April 23, 2014

Romney’s Mormonism or Romney’s Religiousness?

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.

[Simon and Schuster] [Washington Post] [New York Times] [Green Bay Press Gazette] [The Hill]

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Pew Polls Mormons About Being Mormon.

With the contest for the GOP Presidential nomination leaving the more tolerant American northeast (New Hampshire) and heading back into evangelical territory with the South Carolina Primary, Mitt Romney’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint  faith (aka “Mormonism” or the “Mormons“) is back in the news.  The Pew Research Center, in anticipation, has released a new poll on Mormons.

…or rather, a poll of Mormons themselves.  Essentially, it’s an outside look at how Mormons see themselves.

I know. Interesting, right? Who doesn’t love a good case of ompholaskepsis? I mean, besides the Kardashian sisters and the Jersey Shore crew? (Yes, I did just manage to get a ten-dollar word in the same line as a reference to the Kardashians and Snooki. There must be some kind of blogger bingo reward for that).

Tell us more about that poll…

According to Washington Post, it is “[t]he first major independent poll of U.S. Mormons” and it “describes a conservative, devout community highly concerned about being accepted even as it embraces beliefs about gender roles, premarital sex and religious commitment that are well outside the mainstream.”  Auspicious, eh? There’s a reason Mormons often find comfort in the biblical description of God’s people as “peculiar” relative to those around them.

“This sample looks like very busy, hyperactive Mormons,” said Marie Cornwall, a Mormon sociologist at Brigham Young University, to the Washington Post. “Who are these people? Many of us are really surprised at how religious this group is.”

Specifically,

  • “Seventy-four percent of Mormons say they lean Republican, compared with 45 percent of Americans overall.” (Shocker…)
  • As it regards the presidential contest, “Romney has overwhelming support among Mormons: 86 percent view him favorably. Even Mormon Democrats view him as favorably as do Republicans overall.” That doesn’t apply to just Romney. Less ardent in his LDS faith, but a Mormon none-the-less, Jon Huntsman gets favorable views from half of Mormons. Not surprisingly, President Obama only gets a nod from 25%, which matches up well with previous bullet point.
  • Seventy-nine percent said sex between unmarried adults is wrong, compared with 35 percent of the general population. Others have pointed to this high level of pre-marriage chastity as a reason for Mormons’ lower than average levels of divorce. Which leads to the next observation:
  • Two-thirds of Mormons are married compared to just over half of all Americans, and eighty-one percent of all members say being a good parent is one of the most important life goals. Only half of Americans in general say the same. Almost three-quarters of Mormons put the same high priority on marriage, compared to one-third of the general public.”
  • How do Mormons feel about perceptions of their faith? 97% see themselves as Christian, but “the fact that many Americans — one-third, polls show — don’t see them as Christians is one of their primary concerns.” Ironically, “white evangelicals, with whom Mormons share many attributes, are the group least likely to see Mormons as Christians.”  Could that be a result of competitive envy?

Looking at the specific findings, LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson notes that Mormon’s embrace a distinctiveness, as in “peculiarity,” that they cherish and that is not unlike the “committed evangelicals or [...] our Catholic brothers and sisters who show special devotion to their own understanding of the Christian faith.”

Wait! There’s more!

English: Governor Mitt Romney of MA

The poll isn’t the only place where the Mormons are making headlines. Today has seen a small burst of LDS centered news.

[Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life] [Washington Post] [Old Testament] [Salt Lake Tribune] [Fox News] [LA Times] [Chicago Tribune]

Nationwide Poll: Most know that Mormons are Christians, but especially Republicans.

Most people consider Mormons–members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints– Christians, says a new nationwide poll by the Salt Lake Tribune. That’s interesting, and it’s also probably good news to Mitt Romney, whose biggest liability is not the health care reforms he signed as Governor of Massachusetts, but his religion.

What’s more interesting, at least to me, is who questions Mormons’ Christianity. It’s not those “crazy” conservatives; rather, it may be Democrats and Independents.

Check out the screen shot of the Salt Lake Tribune’s poll below:

At #1, the red circle, you see the percentage in the poll that consider Mormons to be Christians (which, by the way, they are). It’s just over half at 52%.

However, when that percentage is broken down into smaller segments, controlling for political affiliation, it becomes clear that the lack of acceptance is stronger on the political left.

Go to #2, the blue circles. Whereas almost 63% of Republicans believe Mormons are Christians, that percentage drops 14% among Democrats. It drops even further to 44% with independents, or people claiming no political affiliation.

What’s the upshot? The difference may not matter. Democrats and Independents don’t care about religion or belief in God as much as Republicans do.

“Clearly, religion is much more important to Republicans,” said Brad Coker, of Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the Dec. 12-16 survey for The Tribune.

Further,

The partisan split is likely attributed to the larger number of secular Democrats, said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which studies public policy through a Christian viewpoint. He said while most Democrats are people of faith, the party “just has a lot more nonbelievers in it.”

English: Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

So, controlling for “more nonbelievers” to the left of Republicans, and considering that any Republican candidate whose faith might be questioned (i.e. Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney) is facing a Republican primary, we really need only look at Republicans’ perceptions of candidates. And, according to what we see here, Republicans care about a candidate’s faith, belief in God, and Christianity.

Especially the evangelicals. Says the article

White evangelicals often are seen as one conservative group most likely to criticize the LDS faith, but the poll found that 50 percent see Mormons as Christians, though 29 percent said they were not, the largest among any of the groups polled by The Tribune.

Are evangelicals shifting? Are southern preachers like Robert Jeffress losing their bigoted war against the LDS faith?

These are signs indicating that such may be the case. I’m still waiting to see. Until the Republican Presidential race shifts from New Hampshire to South Carolina and Florida, I’ll hold my judgement on whether the nation is ready to accept as one of their own a member of the LDS faith.

[Salt Lake Tribune]

Such a thing as bad press for Mormons after Jeffress?

A political consultant I once worked with, after we saw our candidate’s name appear prominently in a less than flattering newspaper article, made the following comment:

“Did they get his name right? We’ll take it.”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with free press. (A caveat might be carved out for when that press involves dead interns, but other than that…)

Right now, thanks to a hostile baptist preacher, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the “Mormons“) are receiving a lot of free publicity. Oh, and so is Mitt Romney, candidate for the Republican nomination for President. I wonder if that’s what Robert Jeffress intended when he slammed Mormons for being a “cult.”

Here’s a quick review of the myriads of free press the attack has and is garnering:

The Salt Lake Tribune takes the chance to promote their favorite candidate for 2016, or 2020, Jon Huntsman:

Jon Huntsman is right. The question of whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult or is Christian is a political sideshow. The race for the Republican presidential nomination should be about important policy issues, not about which candidate or which denomination is Christian.

Charles Haynes of the Senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, says that anyone familiar with US history would find it ironic that a Baptist preacher is calling someone a cult, especially given their history of being called a heretical and dangerous “sect” in the 18th century. Further

Mormons running for president, however, still face name-calling and bigotry from those who believe putting a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the White House will somehow threaten their vision of America as a “Christian nation.”

Theological differences, of course, matter to people of faith – and there is a time and place for open and honest dialogue about competing definitions of the “true church.” But that debate has no place in the political arena, especially when inflammatory labels are employed that deepen our divisions and fears.

It’s a sharp and insightful piece, and you should read it.

You should also check out Slate, which calls religious bigotry the “prejudice of our age.”

Cain and Perry showed no such clarity a week later, when Robert Jeffress, a prominent Baptist pastor speaking at a national family-values conference, called Mormonism a non-Christian cult and urged voters to support Perry over Romney because Perry was a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ.” Cain, again appearing on two Sunday shows, refused to say whether Mormons were Christians. “I’m not getting into that controversy,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley before implicitly affirming the distinction: “I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity.” When CNN asked the Perry campaign whether Perry would repudiate Jeffress’ statements, the campaign said Perry “does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” but it ignored the pastor’s other allegations.

The gap between these two episodes—clear condemnations of racism, but silence and ambiguity about anti-Mormonism—illustrates a fundamental weakness in our understanding of bigotry. We’re always fighting the last war. We hammer a politician’s connection to prejudice against blacks, no matter how symbolic the prejudice or how old, distant, and tenuous the connection, because nearly everyone recognizes this bigotry as bigotry. Denouncing it is easy. What’s hard is speaking out against a bias that isn’t so widely recognized. It’s politically difficult because challenging a common prejudice could cost you votes. And it’s morally difficult because the biases of your era are hard to see.

From evangelical Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California:

“We evangelicals and our Mormon counterparts disagree about some important theological questions,” Mouw continued. “But we have also found that on some matters we are not as far apart as we thought we were.”

Apparently, Jeffress’ “theological” interpretation is not as firm as he had thought.

William McGurn, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said that the “Cult of Anti-Mormonism” needs to end, on both the left and the right:

Here’s some advice for Republican candidates appearing at Tuesday’s presidential debate at Dartmouth College. When you are asked, as you will be asked, what you make of the Christian pastor who called the Mormon faith a “cult,” there’s only one appropriate answer.

It comes from the last sentence of Article VI of the Constitution, and it reads as follows: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

and

Hannah Smith of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty puts it this way: “At the heart of the First Amendment is the freedom to participate in the political process regardless of faith,” she says. “When people of any faith face retribution—either through violence or intimidation or loss of their livelihood—as a direct result of that participation, America has lost something.”

So it’s good to see Republican feet now being held to the fire on an issue the Founders resolved in 1787. Even more encouraging would be a press willing to give attention to very real concern among politically active Mormons: whether a Romney nomination would mean LDS members staying on the sidelines out of fear of the kind of attacks on their property and their livelihoods that their co-religionists experienced with California’s Proposition 8 and its aftermath.

So amid all the coverage given to Pastor Robert Jeffress, ask yourself this question. If you were a Mormon, which would you consider the real threat to your liberty: what some Dallas Baptist says about your faith—or organized attacks intended to intimidate and drive you off the public square?

McGurn notes that while this debate is happening mostly among Republicans competing for the Presidential nomination, polls show that Democrats are more hostile to a Mormon presidency than are Republicans.

But back to Article VI of the Constitution: Justin Hart agrees–there should be no religious “litmus test”‘ for President– even while he participates in some “secret handshakes” of his own.

I could spend this post defending Mormonism from attacks - like the one hurled today by Pastor Jeffress during his introduction gf Governor Perry at the Values Voters Conference or I could simply point out the obvious: a religious litmus test is both unconstitutional in character and imprudent for a political stragegy.

Even the Utah Democrats got into the act, going to bat for the underdog (yes, in answer to your question: there are Mormon Democrats):

“As Latter-day Saints — and Democrats — we are appalled and disappointed by Jeffress’ statement that Mormons are not Christian,” stated McAdams and Young-Otterstrom. “As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we know that the foundation of our belief is the divinity of Jesus Christ. Members of the LDS Church are compassionate, caring individuals who seek to follow the example of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Finally, someone looks at the political ramifications of Jeffress’ remarks. The comments will hurt Rick Perry, said Karl Rove, even if Perry didn’t make them:

This is a terrible mistake on the part of the Pastor; it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t belong in politics. We want our candidates, we want our leaders to be people of faith, but we don’t get into and we haven’t gotten into since at least the 1960 presidential election in the determination over whether or not somebody’s professed faith is acceptable to the vast majority of Americans.

And that, ultimately, is what matters: this it the kind of thing that doesn’t belong in politics. It’s not American, and it represents everything that our founding document–the Constitution–is intended to end. That is why, in the end, I think we will see this kind of religious bigotry backfire.

Read more about the Mormons, aka “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” here.

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Utah Democrats raffling off LDS Conference tickets.

Utah Democratic Chair Jim Dabakis is raffling off the chance to sit with him at the LDS Church’s biannual General Conference.  Does that amount to selling political favors or missionary work? And who is getting worked? Last I heard, Dabakis was not a Mormon–so is this some strange way of getting him to listen to two hours of high level Mormon testimony?

Recently (as in, Monday of this week), the Utah Democratic Party announced a new initiative: the “LDS Dems.” In Utah, the large majority of voters are two things–Republican and/or Mormon. Whether or not those things are part and partial is up for debate, but there is often a feeling that if you are Mormon, you should be Republican, too.

This, despite very public and notorious examples of Mormons who aren’t Republican. For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, arguably one of the most powerful Mormons in elected office.

Senator Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader

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In Utah, though, the vast majority of members of the LDS Church tend to vote Republican. And Democrats, facing redistricting and the likely losses to their elected ranks that will come with it, have decided to make it cool to be both Mormon and Democratic, too.

I think they have an uphill battle. While there are many LDS members who are also Democrats, I hardly think that creating an Dem brand around them is going to expand the base. Too much of what

Democrats believe is rooted in principles that people who already self-identify as Republicans believe is wrong. Adding “LDS” to that is not going make failed policies look any more attractive.

Putting lipstick on a donkey isn’t going to change the fact that it’s a donkey.

And raffling away tickets to LDS General Conference, held biannually and broadcast worldwide (read: an important weekend for LDS faithful), is not a great way to start off the effort, though it might be good for Dabakis, and who ever he takes, to spend a couple hours listening to talk about self-sufficiency, protection of life before birth, the traditional family, and other such things the LDS Church teaches (and that happen to also be found in the Republican platform).

To be fair, I’m glad the Utah Democrats are reaching out. There has been some concern (I have heard) that there is a divide between Democrats and the LDS Church. If this is how they want to reach out, then kudos. [blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/BenMcAdams/status/119906363064320000"]

(But seriously–a raffle? For tickets that are given away for free, anyway? I guess that’s just how they roll…no pun intended.)

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“One of these two Mormons could be our next president…the other is Jon Huntsman.”

In the arena of both “funny” and “perhaps too true,” The Colbert Report had a segment on Mormons. Click on the picture below to watch it.

A few highlights to watch for:


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Mitt Romney and “the Mormon Question.”

Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

The “Mormon” question. [sigh] Who hasn’t heard it yet?

Can a Mormon be elected president?

I can’t get into a conversation about politics and the 2012 campaign for the White House without Mitt Romney coming up. This includes conversations with your average voters and political insiders, family and friends, Democrats and Republicans alike. (Why, yes, I do live in Utah…why do you ask?)

My in-laws ask about what I think Mitt’s chances are while munching on cupcakes after the baby blessing. While in D.C. last week, GOP party insiders and legislators from at least three different states  swapped reasons why they think that, short of a major scandal, Mitt’s got the nomination all but in the bag. The man is getting a lot of attention (right now), and there are few who think he can’t pull it off. [Read more...]