The shared experience of Mormons and Jews as religious minorities in America has led to some surprising affinities
On Wednesday morning, Mitt Romney received a giddy reception at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C. The audience was clapping before he even set foot on stage, and the applause only got louder as his speech went on. Denouncing President Obama's Middle East policy as "appeasement," he pledged to make Israel his first port of call should he win the 2012 election. "I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel's existence as a Jewish state," he said. "I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable."
It's inevitable that Romney's foreign policy views should win him some fans among Jewish Republicans, but he also draws a surprising level support among Jewish voters in general when compared to his Republican competitors. The socially conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would seem likely to be as alienating to Jews -- one of America's most liberal demographics -- as the evangelical Christianity of a Michele Bachmann. But September's annual American Jewish Committee poll of political attitudes found otherwise. If Romney were nominated by the GOP, he'd attract 32 percent of Jewish voters to Obama's 50 percent, it found. That figure doesn't sound big, but it's larger than Rick Perry's 25 percent or Bachmann's 19 percent (the survey did not ask about Newt Gingrich). It's also way ahead of the votes drawn by John McCain in 2008 -- 21 percent. Were it replicated on election day, 2012, it would be the most impressive showing by a GOP candidate in 24 years.
Of course, Obama's slide in the polls and Romney's moderate politics and comparative popularity among all voters might explain those numbers. But it's also possible that -- consciously or subconsciously -- Jewish voters feel more of a kinship with a man whose ethnic and religious experience in American has a surprising number of parallels their own.
In April 2011, Romney's wife told a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition that she felt at home with the group because, "Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage." Certainly, Romney's biography touches upon classic Jewish themes of cultural "separateness". As journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells observes of Romney's early career as a management consultant at Bain Capital: "Romney wasn't a Wasp. He never really talked to his co-workers about his Mormonism, but he sometimes joked with Jewish colleagues about how their religions made them all outsiders." The former Massachusetts governor has even picked up some lingo from members of the tribe, as Jews sometimes refer to themselves. In a speech at Yeshiva University in April 2007, Romney said will to succeed at Bain despite his outsider status was pure "chutzpah."
The faith that Romney grew up in has many fundamental differences from Judaism, to say the least. The LDS Church is more authoritarian; its members emphasize conformity, submission, evangelism, and religious hierarchy. In contrast, the Jewish rabbinical tradition favors debate and rejects efforts to convert others. Unlike Mormons, Jews also don't ask for secrecy to their rituals and don't attempt to bar nonbelievers from their places of worship (even if they don't exactly welcome them, either).
But there are intriguing similarities. Both groups theologically define themselves as "chosen" by God to fulfill certain prophesies. Mormons believe that they are descended through biblical Israel (usually through the tribe of Ephraim), making the Jews their "cousins". Like their "cousins," they refer to outsiders as "gentiles." Both cultures value education, oppose marriage outside the community, have strict dietary rules, and place an emphasis upon observing the Sabbath. They even share a sartorial tie: the devout in both faiths wear special undergarments.
But the most crucial similarity is the two communities' historical story of suffering. In the 19th century, the Mormons were chased across the U.S. by Protestant mobs and even subject to an "extermination order" in Missouri. The Church's founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by vigilantes in 1844. From 1857-1858, the U.S. Army actually occupied Utah. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, is reported to have told future LDS President Ezra Taft Benson, "There are no people in the world who understand Jews like the Mormons do."