Marlborough College Summer School

Making Mormons Normal

US presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon, which is a problem for some voters. But, says Andrew Preston, so was the Catholicism of John F. Kennedy and it did not stop him winning the 1960 election.

Mitt Romney addresses cadets at Citadel military college, Charleston, South Caroline, 2011. Getty Images/Richard EllisThe Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has been beset by problems, but few are as intractable as his religion. Romney is a Mormon, more properly a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that makes many Americans uncomfortable. With a stricken economy, high unemployment, and an unpopular health-care reform plan bedevilling President Obama, Romney should be coasting to victory. But questions about him persist, even among Republicans, and the election will likely be a close one. In such a tight contest, doubts about Romney’s religion could even cost him the White House.

Conventional wisdom about US politics holds that religion is a conservative issue, while liberals are more secular. Of course, many liberal Democrats are religious. Historically, moreover, Democrats, including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, have been among the more religious presidents, while many of the most liberal reformers, such as the civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., grounded their politics in faith. But the party has changed and few Democrats today espouse faith.

Ever since Ronald Reagan officiated over the marriage of the Republican Party to the Religious Right during the 1980 election, faith-based politics has been the Republicans’ strong suit and the Democrats’ Achilles heel. Democrats hold views on abortion, stem-cell research and the teaching of evolution that Christian conservatives find anathema. Pollsters have found that the most accurate predictor of voting patterns is not income, profession or gender, but religion: the more religiously observant the voter, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down; if anything, it is accelerating. According to a recent Pew poll ‘partisan gaps in religious values have arisen over the past 25 years’. For example, in 2012 92 per cent of Republicans and 77 per cent of Democrats said they believed in God; in 1987, the figures were 91 and 88 per cent respectively. While conservatives have kept alive that old-time religion, liberals have begun to lose the faith.

Lately, conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants have accused the Obama administration of waging what Newt Gingrich, one of Romney’s rivals for the Republican nomination, called ‘a war on religion’. Conservative Christians point to the Obama administration’s insistence that employer health-care plans pay for contraception, which they say violates religious liberty and promotes secularism over religious belief. ‘We have to get the government out of defining the Church,’ Catholic Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, vowed recently.

On the surface this would seem to augur well for Mitt Romney, who is by all accounts a devout Christian. But many Americans don’t consider Mormonism to be Christian at all. This is especially true for those Christians, such as evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, who take the purity of their faith very seriously.

Such doubts stem from Mormonism’s unusual origins. In 1827 Joseph Smith, a young man at a loose end, claimed to have discovered several gold plates buried near his family’s farm in Palmyra, New York. Previously Smith had claimed that angels visited him and imparted divine revelations. Palmyra was deep inside upstate New York’s ‘burned-over district’, so-called because it was home to the fires of intense evangelical revivalism common during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century.

Smith’s claims of angelic visitations were not unusual in rural upstate New York. Only a few years later, in Hampton, New York, a radical Baptist preacher named William Miller effectively founded the denomination of Adventism when he predicted that Christ would return to earth in 1844.

Smith, Miller and other religious innovators benefitted from America’s unusually high religious tolerance, which, paradoxically, was a product of the Constitution’s separation of church and state. The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from both establishing an official church and regulating how Americans worship. The result of this deregulation is quintessentially American, what scholars call a ‘religious marketplace’. New sects and denominations can emerge unhampered by governmental restrictions or pressures to conform. In a spiritual laboratory like New York’s burned-over district, the scope for total innovation was almost limitless.

What was unusual, even frightening, about Smith’s religious vision was its originality. Claiming inspiration from an angel named Moroni, who was not mentioned in the Bible, Smith identified the Native Americans as descendants of ancient Israelites who had lived with Jesus in North America centuries before his crucifixion. Smith also claimed that Moroni told him where to find the gold plates, on which were written, in a dead, previously unknown language akin to ancient Egyptian, several lost gospels of Jesus’ time in the American wilderness. With the help of his wife, Emma, some dedicated followers and a pair of special eyeglasses, which Moroni claimed were designed specifically for transcribing the gold plates into English, Smith began writing out the sacred inscriptions. Three years later, in 1830, he finished, returned the plates and eyeglasses to Moroni and published the new gospels. The Book of Mormon was born.

Smith had not only discovered a new set of texts for Christianity, he had revamped it into an entirely new faith. All of Christian history and theology would have to be reinterpreted. Not by accident, the Book of Mormon’s 500-plus pages provided other Christians with a helpful guide. But Smith’s visions continued and he kept adding to the list of God’s holy commands. Some of these Mormon practices, such as abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, were common to many devout Christians, although Smith added tea and coffee to the proscribed list. Others, such as the notion that Heaven was divided into three sections, with the souls of the most virtuous residing closest to God, were eccentric but unthreatening. However, some of the new practices, especially polygamy, were tantamount to heresy and treason.

The Mormons quickly gathered adherents and needed space. Along with thousands of other Americans in the mid-1800s, Smith and his disciples headed west – first to Ohio, then to Missouri, and finally to Illinois – where they could establish a Mormon haven.

The US might have been a religious marketplace, but Americans were hardly free of religious prejudice, as the early Mormons discovered. Alarmed by Smith’s challenge to traditional Christianity and suspecting that he and his followers were a cabal intent on seizing power in what were then sparsely-settled and fragile states on the American frontier, other settlers refused to let the Mormons live in peace. They were drummed out of Missouri, twice, and endured division in Ohio. In 1844, while seeking protection from a lynch-mob, Smith was shot and killed in Carthage, Illinois. Divided, defeated and without their founding prophet, the remaining Mormons followed Brigham Young (1801-77), a church leader, west into the Utah desert, where they founded a sanctuary for the Latter-day Saints at what is now Salt Lake City. After resisting and then reluctantly accepting laws banning polygamy, they settled into a stable and prosperous life in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. While they are concentrated mainly in Utah and neighbouring states such as Idaho and Nevada, Mormons are now a national presence and number just over six million.

Romney isn’t the first Mormon to run for president. His father, George, then-Governor of Michigan, ran for the Republican nomination in 1968; even Joseph Smith himself ran in 1844, before his assassination brought an early end to his campaign. Other faiths beyond the Protestant mainstream have also yielded presidential candidates. In a contest of religious minorities, Al Smith, a Catholic, won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1928, but lost the election to Republican Herbert Hoover, a Quaker. In 1988 Michael Dukakis became the first Greek Orthodox to run for president and in 2000 vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate, became the first Jew to campaign for national office.

President John F. Kennedy is welcomed to the Vatican by Pope Paul VI in 1963. Getty Images/Time Life/John DominisNor is Romney the first presidential candidate to encounter resistance because of his religion. In 1928 Smith attracted incredibly intense Protestant vitriol, and his Catholicism contributed to his defeat. For another 32 years, no Catholic dared to run for the White House. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy entered the fray, his biggest obstacle was not his liberalism, his elite Ivy League background, or his views on foreign policy, but his Catholic faith.

Although they represent different parties and ideologies Mitt Romney has invoked the example of JFK many times and it’s not hard to see why. Like Kennedy a half-century ago, Romney is from Massachusetts and is a moderate within his own party. And just as JFK had trouble connecting with liberals, Romney is finding it difficult to convince conservatives he is one of them. But where Kennedy really seems to strike a chord with Romney is on religion.

In 1960 Kennedy’s Catholicism nearly prevented him from winning first the Democratic nomination and then the election. At the time anti-Catholicism was the oldest prejudice in American culture. Liberals who marched for black civil rights openly opposed JFK on the grounds of his religion. They charged that he would have dual loyalties – to the US and the Catholic Church – and that if the two clashed, he would be a good Catholic and choose the Vatican’s interests over Washington’s. The most vehement anti-Catholicism came from evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants in the South and Midwest, but even liberal Protestants in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia spoke out against the ‘danger’ a Catholic president would pose to American freedom.

Kennedy was worried enough about such charges to confront them head on. In September 1960, less than two months before election day, he flew deep into the heart of hostile Texas to speak to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. JFK knew he would never convince this group of hard-core Christian conservatives, but he wanted to give as robust a defence in as unforgiving an atmosphere in order to prove his credibility and determination. ‘I am not the Catholic candidate for president,’ he admonished the Southern preachers. ‘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.’

We now know that Kennedy’s speech, crowned by his victory over Richard Nixon in November, marked the beginning of the end of anti-Catholicism as a major force in US public life. Catholic politicians became as uncontroversial as Baptists or Methodists.

Today, Romney doesn’t face anything as blatantly discriminatory as Kennedy did in 1960, but his Mormonism continues to pose problems. When Romney first ran for the Republican nomination in 2008, he emulated Kennedy by giving a Houston-style speech of his own. He delivered it in Texas (in College Station, known as ‘the shiny buckle on the Bible belt’).

Citing the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests for public office, Romney argued that his type of faith was irrelevant; what was relevant was that he believed devoutly in God and country. ‘I do not define my candidacy by my religion,’ he intoned:

A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

While Romney’s speech bore some resemblance to Kennedy’s, it also betrayed some stark differences. In his Houston speech Kennedy used the word ‘Catholic’ 20 times; by contrast Romney mentioned Mormonism by name only three times. This year Romney gave another religion-in-politics speech at Liberty University, a bastion of militant Protestant fundamentalism, in Lynchburg, Virginia. This time, he didn’t use the word ‘Mormon’ once. He didn’t want to provoke a national discussion about the Latter-day Saints.

The reason is clear: anti-Mormon prejudice remains high, particularly within the Religious Right as well as on the anti-clerical left. When George Romney ran in 1968 19 per cent of Americans said they would never vote for a Mormon; this year, the figure is 18 per cent. By comparison, the percentage of voters who said they wouldn’t ever vote for a black, female, Jewish or Catholic candidate has fallen dramatically to around five per cent for each. Of taboo social groups, only homosexuals (30 per cent), Muslims (40 per cent) and atheists (43 per cent) attract more suspicion than Mormons. For a country that still takes its traditional faiths seriously, this does not bode especially well for Romney.

Perhaps, like Kennedy’s election in 1960, a Romney victory in November will be the death knell for anti-Mormonism. But it is more likely that a deeply ingrained suspicion of Mormonism will endure. The Kennedy precedent is suggestive but not definitive and a conclusion to the Mormon story remains unwritten.

Andrew Preston is Senior Lecturer in American History at Clare College, Cambridge.