MITT ROMNEY’S Mormonism threatens his presidential candidacy in the same way that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism did when he ran for president in 1960. Overt and covert references to Romney’s religion -- subtle whispering as well as unabashed inquiries about the controversial sect he belongs to -- plague his campaign. None of his responses so far have silenced the skeptics.
Recent polls indicate that from 25% to 35% of registered voters have said they would not consider voting for a Mormon for president, and conventional wisdom from the pundits suggests that Romney’s biggest hurdle is his faith. Everyone seems eager to make his Mormonism an issue, from blue state secularists to red state evangelicals who view the religion as a non-Christian cult.
All of which raises the question: Are we religious bigots if we refuse to vote for a believing Mormon? Or is it perfectly sensible and responsible to be suspicious of a candidate whose creed seems outside the mainstream or tinged with fanaticism?
Ironically, Romney is the only candidate in the race (from either party) who has expressed discomfort with the idea of religion infecting the national dialogue. While his GOP rivals have been pandering to the evangelical arm of the party, Romney actually committed himself (during the first Republican debate) to the inviolable separation of church and state.
To understand Romney and the unique political obstacle his religion imposes, and to determine if the Mormon vision for America has relevance in a 21st century presidential campaign, one must explore the fundamentals of the religion -- both where it’s been and where it is today. The Mormon Church -- officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- is perceived as a fringe religion by many Americans, yet it is perhaps the most homegrown of American faiths. Founded in 1830 in upstate New York by a charismatic farm boy named Joseph Smith Jr. -- the sect’s “prophet, seer and revelator” -- the religion was not Judaic, Christian or even monotheistic, at least not in any traditional sense.
Smith claimed to have received divine revelations from an angel named Moroni, who visited him and directed him to restore God’s true religion on Earth -- to gather the lost tribes of Israel and establish the new Zion in North America. His proposed theocracy of evangelical socialism -- a precursor to Marxian communism -- offered a seductive utopia in a moment of theological and political schism.
But from the beginning, Smith and his “Latter-day Saints” drew hostility from the outside world. Controversial, communal, secretive and acquisitive, its doctrines thick with unorthodox practices -- including polygamy, blood atonement, secret sacraments and consecration of property -- the church routinely met with antagonism and even violence. Like other new religions of the day, it had its share of fanaticism and, along with other millennialist movements, it inspired a holy war passion in many of its adherents.
There exists a popular misconception that Romney is the first Mormon to run for president. In fact, he is the fifth. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), former Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) and Romney’s father, former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney, also sought the job.
In fact, in 1844, Smith announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, advocating theocratic rule for the entire nation. Challenging the Whig and Democratic parties, he advocated what he called a “theo-democracy where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteous matters.”
Smith was commander in chief of an “army of God,” composed of well-trained and armed church members, that was nearly one-quarter the size of the U.S. Army. He also was secretly married to nearly 50 women (a condition that would certainly be a serious impediment to a candidate running today). He prophesied the overthrow of the U.S. government.
But Smith’s candidacy came to an end that summer when he was shot to death in Illinois by an anti-Mormon vigilante mob. “I am going like a lamb to slaughter.... My blood shall cry from the ground for vengeance,” he said before his death.
Brigham Young ascended as president of the church, moved his flock to a new Zion in Utah and built what continues to be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. Today, the church claims about 13 million members.
It is this history, if only amorphously grasped, combined with a recent onslaught of bad publicity for the church that fosters uneasiness. In what the Boston Herald recently called “the most damning mass-media portrayal of Mormons yet,” the movie “September Dawn” will open in theaters in a few weeks. The film is a fictionalized depiction of the Mountain Meadows Massacre -- the slaughter on Sept. 11, 1857, by Mormon militia of about 140 men, women and children traveling to California. Their gold-laden wagon train was attacked by Mormons as it crossed Utah, and its riches were plundered. All above the age of 8 -- the age of innocence in the Mormon faith -- were murdered. The film claims that Young ordered the massacre -- a position vehemently denied by church officials.
There also have been two recent books on the massacre (I wrote one of them) and a popular HBO series about contemporary Mormon polygamy called “Big Love.” Sure to add to the bad-publicity blitz is the upcoming trial of alleged serial polygamist (and Mormon) Warren Jeffs.
Still, is it fair or legitimate to hold Mitt Romney accountable for dark deeds committed many years ago by the church to which he belongs? If we start down that road, where does it lead? Shall we, for instance, burden Bill Richardson with the Inquisition because he is a member of the Catholic Church?
It’s not a church’s eccentric past that makes a candidate’s religion relevant today, but its contemporary doctrines. (And it’s worth noting that polygamy and blood atonement, among other practices, are no longer condoned by the official Mormon church hierarchy.)
By most accounts, Romney is hoping that all of this will go away. History suggests, however, that it might or it might not -- depending on how Romney deals with it. Two stark examples exist, with opposite results. In 1856, John C. Fremont was a progressive Republican dark horse who rose suddenly and shockingly within reach of the presidency. And then he was “exposed” as a Catholic, which signaled the death knell to his campaign.
Though he had been a lifelong Episcopalian, he refused to refute the allegation. He reasoned that the U.S. was founded on religious tolerance, that a man’s religion was between him and his God, and he refused to make a public statement on the matter. He lost the election.
A century later, Kennedy faced a similar dilemma but chose to address it head-on in a famous September 1960 address. The real issues in the election, the Catholic candidate told a group of Protestant ministers, were not religious ones -- “for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier.”
He then reaffirmed his allegiance to the separation of church and state. “I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me.” Kennedy won, becoming the nation’s first Catholic president.
In the end, it seems less a candidate’s religion that concerns Americans and more an apprehension of fundamentalist fanaticism and a fear that the separation of church and state is becoming murky. As for Romney and Mormonism, there seems only one legitimate and relevant question: Do you, like the prophet you follow, believe in a theocratic nation state? All the rest is pyrotechnics.
Romney spoke out on these issues briefly during the first debate, but some hope he will now follow through and make the point more loudly and more broadly.
In an ironic twist, Romney unsuccessfully challenged JFK’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, in 1994. In the campaign, the senator raised the issue of Romney’s Mormonism, to which Romney responded that he was not running as a “spokesman for my church.” Grasping the significance and historic weight of the remark, Kennedy backed down.
When asked recently if Romney’s religion would be a factor in the 2008 election, Kennedy was quick to respond. “That died with my brother, Jack.”