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Visions of Zion: Changes in Mormon social ethics

In February Mitt Romney made two of his more memorable campaign trail gaffes, both regarding wealth. Speaking to CNN about the economy after his important win in the Florida primary, Romney said he was “not concerned about the very poor.” In context, Romney was actually expressing concern about the economic prospects of middle-class Americans “who right now are really struggling”; in the same breath, he admitted being not overly worried about the “very rich,” who are “doing just fine.” But the damage was done. The image of Romney as an out-of-touch multimillionaire was only reinforced later that month when he told a group in Detroit that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”

Other reports have examined Romney’s tenure as a Mormon bishop, the leading ecclesiastical office in a local congregation, or ward. Except at the very highest echelons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon or LDS Church) is administered by lay volunteers, who add labor for the church to their ordinary responsibilities of work and family and service in the community. Romney served as a bishop and then stake president in the Boston area while working full-time at Bain Capital and helping to raise his family. Numerous stories from this period reveal him as a compassionate leader who gave considerable time and attention to the poor and downtrodden, who was frequently one of the first on the scene when tragedy struck, and who often donated his own money to families in need.

Romney’s Mormonism often grabs headlines, but it is a mistake to look for distinctively Mormon sources of every aspect of Romney’s personality or politics. His open and deep commitment to the LDS Church should be counted as only one of many formative influences. Yet the intense spotlight shining on Romney invariably raises questions about his faith. For instance, what has Romney learned about social issues from his lifelong affiliation with the LDS Church? Setting Romney’s personal convictions aside, what is the Mormon social ethic, if there is one? Is Mormonism concerned about social issues or is it oriented primarily toward the preaching of the gospel and the salvation of souls?