the president would be in matters that were divisive, that appeared to be appealing to racism or misogyny,” the senator said. “Those are the kinds of things I think that have been most, most harmful, long term, to the foundation of America’s virtuous character.”
Again, note the language. The Republican further described Barack Obama and Joe Biden as “honorable” men. And Trump? “He has elements of honor, I’m sure, in his life,” Romney conceded. But paying a stripper $130,000 in hush money wasn’t one of them, he added.
It’s become clear that, should Trump be impeached and come to trial in the U.S. Senate, any GOP vote to convict will have Romney at its center. Perhaps just as important, he has taken on the role of Republican prophet in the Senate. And by “prophet,” I mean in the Old Testament, change-your-ways-or-be-smited sense of the word.
Shortly after Romney’s Axios interview, I rang up Mark DeMoss, the former Billy Graham publicist who served as Romney’s liaison to Southern evangelicals during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
In 2016, DeMoss was on the governing board of Liberty University when he got crossways with its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., over the latter’s endorsement of Trump in the presidential contest. DeMoss exited the board.
DeMoss closed his Buckhead-based Christian public relations firm in January. But he still lives in Duluth, and has continued to follow Romney closely. “Nothing he’s doing surprises me. To his credit, he is who he is,” DeMoss said.
“I fully anticipated when he decided to run for the Senate that – were he elected – he would wind up being ostracized and attacked by a lot of Republicans, including the president,” DeMoss said. “On the other hand, I’m glad he was willing to do it. He knew what he was walking into.”
Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds provoked early objections from some traditional evangelicals worried about the Syrian Christians whom the Kurds — an open-minded lot, by Middle East standards — have protected in the region.
But no help from that source has come to Romney’s side since last week’s floor speech. “I think you’re not seeing it because there isn’t any,” DeMoss said. “When he ran for president, he didn’t enjoy very widespread support from evangelical leaders. Certainly not publicly, and certainly not at the level you’re seeing in support of this president.”
Why this is so has become important.
Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – its members are trying to move away from the word “Mormon.” In fact, one can’t help but notice that many of President Trump’s harshest critics are Latter-day Saints. Former U.S. senator Jeff Flake for one, and 2016 presidential protest candidate Evan McMullin, a former CIA staffer, for another.
Earlier this month, the sites of presidential debates for the 2020 general election were announced: South Bend, Ind.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Nashville. It is the vice-presidential debate that will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah – sparing Trump a visit there.
What we’re seeing, I think, is the impact of religion outside the tent — versus religion inside the tent.
With the exception of a few Western states, the faith founded by Joseph Smith in the mid-1800s has found itself on the outside of American religious society, looking in.
Latter-day Saint missionaries to Georgia lived a hazardous life. One of them, Joseph Standing, was murdered by a mob in Whitfield County in 1879. Things have gotten better since then — about 86,000 Latter-day Saints make their home in Georgia now.
But even as late as the 1980s, despite the close connection between religion and sports in the South, Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy, a Latter-day Saint, was closed out of many church appearances because of his faith.
If you are locked out of a society’s inner sanctums, you have less to lose by criticizing it.
Contrast that with the Southern Baptist experience. White religion in the small-town South was a fluid thing into the 1970s, but there was a general rule of thumb: The political elite were more often Methodist, Presbyterian or some other denomination that fell under the label of “mainstream.”
Southern Baptists were the hoi polloi. They were the neglected evangelical masses, finally brought fully into national politics — first by Jimmy Carter in 1976, then by Ronald Reagan, who made them the base of the national GOP four years later.
For nearly 40 years, Southern evangelicals have been the established church of the Republican party. And they have become loathe to criticize their friends in high places. Trump has required them to adopt a kind of theological realpolitik – in which the transaction matters more than the morality of the players.
“This modeling of conviction and character, those all used to be things that evangelicals held in high esteem,” DeMoss said. “And not just held in high esteem — but demanded in their fellow pastors and leaders and certain people in public life.”
As many traditional Protestant evangelicals have eschewed that role, many Latter-day Saints have taken it up.
As news of Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria spread, we received first word of a new book by Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a dedicated ally of the president.
The book’s original title, “Render to God and Trump,” has been adjusted. “For God and Country: The Christian Case for Trump,” is scheduled for publication in April, just as the 2020 general election is likely to shift into high gear.
The book will argue that Christians “have a moral obligation to enthusiastically back” the president.
Mitt Romney could be among those who decide whether it will be outdated before it hits the bookstores.
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