Worldly ambition was not always the Mormon norm. Before sending Miles Romney (Mitt's great-grandfather) to help colonize southern Utah (and then Arizona) in the 1870s, Brigham Young asked him whether he wanted to go to heaven. When Romney said yes, Young instructed him to join the “United Order of Enoch,” a socialist society premised on the godly city of Enoch in the Book of Mormon. Romney was forced to sell valuable property in Salt Lake before embarking on his “mission.” Members of the United Order—including all the early Arizona colonists—worked for one another rather than for gain. They gave up private property to the collective.
As Romney added wives and children to his retinue, however, he sought desperately to provide for them. In his eventful and adventurous life, he married five women who bore 30 children.
Jesse Smith, one of Romney’s fellow leaders in the colonization of Arizona, had told Mormon pioneers that “the kingdom cannot be established on the credit system.” By the 1880s, those same pioneers—including Miles Romney—had abandoned the United Order. For a time, they stood between economic worlds; they were both capitalist and socialist, both individualistic and corporate. They sought profit in dealings with “gentiles” (non-Mormons), but among themselves they continued to engage in barter and sharing. In the twentieth century, they took another leap. They began to celebrate worldly success. They became, in short, like Mitt Romney.
Those who made money, Mormons came to believe, were those who lived their faith. Mormonism became “the Protestant ethic on steroids,” according to a Mormon economist. After Congress dissolved the LDS church as a corporation in 1887, church leaders worked ever more closely with leaders in business. Without any seminary to train and ordain its ministry, the church called on entrepreneurs and professionals to become bishops. Bishops, in turn, filled higher ranks. Leaders in the private sphere became inseparable from those in the public. Following their lead, the church renounced socialism (even as relief societies remained active in helping less fortunate Saints).
That shift led Mormons into the Republican Party. In the 1830s and 1840s, most Mormons were Democrats. Some Mormons flirted with socialism. As church leadership and business leadership became entwined, however, Mormons moved en masse to the right.
Not only did wealthy Mormons gain public respect, they also made the church richer by paying their 10 percent tithing. Tithing enabled Mormons to send missionaries throughout the world. In the millennium, Mormons might be socialists, but in this world, ambition was key.
Voters may not know quite what to think. They may be mystified by Romney’s many transformations. What Romney offers is the contradictions of Mormon history.