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[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.

Originally posted to mofembot on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 05:52 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Interesting (8+ / 0-)

    It reminds me that the Republicans painted Kerry as wicked tho he had been an altar boy.  And JImmy Carter taught Sunday School but wasn't as godly as never-going-to Church Reagan. I see a pattern here.  Democrats do their relgion wrong.  Republican candidatess have just the right amount of faith. Hence, despite the evidence you have offered, Romney, I bet, will be spun by the MSM as a typical devout Chhristian.

    Remember we're reality based--they're not.

    Thanks for a fascinating diary.

  •  Post a Tip Jar... (0+ / 0-)

    and thinks for an informative diary.  I think your point is that Mitt is much more involved in his church than JFK was.  Do you think this is good or bad?  Will it help or hurt Mitt?

    "Don't take life too'll never get out of it alive." B. Bunny

    by The Angry Democrat on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 06:12:25 AM PST

  •  I want to know his family history (0+ / 0-)

    Like at what point did his anscestors switch over to single wives? Was it his grandparents' generation or great grandparents, or great great grandparents? Also were any of his anscestors orginal settlers of Utah?

  •  Very informative (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    CNN just posted poll results to question about candidates' religion mattering.  54% said it didn't matter.  I wonder if that includes Mormons.

    I remember back in the '60s when the Mormons considered blacks to be The Lost Tribe of Israel.  Is that still a prevailing notion?

    Very interesting diary and will look forward to reading your thoughts tomorrow.

    "Man's life's a vapor Full of woe. He cuts a caper, Down he goes. Down de down de down he goes.

    by JFinNe on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 06:16:39 AM PST

  •  Tip jar?--Tip jar! (17+ / 0-)

    I never know what I'm supposed to do about tip jars and all, so if I've done this wrong, be kind. Thanks!

  •  Mitt Romney does deliver well (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Coherent Viewpoint, trivium

    on speeches.  It's his off the cuff remarks that do him in as an empty suit.

    I wouldn't be surprised if his speech is eloquent.

    The religious fanatics didn't buy the republican party because it was virtuous, they bought it because it was for sale

    by nupstateny on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 06:39:46 AM PST

  •  Women aren't "allowed" to serve? And... (4+ / 0-)

    the difference between Kennedy and Romney is that Kennedy stated, without exception, the absolute separation of church and state....and Walter Mitty CANNOT do that or he will burn the radicals he has flip-flopped to cultivate so far.

    VEBO...Vote Every Bum Out

    by ShainZona on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 06:54:32 AM PST

    •  Women can serve, (8+ / 0-)

      but they can't hold the priesthood. So men are the ultimate decision-makers at all levels. For example, a woman may be the called to be the "president" of the adult women's auxiliary program, called the Relief Society, but it's a man who extends the calling, and it is a man who will decide when she's finished. The Relief Society president does not choose her own counselors (though in most congregations the bishop will wisely listen to her preferences). Men have the ultimate say-so over the budget, etc.

      Can you say "patriarchy"?--I knew you could.

  •  Paraphrasing Lloyd Bensten (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    revbludge, cfk, trivium

    Sorry Mitt, your no Jack Kennedy

  •  I was raised Mormon (5+ / 0-)

    I am no longer Mormon - wan't excommunicated or anything - just stopped believing.  My mother was the custodian - and I babysat for parishners.  Didn't like that her tithing was held out of her paycheck and I was called into the the Bishop's office routinely for not tithing my full 10%.

    I find this hypocritical as my mom was a single parent, and we gave what we could.  the youth group was very involved and from my memories, the church was involved in every aspect of our lives.  

    My mother remembers finding a scrunched up letter on the floor, she picked it up and it opened - yes, she read it - it was a plea for help from a fellow parishner.  She pressed it open and handed it to the Bishop thinking he had made a mistake.  He looked at it, rolled it in a ball and threw it this time hitting the trashcan.    My mother, the single mother, took a laundry basket of food to the parishner - an elderly handicapped lady - when my mother put the groceries away in her cabinet, she found only dogfood - with no pet.  Hypocrisy at its best.

    btw I too did "baptisms for the dead" at 14 as a female.  I believe now the church allows African Americans to hold the monitor "priesthood' - not sure about women.

    •  Men of African descent (4+ / 0-)

      can hold both the upper (Melchizedek) and lower (Aaronic) priesthoods. Women still cannot be ordained to either one. (It is a subject of debate as to whether a Mormon woman who has been through the temple ceremony called the endowment holds some form of Melchizedek priesthood, but for all practical purposes, it makes not a whit of difference if she does or does not.)

    •  I've been fortunate... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cfk, AmericanRiverCanyon

      I had good bishops during my time as an active Mormon, none of whom would have ignored someone in need. Local leaders are lay people with widely diverse backgrounds, and I certainly know of people who have had terrible experiences with hyperconservative, holier-than-thou types, particularly of the redneck variety.

      •  a point worth remembering (2+ / 0-)

        All the local leadership in the LDS church are "lay" and unpaid, including stake presidents and bishops as Mitt Romney was. Given that a stake president usually serves for 5-10 years, and that a stake would typically have only a few hundred eligible men that could hold the position, it's not terribly remarkable that a returned missionary with a stable job and family in the northeast like Romney had would become a stake president - better than a 1 in 100 chance, and better than a 1 in 10 chance of being called as a bishop. My father-in-law was a stake president for almost 10 years a while back, for instance. One of my wife's great uncles was known as "the cussin' bishop" because he had been called as a bishop for some time despite a rather liberal use of language on certain occasions. These men are committed to their faith, but it's not that remarkable for them to be in these positions, really.

        Since the bulk of the time spent by bishops and stake presidents is administrative (keeping track of all those callings and responsibilities for the members, regular meetings and one-on-one interviews with lay leaders, budgeting and planning buildings and boundaries of ecclesiastical units, writing checks and depositing or reviewing donations, audits, etc) somebody with business experience is often an obvious choice, moving those odds up even higher.

        Now as an ecclesiastical leader a bishop or stake president also has a somewhat special status doctrinally - they are "entitled to revelation" for their members as a whole, and expected to speak at length once or twice a year. But they don't do most of the teaching or speaking within the units, the members take care of that themselves (under their supervision). It's pretty rare for a leader to have to correct teachings of the members, the members who are active enough to get these callings or assignments usually already are very well-versed in LDS teachings.

        And the philosophy is extremely egalitarian - the special ecclesiastical authority of leaders only applies while they hold their calling; once released they are just like anybody else, and for any issue not specifically under their authority (for example when outside of their home units) they are treated and regarded just like any other member - their's nothing special about a stake president when he's visiting elsewhere.

        So Mitt Romney's having held such a position in the past is merely an indication of his deep commitment to his faith, not any particular marker of virtue or deep spiritual insight. I think perhaps you're raising the expectation here a little too high, but I gave you a rec anyway because it's a good discussion to have.

        •  Minor quibble (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I know that bishops retain the title (i.e., are called "Bishop so-and-so," rather than "Brother so-and-so") even after they've been released (at least in their home congregation and stake), and I know that at least in the two stakes I belonged to growing up in Calif., former stake presidents retained the title, and were frequently invited to sit with current leadership.

          I totally agree that demographic necessity plays a big factor in who is selected for leadership positions, especially outside of the "Mormon corridor."

          •  well... title but no authority (0+ / 0-)

            They may be still called "bishop" or "president" out of a sense of courtesy or respect for prior service, but there s no continuing responsibility or authority.

            Also it should be remembered these lay members in these positions put in very long hours. I work with our stake president here in New York and we start meetings at 6:30 am Sunday mornings, with things often going on until 9 or 10 pm Sundays, and the president is involved in week-night meetings as well. My wife's phone was ringing off the hook when she was briefly standing in for the Relief Society president a few months ago. Accepting a calling means devoting time to service, and any associated respect from others is small compensation.

            •  Absolutely... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              The heavy-duty callings are full-time jobs, usually on top of full-time jobs. (My dad was a bishop, and my brother currently is a bishop.)

              I have no problem with such service being acknowledged with courtesy titles and preferential seating (although it might be nice if women's service were similarly acknowledged; as you say, an RS president's job can be extremely demanding as well, and she is often the first to know of families in need--even before the home teachers and/or bishop).

  •  Thanks for an informative diary. (3+ / 0-)

    What leaps out at me is your description of Mitt Romney as a "High Priest," "bishop," and "stake president" in the Mormon faith.  Regardless of what those terms mean among LDS members, I think it may be devastating to Romney's candidacy if they gain wide circulation.  If Romney is faced with a question such as, "Isn't it true you're a High Priest (and/or Bishop) in the Mormon Church?" I think he's done for.  He can't very well say no without being called out by the Mormon Church; and if he says yes, I think lots of folks who might otherwise have considered him are going to look elsewhere for a candidate.  He can try to explain that "High Priest" or "Bishop" doesn't mean what non-Mormons think it means, but I see that as a lost cause.  Most Americans would, I think, be very troubled at the idea of electing as President anyone who holds any substantial position in a religious hierarchy, be it a Catholic bishop, a Jewish rabbi, or a Buddhist monk (unless perhaps it's someone of their own particular creed).

  •  Depends... (3+ / 0-)

    Huckabee was a Baptist preacher. OTOH, there are a lot more evangelicals (of all stripes) than there are Mormons, and it's true that evangelicals will find the title "high priest" particularly off-putting, given their interpretation of a particular New Testament passage.

    I enjoyed the (NY Times?) headline "Elder Bush will introduce Romney speech"... "Elder" is a Mormon title--specifically, what Mormon missionaries are called. I knew it referred to GHWB, but it made me smile anyway.

    •  Centralized religion (0+ / 0-)

      I think you have it right in your diary about the discomfiture Americans had and have with Catholics and Mormons. Huckabee maybe an ordained Baptist minister (like Jesse Jackson), but no one is likely going to call American Baptists centralized or hierarchial. One other point that I have not seen any one comment upon: American were familiar with Catholicism and catholics comprised some 25% of the population when JFK ran. Americans no little about the Mormon "faith" other than anecdotal fun fact to know and tell like polygamy, sacred undergarments and a really good choir. Even Romney's pronouncement that "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior" will not be enough for a lot of Christians (even mainline). Mormonism may be the fastest growing "Christian" denomination, but as far as I know, they make up less than 5% of US population. I think this is yet another way that Romney does not parallel JFK.

  •  I think the real question... (0+ / 0-)

    ...isn't what offices he's held but how much he'll take orders from 47 E. South Temple.  If Utah's legislature, executive branch, and congressional delegation are any indication, watch out.

    It is to Madame Justice that I dedicate this concerto.

    by rifek on Thu Dec 06, 2007 at 08:01:28 AM PST

    •  I don't think Mitt... (0+ / 0-)

      will have a hotline to Salt Lake City. The Mormon church is very image-conscious. Church leaders will welcome a Romney presidency for the prestige it will lend to the church (which in turn will present greater proselytizing opportunities), but they would not dare try to tell Mitt how to govern. His positions on various issues will largely reflect the church's in any event.

    •  The church can get away with stuff in Utah (0+ / 0-)

      that it most certainly cannot get away with outside of Utah (on a national scale, that is to say).

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