Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been attacking fellow Mormon Mitt Romney for months on multiple political fronts, most especially regarding his taxes. Reid insinuated repeatedly that Romney had failed to release more than a smattering of his income tax returns because Romney was trying to hide the fact that he had not paid income taxes at all--a revelation that would be particularly embarrassing given Romney's videotaped remarks condemning "the 47 percent" of Americans he claimed paid no income taxes and felt they were entitled to housing and health care.
On Friday, Romney finally released more tax returns. They're bad but not damning: through the last few years Romney has paid 13 or 14 percent of his income in taxes. That demonstrates clearly how the tax laws in this country are skewed to favor the rich (more egregiously in some states than in others), and it also raises questions about how Romney might have shielded his Cayman Islands account and how much household help he's hired to run grand homes in three states. But it didn't show anything illegal.
Today, Reid turned to a different criticism: that Romney is "not the face of Mormonism."
Reid, a Mormon Democrat from Nevada, blasted Romney in a conference call for reporters over a litany of things the Republican nominee has said recently. And Reid added that Latter-day Saints aren’t buying Romney’s rhetoric.
"He’s coming to a state where there are a lot of members of the LDS Church," Reid said in advance of Romney’s Friday visit to Nevada. "They understand that he is not the face of Mormonism."
I think that what Reid may have been driving at was the gist of Greg Prince's excellent Huffington Post piece from last week. Greg wrote that for him, Romney's 47 percent comment was the last straw: although he had supported Romney's gubernatorial campaign and his 2008 bid for the presidency, he could do so no longer. For Greg, Mormonism is not about throwing the poor under the bus.
I completely agree with this. "The very basis of Mormon community, stretching back to the earliest years of Mormonism nearly two centuries ago, is that the more able have a sacred obligation to assist the less able," Greg writes, pointing to the Church Welfare System as an example of Mormonism in practice. I'd also add, as this passionate Patheos blog post did last week, that the Book of Mormon is unequivocal in its insistence that a society succeeds or fails on the basis of how it treats the poor -- and that our very salvation is related to how well we heed that call.
But there is not just one face to Mormonism. I fear that Mitt Romney represents another side, one that has always celebrated wealth and success, often in ways that make me uneasy. Right now I'm reading John Turner's new biography of Brigham Young (which is outstanding so far, BTW, but that's a topic for another day), and it's clear from late-nineteenth-century Mormonism that our communitarian impulses to help the poor and share the load have often been counterbalanced by an acquisitiveness that has perennially equated financial prosperity with spiritual blessing.
In other words, as much as I'd sometimes like to reject the notion that Mitt Romney speaks for my religion, I have to acknowledge that he represents one face of it. It's not a face I'm particularly proud of, but it is still a Mormon face.
Let's remember, when we're calling each other to repentance, that there are many, many Mormon faces. If anything good comes from this year's bitter electioneering, it might just be that such notions of a Mormon monolith disappear forever.