Growing up in a devout Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) family in a suburb of Salt Lake City, I knew my religion as well as my name. My mom played the organ in a Mormon temple, I was a Boy Scout, and there was rarely a Sunday when we would miss church. Praying at least three times daily and studying the Book of Mormon were as essential as brushing our teeth or making dinner.
For the first time in American history a Mormon is the presidential nominee for a major political party. And while the Romney campaign has swiftly dismissed questions about his religion as inappropriate and irrelevant, it may seem that much of the media have tiptoed around this topic and have discussed the LDS church in glossy, broad terms. But here's why Mr. Romney's religion is relevant: For Mormons, there really is no such thing as separation of church and state.
From as early as I can remember, I was taught in church that the framers of our Constitution were directly influenced by God to create a nation where Jesus Christ could come to Earth and his true gospel could be restored. Essentially, Mormons believe that the United States was chosen and created specifically by God as the Promised Land where Earth's one true religion -- Mormonism -- could finally be discovered and then flourish.
One doesn't need to look far to learn more about this version of American history. On the Mormon website DesertBook.com (a Mormon Literature bookstore), there are dozens of books about American history -- one of which cites "evidence of God's hand throughout the unique history of the United States." According to Mormon doctrine the Garden of Eden was in America (Missouri, to be specific), and Mormon founder Joseph Smith discovered sacred gold plates that would later be translated into the Book of Mormon, buried not far from his home in upstate New York in 1823.
The sometimes-blurry lines between the LDS church and politics can be illustrated by the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California, which amended the state's constitution to ban gay marriage. The First Presidency of the church issued a written statement asking members to do all they could "to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman." Top Mormon officials also held a special, emergency satellite broadcast from Salt Lake City in which they warned, "You are a mighty army. You'll be responsible for holding true to the doctrines of the Church."
When LDS church leaders issue directives like this, their members listen and immediately mobilize. And when it involves a political agenda, their army is ready to roll. Despite a rather murky money trail, an estimated 50 percent of the money raised for Prop 8 came from Mormons, and a vast majority of door-to-door volunteers (an estimated 85 percent) were Mormon. A Mitt Romney PAC reportedly donated $10,000 to support the measure.
Members of the Mormon church vow to give as generously as they can to support the church, its beliefs, and its mission for mankind. In addition to a standard tithing of 10 percent of their annual income, they also donate incredible amounts of time and additional money (in the form of monthly offerings, or for special emergencies like Prop 8) to further the agenda of the church and remain obedient to God. If members break this vow to steadfastly follow God's teachings, they risk losing eternal salvation, in which they believe they will live with their (non-plural) families forever in paradise.
Mormons believe that their leader is a modern-day prophet who speaks directly to God -- and that's why their stance on many issues or practices seems to evolve or change abruptly. In 1890 the prophet instructed members to immediately end the practice of polygamy (which Congress had outlawed in 1862 but which church members continued to practice for decades). Then, in 1978, fifteen years after racial integration was mandated by the federal government, God revealed to Mormon leaders that African-Americans could finally enter into Mormon temples and hold the full privileges of membership. Mormons can't anticipate when these kinds of revelations from God may come, but they live as righteously as possible in order to be ready to adapt to commands from their leaders. From the written word in Mormon scripture to melodic hymns in church, members are often referred to as the Lord's "soldiers," "sheep," and "children."
Let me be clear: I'm a firm believer in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the freedom to support the policies and candidates one chooses. I also believe that it's not only OK to question authority (whether it be teachers, religious leaders, or politicians) but an essential part of human development and the journey to becoming a better-informed citizen. In the case of Mr. Romney, the political agenda of the Mormon church (of which he is a devout, lifetime member) potentially carries significant political implications -- and that's why it needs to be more openly discussed. This kind of political discourse should be at the heart of true democracy. Yet somehow the political landscape in the U.S. has fostered an environment where asking tough or uncomfortable questions is the equivalent of using "gotcha" tactics or is considered just plain unpatriotic. I disagree.
If Mitt Romney is elected president, what happens the next time top officials in the Mormon church instruct members to take a specific political stance because it is God's will? Because Mormons are expected to put God before everything else, this puts Mr. Romney in a tricky position that might jeopardize his eternal salvation. As the leader of our nation, who would he put first: God or the American people?
Mr. Romney has said repeatedly that his religion would not get in the way of his presidential responsibilities, but the simple fact is that his presidential responsibilities would get in the way of his religion.