Romney and the Mormon Journey

The Mormon Question
Kelly Baker

If one were to believe CNN or Newsweek, the 2008 election could be an interesting one to watch in the realm of religion because it seems that both news outlets are convinced that religion will be the prime issue in the presidential campaign. In late July of this year, CNN noted “Religion has not played so prominent a role in a U.S. national election since 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected president.” 2008 appears to be the year to watch because the candidates are under scrutiny about their professed religious beliefs. Of course, there is also much hype about the “evangelical vote” and whether the Democrats can prove their faith and win the faithful’s votes. In a Newsweek article last week, entitled “The Miracle Workers,” Eve Conant pondered whether the Democratic National Committee has much chance to to win over prominent evangelicals and their flocks. Conant writes:

For the Democrats, it's a change in tactics as well—an audacious, if not quixotic, effort to win over a constituency that has been solidly Republican for a quarter century. Dean and other Democratic strategists hope to take advantage of deepening discontent with the GOP among some evangelicals. As a movement, conservative Christians have yet to get fired up about any of the leading Republican presidential candidates.

What has proved more intriguing to me in this question of religion and faith is the concern over Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. The question that pundits seem to recycle over and over is whether Romney’s religious faith will prove to be a stumbling block to the White House. According to CNN, “The younger Romney repeatedly is called on to defend his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its teachings, encountering skepticism particularly from Christian conservatives, a key component of the GOP base.” Can a Mormon be elected to the presidency is a question that much resembles the concerns surrounding JFK’s Catholicism in 1960. Does religious commitment of a candidate impact voters? Or are many voters, myself included, tiring of the religion-speak by various folks running for office? In "Mitt's Mission", Jonathan Darman and Lisa Miller explore Romney’s Mormon roots and his commitment to his faith, but they see the problem less as his faith and more about his reticence to dwell on his religious commitment. They write:

Nothing is more politically vexing or personally crucial for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney than the story of his faith. Raised in a devout Mormon family by parents who were both principled and powerful, Romney has downplayed both his religion and his own family history. Instead, he has talked up his résumé as a private-sector "turnaround artist" who reversed the fortunes of troubled companies and the faltering Salt Lake City Olympics and now can come to his party's—and country's—rescue….But when he's pressed on the particulars of his own religious practice, his answers grow terse and he is quick to repeat that his values are rooted in "the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Darman and Miller note that this hesitancy comes from the ambivalence that voters might have about the Church of Latter Day Saints. They continue that Romney’s candidacy brings curiosity about Mormonism, which might or might not be beneficial for the candidate, and not surprisingly, polygamy is mentioned in their article. I wonder if this is beginning of a “Mormon problem” (for lack of better phrasing) for Romney. Can he convince voters that his religious tradition is not as exotic as they think it is? Should he de-emphasize his religious heritage for political gain? Would voters elect a Mormon for president? In a Newsweek poll, only 45% of Iowa Republicans affirmed that America is ready for a Mormon in the oval office. What is more interesting is that according to the aforementioned article, Romney actually is leading the polls in this state.

Ideally, I should hope that religious affiliation of a candidate is not a barrier, but I am not enough of a Pollyanna to believe it either. It strikes me that there is too much obsession with Mormon polygamists in popular culture (Big Love) and in the legal system (the trial of Warren Jeffs) for Romney to avoid the questions about his religious heritage. (The church ended polygamy in 1890, but Mormons and polygamy remain wedded together in the American imagination.) For Darman and Miller, Romney’s success depends upon his embrace of Mormonism to present a convincing and sincere narrative that voters can latch onto. I wonder if this affirmation will elicit responses similar to those of my students who struggle to understand what they consider an exotic form of Christianity or those who dismiss the tradition altogether despite my efforts.


Tim Lacy said…
To me, it seems that comfort with the religion of another, or the "other" if you will, is only gained by dialogue. The question for the evaluator is whether there is enough common ground to feel connected.

So unless Mr. Romney embraces his past and its commonality with "the average American," then he will continue to be an outsider. He will have put himself in that category not because of his Mormonism, but because of his own lack of understanding about his past's relevance to the present. This is part of what one's understanding of the history of (your own) religion entails. - TL
John Turner said…
I have also been very intrigued by the discussion of Romney's candidacy. My own sense is that were Romney a more powerful candidate in other respects (i.e., if he didn't have to defend his past positions on social issues and he could win his home state), Republicans would rally around him and defend him from religious bigotry. But because Romney has other problems, the party faithful haven't embraced him and haven't enabled him to surmount the Mormon issue.

That's not to say that "gentiles" are fully comfortable with Mormonism, but I still have a hunch it isn't Romney's biggest hurdle.

Curiously, Democrats apparently have no problem with Harry Reid's status as a "faithful Mormon." Also curiously, Reid just got a warm reception at BYU for a speech in which he criticized the church's past.
Stan said…
to John Turner: I attended Harry Reid's speech at BYU and don't recall any criticism of the LDS Church's past. I'm curious to know what you percieved as critical, or what you had heard about it.
Christopher said…
John and Stan,

In Senator's Reid's address to the student body at BYU, he didn't criticize the Church's past at all. The text of that speech can be found here.

The criticism of past Church leaders came in a press conference afterwards. For those remarks, he hasn't received a very warm reception from the majority of the LDS community in Utah. Perhaps more significant to the readers of this blog is Reid's condemnation of the Christian Right. He labeled them "the most anti-Christian people I can imagine."
Curt said…
I am a history teacher who has lived in both the Deep South and Utah. Romney has an incredibly complex problem: If he "embraces his Mormonism" from the stump, he undoubtedly will alienate the evangelical right who see his religion as a cult; if, however, he "distances himself from his Mormonism" from the stump, he is blasted as a typical, hypocritical politician who won't stand up for his true beliefs - and still will be blasted by the evangelical right as an example of those deceitful Mormons who will do anything to gain power for the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City.

Among the evangelical community at large, he's damned (literally) if he does and damned (literally) is he does not. They literally believe that his Mormonism will land him in Hell. His only chance is if more and more evangelical leaders continue to support him - and the average, voting evangelicals who accuse Mormons of being mindless cultists vote in a mindless mass for him as the least of the available evils.

That's the true irony of this campaign - that a church open enough to produce Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney is seen as a brain-washing cult by a group who vote as a bloc in lock-step with their leaders more than any other segment of American society.