Romney’s religion shouldn’t matter, but it does

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Where Mitt Romney goes to church doesn’t disqualify him for public office: Article VI of the U.S. Constitution famously declares that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

But when the former Massachusetts governor declared his candidacy for president on Feb. 13, news coverage focused heavily on one issue: Romney’s Mormon faith. Officially we have no religious test — but unofficially, religious affiliation (or lack thereof) can determine the outcome of elections.

How big is Romney’s religion problem? In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey last year, a remarkable 37% of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.

The poll numbers probably don’t come as a shock to the Mormons themselves. After all, Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) come out of a history of religious persecution. Shortly after their founder, Joseph Smith, announced his candidacy for president in 1844, he was killed by a mob.

Back then the most contentious issue was polygamy, a practice disavowed by the LDS Church in 1890. But today Romney stills faces ignorance and confusion about his faith — fueled in part by the “Mormon” label put on characters in HBO’s series “Big Love” and the trial of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs. Only last month, a Republican activist in South Carolina pressed Romney to answer questions about polygamy.

But Romney’s greater challenge may be to overcome the prejudices of people who actually do know what Mormons believe — and don’t like it. Many Christians, especially evangelicals, don’t accept the LDS Church as part of the Christian tradition. After years of being taught that Mormonism is heretical (and a cult), many conservative Christians will have a hard time getting beyond Romney’s religion.

Moreover, some of Romney’s critics have raised the issue of religious authority: Because the president of the LDS Church is a living prophet, who would be in charge under a President Romney? This concern resembles the familiar anti-Catholic canard from the 19th century that a Catholic elected official would be controlled by the Vatican.

Mormons, like everybody else in America, enjoy full religious freedom under the First Amendment. But constitutional protection doesn’t ensure acceptance in the public square. American Jews suffered decades of social discrimination (and anti-Semitic acts remain the No. 1 religious hate crime in the United States today). American Catholics were attacked as members of a dangerous cult for much of our history and were the target of nativist campaigns to limit Catholic citizenship and influence.

Against this backdrop of prejudice, the few candidates for president outside the Protestant mainstream have mostly tried to say as little as possible about their religion. Attacked as an unbeliever during his 1800 campaign for president, Thomas Jefferson refused to be drawn into a debate on his religious views. In the run-up to the 1908 election, William Howard Taft kept mum about his Unitarian convictions in the face of intense pressure to declare his views on the divinity of Christ.

John F. Kennedy, however, felt compelled to confront the “religion issue” head-on during his 1960 presidential campaign. In his now-famous address to the Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy declared: “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”

Of course, what worked for Kennedy may not work for Romney, especially since the Christian Right isn’t looking for a president who believes as Kennedy did “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” But political pundits generally agree: Given the poll numbers, Romney has little choice but to give a public address about the relationship of faith and politics in his life.

It won’t be easy. Kennedy, after all, could win votes by distancing himself from his church — and still count on a significant Roman Catholic vote (he won 71% of Catholics and only 32% of non-Catholics). In contrast, Romney faces Republican primary voters who are, in fact, looking for a candidate who wears his personal faith on his political sleeve. And there is no “Mormon base” since LDS members make up less than 2% of the U.S. population.

Nevertheless, if he declares that he doesn’t take orders from Salt Lake — and emphasizes his conservative position on social issues — Romney has a good shot at winning over many evangelicals. Ironically, the very evidence that demonstrates his independence from the LDS Church (his now-abandoned 1994 liberal positions on gay rights and abortion were contrary to LDS positions) may well be used against him as he attempts to position himself as a born-again social conservative.

It’s hard to believe that anyone seriously thinks Romney would be a puppet of the prophet in Salt Lake City any more than Kennedy was a mouthpiece for the pope in Rome. Nothing in his political career supports that fear. And the 15 Mormon members of Congress hardly march in lockstep with the church. If Mormon leaders are telling Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Democratic Sen. Harry Reid how to vote, they must be sending mixed signals.

There’s plenty to debate in Romney’s positions on public policy without getting distracted by the non-issue of where he goes to church. Unfortunately, prejudice against Mormons leaves Romney little choice. Echoing JFK, Romney must now persuade voters that his values are shaped by faith, but his policies aren’t dictated by church.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

Tags: , , , ,