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.

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