[Note: This is largely a repeat of a diary I posted back in June, but given that Mitt's Big Speech is tomorrow, I believe the information herein is both timely and useful.]
Reference to a candidate's religious affiliation has no place in the current presidential campaign: just as it was wrong to bring up Kennedy's Catholicism, so it is wrong to bring up Mitt's Mormonism, or so goes the prevailing wisdom. But there is at the very least a quantitative difference between the two men's experiences as members of two churches viewed as "other" by the evangelical right in particular. This diary provides information about Mitt's life as a Mormon as a counterweight to the inevitable, facile comparisons between the impact of Mitt's and JFK's religions on their respective campaigns.
Mitt's Mormon Background
Mitt Romney faces the same problem as JFK did in his quest for the presidency: both men belong(ed) to churches with a strong central, conservative, hierarchical authority--a reason for unease among a fair number of mainstream protestants. Further, both Catholicism and Mormonism are viewed by evangelical protestants as heretical, apostate, and even diabolical in nature. Evangelical bookstores have shelves of books devoted to fierce critiques of the official histories and tenets of both churches: Catholic popes are equated with the Antichrist; Mormonism's founders and current leaders are described as charlatans. Members of both churches ("cults") are described as deceived souls who are ignorant of biblical truths, too mired in tradition and sin to extricate themselves from the grasp of Satan's minions on Earth without help from the "saved."
Kennedy's famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, served to mitigate some of the opposition:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
Romney has already met with and received the endorsement of a number of prominent evangelical ministers. But after considerable resistance, tomorrow Romney will finally deliver a much-anticipated speech tackling the issue of his religion head-on--a speech that will inevitably be compared to Kennedy's, despite the Romney campaign's attempts to defuse such expectations.
Even supposing Mitt could approach Kennedy's eloquence, would it be--and should it be--enough to persuade the 37% of Americans who, when polled last June, said that they would never vote for a Mormon? Here is where the "quantitative" difference between Mitt's and JFK's religious practice comes into focus:
Kennedy's family was long-time Catholic, and Kennedy served as an altar boy both in his home parish in Brookline and in Hyannis. Mitt comes from as long a line of Mormons as the Mormon church's brief history permits, and his official church service began as is customary for Mormon boys at age 12, when he was ordained as a deacon (the lowest office in Mormonism's Aaronic priesthood).
Interestingly, there are some parallels between the duties of altar servers and Mormon deacons, particularly with regard to assisting during communion. Once JFK's altar boy days were over, however, his active, official church service as such was over. But for Mitt, his ordination at age 12 was just the first step in a long series of ever-expanding duties and obligations within the Mormon church. Here is a rough outline of Mitt's church service:
[Note: for precise descriptions of priesthood duties noted below, please refer to section 20 of the book of Mormon scripture called the Doctrine & Covenants ("D&C"); this is available on-line at the official Mormon website. Also note that D&C 20 does not prescribe ages for ordination; in the 19th century in particular, it was not uncommon for adult men to remain within the Aaronic priesthood. Nowadays, members believe that a life-long male member's failure to be ordained to the higher priesthood by his early twenties is indicative of unworthiness. Also note that females are not ordained to Mormon priesthood.]
• Age 12: Ordained to office of Deacon in Aaronic (lower) priesthood; most visible duty: distributing to congregants every Sunday the bread and water used as the emblems of Mormon communion. Worthy deacons can also participate in the Mormon temple ceremony of baptism for the dead, in which they act as proxies for those who died without joining the Mormon church (on the order of about 99.99% of humanity).
• Age 14: Ordained to office of Teacher in Aaronic priesthood; additional duties to those of deacon include being the junior companion to a "home teacher" assigned to visit several families every month.
• Age 16: Ordained to office of Priest in Aaronic priesthood; additional duties include being able to bless the emblems of communion, and to baptize by immersion living converts (and 8-year-old kids from Mormon families). Can also ordain others to offices in the Aaronic priesthood.
• Age 18-19: Ordained to the office of Elder in the Melchizedek, or higher priesthood. Can perform all of the duties of the lower priesthood, but now can lay on hands to bestow the Holy Ghost; can participate in all adult Mormon temple rites (washings & anointings, endowment [ritual reenactment of fall & redemption, including secret knowledge], sealing [marriage for eternity]). A man (at least 19 years of age) must be an elder to serve as a full-time missionary, which Mitt did during the brief period when missions for men, normally 24 months long, were extended to 30 months. (Women missionaries must go through the washing & anointing and endowment ceremony prior to full-time missionary service; they also have to wait until they're 21 to serve for 18 months.)
It is not unusual for a Mormon man to remain an elder for his entire adult life. I need to clarify here that Mormon men do not act on their own initiative to perform baptisms, laying on of hands, ordination, and so on. They must have permission from their local or general leaders to perform anything of a sacerdotal nature.
There used to be an office called the Seventy to which adult men were called when they were asked to perform missionary service in their home congregations. This office was effectively discontinued at the local level in the 1970s, but there are still Salt Lake-based quorums of 70 which assist with general church governance.
To the best of my knowledge, Mitt was never ordained to the office of Seventy; he was, however, ordained to the office of High Priest when he was called to serve as the Bishop of his local congregation (first in Cambridge, and then in Belmont, Massachusetts). A Mormon bishop is essentially a lay pastor and is the highest authority within the congregation, empowered to (1) ask people to serve and release them from service, (2) determine people's worthiness to participate in Mormon temple ceremonies, and (3) subject congregants to church disciplinary procedures.
In 1986, Mitt was called to be the president of the Boston Stake, meaning that he was the presiding officer over several Mormon church congregations. Although he could not select men to serve as bishops (this is reserved for general church authorities), he would provide authorities with a list of men to consider for ordination as bishop; he would determine if a man was worthy to be ordained to an office in the Melchizedek Priesthood; he would be the second gatekeeper to the temple (conducting another round of worthiness interviews once a candidate had been cleared by the local bishop). He would also preside over disciplinary hearings. When church authorities from Salt Lake would visit, he would provide the hospitality. Being a stake president is a necessary step to being called to higher positions: I can't think of any general authority who hadn't served first as a stake president.
All of this is to illustrate that Mitt's experience as a Mormon is far more involved and complex than Jack Kennedy's experience as a Catholic: this is not simply attending Mass (no matter how frequently), it's officiating at Mass; it's not following a local priest or bishop, it's acting in the equivalent capacity of a local priest or bishop; it's not reading about decisions made in Rome by the College of Cardinals or the Pope, it's talking directly to the highest church authorities in Salt Lake and ensuring that church policies are carried out. (And you'd better believe that a stake president is not going to be opposing official church positions on anything--unless he wants to stop being a stake president in short order.)
I am looking forward to commenting on Mitt's speech tomorrow.