In the current presidential election campaign, many, if not most, Americans are expecting that Mitt Romney’s quest for the White House will be buffeted by questions about his religion. How to handle Romney’s Mormonism has proved especially vexing, both for the candidate and for the electorate. It’s worth considering exactly why that’s the case.
The essential question, from the perspective of many voters, concerns the very nature of Mormonism, an upstart religion born in western New York in 1830 and persecuted for much of the nineteenth century. After Joseph Smith Jr. translated the golden tablets that he had excavated from a hillside near Palmyra, New York, and published the translations as the Book of Mormon, Smith began receiving revelations regarding temple endowment ceremonies, lifestyle (no alcohol or hot beverages, commonly misconstrued as a proscription against caffeine) and, most incendiary of all, polygamy.
Under pressure from the federal government, one of Smith’s successors as president of the church famously rescinded the practice of polygamy in 1890. But “gentiles” (the Mormon term for non-Mormons) have nonetheless continued to harbor suspicions—theological and social—about Mormonism. Many Americans doubt that Mormons, with their belief in the Book of Mormon as scripture and their exclusive baptismal rites, actually qualify as “Christians,” despite the prominence of “Jesus Christ” in the church’s logo. Even more off-putting is the Mormon penchant for secrecy. Many Americans, with their deep distrust of secrecy (witness the public outcry over the secret rites of Masonry in the nineteenth century), bristle at the fact that entry to Mormon temples is limited to Mormons in good standing. (It doesn’t help matters that Joseph Smith apparently modeled his temple endowment ceremonies on Masonic rites.)
There’s no doubt that, to some extent, the voting public’s interest in Mormonism is informed by prurience. But that’s not to say it should be dismissed entirely. What ought to interest us about Romney’s faith are not the vagaries of Mormon theology, fascinating as they are, but how he understands that theology, how his faith informs the way he lives, his sense of responsibility toward others and how that might affect the way he governs.
Granted, there are relevant political questions peculiar to Mormon teaching. The Latter-day Saints, for example, teach that the United States Constitution is divinely inspired. It’s fair to ask Romney how that affects his understanding of the Constitution. Although Mormons are hardly the only group that claims to be the “true” religion, how does that teaching inflect Romney’s notions about pluralism and toleration? But the more pertinent question applies to all presidential candidates who make declarations of faith: How does religion shape your policies? Unfortunately, Romney has remained studiously tight-lipped about all matters of faith, referring only vaguely to “my church.”
Indeed, much of Romney’s problem traces to his inept handling of questions about his religion. He has managed to reinforce the image that many voters already have of him, namely that he’s a moving target, a wind-sock politician who adjusts his positions according to the prevailing political breezes. When asked about his faith, especially during the 2008 primaries, Romney’s stock answers were, “I’m not a theologian” and, “I don’t speak for my church.” Both responses may be accurate, but they belie his deep involvement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a bishop and “stake president” (both volunteer assignments) and as a major contributor (to the tune, apparently, of millions of dollars). Not only does his caginess reinforce his image as evasive, his reticence about his faith reflects Mormonism’s lack of openness.
Similarly, it should come as no surprise that his attempt to clear the air about his religion the last time he ran for president fell flat. Romney’s “JFK speech”—as his address at the George Bush Library in College Station, Texas, in December 2007 was widely called—failed. Romney, retreating to the safety of bromides like “We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust,” was no more forthcoming about his faith and how it shapes him and his policies than he had been previously.
Mitt Romney is not the first person of his faith to vie for the presidency, of course. Heading into the presidential primaries in 1968, the leading contender for the Republican nomination was also a Mormon: George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, then governor of Michigan. But remarkably, the elder Romney’s faith elicited little attention or scrutiny back then. (His candidacy eventually ran aground over his remark that he had been “brainwashed” about Vietnam.) So why does Mitt face such a different landscape from that of his father on matters of religion?
Ultimately, he needs to reckon with the fact that, fairly or not, the rhetoric of presidential campaign discourse has expanded dramatically in the forty-plus years since 1968. And the reason hearkens back to the man who beat his father for the GOP nomination: Richard Nixon. The Watergate scandal and the culture of corruption surrounding the Nixon White House illustrated the perils of presidential mendacity. So when Jimmy Carter—a Washington outsider, a Sunday-school teacher who promised he would “never knowingly lie to the American people”—came along in Nixon’s wake, Americans responded. Ever since the mid-1970s, voters have taken a keen interest in a candidate’s faith, and any candidate who cannot demonstrate some measure of piety—Michael Dukakis in 1988, for instance—faces long odds.
I have no interest in providing Mitt Romney with political advice, but if I did, I’d tell him to consult the example of Joseph Lieberman rather than John Kennedy. When Al Gore named Lieberman to the ticket in 2000, the senator from Connecticut faced a flurry of questions about his faith and, especially, his refusal to campaign on the Sabbath. Unlike Romney, Lieberman patiently answered the questions, declaring, for example, that he was an observant Jew, not an Orthodox Jew, and explaining the difference.
Mitt Romney, however, continues to obfuscate on matters of faith. Until he opens up, he won’t be able to shirk the religion issue.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University, is the author of God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. He is currently writing a book about Jimmy Carter.