By Dan Gilgoff
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Almost 40 years ago, a 21-year-old Mitt Romney watched as his father's presidential campaign stumbled to a halt. George Romney's 1968 bid for the White House failed for several reasons -- his notorious remark that U.S. generals had brainwashed him into supporting the Vietnam War, the surprise entry into the race of fellow liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller, Richard M. Nixon's establishment appeal. But his Mormonism wasn't among them.
"I don't recall ever having been asked about his beliefs or about the Mormon church," says Charles Harmon, the elder Romney's press secretary at the time. Walter DeVries, Romney's chief strategist during the race, never considered his boss's religion a political liability. "I just don't remember it coming up," he notes.
George Romney's candidacy did spark some news stories about the refusal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to allow blacks to join the priesthood, a policy that was reversed in 1978. But his strong civil rights record as governor of Michigan inoculated him against charges of racism, and reporters otherwise paid virtually no attention to his religion.
So how, four decades later, has Mormonism become a major factor, and perhaps the defining challenge, in Mitt Romney's race for the White House? Is it possible that the country has grown less tolerant? When it comes to putting a Mormon in the White House, the answer may be yes. In February, a Gallup poll showed that more than a third of Americans would not vote for a Mormon or had reservations about doing so.
"George Romney ran in the shadow of the Kennedy election in 1960, when the country decided religion didn't matter," says Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon scholar and professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. "Now it seems like we are working through all the issues that troubled Kennedy, but in a Mormon mode."
The controversy surrounding his religion recently provoked the typically unflappable Romney to snap. "I'm not running as a Mormon," he retorted to a radio interviewer in Iowa last month, "and I get a little tired of coming on a show like yours and having it all about Mormons."
Much of the intolerance toward his church arises from the politicization of evangelical Protestants. Before the appearance of groups such as the Moral Majority, which didn't get off the ground until a decade after George Romney's run, Southern evangelicals were politically uninvolved or tacitly Democratic. But the rise of the Christian right turned them into a key segment of the GOP's base -- a shift that suddenly made the personal beliefs of would-be Republican presidents very relevant. "Does anyone care about Harry Reid's Mormonism?" asks Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, referring to the Democratic Senate majority leader. "No, because he's not in the party where everyone goes out of their way to prove their piety."
For Romney, the unlucky coincidence is that as evangelicals have grown more political and more Republican, many have also become increasingly suspicious of his church. With the worldwide Mormon population exploding from 3 million in 1971 to nearly 13 million today, many evangelicals see the LDS church not just as a cult but also as a competitor in winning converts.
Non-evangelicals have taken notice, too. Some recent negative publicity surrounding Mormons, including Jon Krakauer's best-selling 2003 book "Under the Banner of Heaven" (about a murder in a fundamentalist Mormon family) as well as crackdowns on fringe polygamist communities in Utah and Arizona, did little to help the Mormon image. And this summer saw the release of "September Dawn," a movie billed as the true story of a Mormon-led massacre of more than 120 California-bound pioneers in 1857. Press materials note that the slaughter happened on Sept. 11 of that year and that it marked "the first known act of religious terrorism on U.S. soil."
All of which helps explain why the February Gallup poll shows that Americans are less likely to support a Mormon for president than they were in the late 1960s -- even though they are now much more likely to vote for a female, black or Jewish candidate.
But Romney's Mormon woes also stem from the secular liberalism that took root in the 1960s. The left-leaning New Republic questioned the fitness of a Mormon to serve as president in a cover story last January. Another Gallup survey found that liberals represent the ideological group most wary of Mormonism, with 61 percent holding an unfavorable view of the faith. "The difference between a Southern Baptist and a Mormon might be academic for a typical secularist," says John C. Green of the University of Akron in Ohio. "Both groups would be seen as supporting a social agenda that the secular population doesn't care for."
The fact that voters on both the left and the right now seriously consider a presidential candidate's faith isn't necessarily a bad thing. The particulars of a president's religious beliefs and habits could affect his or her actions in critical ways. "It was totally proper to ask what role Orthodox Judaism would play if Joe Lieberman became vice president and there was a nuclear attack on Shabbos," Wolfe says. "There's nothing anti-Semitic about that."
So far, however, the opposition to Romney seems inspired not by fear about how his faith would influence his actions -- unlike the Roman Catholic Church and most evangelical denominations, the Mormon church doesn't expect Mormon elected officials to do its bidding -- but by the mere fact that he's a Mormon. A Gallup poll last winter showed that 46 percent of Americans have a generally unfavorable view of Mormonism.
Much of that sentiment undoubtedly springs from a "kookiness factor" based on misperception, such as the idea that mainstream Mormons still practice polygamy. (The HBO series "Big Love" notwithstanding, the church outlawed the practice more than 110 years ago.) Americans may also look doubtfully on the belief that Joseph Smith Jr. translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates he uncovered in New York state in 1827. But that's hardly enough to justify not voting for Romney. "The fact is that it's no more difficult to believe that Joseph Smith found those golden plates than to believe that Jesus was resurrected," says Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism. "It's just that Jesus was resurrected 2,000 years ago and Smith found those golden plates 200 years ago."
Like his father, Mitt Romney may never make it to the White House. But if his faith is what holds him back, then a nation founded on religious tolerance will have proved itself less accepting than it was four decades ago -- when a Mormon lost for reasons relating entirely to this world, not the next.
Dan Gilgoff is political editor at Beliefnet.com
and the author of "The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War."