But what Romney doesn’t say is that, for followers of his made-in-America religion, Mormonism, exceptionalism isn’t political metaphor. It’s theology.
The faith’s sacred text, the Book of Mormon, describes the United States as “a land of promise . . . a land which is choice above all other lands.” It describes Jesus coming down from heaven, to America, and teaching to people there. Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder and prophet, quotes God as saying that he established the U.S. Constitution. Mormons’ Garden of Eden is in Missouri. Their version of the hajj begins in Upstate New York and ends in Illinois.
Other post-Reagan candidates may passionately preach beliefs like Romney’s, but he’s the only one who can say American exceptionalism is his religion.
Except he doesn’t.
Romney, a former bishop and devout Mormon, speaks only subtly about his faith — perhaps to protect his privacy, perhaps to protect his political standing in an era in which many Americans are wary of and ignorant about Mormonism. In his faith, the United States is the land God picked to restore Christianity. But Romney doesn’t say what that religious exceptionalism means to him.
Mormon experts who closely follow Romney can’t name a time he has commented on how this motif in his faith has shaped his political views. His book doesn’t address it, and his campaign spokeswoman didn’t return requests for comment.
Romney has been general about where his faith meets that of others. On Saturday at Liberty University, the country’s largest evangelical university, he told graduates: “We can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
Romney’s reticence on the subject of God and country makes him a typical Mormon. Persecuted by the government in the 1800s, Mormons grew wary of how to merge their faith with their love for the land it blesses.
At the height of tensions over polygamy, when Congress effectively outlawed it in the 1800s, Mormons went to the Supreme Court to argue that the practice was protected under the First Amendment. If polygamy were forbidden, they said, the nation would be abandoning God and his desire for religious freedom. Once Mormon leaders decided to officially give up polygamy in 1890 so Utah could become a state, Mormons slipped surprisingly easily into patriotism, largely because they have a scriptural infrastructure to support it. Leaders gave exceptionalism a face-lift; in the early 1900s, Smith’s nephew Joseph F. Smith promoted the purchase of pieces of American real estate mentioned in Mormon history to create the popular pilgrimage-like trip, now called the Church History Tour.