Religion and the 2008 US Presidential Race, I
Can a Mormon Be Elected US President?
Like it or not, religion is an issue in the current US Presidential race. This issue is being raised primarily by believers rather than the agnostic and atheist community. I don't intend to endorse or to oppose any of the candidates I might mention in this series, just comment on the issue of religion in the election and invite further discussion.
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Mitt Romney is running for the Republican Party nomination for President of the USA. He has the background and qualifications to make him a serious candidate. He combines the "family values" (code for anti-abortion / anti-gay rights) of the Christian right with political and business experience that should appeal to the more pragmatic right. In many ways he is the ideal candidate for today's Republican party. However, he is a Mormon and his religion has been raised as an issue to the extent that he has been forced to issue a statement about his religious views.
Can a Mormon successfully run for US President? In my view, he cannot, at least in 2008.
George W. Romney, Mitt's father, similarly ran for the Republican nomination 40 years ago. Generally, his religion was not raised as an issue, other than the fact that blacks were officially excluded from the priesthood. (A racist stain originating with Brigham Young that remained official LDS policy until 1978 when a new revelation was received from God.) However, Romney was not required to answer to the charge of racism; it was quite clear that he was not personally racist, but a supporter of civil rights. The teachings of his religion were not held against him. He was considered the frontrunner, but dropped out of contention, not because of religion, but because of an unfortunate comment about having been brainwashed on the Viet Nam war. Without that, there is a reasonable chance he would have been his party's candidate rather than Nixon. A Mormon could have successfully run for US President in 1968.
Mo Udall ran for the 1976 Democratic nomination. He was a Mormon, though probably non-practicing. He was initially regarded as the frontrunner, but lost out to Carter having lost the momentum after a narrow loss in one state's primary. Udall's religion was never raised as a serious issue in the campaign. On the other hand, Carter was vocal about his Christian faith and was rewarded by votes from evangelicals. A thousand votes difference in one state's primary, and a Mormon (even and/or especially a non-practicing one) could possibly have successfully run for US President in 1976.
What has changed that I think a Mormon cannot be elected now?
I would suggest that until fairly recently, most people knew little about the details of Mormonism. It was largely accepted as just another Christian denomination, but with the strange idea Christ visited North America. The full Mormon theology was never preached by their young missionaries. (Many of whom, as I've written before, have trouble with the basics.) It is only in the age of the internet all the strange concepts have been revealed to anyone who wants to look. This gives ammunition to those who choose to disparage Mormonism as a cult, rather than recognizing it either as a legitimate religion or a Christian denomination. By calling it a cult, they disparage those who follow the beliefs. And those doing this are predominantly Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. They are sabotaging the one candidate who might have the best chance of carrying their moral views into the Presidency.
Yes, Mormon beliefs are weird. But so are the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics and every other Christian denomination. So are the beliefs of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Scientologists, Jains and Sikhs, along with every other religion. And I'll concede they find the beliefs (or lack thereof) of agnostics and atheists to be weird. It all depends on what your starting perspective is.
It should be enough to vote for the person, the party, and/or the platform. Religion should not enter into it. In the case of Mormonism, it does today, at least when running for President. And whatever you might think of Mitt Romney, the USA is worse off when religion becomes a deciding factor in who can become President.
- In my view, a statement which panders unsuccessfully to his evangelical Christian critics and which seems to exclude those with secular or non-religious views entirely from politics.
- An argument can be made that Carter showed the evangelicals what could happen if they united behind a candidate, and in the long term they "rewarded" him by abandoning him for the other party.
- Two constants which will always give many people a negative view of Mormonism and which Mormon candidates will always have to overcome are:
- Mormon missionaries knocking at the door;
- Baptism of the dead, regardless of what their beliefs were in life.