Where Did the Mormon Mitt Go?

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Whoever wins the presidency this week, I would like to gently suggest that Mitt Romney's campaign has done a small disservice to his faith.

My evidence for this is a video from 2007 that is bouncing around the Internet this weekend, an interview that Romney did with a conservative Iowa talk show host. The people who are forwarding it now are using it as a way to illustrate how crazy Mormon theology is and how doubly crazy Romney must be to believe it.

Some of the people making this claim are members of their own congregations, where any of their faith-based beliefs look just as nuts to outsiders. Pot? Meet kettle.

I took the video very differently than the forwarders intended. Romney asserts, with some justification, his knowledge of the theology of his church. After all, as he points out, he's a former bishop and stake president -- the equivalent of local and regional clergy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And he discusses specifically how a disagreement he has with that official theology informs his governance position about abortion.

And by the way, he does so with an unmistakable fluency, passion and sincerity that was not often in such evidence during Romney's public campaigning. About most issues, his church included, Romney has been a pillbug candidate. Pillbugs, aka roly pollies, are land-living crustaceans that roll into tight balls when disturbed. Puts their hard shells on the outside and makes it hard to get a grip.

From his economic plan to immigration reform to his faith, Romney has done his best to deflect questions with a minimum of detail in his frankly logical effort to turn the election into a referendum on President Obama's record. We should know shortly whether that was a winning play.

By doing so about his faith, however, Romney has not only missed a chance to educate the public about what his church is and is not, he's left himself open to the sorts of unfair attacks he's getting once again as the long campaign marathon winds down.

As one Obama supporter put on Facebook about the video: "Mormon history of polygamy aside: the sect still believes in the planet/star "Kolub," that one day Christ will rule from Jerusalem and Missouri (!), and that its adherents should wear magical Morman undies. Check it out if you doubt it. Here's an excited Mitt on the subject." With a link to a snippet of the video.

How crazy that someone should think that the dead but resurrected divine-yet-human son of the creator of the world who was forced by his father to die a horrible death by torture would return after thousands of years and rule from two places instead of just one! Ahem.

(I refer you to Weiss's Law of Religious Relativism: Any religion is crazy, by definition, to a nonbeliever.)

But I could not care less -- and I think it should not be a political issue -- what Romney believes about God, salvation or the history of Jesus in the Americas. What I do care about is knowing how much the distinctive doctrines of the LDS church inform or do not inform Romney's ideas about governance. I've written about relevant questions that he could address a couple of times. Here's my most recent version, from eight months ago .

As far as I can tell, Romney has powerfully resisted on-the-record responses. One section of this 2007 video is a notable exception. And Romney never intended for it to air.

Here's a link to a to the whole 20-minute interview with WHO-AM morning host Jan Mickelson. Starts with talk about a local barbecue restaurant that he'd eaten at years before. (Mitt likes his filet mignons well done. Seriously.) Then some political strategy chat.

At the 8-minute mark, the host asks how Romney's long-ago position on abortion -- supporting the legal right while opposing it personally -- could ever have been reconciled with the doctrine of his church that says, as Mickelson quotes, "if you encourage an abortion in any way, you may be subject to church discipline."

Romney's response: "The great thing about this country is individuals who run for secular office are not implanting the policies of the church. They are doing what they think is right for the nation."

Then he deflects a question about how his church theology relates to that. And then a bit after the 10-minute mark they take a commercial break -- but the camera and microphones stay on.

The conversation continues about Mormon doctrine and abortion and then, at the 16-minute mark, still off the air, the conversation goes deep into Mormon eschatology: Where Jesus returns, where he rules and for how long. Romney schools the radio guy on LDS teachings. (Jesus comes back to Jerusalem. Stops a war aimed at killing all the Jews. Rules for a millennium from Jerusalem and Missouri.)

And then the conversation comes back to LDS theology, abortion and Romney's current belief that it should be illegal. Romney gives a pointed explanation about how his governance approach differs from the church's official position -- and how that's OK under Mormon doctrine:

"The church does not say that a member of my church has to be opposed to allowing choice in society. We are vehemently opposed to abortion ourselves. And for ourselves. But we allow other people to make their own choice. I disagree with that view. Politically, I looked at it and said that's wrong. It's not a Mormon thing. It's a secular position to say I was wrong."

Where was this guy over the past, say, six years? Why was he so reluctant to explain how he, as former LDS clergy, had his governance ideas either informed or not by his church doctrine? I think it's fair to say that most Americans remain about as ignorant about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as they are about Shia Islam. And that's too bad. Romney could have changed some of that.

"I'm not running as a Mormon," Romney said to Mickelson back in 2007. Fair enough. But by not unrolling at least a little bit, I think he didn't so much protect the privacy of his own faith as he allowed others to define his beleifs for him. And not to the benefit of either the candidate or his church.

If we're talking about Mitt Romney in the White House for the next few years, maybe he'll feel freer there to reveal the particular aspects of his faith that make him tick as president. Obama certainly did.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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