The Mouth on the Face of Mormonism?

The U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), like the Republican candidate for president, Governor Mitt Romney, is a Mormon.  Romney is scheduled to speak in Reid’s home state later this week. In anticipation of the governor’s visit, Senator Reid claimed in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article that many Nevada residents are Mormons and that “they understand that he [Governor Romney] is not the face of Mormonism.” Reid also said that he agreed with the judgment of another Mormon that Romney had “sullied” the reputation of the LDS Church because of the governor’s recent comments about the “47 percent.”

I am, of course, not a Mormon. But I did grow up in Nevada, and I know something about Senator Reid and how my own admiration for him has waned over the years. 

In 1970, when I was nine years old, I appeared in a political ad with Mike O’Callaghan, a prolife Democrat, who was running for governor of Nevada. On the same ticket, running for lieutenant governor, was a 30-year-old Harry Reid, a former student of O’Callaghan’s when he was a teacher at Basic High School in Henderson.  O’Callaghan and Reid won, and took office in 1971.  (O’Callaghan, a devout Catholic, died in 2004 as a result of a heart attack he suffered while attending 6:45 am mass at St. Viator Catholic Church, where my parents are also parishioners.)

The author, center, in a 1970 ad for Mike O’Callaghan

In the early 1980s, after Reid had spent several years as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, my parents hired Reid as their attorney after a Chicago company had broken a contract with them.  Reid represented them well.  Moreover, because many of us associated the much-beloved O’Callaghan with Reid, who like the late governor was a prolife Democrat, I voted for Reid when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1986 against Democrat-turned-Republican Congressman Jim Santini. 

In the early 1990s, when I expressed to some Republican friends my admiration and respect for Reid, they told me that I was naïve. They said he was a ruthless politician. I didn’t believe them, since it was contrary to my own experience. But that began to change.

In the mid-1990s, I served as a Senior Fellow with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.  NPRI hosted a television show that was broadcasted in Reno. Because of an advertising arrangement with Reno Air, I was able to fly free of charge from my home in southern California to Reno to appear on the program. That arrangement didn’t last long.

NPRI also broadcast a one-minute commentary over Nevada radio stations several times a week. One of the commentaries (which, coincidentally, I wrote), entitled “Nevada Economics,” strongly criticized Senator Reid’s bad reasoning on economic matters in an interview that had been published days earlier in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  

Within days of the broadcast, NPRI received word from Reno Air that the arrangement was over. The airline had been told in no uncertain terms by someone representing Reid that its sponsorship of the NPRI program comes with a “price.” (Or, as Tony Soprano might put it, “It would be a real shame if something happened to that nice little profitable airline of yours.”)

           When Harry Reid does not speak for Mormonism, especially about Mitt Romney

In 2004, a well known Nevadan, my high school classmate, was thinking about challenging Senator Reid, who was up for reelection that year. Soon after word of my friend’s deliberations leaked out, he received a phone call from a local advertising executive, who had been involved with some of Reid’s prior campaigns. The executive told him that if he ran against Reid that some private facts about his family would become public knowledge. This so emotionally disturbed my friend that he nearly passed out, ran to the toilet, and vomited uncontrollably for several minutes.  

Within the past couple of months, Senator Reid claimed that someone who had worked for Bain Capital, the company started by Governor Romney, told Reid that the governor had not paid any income taxes for ten years. Now that Romney has released those tax returns, showing that he had indeed paid taxes (as well as made generous charitable contributions), we now know that Senator Reid made a claim about a fellow Mormon that either he did not know was true or he knew was false. In any case, that makes Reid either morally negligent or a liar. Consequently, I am confident that Nevada Mormons understand that when Harry Reid moves his mouth the face of Mormonism is not speaking.  

Unfortunately, as I have come to learn over the years, this type of activity on the part of Reid and his lieutenants is more common than I could have ever imagined.  What started as a real admiration for a man who had been the student, friend, and political compatriot of one of my heroes, Mike O’Callaghan, has been transformed into sad disappointment.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).