There is a long and dishonourable tradition of religious prejudice in American presidential elections.
Catholics running for office have borne the brunt. Democratic candidate Al Smith was subjected to vicious anti-Catholic attacks when he ran in 1928: the fact that he was the son of Irish immigrants and an opponent of prohibition didn’t help his cause. John Kennedy in 1960 was similarly accused of being under the thumb of the Vatican, forcing him to give a speech to the Ministerial Association in Houston affirming his allegiance to the American nation.
With just a few days to the election, we are yet to see anything like this sort of vitriol directed towards Mitt Romney. Much of the analysis suggests that, whatever the outcome on Tuesday, Romney’s Mormonism will be a negligible factor. A sign of our enlightened attitudes? Perhaps more a sign of our ignorance. No less than 32% of voters, according to an August poll, are unaware that Romney is a Mormon.
Another reason for the silence about Mormonism might be the assumption of an easy Obama victory. But with the polls tightening in the last few weeks, some have begun to ask: should we be worried about a Mormon President?
Those who are point to several things. The first, to be blunt, is the weirdness factor. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd often lampoons Latter Day Saint (LDS) church practices, from baptising the dead, including Holocaust victims, to the famous “magic underwear” worn to protect against evil spirits. Oh, and Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
Now, we have no proof that Romney wears said “magic underwear”, or has ever participated in retrospective baptisms. But he was a high-ranking church figure: bishop of a congregation in Boston from 1981 to 1986, and then a “stake president” responsible for some 4000 members.
More troubling perhaps is the suspicion that President Mitt might take orders from Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City. An interview with Judy Dushku, a member of Bishop Romney’s congregation in Boston, has fuelled this. Referring to Romney’s pro-choice stance on abortion while Governor of Massachusetts, Dushku claims that Romney told her: “in Salt Lake, they told me it was okay to take that position in a liberal state”.
Of course, America has never had a Mormon President before (though several have tried). But the record of the Utah legislature is not encouraging. As D. Michael Quinn argues in a recent Vanity Fair article, many legislators there pay close attention to the wishes of the governing body of the LDS, the First Presidency. Quinn writes that in 2008, the LDS Church’s Deseret News announced:
Before each general session [of the Utah Legislature], GOP and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate sit down separately with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Special Affairs Committee, a group made up of Church general authorities, Church public relations officials, and their lobbyists, to discuss any item on the minds of both legislators and Church leaders.
Romney has at various times affirmed his independence. In 2007, he channelled John Kennedy when he told the American public: “if I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest”.
For its part, the LDS publicly advises its faithful to choose the best candidate, regardless of party affiliation.
Defenders of Romney also point to the number of Democrat Mormons. In fact, the highest-ranking Mormon in American politics is Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, and a Democrat.
Finally, the history of Mormon voting also suggests something less than a tightly-controlled political machine. Utah voted four times for Franklin Roosevelt, despite then-LDS leader Heber J. Grant denouncing him as a socialist.
In the end, the notion of a direct line between Salt Lake City and a Romney Oval Office seems ludicrous. Why would the First Presidency need to call? President Romney is unlikely to do much that would upset the LDS. Whether on social issues, taxes or the role of government, 2012-version Romney is back in the fold.
The pity is that Romney has largely avoided the issue as there might have been a positive narrative to craft. As Stephanie Mencimer argues in Mother Jones, Mormons have responded with admirable energy and solidarity to natural disasters in Utah. As the east coast cleans up after Hurricane Sandy, this might have been an appealing message. But in failing to speak, candidate Romney has left many wondering, once again, what sort of president he might be.