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Mitt Romney, Neoconservatism, and the Book of Mormon

10/18/2012 04:51 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2012
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The third and final presidential debate of the 2012 presidential campaign season will be held Monday evening and will focus on foreign policy issues. So far, Mitt Romney's Mormon faith was mentioned only briefly in the closing minutes of the second debate, less frequently than many had expected. It's no secret that the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney has thrust the nexus of Mormon faith and political policies into the national spotlight. Many national commentators have attempted to link Romney's political views to the tenets of his Mormon faith (see here, e.g.). The extent to which Romney's political positions are derived primarily from his religious beliefs remains an open question, but it serves to highlight the important phenomenon that religious individuals, including Mormons, often justify their political values with an appeal to their faith, including their sacred texts. For better or worse, this campaign has focused heavily on economic issues to the near exclusion of social and foreign policy issues. Given that U.S. presidents actually have much more power and potential impact in foreign affairs than they do in the domestic realm, it is worth briefly considering how Romney's religious faith might influence his foreign policy decisions. Some have done this and concluded that there is little direct connection between Mormonism and Romney's foreign policy positions, particularly his more neoconservative worldview (see here and here). This semester, Dr. Robert Bosco and I, with a great deal of help from our Centre College research assistant Natalie Pope, are conducting an in-depth analysis of one of the key Mormon religious texts, the Book of Mormon. While we agree with previous analyses that show little direct connection between Mormonism and Romney's neoconservative foreign policy views, our preliminary findings suggest that there may be more subtle relationship than others have suspected.

Jonathan Clarke explains that there are a few key tenets of neoconservative ideology. They include 1) a tendency to see the world in "black-and-white" binary terms, 2) a strong "in-group" vs. "out-group" mentality, 3) a strong emphasis on the centrality of the United States in promoting liberal democratic values such as equality, freedom, and representative government, and 4) a readiness to use military force to achieve American goals. Neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration were largely responsible for the decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

A close reading of the Book of Mormon text reveals that there are several passages which lend themselves readily to a neoconservative interpretation. (For those who need a quick primer: the Book of Mormon begins with the account of Nephi, an Israelite prophet who journeyed with his family to the New World around 600 BCE. Shortly thereafter, conflicts between Nephi and his brothers compel the settlers to split into two tribes: the Nephites and Lamanites. The rest of the Book of Mormon is an account of the religious history of the Nephites and their frequent conflicts with the Lamanites. The narrative ends in a bloody battle around 400 CE where the Nephites are completely exterminated at the hands of the Lamanites.)

Readers of the Book of Mormon will find many passages which could be readily interpreted to support a neoconservative approach to foreign policy. For example, the tendency to see the world in binary, good/evil terms would be reinforced by such passages as "whatsoever is good cometh from God, and whatsoever is evil cometh from the devil" (Alma 5:40) or "Every good thing which inviteth to good... is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ... but whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ... yet may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil" (Moroni 7:16-17).

Another neoconservative characteristic, a strong "in-group, out-group" mentality, can be found throughout the Book of Mormon in the way that the text's narrators characterize their fellow Nephites and draw contrasts with their Lamanite antagonists. For example, several chapters in the Book of Alma describe in great detail a series of military conflicts between the two tribes. The narrator, Mormon, explains the pure motives of the Nephites to "support their liberty, their lands, their wives, and their children, and their peace, and that they might live unto the Lord their God" (Alma 48:10). Their military leader, Moroni, is then described as "a man that did not delight in bloodshed; a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery" (Alma 48:11). The Lamanites, on the other hand, are characterized simply as bloodthirsty savages, a "wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them" (Alma 17:14). With a few important exceptions, the Nephites are nearly always presented as the "good guys" with pure motives, while the Lamanites are the "bad guys" who continually attack because they can't seem to get over what they perceive to be an injustice done by the original Nephi to his brothers Laman and Lemuel (Alma 20:13).

The "exceptional" nature of the United States is a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon. While this has been explored at length by other scholars, we can briefly summarize a few passages that make this clear. In the first chapters of the text, Nephi shares a vision in which an angel shows him a nation populated by "Gentiles" who "went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters" to a "land of promise" (1 Nephi 13:13-14) who then fought a war against their "mother Gentiles" (vs. 17) and that "God was with them... and they were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations" (vs. 18-19). These passages are widely interpreted by Mormons as referring to the Pilgrims and other early American settlers, as well as the American Revolutionary War. Later in the text, a prophet named Ether prophesies that in the last days before the second coming of Jesus Christ, "a new Jerusalem should be built upon this land" (Ether 13:5), in other words, upon the American continent. In essence, the Book of Mormon is widely interpreted by Mormons as "sacralizing" the United States. Thus, America tends to have a unique and central role in Mormon eschatological thinking. It's not a stretch for many contemporary Mormons to make the leap between the central role the United States in religious prophecies and the role the United States should play in the wider global political sphere.

Finally, the Book of Mormon also stresses the importance of military preparation against potential attacks from aggressors, a value that neoconservatives strongly embrace. At one point in the text narrative, the prophet Mormon explains that he, expecting a potential Lamanite attack at any time, spent ten years working with his people "in preparing their lands and their arms against the time of battle" (Mormon 3:1). This is a central tenet of neoconservative political ideology: the best way to preserve peace is with a strong military to frighten off potential aggressors. There are many passages in the Book of the Mormon which could readily be used to support such a political position.

Of course, this is not to say that a close reading of the Book of Mormon necessarily requires a neoconservative interpretation. Others could look at the same text and find an emphasis on pacifism in the face of external attack (Alma 24:20-22), a caution against "preventive" wars (Alma 48:14, 3 Nephi 3:18-21), a Marx-like denouncement of economic inequality and its associated focus on wealth and prosperity at the expense of the poor (4 Nephi 1:23-29), and ultimately, the text even finishes its narrative with a lament from the prophet Mormon on the horror and needlessness of war (Mormon 6:16-22). Also, it should be remembered that not every prominent Mormon is a neoconservative. Fellow Mormon Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was an opponent of the Iraq War toward the end of the Bush administration and even former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman publicly took a much different approach to foreign policy than Mitt Romney in the GOP presidential primary campaign.

We do argue, though, that Mormons (including Mitt Romney) may be more readily inclined to internalize and support neoconservative foreign policy positions because of themes and ideas that they have internalized from a lifetime of reading their sacred religious text, which is often described by Mormons, beginning with founder Joseph Smith, as the "keystone of [their] religion." Ultimately, we suggest that the connection between Romney's Mormon faith and his foreign policy views may not be as tenuous as conventional wisdom has previously suggested.