Mitt Romney is finally going to Washington.
And Romney is going there on a mission: to bring “Utah’s values” to the nation’s capital, he explained in a video last Friday kicking off his campaign to replace the retiring Orrin Hatch in the U.S. Senate.
A Senate campaign launched from Utah is neither the starting point, nor the D.C. destination that Romney had long envisioned. A decade ago, the former governor of Massachusetts had hoped to make a trek to the White House south from Boston, where he built his sizable fortune and national profile.
But as Romney, the most famous Mormon in the world, might say, Heavenly Father had other plans. In the sleekly-produced video he released on Friday—filled with sweeping scenes of Utah’s rugged landscape—Romney defined the “Utah values” that he believes Washington lacks: balanced budgets and global entrepreneurism, personal responsibility, civility, and openness to (legal) immigrants.
When Utah politicians speak of “Utah values,” they mean Mormon values. Romney’s Mormon faith was certainly a liability during his two presidential campaigns. Now, as President Trump co-opts traditional conservatives and evangelicals, even some non-Mormons are hopeful that Romney’s abiding faith—with its principles of religious tolerance and reverence for the Constitution—will serve as a check on Trump and a bulwark to shore up democratic principles.
For Romney, though, the Senate mission is personal. Service is a key component of Mormon missionary culture. And political service is a trait Romney inherited from both his father, George, who ran for president, and his mother, Lenore, who ran for the Senate. As the most prominent Mormon politician of his generation, Romney is running, in part, to safeguard his own legacy. That requires saving his church and his party—the two institutions Romney has dedicated his life to—from the dangers of Trumpism.
“Romney is fundamentally a Republican Party guy, a true believer in its principles, which he also truly believes are the best principles by which to govern the country,” said Russell Arben Fox, a Mormon and political science professor at Friends University. Other Mormon politicians have been cowed by Trump’s combative style and popularity with the Republican base. Romney assumes that with his reputation and talents he’ll be able swoop into Utah—as he did in 2002 with the Salt Lake Olympics—and save the Republican Party from a total-Trump takeover.
Before Trump, Mormon values also meant Republican values. As a presidential candidate, Romney seemed to embody both, calling for robust international engagement, a hard line on Russia, conservative political and personal comportment, broad deregulation of industry, and empathy and identification with the religiously marginalized and immigrants. Both strains of thought traced their roots to the exceptionalism of the American Constitution. When he said in 2012 that the Constitution was “either inspired by God or written by brilliant people, or perhaps a combination of both,” Romney was echoing Mormon teaching. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has a deep and doctrinal devotion to the U.S. Constitution, which it considers to be divinely inspired.
The first rumors of a possible “Senator Romney,” which began to swirl in April 2017, brought new life to the long-whispered “White Horse Prophecy” that combines this messianic constitutionalism with Mormon politics. Depending on whom you ask, the White Horse Prophecy holds either that Mormons will one day save the American constitutional system in its darkest hour, or that Mormons will overthrow American democracy to create a latter-day theocracy. The prophecy is attributed to Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr. In 1843, Smith purportedly told his followers that on the day when “the Constitution of the United States is almost destroyed… hang[ing] like a thread,” out of the “Rocky Mountains” the “great and mighty” Mormon people will, like the “White Horse” of the Book of Revelation, rush east to save the Constitution.
While the White Horse Prophecy itself is almost certainly apocryphal, Mormon leaders in the nineteenth century consistently taught, as Joseph Smith’s successor Brigham Young did in 1868, “if the Constitution of the United States is to be saved at all it must be done by this [Mormon] people.” Likewise, in the twentieth century, LDS Church leaders as well as Mormon politicians continued to invoke the spirit of the prophecy, if not the prophecy itself. During his own presidential run, in 1967, George Romney explained that what Smith, Young, and other early LDS Church leaders meant in their prophecies about the Mormons’ special role in American political history: “Sometime the question of whether we are going to proceed on the basis of the Constitution would arise and at this point government leaders who were Mormons would be involved in answering that question.” Forty years later, as Mitt Romney positioned himself for a White House bid in 2007, he denied that the prophecy had anything to do with his own political aspirations or religious beliefs.
Romney’s forceful denunciation came in response to the virulent anti-Mormonism that helped derail his first presidential bid. After all, the negative attention Romney’s campaign generated for the church, the LDS Church officially repudiated the prophecy in 2010. Mormon scholars downplay the prophecy as “no more than a fun bit of Mormon folklore,” as political scientist Russell Arben Fox put it to me. But like all folklore it reveals something about the culture from which it emerges. And for that reason, “the prophecy has long functioned as a kind of metaphor,” Fox said, “helping to organize Mormon aspirations and ambitions for political service.”
The metaphor has taken on a new meaning in the Trump era. In the summer of 2016, Fox posted a tongue-in-cheek open letter to the “Mormon Voters of the American West” on the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent. Fox called on Mormon voters in Utah and Arizona to become the “White Horse we’ve been waiting for” by rejecting Trump. In October 2017, in a letter in the White Mountain Independent, the Navajo County Chair of the Democratic Party Eric Kramer wrote that Arizona Senator Jeff Flake had “unsaddled his mount” by not seeking reelection as a forceful voice against Trumpism. Others see a more literal opportunity to fulfill the prophecy. If the House were to impeach the president, then Romney could be in a position to marshal Republican opposition during a trial against him, including, hypothetically, a crucial bloc of Mormon senators.
In the meantime, though, Romney has a more urgent mission. Much to the chagrin of leaders like Flake and Romney, a recent Gallup survey indicated that Mormons currently support Trump at higher rates than any other religious group in the country. Sixty-one percent of Mormons now approve of Trump’s job performance. That’s up considerably from the 45 percent Trump won in Utah in 2016—thanks in large part to the third-party candidacy of Never Trumper Evan McMullin. Mormon support for Trump may be soft and malleable, as Justin Dyer, a political scientist from Brigham Young University, recently wrote, and it may have more to do with Mormons’ loyalty to the GOP brand and its politics than it does with affinity for Trump.
But those numbers also point to a softening in Trump’s favor, too, one that follows the lead of some prominent Mormon leaders. Like other elected Republicans, Mormon officials have largely caved after some initial opposition to Trump, including former Never Trump Mormons like John Curtis, who replaced Jason Chaffetz in the House, as well as the man Romney seeks to replace in the Senate, Orrin Hatch. Hatch, who backed Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio during the 2016 primary, predicted in December that the Trump presidency will become “the greatest we have seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.”
Romney, who once referred to the future president as “a phony, a fraud,” and said “his promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” has been quieter in the run-up to his Senate campaign. In his kick-off video on Friday, Romney never mentioned Trump by name. The most direct jab at Trumpism, which doubled as a reference to Mormonism, was Romney’s declaration, “Utah welcomes legal immigrants from around the world [while] Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion.” Since Romney’s campaign launch, McKay Coppins and other Romney watchers have reported that, at least as a candidate, Romney plans to avoid direct confrontations with Trump. Trump seems to be trying to mend fences too. After he failed to convince Hatch to stay in the Senate, the president offered Romney a Twitter endorsement on Monday night, saying he “will make a great Senator and worthy successor.” Romney thanked him for the support.
Romney’s anti-Trumpism may be dormant, but it isn’t dead. The fact that Romney is at once America’s most famous Never Trumper, the world’s most recognizable Mormon, and the face of the pre-Trump GOP, has won him support across the political spectrum in Utah. “The number of Mormons in Utah who have celebrated Mitt Romney’s criticism of President Trump in the past, and who have publicly taken similar stands themselves, seems to suggest that they will welcome that kind of independence from Romney,” said J.B. Haws, a history professor at Brigham Young University. According to Haws, Romney and other Mormons find in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, as well as semi-canonical proclamations from church authorities clearly-explicated reverence for the Constitution and for ideals that stress that “good government hinges on people’s choices, on the involvement of honest-hearted people.”
To Romney, his mere presence in the Senate—more than any policy issue—will set an example for what Mormon politics, and the Republican Party, could and should be in the era after Trump. Perhaps, as Romney’s own father suggested in 1967 and others have echoed since, the saving of the republic comes not from some dramatic act but the steady commitment of those committed to protecting American democracy. “I have faith that the Constitution will be saved as prophesied by Joseph Smith,” said then-church president Ezra Taft Benson in 1987. “It will be saved by the righteous citizens of this nation who love and cherish freedom. It will be saved by enlightened members of this Church—among others—men and women who understand and abide the principles of the Constitution.”
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus