What Does It Mean to Be A Mormon Democrat? Or, The Elephant In The Room
The group gathered in a Holiday Inn conference room to deliver a message: we’re Mormons, we’re Democrats, and we’re proud of both. The audience of about 100, which filled room to capacity — Mormons, media and interested delegates — was eager to listen.
I was eager to find out where the Mormonism would end and the politics begin. Mitt Romney has the chance to become the first Mormon president of the United States and here was a group of Mormons speaking out in opposition at an event predicated on their Mormonism. Would there be an attack on Romney’s faith? Would it be strictly political? Would they even mention him? Romney’s Mormonism is the elephant in the room this election — nobody seems to know how to approach it, probably because nobody can seem to get a handle on what Mormonism in politics means. I was hoping this gathering could help me figure it out.
The event started with a prayer, and three quarters of the heads in the room dipped. A sweaty, tanned man with a media credential slid to the ground next to me and leaned against the wall. His companion, a slightly husky and equally sweaty media member glanced over at him, a questioning look behind his two day stubble.
“My feet hurt,” came from the floor.
An iPhone started ringing. Panicked guests fumbled in their pockets.
The prayer — a call for guidance and support — ended and the heads came up.
Mormonism occupies a unique position in American culture, something “outside the norm” couched in something that defines “the norm” — Christianity. Less than two percent of Americans are Mormon; over 75% of Americans identify as Christian. Mormonism is associated with Christian family values, yet fights stereotypes and prejudice related to polygamy, underwear and the planet Kolob. That prejudice could presumably be exploited, but has not been. The tactic would not be far fetched; it would be akin to campaigning against a black man while modeling one’s slogan on a Klu Klux Klan line from the 1920s (keep America American), giving the occasional nod to race-motivated conspiracy theorists (e.g. birthers) and running on “return to Mayberry” rhetoric.
Imagine if Obama started publicly questioning the extent to which a Mormon bishop could run a country independent of the guiding influence of his religious structure. Imagine if he started weaving in references to aspects of Mormon doctrine or hierarchy that would confuse or frighten those not of a religious disposition — or worse, if he started leveraging the division between the religious tenets of Mormonism and those of some in the Evangelical Christian base.
There is a myriad of reasons why this campaign move would never be made. But the strategy would work with some voters — which is why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism lingers in the periphery of this election. It is both ubiquitous and unapproachable. It is either a major issue or a nonissue and has yet to be significantly tested as either. The average American does not know much about Mormonism and it seems we are only at the stage of figuring out what questions to ask. That is why we are curious; that is why the LDS Democrats event was billed as a “coming out.”
The prayer now finished, the speaking began in earnest. Halfway through the first speech, the media member on the floor spilled cream sauce on his khakis and muttered an expletive. He pulled a glass of water from the table, dipped his napkin in it and began to rub at his pants.
The broad strategy the speakers employed was to combine pride in Mormonism with pride in being a Democrat and to suggest shared values. In this model, Democrats are paragons of empathy and stewardship. As the third speaker put it — a woman with an earnest, bright voice who was tasked with introducing the headliner, Harry Reid — “…and that’s why I’m proud to be a Mormon. And that’s why I’m proud to be a Democrat. And that’s why I’m proud to introduce Harry Reid.” It may have been better than that, actually — but I was having trouble concentrating at that point of her speech, as I was trying to pin down the emotional subtext, to limited success. The speaker’s voice had began to crack. Pride was coming across but also defiance and veiled frustration. The speeches to this point were on message — Mormonism and Democratic values are compatible — but behind all of them was an uncomfortable edge that hinted at something very close to claiming persecution. Her emotional response was almost giving me enough to figure out what this edge was. Applause greeted the end of the speech and the arrival to the podium of Harry Reid.
Reid first asked the previous speaker to sing a song. After some modest protestations, she obliged. She would sing the Mormon hymn “Have I Done Any Good Today” and invited those who knew the tune to join in. Apparently, half the room knew the tune.
Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed…
They hymn went on for four stanzas. As it ended, I realized: the entire gathering had been condensed to a song — the substance, the presentation, the politics, the faith. This was Mormonism as those who put the event together had intended it to be seen. Here in a room of tucked shirts, soft features, crisp hair cuts, ready smiles and effortless community, there are Mormon Democrats and they would like to do some good in the world today. The overlap of faith and politics was immaterial. The edge was gone.
Harry Reid began his speech, soft-spoken with age. A few sentences in, a woman near the door leaned on a panel of light switches and shut the lights off. She hastily turn them back on, flush with embarrassment. A few paragraphs later, Harry Reid’s microphone shut off. He continued without, but on the edge of the room, I could no longer make out his words. Floor guy seemed unconcerned.
In the new silence of straining listeners I could make out a pulsing of some sort coming from the room adjacent, a room that held refreshments. I decided to investigate. Past the trays of soda cans (the Coke section was largely untouched — Mormons often do not drink caffeine) were waist-to-ceiling windows. The sound was coming from outside and was now distinguishable as chanting.
In an intersection below the hotel, about 20 protesters were chanting in Spanish, holding signs and waving cloth. They had spread a large blanket across the intersection and some were sitting while others marched about in a circle. Encircling that group was a unit of bicycle police. The outermost circle bristled with televisions cameras, DSLR’s, digital recorders and iPhones. The outer circle undulated, the exploitation of cracks in which to stick a recording device providing new openings. The middle circle (police) was immobile. The nucleus churned. Everybody was getting rained on — one of this week’s frequent summer storms had decided to stick around instead of blowing quickly through as was usually the case. Everybody looked soaked.
I learned from a charming Nevada Delegate who sidled up next to me that this was a protest for immigrant rights. Many of the protesters were themselves undocumented immigrants. A rush of applause from the other room drowned out their chanting. Apparently, Harry Reid had finished speaking. I returned to the main room.
The media moved on to their next assignments. A few dozen people, glowing with excitement or pride, stuck around to chat and eat, comfortable and pleasant as ever. A piano trio tucked away in the corner of the room played jazz standards, occasionally joined by a singer. I felt like I’d missed something, more likely that what I came here to figure out never came up. Values, values, values. Not quite dogma, not quite action. Somewhere between those values and that edge, illusive, never quite betraying itself, sat that elephant in the room: ubiquitous yet unapproachable. I was wrong, that elephant is not Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, nor Mormonism in general, nor Mormonism in politics. It is the inevitable end of religion in politics, however far away that end may be.
Minutes later, the protesters below were arrested and removed from the streets. The rain slowed and moved on, a typical summer storm in Charlotte.
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