Mitt Romney leads the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and also actively practices Mormonism as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Yet nearly a quarter of Americans say they would not vote for Romney simply because of his religion.
A June Gallup poll reports that 22 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon candidate in 2012, even if he or she was “generally well-qualified.”
25 percent of Americans would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, according to the Pew Research Center.
Mormonism is a major hurdle for presidential candidates because they must garner the support of the entire nation instead of a particular region, says Brian Clites, a Northwestern doctoral candidate in American Religions.
“I think perception of Mormons varies widely across the U.S.,” Clites says. “Generally, there’s a wariness of putting a Mormon in office.”
Mormons in Politics
Mormons have found political success in some areas of the country, such as the Northwest. Five of the 15 Mormons currently serving in Congress are from Utah, while there are two representatives each from Nevada and California. In other regions, however, preconceived notions about Mormonism pose a challenge to candidates. Never having experienced a Mormon elected official, the region may be less likely to vote for one.
“In the rest of the country, they’re political outsiders, and it’s a very long shot, a very tough path toward the White House for them because of that inherent discrimination,” Clites says.
Reaction to Romney’s Mormonism flared up in the media last week when fellow GOP candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain refused to directly state that Romney is a Christian.
Evangelical minister Robert Jeffress also called Mormonism a cult and said what Bachmann and Cain would not: that he does not believe it is Christian religion. Christopher Hitchens of Slate called Mormonism “one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.” The New York Times ran a long article about Romney’s duties in the Mormon Church before politics, detailing the mixed opinions of him as a faith leader.
Even if Romney wants to downplay his religion, the media coverage reflects that religion is a crucial issue to the public. Romney’s Mormonism will show up in the media regardless, so he should use that opportunity to emphasize its political assets. Socially conservative Mormon values, for example, often jibe with those of many republicans.
However, Romney may not be able to move past the public’s ingrained stigma against Mormonism. Many still view the religion through its less socially acceptable aspects, namely polygamy.
A New Religion
Mormonism is in fact an offshoot of Christianity — its technical name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and follow His teachings, just as Mormons do. Mormonism is an extremely young religion, though, originating in the 1820s when founder Joseph Smith gathered followers based on his story about receiving the word of God.
Smith first began practicing polygamy in the 1830s, but his revelation from God on the subject was not recorded until 1843. The practice was banned in the LDS church in 1890, and any member that engages in it is excommunicated. However, some fringe and fundamentalist groups unaffiliated with the Mormon Church still practice polygamy on large compounds removed from the rest of society — like this one busted in 2008. Although the groups aren't linked with the LDS church, spokesman Michael Otterson said after the bust, there is still some confusion about Mormons' ties to polygamy and polygamist groups.
It could be argued that Mormonism is the most American religion, as it originated on American soil. But the Gallup and Pew research shows how many Americans are still wary of Mormonism, especially in the White House.
After all, the presidency has never been religiously diverse. The only non-Protestant president in America’s history is John F. Kennedy, a Catholic. Kennedy’s religion was a major issue during his campaign, which he addressed in a famous 1960 speech saying, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Romney attempted to emulate Kennedy’s speech in 2007, when he gave an address entitled “Faith in America.” But Kennedy moved into the White House only months after his speech; Romney never even got the Republican nomination.
Over the years many Mormons have tried to run for president, all unsuccessful — and all facing some kind of Mormon-related scandal during their candidacy.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not Romney wishes to make his faith a public issue. Others — from Robert Jeffress to The New York Times — are making sure Romney’s Mormonism gets its time in the spotlight. If he wants to win the presidency, he will have to address faith openly instead of letting the media decide how to portray his religion.