Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has repurposed an argument recently made by Greg Prince, who, like Reid, is a Mormon: Mitt Romney's dismissive comments about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax do not adequately represent the spirit of a faith "whose official mantra is 'to take care of the poor and needy throughout the world.' "
Prince - a family friend of mine - mostly wanted to tell non-Mormons that not all Mormons sound like Romney. ("Judge Mitt Romney as you will, and vote for or against him as you will," he wrote in the Huffington Post.) Reid, however, was making a political point, saying that Mormons who live in swing-state Nevada should "understand that Romney is not the face of Mormonism" and is, rather, hiding from their mutual faith.
Prince and Reid expose a fascinating tension in modern Mormon culture. Utah is perhaps America's reddest state; more than 60 percent of the vote went to John McCain in 2008. Yet Mormons are extremely communitarian. The church operates an impressive welfare program. Everyone in a Mormon congregation has a role, or "calling," which often includes seeing to less fortunate members. All are also expected to pay 10 percent of their income in tithing, which helps finance the church's charitable operations.
At the first national meeting of the LDS Democrats Caucus last month, many Obama-backing Mormons argued that the church's veneration of charity encouraged them to support goals such as universal health care. Reid is perhaps the most prominent representative of that "face" of Mormonism.
But reverence for charity and good works does not necessitate a belief in a robust welfare state. One can regard charity as a mainly private virtue, best left to those voluntary organizations that see to the particular needs of their communities without encouraging "dependence" on government. If this is Romney's position, it's not necessarily at odds with the church's teachings.
Even if Romney's words on the 47 percent didn't cohere with his faith, his real problem is not that he has violated specifically Mormon values or, as Reid's comments seemed to suggest, that he deserves special disapproval from Mormon voters in Nevada. When Romney pulls President Obama's quotes out of context and makes them predicates for his campaign, that's dishonest. Evading questions about how he would alter the tax code and calling it leadership isn't necessarily lying, but it's not truthful, either. Beyond his 47 percent remarks, Romney has violated universal values, which should concern Mormons and non-Mormons alike.