Mitt Romney continues to warm evangelical voters to the idea of a Mormon President, as evidenced by his well-received commencement speech Saturday at Liberty University. But the presumptive GOP nominee has yet to robustly address a key issue of shared passion for evangelicals and Mormons alike: the promotion of international religious freedom.
At Liberty Romney touched on domestic religious freedom concerns, as he has several times during the campaign in response to the Obama administration's new birth control insurance mandate. "It strikes me as odd," Romney told Liberty graduates, "that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with."
Briefly alluding to the grim realities of persecution overseas, Romney reminded his audience that, "Religious freedom opens a door for Americans that is closed to too many others around the world."
At this point in his remarks Romney could have articulated a commitment to helping push that door open beyond America's shores. After all, those "too many others" include the majority of humanity. Under some authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea's, that door is completely and brutally closed. In dozens of countries with weak rule of law, the door opens and closes at the whims of local officials. And in many countries, particularly in the broader Middle East, governments may leave the door at least ajar, but extremist groups and pervasive intolerance effectively block the door to minority faith communities.
Romney comes from one of those minority communities and thus has unique credibility on questions of conscience. Mormonism emerged amidst severe social hostility and still faces more than its fair share of it around the world. The movement's founder was martyred by an angry mob in 1844, and his flock fled to the Utah wilderness after being expelled from several states.
In its 2009 International Religious Freedom Report the U.S. State Department acknowledged that while Americans are rightly proud of their heritage of liberty, past mistreatment of Mormons and other minorities reminds us that "our society has long struggled to accommodate its religious diversity."
That Mormonism now thrives in America's diverse religious landscape is a great testament to the durability of both the American experiment and the Mormon community. However, adherents outside the United States face government restrictions and societal derision in several nations. Mormons may find their beliefs publically denounced, their missionary activity banned, and their religion placed on official lists of "dangerous cults"—forms of abuse suffered alongside many evangelical and Pentecostal groups.
Not surprisingly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the main Mormon denomination, is at the forefront of combating persecution worldwide. LDS leaders regularly lobby foreign governments and multilateral organizations to enshrine policies to protect genuine pluralism. During my years of service in the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom I worked alongside several excellent Mormon colleagues and met frequently with Mormon representatives from around the world. I'm not a Mormon, but I admired these LDS members' zeal for advancing the rights of all faiths as an expression of their faith.
Such an expression is a distinctive feature of Mormonism. Whereas historic Christianity arrives at an understanding of religious freedom by natural law reasoning or by theological extrapolation from the Bible, Mormonism has explicit affirmations of this fundamental right in its very scriptures. That's one benefit of founding a religion in 19th century America. Section 134 of the Doctrines and Covenants states,