'Ask Mormon Girl' Discusses Mitt Romney's Candidacy

Guy Raz speaks with political commentator and blogger Joanna Brooks, who writes about politics and Mormonism for the "Ask Mormon Girl" blog. They talk about GOP presidential candidate hopeful Mitt Romney. They discuss how Romney's Mormon faith has shaped his views — and why his religious background may make people uncomfortable.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

With four weeks until the Iowa caucuses, we're that much closer to the possibility of a Republican presidential nominee who's also a Mormon and a former leader in the church, Mitt Romney.

We're joined now by Joanna Brooks, who writes about Mormonism and her own experience in the church, both for Religion Dispatches and her own blog. It's called "Ask Mormon Girl."

Joanna, welcome to the program.

JOANNA BROOKS: Guy, thank you for having me.

RAZ: So this election has been, you know, dubbed the Mormon moment, right? You've got - Mitt Romney is obviously very viable. Jon Huntsman, not so much, but he's also, you know, a Mormon. Both of these guys are very visible. Would you say there's something to that idea that this is a Mormon moment in politics?

BROOKS: Well, it's certainly a moment when Americans are coming to grips with how little they know about Mormonism. The best data we have tells us - from the Pew Center - that about 50 percent of Americans say they know little or nothing about Mormonism. So, a lot of the questions people have tend to be fed by sort of sensational coverage or misunderstanding.

RAZ: If Mitt Romney does become the Republican nominee, I mean it's only fair to ask questions about his backgrounds, his faith. He's not just a Mormon. I mean, he was a very important figure in the Mormon Church in New England, right?

BROOKS: Well, the church has an entirely lay clergy. And Mitt Romney served as a congregational leader known as a bishop. There are 30,000 Mormon congregations worldwide, 30,000 bishops. It is fair to ask questions about the culture of leadership Mitt Romney was raised in and that he assumed as a young man in Mormonism, both in terms of the networks of power he's associated with and the way he was raised as a Mormon to think about what it means to be a leader.

RAZ: How do you think it will be reflected in his handling of the office?

BROOKS: Well, I think we see it already in his - I'm not the first to observe his stiffness in terms of interactions with the public. Given that Mormon congregations don't openly dispute with their leaders, they are not used to, perhaps, candid feedback. So that lack of an ability to do a give-and-take with the press or the public is something we've already seen impact Mitt Romney's candidacy. And I think it may have been something he picked up in Mormon leadership culture.

RAZ: Presumably, there has to be a great deal of pride as well. I mean, Mitt Romney, if he is the nominee, will have broken some new ground. I mean, this has got to be something that many Mormons are all so excited about.

BROOKS: Yes, people are rooting for Mitt Romney. But at the same time, there is a white-knuckling as, you know, sticky issues from the Mormon past are brought into public examination.

RAZ: Sticky issues like what?

BROOKS: Certainly, the historical practice of polygamy and its continuation in Mormon theology. Race is a sticky issue in Mormonism. Americans who know something about Mormonism are broadly aware that the church did not admit men of African descent to its lay priesthood from the late 1840s through 1978. The church has never been entirely forthcoming about the reasons behind the ban. Maybe many members aren't even sure for themselves.

Gender roles within the church, the church's involvement in anti-same-sex marriage politics has been an issue of controversy as of late. Again, that's something that will need to be addressed during the Romney presidential campaign.

RAZ: Let's say Governor Romney becomes the nominee and wins, becomes the president of the United States. What, then, with the discussion about Mormonism? Does it continue? Does it end? Does it get worse, better?

BROOKS: The White House coffeemaker won't get much use with President Romney in the White House. There might be a Book of Mormon in addition to a Bible on the bedside table. You know, they'd see an LDS president attend church in his local congregation, celebrate Christmas in the White House.

I think that having a Mormon as president would put in public light Mormon day-to-day life, and Americans would discover how very normal most Mormons are.

RAZ: Joanna Brooks, thanks.

BROOKS: You're welcome.

RAZ: Joanna Brooks writes about Mormonism for Religion Dispatches and the "Ask Mormon Girl" blog. She joined us from San Diego.

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