Jewish Journal


December 7, 2007

Waiting for Joseph Smith


Manya Brachear, who was a Gralla Fellows with me, goes a bit deeper than just wondering whether Mitt Romney’s speech yesterday will quell fears about his faith. (For evangelicals, the LA Times reports nothing will.) On her excellent religion blog, The Seeker, Brachear writes about a glaring omission in Romney’s name dropping.

Abraham Lincoln, Brigham Young, John Adams and, of course, John F. Kennedy. But there was one name he did not invoke.

Where was Joseph Smith?

Just as John F. Kennedy was not the first Roman Catholic to run for the White House, Romney is not the first Mormon to do so. Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. announced his candidacy in January 1844. As mayor of the Nauvoo City Council, Smith ran on a platform of the gradual abolition of slavery, a reduction in the size of Congress, a national bank, territorial expansion that included the annexation of Texas and Oregon and radical prison reform that would have converted all prison sentences into community service.

He also championed a “theodemocracy,” a form of government that would guarantee Americans the freedom to attach themselves to whatever moral community they desired. Each community and its religious institutions would work toward developing a public and private morality while government would work to protect their liberties.

That ideal might have inspired a candidate more than 150 years later.

“Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree,” Romney said Thursday. “There are some who would have a presidential candidates describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become a spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of people of all faiths.”

But how would we know whether Smith inspired Romney? The Mormon prophet was never mentioned in Romney’s speech. The omission of that legacy is a shame, said Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon. But it’s also understandable.

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