LOS ANGELES — When the bottom fell out of the real estate market, Jason and Liz Anderson reached out to the institution they trusted most: the Mormon Church.
Meeting with their bishop in Rancho Cucamonga, they laid out the problem: Although Jason was working two jobs, he was barely earning enough to make ends meet.
The bishop “was really open and loving,” Liz recalled. But it was tough love. “We’re not going to pay bills. We can’t pay your mortgage,” she recalled him as saying. He offered food assistance and a blessing.
The Andersons said it never occurred to them to seek government assistance, although with two young children and a monthly income that had dwindled to $1,200, they surely would have qualified for food stamps.
That worldview, focused on church and not government, is part of the culture of American Mormonism, paradoxically rooted in both self-reliance and communitarian idealism. It may help explain the roots of Mitt Romney’s conservatism, which in many ways mirrors the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When Romney said in a secretly recorded video that 47 percent of Americans lacked personal responsibility and believed they deserved government entitlements, it reflected a conservative political view rooted in the idea that freedom demands responsibility.
But it also may reflect his history as a Mormon bishop, whose duties included giving the needy among his flock a hand up — but never a mere handout.
Two-thirds of American Mormons describe themselves as politically conservative and only 8 percent as liberal, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Nearly three-quarters lean Republican. Mormons are significantly more conservative, on balance, than evangelical Christians, the religious group most identified with the political right in this country.
But Mormon conservatism differs from its evangelical counterpart. It can be more pragmatic, more flexible. It springs from different sources, some theological, some rooted in the Mormons’ rugged pioneer history. Those steeped in Mormon culture can hear echoes of it in Romney’s political rhetoric, although he generally avoids explicit mentions of his faith.
“You know . when an active LDS person like myself sees Romney, hears him talk, sees his family, you recognize that. He looks and sounds like one of us,” said Lowell Brown, a health care lawyer in Los Angeles who blogs on conservative issues.
Romney is not in lock step with his fellow Mormons on all issues, and he has shown a willingness to take positions at odds with LDS doctrine, as when he took a stance in favor of abortion rights. (He now espouses anti-abortion views similar to those of his church.) But it is difficult to fully understand him without grasping how his faith and its unique culture play out in political belief.
Mormons have not always been associated with the Republican Party – far from it. The first GOP platform in 1856 was devoted to an attack on “those twin relics of barbarism – polygamy and slavery.”
There was only one major group practicing polygamy in the United States at the time: the Latter-day Saints.
Republican hostility faded after the church banned “plural marriage” in 1890. The church had a friend in California Republican Sen. Leland Stanford, an industrial tycoon whose transcontinental railroad had crossed Utah. After Utah became a state, church leaders actively encouraged a healthy competition between the Democratic and Republican parties.
From the start, the young Mormon society showed a streak of communal utopianism. Leader Brigham Young encouraged the establishment of cooperative ventures in which whole towns had communally owned property, according to Paul Edwards, editor of the church-owned Salt Lake City newspaper, the Deseret News.
The church eventually developed its own welfare system, with farms that stocked food warehouses for the poor.
“There was this strong communitarian ethic,” Edwards said. “They really, really believed that they were building the kingdom of God on Earth. These harsh, high desert plains of Utah become pretty fertile agricultural areas, not through individual effort but through community efforts.”
To this day, it is possible to walk into a Mormon “bishop’s warehouse” just south of the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles — one of dozens nationwide — and find food grown and canned or packed by the church under the label Deseret (meaning “honeybee”). Behind the warehouse, four grain elevators rise 110 feet high, storing 200,000 bushels of hard red wheat for emergencies.
The communal spirit rests side by side with a strong belief in individual responsibility, and a suspicion of big government going back to U.S. persecution of Mormons over polygamy. It is a family-centered culture that believes strongly in private initiative; has a fierce work ethic; and believes the community – not the government — is best equipped to help the needy and, importantly, set them on the path to self-reliance.
“We don’t believe in the dole,” said Joel Kasparian, who runs a Mormon employment center next to the Los Angeles food warehouse. “We have a scripture that says the idle ‘shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.’ So that’s pretty strong.”
Central to Mormon scripture is the idea that human beings are endowed by God with free agency – the ability to do good or evil. Mormons are taught that Satan offered to “save” mankind at the price of free agency, but God stopped him.
The U.S. Constitution is considered to be divinely inspired, enshrining free agency in a democratic society.
“We’re a nation that’s bestowed by God,” Romney sometimes tells audiences.
For many Mormons, the idea of free agency, with its intrinsic emphasis on individual responsibility, translates into a belief in limited government and an abhorrence of the welfare state, which is seen as crushing individual initiative. This meshes neatly with the ideals of the Republican Party, and was echoed in Romney’s recorded comments about Americans who believe they are “victims” and are entitled to help.
“If people can’t make choices, they can’t advance,” said Charles Rich, the Mormon stake president (the overall leader) for Rancho Cucamonga and the great-great-grandson of the Mormon pioneer who founded San Bernardino. “Some people may translate that into a belief in limited government.”
Other doctrine dictates Mormon opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But Mormons are quick to point out that, unlike many evangelical churches, their church allows for exceptions for abortion in the cases of rape, incest, when the life or health of the mother is in danger or when the fetus has such severe defects that it is not expected to survive beyond birth. And they insist that they are not so much opposed to homosexuality (although gay sex is considered sinful) as interested in protecting “traditional” marriage.
The church earned the enmity of many gay rights advocates for its campaign in favor of Proposition 8 in California, outlawing same-sex marriage. (Romney, once known as an advocate of gay rights in Massachusetts, opposes same-sex marriage.)
Mormons tend to be less conservative on immigration than evangelicals, a position some attribute to the fact that so many of its young people serve abroad as missionaries. (On this, though, Romney tends to be more conservative than his co-religionists. During the Republican primaries, he took a hard line on immigration reform and said he believed in policies that would prompt illegal immigrants to “self-deport.”)
There are, of course, Mormon liberals. The most famous is Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is held up as the prime example of how the church doesn’t try to impose its political will on Mormon politicians.
But Reid is the exception. Romney is closer to the majority, which is one reason he will get overwhelming support from Mormons in November. Liz Anderson, the woman who sought help from her bishop, said political conservatism goes with the territory.
“It just goes back to the values of the church and what we’re taught and what we believe,” she said.