If you’ve been paying attention even the slightest, you probably know that Mitt Romney is Mormon. On the other hand, you’d be hard pressed to remember if you had heard him talk about it much, if at all, even if you were a close watcher of the GOP race for the nomination.
Why is that?
In 1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon competed for the White House. In something of a “flash of lightning which illuminated, but only momentarily, a darkened landscape,” as Robert Putnam says his book “American Grace,” we caught a look at how Americans view religion, especially as it relates to who we select for our President.
In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to reassure Protestants that they could safely vote for a Catholic. (At the time 30 percent of Americans freely told pollsters that they would not vote for a Catholic as president.) At the same time, Kennedy won overwhelming support from his fellow Catholics, even though he explicitly disagreed with his church on a number of public issues. In 2004, America had another Catholic presidential candidate—also a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, also a highly decorated veteran, and also with the initials JFK. Like Kennedy, John (Forbes) Kerry also publicly disagreed with his church on at least one prominent issue—in this case, abortion. But unlike Kennedy, Kerry split the Catholic vote with his Republican opponent, and lost handily among Catholics who frequently attend church. Kennedy would likely have found it inexplicable that Kerry not only lost to a Protestant, but in George W. Bush, an evangelical Protestant at that. Writing about the religious tensions manifested in the 1960 campaign, political scientist Philip Converse described the election as a “flash of lightning which illuminated, but only momentarily, a darkened landscape.” Kerry’s candidacy was another flash of lightning, but the landscape it revealed had changed significantly. In 1960, religion’s role in politics was mostly a matter of something akin to tribal loyalty—Catholics and Protestants each supported their own. In order to win, Kennedy had to shatter the stained glass ceiling that had kept Catholics out of national elective office in a Protestant-majority nation. By the 2000s, how religious a person is had become more important as a political dividing line than which denomination he or she belonged to. Church-attending evangelicals and Catholics (and other religious groups too) have found common political cause. Voters who are not religious have also found common cause with one another, but on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Something, says Putnam, has changed (and he’s devoted 688 pages and one of the most thorough sociological studies in decades to understanding it).
But has it changed enough for Romney? By all accounts, including his own, Romney has been a faithful Mormon (more correctly, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but, since that’s a mouthful, a Mormon) his entire life, serving as a member of its lay clergy (almost every active member participates in some way), as a proselytizing missionary in his late teens and early twenties to France on his own dime (also pretty typical for about 50 to 60 thousand Mormon young men and women in any given year), paying ten percent of his income to the LDS church as “tithing,” and continuing to be an active member to this day. Further, he doesn’t drink coffee or tea, swears infrequently enough that just the rumor of his dropping the f-bomb during the Winter Olympics in 2002 received media attention, and has raised, with his wife Ann, five boys, far above the national average family size, but not atypical for Mormons.
Yet, you won’t hear him mention that it is his LDS faith that has informed these decisions and driven many of his life choices. Where Kennedy chose to make a major speech to calm Protestant fears of a Catholic presidency, Romney has this campaign stayed largely away from the topic, as least directly.
Not that it doesn’t come up. Quite the contrary.
Yesterday, when confronted with a passage in the Book of Mormon (which the LDS faith holds as scripture alongside the Bible), he declined to discuss his faith, at least not directly.
“I’m sorry, we’re just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view, but if you have a question I’ll be happy to answer your question,” Romney said Monday.
That wasn’t enough for the Washington Post, though. Why wouldn’t Romney discuss the doctrine? It’s not really relevant, seemed to be the response, but then Romney plowed ahead with something that can only be compared to the golden rule.
“Most Americans, by the way, are carrying a burden of some kind. We don’t see it. We see someone on the street, they smile and say hello, but behind them they’re carrying kind of a bag of rocks,” Romney said. “I want to help people. I want to lighten that burden.”
If Protestants afraid of what a Mormon presidency means, perhaps little encapsulates Romney’s philosophy better than this summation of the golden rule. One might just as easily ask “Who is my neighbor?” The response would be the same.
Ironically, this isn’t how the headlines formed. Instead of “Romney touts the Golden Rule” or “Romney wants to lighten burdens,” we hear “Romney visits Howard, faces tough question on Mormon faith” or “Romney pressed on Mormonism, race at Wisconsin campaign event.”
If we’re seeing another bolt of lightning illuminating a darkened landscape, we might not be pleased with what it shows. Rather than revealing a candidate who is, very sincerely, devoted to a faith that professes to follow Jesus Christ, we see a media that is fixated with the critical and controversial. If voters in 1960 were concerned about the election of a Catholic to lead a predominantly Protestant country, 2012’s media predicts voters who are concerned about a Mormon candidate to lead a nation that is predominantly…what?
That’s the something that has changed. While Romney advisers were, as has been reported, more afraid of Protestants in Iowa than of a surging Rick Santorum, perhaps the fear now is of the non-religious more than Protestants. As Putnam seems to argue, political lines in America are less and less drawn along the tribal lines of religious affiliation, and more often by the concomitant beliefs that the religious of all Christian faiths have in common: chastity before marriage, the traditional family, choice of media, and so on. (See Putnam’s book for more on this).
Romney is, by all accounts, very much on the religious side of that line. It is not Protestants that the media turns against him, but those who lack faith or don’t practice. When, and if, Romney is elected this fall, the battle will not come down to whether America is ready for a Mormon President, but rather if America still wants a President who is religious.
- Mormon America: A Political Profile (pjmedia.com)
- Romney fields hostile question on Mormonism (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- You: Romney’s political success is a mixed blessing for Mormon Church (latimes.com)