Because members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints view their church president as a prophet of God — a modern Moses, if you will — some political observers fear that if active Mormon and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is elected president he will really be taking his orders from Salt Lake City. The New Republic has even argued that "under a President Romney, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would truly be in charge of the country."
This mistrust is as unfounded as the long-ago fears that John F. Kennedy would be a mere puppet for the pope, whom Catholics view as the literal successor of St. Peter. In reality, a Romney presidency would not even be as pro-Mormon as other administrations have been.
Because of the heightened scrutiny on the religion issue, Romney would instead have to go to great lengths to appear above any favoritism toward the Latter-day Saints. And yet a number of previous White House administrations have been able to be supportive of the Mormons without fear of political fallout.
Theodore Roosevelt publicly supported the controversial seating of U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot, a member of the LDS Church's high ranking Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Roosevelt also wrote a vigorous defense of the persecuted Mormons in Collier's magazine. You won't see Romney advocating for an LDS apostle to become a U.S. senator.
Dwight Eisenhower appointed another Mormon apostle, future church President Ezra Taft Benson, to serve as his secretary of agriculture. Benson would be the only member of Ike's Cabinet to serve all eight years. Richard Nixon had two Mormon high priests in his Cabinet: David Kennedy (secretary of the treasury) and Mitt's father, George Romney (secretary of housing and urban development).
The current political climate would never allow Mitt Romney to appoint an LDS apostle to his Cabinet. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. knows that there won't be room for many Mormons in a Romney Cabinet, and some speculate that is partially why he has cast his endorsement toward John McCain.
Other presidents provided help or honors for the Mormons that a President Romney could never get away with. James K. Polk formed a 500-member Mormon Battalion during the Mexican War, thereby enriching the Saints with government dollars. Millard Fillmore appointed LDS President Brigham Young as Utah's territorial governor. Herbert Hoover allowed a Mormon apostle to spend a two-week honeymoon in the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson formed such a good friendship with Mormon President David O. McKay that he once had Air Force One spontaneously land when flying over Salt Lake City just to drop in for a visit. Imagine the outrage if Romney did such a thing!
Gerald Ford had the LDS Church's president and his counselors as his guests in the president's box for the national bicentennial gala at the Kennedy Center. Jimmy Carter had the centerpiece of his National Family Week celebration be his address in the Tabernacle on Temple Square at Mormon headquarters. Ronald Reagan surrounded himself with numerous Latter-day Saints in his administration and dropped his plans for storing MX missiles in the Great Basin once LDS officials opposed it.
As for President Bush, he not only honored LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and awarded the Mormon Tabernacle Choir the National Medal of Arts, but he also appointed a Mormon as secretary of health and human Services, Mike Leavitt.
If Romney is successful in his bid for the White House, the fact that he doesn't take orders from Salt Lake City won't be what is remarkable. What will be ironic to the student of history is that the Romney administration was not as pro-LDS as plenty of other White House predecessors.
Michael K. Winder is the author of "Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America's Presidents and the LDS Church."