Among the revelations stemming from Willard Mitt Romney’s tax returns – now being combed with the exigetical intensity usually given to sacred texts – are his contributions to homophobia. Most directly, his family foundation gave $35,000 to two “pro-family,” anti-gay groups. For Mitt, of course, that’s nothing. But he also tithes — gives at least 1/10 of his income to his institutional religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; in the last two years, that amounted to more than $4 million. The Mormons, in turn, are big funders of the homophobes. Mike Signorile says, “The church itself gave over $180,000 to help pass Prop 8 [the 2008 anti-same-sex-marriage referendum in California]. The church was fined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for not reporting its numerous financial contributions to the cause.” The Mormons also have a network of small, strange NGOS, circling around a few post office boxes in Arizona, that carry on similar struggles at the United Nations.
It seems to me this opposition has a large component of sour grapes. Deep in the Church festers a feeling of: If we didn’t get to redefine marriage, why should you?
The LDS, after all, held sacrosanct for years the practice of polygamy or plural marriage, as in Big Love, the better to multiply their congregants. A Supreme Court ruling conclusively banned it in 1879, and eleven years later God spoke to the head of the Church and told him, be fruitful but only with one woman per, until further notice. But a certain resentment remains, a feeling that others should not get away with matrimonial overflow – whether beyond the bounds of number or of gender — denied to the chosen. I say this based not just on intuition but on some conversations with very right-wing Saints over the years. Most notably, around a decade back I spoke at a conference on religion at Cornell. Upstate New York (where Joseph Smith found the golden plates and the magic spectacles, and founded the glorious religion) still has warrens of underground Mormons, some of them dissident, clinging to the old-time faith, living in secrecy somewhat like monsters in an H.P. Lovecraft story. Several were in the audience. They seemed to blink unfamiliarly at the light. They were all men, all compact as Toby mugs, with those patriarchal beards that omit mustaches and make the wearer look like his own ancestor, or C. Everett Koop. (Later, when I met Salafists in Egypt, I recognized the style.)
After my address, we got into a discussion about the concept I’d introduced: sexual rights. Almost shyly, they asked how a right to sexual autonomy would affect the number of people one married. I said, very carefully, that one could in theory construct a human rights argument for legal recognition of polygamous relationships – as long as gender equality was respected. They perked up visibly, like portraits coming to life. The reservation about gender seemed to them a potentially endurable concession, something you could put in the law as long as you didn’t tell the women. The women wouldn’t learn to read, anyway! I felt that if we had a few more hours, we might almost have arrived at some historic compact, like Mussolini’s concordat with the Vatican: a polygamous-promiscuous alliance to sweep the nation simultaneously forward to the Age of Aquarius, and back to the Age of Abraham. I wonder if we could revive the prospect someday. Divided, we are weak; but together, we can rule the world.
Mitt, notoriously mercurial about everything, used to be a bit nicer to the gays. His opponents this year brought up a bright pink flyer his campaign distributed during his 2002 run for Massachusetts governor, with he and his running mate saying “All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual preference.” Mitt now says he never saw it before. Probably this is that pink slip he was always worried about getting.
Mitt’s devotion to one-man one-woman marriage is perhaps made more interesting by the fact that Mitt’s own family comes from the Mormon colonies founded in Mexico by plural marriers fleeing persecution in the United States. His father, George Romney, was born there, in 1916, just before the colonies broke up because of the Mexican revolution and the exiles returned to the U.S. (George ran for president in 1968. Spawned on foreign soil, he would, oddly enough, have been disqualified under the standards birthers try to use against that Kenyan interloper, Barack Obama. Mitt’s son Tagg, who lately voiced his affinity with the birthers, might want to check his family history.)
On a very cursory search, I don’t see any evidence that Mitt’s own ancestors practiced plural marriage; there seem to be few enough of them to suggest that monogamy straitjacketed their sperm into limited outlets. But certainly they must have been ideologically, or theologically, in favor; that was the main motive for the exodus to the Sierra Madre. It would be intriguing to confront Mitt with this genealogy sometime, particularly if Rick Santorum were in the room to contribute his own questions. They have coyotes in Mexico, Mitt; did your granddaddy marry any dogs down there? It could make an interesting discussion.
The reason I got to thinking about these things was because for weeks I’ve kept seeing Mitt Romney described, in news articles, as a “WASP” and an “aristocrat.” And he’s not.
It’s a terrible, amnesiac misrepresentation. He cannot be called a WASP; Mormons are not, in the normal sense, Protestants, which is what the P stands for. They occupy their own distinct niche within (or maybe a little bit without) Christianity. Meanwhile, his clan were aristocrats, in a sense, but Mormon aristocrats: dignitaries within a community that had long been a tribe wholly unto itself. Until his father’s generation, they had nothing to do with the seats of American power. The sachems of the Protestant ascendancy, with their rites of the Episcopal Church and the Porcellian Club, their temple complexes at Exeter and Andover, Harvard and Yale, their human sacrifices at the debutante ball, inhabited a completely different world. The Mormons were beneath their notice, hardly better than far-off Aztecs when viewed from New York or from the heights of Beacon Hill.
In America, for a very long time, the Latter-Day Saints remained morally and sociologically isolated. It took the Mormon church decades to shed the disreputability that polygamy had smeared across it. In the first decade of the 20th century, the US Senate required three years of hearings before seating an electee from Utah (the later-famous Reed Smoot), because his detractors claimed his status as a Mormon Apostle disqualified him. (It was of Smoot and his battle against immoral literature that Ogden Nash wrote the immortal lines:
Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a war on smut …
Senator Smoot is an institute
Not to be bribed with pelf.
He guards our homes from erotic tomes
By reading them all himself.
Read more here.)
By the time the church had won a partial respectability, the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s made it a pariah in a new sense. The Latter-Day Saints still understood the deity to say that blacks were a separate and inferior creation to whites; the rest of the United States heard the Lord, or at least the law, differently. Only in 1978, when God changed his mind, did the ideological barriers separating the Church from broader American society fully relax. For those of us in the advocacy business, it would be interesting to know what kind of lobbying persuaded God.
George Romney was a figure who bridged both worlds, the insular one of his tribe and the wider one of public power. He was a thoroughly self-made man – he never went to college, and worked his way up to head of the American Motor Corporation, which as they said at the time was fourth among the Big Three car companies. He then ran for governor of Michigan, and won. Despite the Church’s residual prejudices, he fought racism vigorously in public life and supported the civil rights movement honorably. At the same time, he was a grandee of the Church, in every way a pattern of dignity and rectitude. (His uncle, also a Mexican colonist, had been the first president of what’s now Brigham Young University.) But with all that, you wouldn’t quite call him part of the American elite. The deliquescent ease with which his presidential candidacy dissolved in 1968 (his support melted away like Utah snow when he said he’d been “brainwashed” over Vietnam) indicated that the truly powerful felt no special closeness to him. He ended his career as Nixon’s secretary of urban development which in that administration was like a chauffeur pensioned off to polish hubcaps when he can no longer drive.
If you want to know what an American patrician looks like, cast an eye instead on George H. W. Bush: Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, son of a senator and grandson of an arms salesman. How different from the Romneys! He was Gumby-postured and slouchy; he spoke like Bertie Wooster; he wore unpressed suits in the style of 1955, and he got blind drunk every day by 3 PM. (So it was rumored in Washington. He was careful to start press conferences and wars before noon.) He didn’t have to prove anything to any higher class, because there was no higher class. He could just be who he was, although what that was in a deeper-than-sartorial sense he was never sure. (Unfortunately, as a politician he was forced to pander to the lower classes, which caused him no end of trouble, as he proved terrible at it. His apparently smug son George W. was actually much more insecure, probably accentuated by his eschewal of hooch, which served him well – he empathized with the jitters of the unwashed Yahoos, and could talk their language.)
Mitt Romney is nothing like that. Just watch. He’s stiff. He’s uncertain. He combs his hair too closely and his suits seem to have been dipped in Superglue. He moves like someone who just got his body for Christmas, but lost the instruction manual. Persuaded to wear unfamiliar jeans on the campaign trail in order to “humanize” himself, he keeps glancing down uneasily as if he’s really naked and they just haven’t told him yet. His robotic demeanor has nothing to do with the hauteur of “aristocracy.” Iit’s the checked hyper-caution of someone watching his own every move and trying to be what he’s not. He’s impersonating a member of an elite that hasn’t let him in. As a devout Mormon leader he’s obliged to wear special underwear, certifying he and his genitalia are secretly sacred to the Lord. These antiquated garments keep showing in the imagination, faint creases through his shellacked clothes, and they seem like the most natural part of him. The rest is all costume, and it’s not cut to his size.
Mitt Romney’s father George remained in and of the West, as Nick Carraway would say in Gatsby – in that abode of American individualism very different from the class-bound, class-defined East Coast. He knew his limits and by and large he stuck to them. (Michigan, for Carraway, would have been amply West enough.) Mitt sought out the East; he came to Harvard; he stayed in Boston; and it’s fairly obvious this exotic Mormon with his strange skivvies never quite fit in. He still doesn’t fit in. He’s comfortable in a simple corporate world where status comes from money — but not in the world of class, that other ghost-world that persists and underlies it, made out of memories, of phrases registered and gestures half-remembered, where people are judged by a numinous quality of accommodating, of knowing how things are done or are undone, of understanding how life is woven out of signs and one must signal back to be a part of it. In his hardened carapace of fake skin, he sees the seamless world of the social but it can’t reach him. He’s lost and no longer at ease there, not recognizing the looks on people’s faces, smiling when he ought to sigh.
Poor Mitt. He’s a prisoner of the persistence of class in American life. It’s the thing nobody talks about but everybody has to understand.
Maybe the real insecurity of his church is actually similar — I mean, the reason they spend so much money to “defend marriage”: they know the memory that shadows them in American society, the mark of their exclusion from the class system, is that they were off the map on marriage before, and now they must be plus royaliste que le roi. Still, it’s Mitt who’s suffering right now from the paradox of class. His inability to comprehend it is destroying the political career he spent his adulthood trying to buy.
It’s sad he keeps getting confused with an “aristocrat”: that only makes things worse. Maybe he’d be happier off in the simpler past, in that long-lost Mexico colony where each hut had bedrooms for eight wives, in the vanished century and the arid hills. Somebody should ask him. Rick Santorum?