11/04/2012 12:30 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014


The First Amendment guarantees our right to embrace any religion we choose, no matter how peculiar. It also protects our right to talk about it along with almost anything else (truthfulness is optional). So why have we heard so little of substance about Mormonism when MItt Romney, a committed Mormon, aspires to represent the entire American people? Does his religious affiliation matter as much as he says it does? If so how does it affect his thinking and actions?

After two and a quarter centuries, it seems odd that there is not a WASP on either of the major party tickets. American demography really is changing, becoming much more pluralistic. However, for a nation in which politicians habitually wear their religion all over their sleeves and cite God without provocation, I find it anomalous and strangely unrepresentative that half (50%) of both tickets is represented by Catholics (23.9% of the general population), 25% by a Mormon (1.7%) and 25% by a Protestant (51.3%). The good news is that apparently we're not as obsessed by religious doctrine as our public rhetoric would suggest. The bad news is that there seems to be a serious dose of hypocrisy at work here.

With the rise of Willard Romney on the national scene, I've struggled to put into words what we experienced in Salt Lake City years ago when given a private tour of the inner workings of the Latter Day Saints. Now, coming across Detroit auto executives angrily rejecting misleading Romney campaign ads as coming from an "alternate universe", I've found a phrase that makes sense to me. This idea of living in an "alternate universe" could explain a lot about Romney. But I have no way of knowing if it explains either his flipping and flopping or the great distance he keeps putting between himself and truthfulness, or between himself and the 47%.

That Mormonism presents what I perceive as an alternate universe for its adherents does not separate it from many other religious traditions. If we're going to be led from one of those universes, shouldn't we know something about it? If beliefs affect acts, we should know something about those beliefs and their presumed domain of influence. James Imhofe is a particularly egregious example.

At the very least, we should be keenly aware that Mormonism is a place where women are subordinate. In a highly patriarchal, rigidly hierarchical world, women's roles are defined as servants to men, here and throughout eternity. As in the Roman Catholic tradition, they are absolutely denied roles among the leadership elite. I am also concerned that, until 1978, Black people were inferior congregants in the Mormon world. (George Wallace didn't see the light until 1982.)

One can learn a lot about Mormonism and about its influence on Romney from Financial Times' "Born to Lead?" and the earlier Bloomberg/Businessweek cover story about Mormonism. The New Yorker's "Transaction Man" is an excellent introduction to how Romney's faith tradition plays out in his life. All speak to what the Financial Times calls the "weirdness factor" of Mormonism, especially relevant as the U.S. becomes ever more diverse and of particular importance to any woman tempted to assume our hard won rights. If you're female (and even if you're not) listen to survivors of Mormon polygamy, now practiced only at the fundamentalist fringes but of central importance in the faith's formative decades. As part of a deal for Utah statehood, polygamy was outlawed but -- as The Guardian points out -- the Mormon mindset that women are mere vessels is an excellent fit with anti-woman Republicans of all stripes.

Is Romney's Mormonism on a par with his role at Bain Capital as a determinant of his character and of his actions? If it is, along with his LBO career and his life of privilege, it should be a consideration in judging his suitability for the role he seeks. My read is that this combination (Bain/Mormon/.1%) is most credibly understood as the fountainhead of an authoritarian character who will act to sustain the prosperity of the privileged few at serious cost to the rest of us. America must do better than that.