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Religious Intolerance In America

July 8, 2007

By Marc

Do I want a Mormon president? Well… I like the idea of a Mormon president. But, as Mitt Romney’s campaign rolls along, I find myself wanting a Mormon president less and less. Beyond politics (and the idea that many might wrongly attribute a Mormon president’s political beliefs to me because we share a common faith), I guess I’m just not comfortable seeing my beliefs watered down to satiate the masses. I prefer being a “peculiar” people instead of having to shoe-horn my religion to fit into some pre-determined and pre-defined categories.

At the outset, my differences with some of Romney’s political positions aside, I think he’s run a strategically brilliant campaign. He’s defied skeptics and the conventional wisdom, has a boat-load of money, and owns a sizeable primary lead in the first two Republican primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire. Although he’s been criticized for his shift in positions on several issues, had he not taken the policy positions that he has thus far, he would be left fighting a difficult battle with John McCain and Rudy Giuliani for the moderate Republican-economic conservative-Libertarian vote, leaving the vacuum among social conservative candidates to be filled by someone else. Romney did what he needed to do to put himself in a position to win, and one of the key factors in how well he does come primary season is how persuasive he can be in convincing voters of his sincerity. All that is fine and well. While I may not vote for Romney, it is not what has turned me off of the idea of having a Mormon as president.

My unease about a Mormon president stems from two separate, but interrelated developments. One is the recurring attacks Romney has weathered for his Mormon faith from secular liberals on the left, religious conservatives on the right, and from the campaign staffs of an increasing number of fellow candidates (see here, here, and here). The other is seeing the great lengths that Romney has been forced to go to appease the religious right on the issue of his faith.

I don’t think a candidate should have to apologize for his faith in order to run a successful campaign. When it comes down to it, most religions have tenets and doctrines that others would consider odd. A candidate’s political viability should not hang on what some might consider oddities of belief, it should instead rest on the candidate’s platform and character. Some might argue that a candidate’s faith is an element of his or her character, but if by that they are insinuating that a candidate, by holding beliefs that either stray from a particular line of Christianity or that accept the historicity of the miraculous, is somehow unfit for office, then they are imposing a troublingly narrow view of character that I object to. Constitutionally we, as a nation, aren’t supposed to have religious tests for office, but requiring such a homogenization of belief essentially amounts to one. Many pay lip service to the constitutional ideal, but, in spite of public condemnations and apologies, each week predictably sees a new critical article or another incident on the campaign trail.

Romney, while publicly stating that he wouldn’t distance himself from his religion in a recent debate, in some ways, already has. Since religion is such a core issue for one of Romney’s key constituencies, his candidacy has raised numerous concerns ranging from what sort of influence his faith and religion would have on his governance to whether electing a Latter-day Saint would lend credibility to Mormon proselytizing efforts. As such, Romney has repeatedly sought to address the issue of faith. In doing so, his typical response has been to reduce difference to the same. You’ll hear him generically discuss God, faith, and common values, and he never misses a chance to cite to the Bible, but you’ll almost never hear him mention the Book of Mormon (and if he does it inevitably is in answer to a question about the book which he typically deflects). Last week, when he was asked, inappropriately in my mind, whether, as President, he would put the Book of Mormon above the Bible when seeking inspiration, he completely ignored the question and went straight to his boilerplate “common values and beliefs” answer. In an interview in May, in response to a question about the Church’s past practice of polygamy, Romney said he couldn’t “imagine anything more awful” than the practice. Admittedly, our polygamous past perplexes a lot of members today, myself included, but, even still, the statement struck me as a little over-the-top. And earlier this year, in another interview, when asked about a unique Latter-day Saint belief involving Christ’s Second Coming, he didn’t even acknowledge that we had such a doctrine and again stressed common Christian beliefs. Strategically, avoiding these sorts of issues is almost certainly his best move, but that he has to make it to remain competitive as a presidential candidate leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I think it’s unfair that a presidential hopeful like Romney has to package his faith in this way.

Other Latter-day Saint politicians, who hold or have held offices a little less glamorous than the Presidency, haven’t been forced to strip as much away from the public presentation of their beliefs. In years past, members like Reed Smoot and Ezra Taft Benson held prominent political offices while concurrently serving as Apostles. More recently, Senator Gordon Smith from Oregon is known to have taken his oath of office on a “Quadruple Combination” which included all canonized Mormon scripture, Harry Reid has a large statue of Joseph Smith prominently displayed on his desk in the Majority Leader’s office, and Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah has put out a string of LDS-themed musical albums. Even Romney’s own father didn’t seem to have as much trouble over the issue of faith as Mitt has been confronted with. The biggest obstacles looming over George Romney’s candidacy were the explanation he gave about his prior support for the Vietnam war and the fact that he was born in Mexico. But we live in different times, both the religious right and secular liberalism hold much more sway today.

Even still, friends have suggested that Romney’s run is breaking down some of the unspoken barriers that seem to exist for Mormon candidates today. Perhaps it is, but this past year has left me bruised and very wary of the looming primary season. I remain pretty skeptical as to whether a Mormon can survive the primary gauntlet and, if one does, how he or she would fair in a general election. People often are hesitant to admit to how gender, race and religion might affect their votes. The fact that polls have shown large numbers of people who readily admit they would have trouble voting for a Mormon is a red flag for me. Romney’s camp is more optimistic, claiming that once people get to know a Mormon candidate such as Romney, a lot of their concerns will be put to rest. I think they underestimate the brutality of primaries in places like South Carolina, where terrible rumors of John McCain having an illegitimate black daughter helped to derail his campaign. I shudder to think what is in store for Romney.

So do I want a Mormon president? Like I said, I like the idea of one… it’s the reality of it that I’m not so sure about. For me it’s not so much about Romney or the LDS Church, but about the country, its democratic principles, and the shortfall that an apparent religious test like this implies. I’m troubled by the hypocrisy, ignorance and lack of fairness from individuals and groups who so lionize American democracy, tolerance and freedom, and yet hold such prejudicial views. While many in the Church are already skeptical of the secular left, I’m left wondering what will be the consequence to the Republican Party if the GOP proves to hold Mormons, who so disproportionately vote Republican, in such low repute that it wouldn’t stoop to nominate a Latter-day Saint as its candidate for High Office.

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5 comments

  1. Nice post. I agree that technically we’re not supposed to have religious tests for office but then again an atheist will never be elected President either. I have a problem with people who think that atheists are all immoral because it’s not true.


  2. To clarify my point I hope that people won’t judge Mitt as a candidate solely on his religion. But people are going to be people, what can you do.


  3. Agreed. Considering a vast majority of Mormons blindly vote for the conservative ticket in states (Utah, Arizona, Idaho) that carry little weight when it comes to electing a president, it is likely that the Mormon factor will do little to get Mitt into office. However, there is another, larger factor at play here. Money. Wealthy Mormons are abundant and can surely influence the outcome of the election through large campaign contributions. This is bound to play an increasingly large role if Mitt proves resilient in the primaries.


  4. JMK – You’re likely right that an avowed atheist may have difficulty getting elected to office. On the issue, I wouldn’t have a problem voting for someone who was irreligious, if we shared common values (perhaps a secular humanist of some sort). I’m pretty sure, however, that I couldn’t ever vote for someone who was hostile toward religion. In my view, though, that doesn’t conflict with the standard I outlined earlier.

    Mike – That’s kind of a loaded statement 😛 While many Latter-day Saints assuredly give the GOP the benefit of the doubt in a lot of cases, many members I know are pretty thoughtful in a the positions they take. As for donors, there are only so many wealthy Mormons though, and I think Mitt’s maxed a lot of them out on primary contributions (which is why his fundraising dropped by 1/3 this quarter). As you point out though, if Mitt makes it through the primaries, no doubt those members will come in quite handy once again.


  5. Don’t worry Marc, Mormons will never turn on the GOP, even if Romney does lose. Although hopefully we can lure at least a few to the dark side 😉



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