John G. Turner teaches religious studies at George Mason University, is the author of "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” recently published by Harvard University Press, and a contributor to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network.
On the one hand, Mitt Romney has further kindled American interest in its most famous homegrown religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) has not been in the crosshairs of this much sustained media interest for at least 100 years. At the same time, Mormonism has yet to emerge as a live political issue during the 2012 campaign.
This is not because all Americans are comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president. Ten percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats tell pollsters that they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.
Moreover, the Republican figure is misleading, as Romney’s faith almost certainly contributed to his very tepid support from evangelical Protestants during the campaign. Evangelicals, who spent most of 2011 searching for a candidate with a faith akin to their own, have now set aside their political objections to Romney’s church. The larger number of Democrats who express discomfort with Mormonism probably had no intention of voting for any Republican.
Thus, while journalists, pundits, and scholars have chattered and written at great length about Mormoniosm, the religious issue has lain dormant throughout this political season. In fact, 40 percent of Americans do not even know that the GOP candidate is a Mormon.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was much more front and center as a political issue. Protestants of many theological stripes openly expressed concern that Kennedy’s religious allegiance would trump his loyalty to the nation. Evangelicals such as Billy Graham and Bill Bright feared that the pope would gain a “hotline to the White House,” and even more liberal Protestants felt Kennedy might breach the separation between church and state. After the Kennedy campaign responded with charges of religious bigotry and its own clarion call for church-state separation, most Protestant leaders muted their objectionsin public.
Why are Americans so much less worried about Romney’s Mormonism? Romney, by nearly any measuring stick, is much more devout as a Latter-day Saint than John F. Kennedy was as a Christian. Moreover, both Catholics and Mormons were religious outsiders in nineteenth-century America. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were significant political movements, and both Catholics and Mormons suffered at the hands of violent mobs.
Anti-Catholicism remained significant through the 19th century, but it peaked during the pre-Civil War years. Mormonism, by contrast, continued to grow as an object of political concern through the 1880s. Mormons, unlike Catholics, occupied and controlled a huge chunk of real estate, nearly fought a war against the U.S. Army in 1857, and openly practiced polygamy until 1890.
Despite this shared history, there are obvious reasons why Kennedy’s faith was a much bigger concern in 1960. Catholics comprised around a quarter of the American population in 1960, as opposed to the nearly 2 percent of Americans who affiliate with the LDS Church today. Only the truly paranoid can foresee a Mormon takeover beyond the horizon of a Romney victory. Kennedy’s campaign and victory, moreover, smoothed the way for future religious outsiders like both George Romney (who ran in the 1968 Republican primaries) and his son Mitt.
Were the political landscape different, the White House might well use Romney’s faith against him. For instance, if Romney had any chance of winning an appreciable amount of African American votes, it would be rather easy to ask why he did not publicly oppose the church’s pre-1978 denial of priesthood ordination to men of African descent. If the votes of conservative evangelicals were up for grabs, Democrats might point to ways in which Mormonism departs from Protestant understandings of Jesus or the Trinity. Those voting blocs are not in play, however, and there is little for Democrats to gain by impugning or lampooning Romney’s religion.
Romney himself has done more to neutralize the issue of Mormonism than anyone else. Why would Democrats talk about golden plates when they can about tax returns? Why bring up the Word of Wisdom when Wall Street makes for an easier target? No need to create fears of theocracy when Americans are already worried about a plutocracy.
Religious bigotry has by no means vanished in the United States. A Muslim would probably face insurmountable odds in a quest for national political office, for instance, and theological conservatives of any faith can now expect a certain amount of hostility and skepticism from the media. Should he lose, however, Mitt Romney’s religion will not be the reason for his defeat. And with the LDS Church itself having received intense scrutiny during two consecutive presidential election cycles, it is difficult to imagine that future Mormon candidates will face religious tests in their quest for national office.