Can America elect a Mormon president?

Mitt Romney’s own party mistrusts his religion
January 25, 2012

A towering complex of granite buildings in downtown Salt Lake City, overlooked by the magnificent Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges, holds the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The streets around Temple Square are so wide they seem deserted even during rush hour; Brigham Young, the city’s founder and president of the church for 30 years until his death in 1877, demanded that the thoroughfares be broad enough for a wagon team to turn round without “resorting to profanity.”

On the second floor of the stately Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the scene is one of meticulously ordered activity. Mormonism has been dubbed “the General Electric of American Religion” and the officials (most are men) who work in its public affairs department exude a quasi-martial discipline. All wear white shirts and neutral ties, have sensible haircuts and are clean-shaven. They have foresworn alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco. They oppose abortion and passionately support “family values.”

A commitment to hard work, education and humanitarian service has made the Mormon church one of the fastest growing on the planet and one of the richest for its size. The church does not publish financial figures, but members suggest that widely quoted estimates of net assets of $25-30bn are “credible.” Over the past decade, Mormons have become prominent nationally, from James Quigley, the former global chief executive of Deloitte, to Stephenie Meyer, author of the multi-million-selling Twilight novels, which many see as reflecting Mormon values, if only in the chastity of the vampire hero, Edward. Harry Reid, Senate majority leader (and a Democrat, from Nevada) is one of 15 Mormon members of Congress.

Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is the frontrunner in the race to win the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November. Though Romney now avoids questions about his religion, he said in 2007, “I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavour to live by it.” If he secures the nomination, let alone the presidency, it will consolidate the church’s place in the front ranks of public life. But there is still a question about whether his religion will be a handicap in reaching those goals, even though he is otherwise the most mainstream of the Republican candidates—and the one most feared by the Obama team.

That is not to say that religion is the electorate’s outstanding issue; the economy tops the polls of voters’ concerns, along with Obama’s performance. But even in a nation whose founding principle is the uniting of many different kinds of people, many Americans think Mormonism is just plain weird. As Jacob Weisberg, the political columnist, put it: “I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism.”

Romney’s fiercest opposition may come from the evangelicals who make up the Republican base. “Evangelical discontent with Mormonism is probably the best explanation of why the Republican primary process has become the circus that it has,” says Mathew Bowman, of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. “They haven’t been ready to fall in behind Romney.” If he fails to win them over, this small but passionate group could even hand victory to Obama in November.

Suspicion of Mormonism begins with the story of its creation in 19th-century upstate New York (see Molly Worthen below). Before Joseph Smith, its founder, became a prophet, he had claimed to be able to find buried treasure—for a fee—using magic stones. The faith’s defining piece of scripture, the Book of Mormon, describes how two groups of Israelites travelled to the Americas in about 2200BC and 600BC, becoming the forebears of the indigenous American peoples. Among its eye-catching beliefs is the assertion that God lives on or near a planet called Kolob. The Mormon practice of wearing special two-piece underwear known as “temple garments” is the staple of comedians. A reputation for strangeness stretches back to the beginning—the villains of the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, scarcely half a century after the creation of the church, are Latter-day Saints who practice kidnapping, murder and enslavement.

Ask people today what they know about Mormonism, and their response is likely to include mention of polygamy, one of the main reasons for widespread misgivings. Smith had between 28 and 33 wives, and Mitt Romney’s own great-grandfather reportedly had up to 12. The Mormon church banned the practice in 1890, claiming divine direction, although the change also paved the way for Utah’s entry into the Union. A small number of splinter sects still practice plural marriage, although according to a recent Pew Research Centre survey only 2 per cent of Mormons now believe it is acceptable. But the association remains hard to erase. In 2006, the Mormon Church blasted the television drama Big Love as “lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.” The show focused on a fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah and carried the tagline “Polygamy loves company.”

Polls show that suspicion persists. In the Pew survey, 32 per cent of non-Mormon Americans said they thought it was not a branch of Christianity, and 17 per cent were not sure. When asked to sum up Mormonism, 24 per cent offered negative words such as “cult” and “polygamy.” Lack of proximity explains some of the sense of strangeness. Seven out of ten Americans say they have never met a Mormon: not surprising, as its followers live in a handful of western states and form just 2 per cent of the US population. Iowa—population 3m—has only 24,000 Mormons.

To raise its profile, the church has launched an advertising campaign that aims to introduce America to individual members of its flock, including celebrities such as Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers. In one online clip, which has been viewed close to 400,000 times, Flowers talks openly about his religion, and how it has surpassed even his music in significance in his life. Extolling the virtues of early marriage, and denying the importance of polygamy to Mormonism, Flowers signs off with the line: “I’m a father, I’m a husband, and I’m a Mormon.”

The business world has welcomed Mormons, responding at least partly to the stereotype that they are people of personal rectitude and commercial acumen. In finance, being Mormon affords a certain cachet—“rather like being Jewish, but taller,” said a 2008 New York Times article. Harvard Business School is jokingly said to be full of “three Ms”: McKinsey, the military, and Mormons. And on another frontline of national competition—football—Brigham Young University, the biggest Mormon college, is famed for producing outstanding quarterbacks.

But the quest for acceptance has succeeded only up to a point, says Richard Ostling, co-author of the book Mormon America. “The Mormons have made real efforts to commend themselves to America, but they still don’t blend into the woodwork,” he says. “They’re good neighbours. They’re willing to help out, they’re morally upstanding, professionally successful; they have an increasingly good image,” he adds. But their distinctive lifestyles mean that they are still seen as “a people apart.”

They are also short of natural political allies. On one side, liberals recoil from the social conservatism. In the 1960s Wallace Turner, a correspondent for the New York Times, drew attention to the Mormon church’s history of discrimination against blacks. It was only in 1978—a full 14 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed—that the church allowed black men to become priests.

The church’s attitude to homosexuality has also enraged gay and lesbian groups. Fred Karger, a Republican and former strategist for presidents Ford, Reagan and George HW Bush, has made himself the first openly gay presidential candidate from a major party (despite receiving 0.1 per cent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, Karger did not give up his nomination bid.) He cites the Mormons’ successful campaign to have gay marriage banned in California in 2008 as evidence of their political designs. It was, he says, was the most overt power-play yet by an organisation that insists it would never seek to place undue influence on a Mormon president, but which has a history of activism on issues ranging from gambling, abortion and pornography to divorce and Sunday closing laws.

“Their agenda is hateful. But they are very smart, very slick and they have lots of money,” said Karger. “And no matter what they tell you, they’re up to their eyebrows in politics.”

Voters may not hold the church’s stance on gay rights against Romney; as governor of Massachusetts, he supported equal job and housing opportunities for homosexuals, although he remains an opponent of gay marriage. But in any case, however much proponents of gay marriage dislike the Mormon church, they are unlikely to vote Republican, notes Alan Wolfe director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College.

Yet there is one important constituency for whom Romney’s religion is a real problem: the evangelicals who make up part of the Republican base. Mormonism is a proselytising faith and its chief competitor for American converts has been the Protestant evangelical movement. They clash in their theology. Take, for instance, the Mormon belief in eternal progression, which holds that a person can evolve spiritually until he attains divinity. To an evangelical, this is a monstrous corruption of God’s word. Evangelicals depict Mormonism as a “dangerous, heretical, schismatic, un-Christian cult,” says Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond.

According to the Pew survey, 47 per cent of white evangelicals say Mormonism is not a Christian religion, while 50 per cent of Mormons believe evangelical Christians are “generally unfriendly” towards members of their faith. In 2007, Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister running against Romney for the 2008 Republican nomination, told the New York Times: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” Some pundits believe that the comment cost Romney the nomination, which went to John McCain. In this year’s race, Robert Jeffress, the evangelical senior pastor of the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas—who endorsed the Texas governor Rick Perry in his bid for the nomination—has called Mormonism “a cult”; the media pounced on the remark.

How important are these views to Romney’s campaign? In November, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that six out of ten Americans did not even know that he was a Mormon (his campaign fliers have mentioned his “deep and abiding faith,” without naming it.) “Compared with 2008, the issue of Romney’s Mormon faith has been subdued,” reported the Washington Post in January.

In an economic slump, voters also appear less attuned to the candidates’ religion than in years past. What Romney says about taxes, unemployment and the US government’s $15 trillion debt is likely to matter far more.

But the Iowa caucus on 3rd January confirmed that Romney’s evangelical problem is still significant. He won the Iowa poll overall, but just 14 per cent of those who describe themselves as either evangelical or born-again Christians backed him. More than twice as many backed Rick Santorum. Analysts, including the political scientist Robert D Putnam, believe that if Romney can negotiate the primaries, then his faith is unlikely to sway the wider electorate —others argue that the lack of evangelical support could hurt him. As Alan Wolfe points out, George W Bush did not become president by extending the appeal of his party. He did so largely because Karl Rove, who masterminded his campaigns, lit a fire under America’s Southern Baptists. “Take a state such as Missouri,” says Wolfe. “If 20,000 Southern Baptists were to stay at home, that could swing the election.”

Corwin Smidt, director of the department of political science at Calvin College, Michigan, echoes this view, arguing that even small differences in turnout and voting patterns could have a dramatic impact on the election: “A shift of 10,000 votes may not be statistically significant in an election in which millions of votes are cast, but given our presidential election system with its electoral college arrangement, any tipping of the balance toward one candidate or the other—particularly within the so-called “battleground states”—can have a significant effect politically.”

Romney may take comfort from the irony that the Republicans most wary of Mormonism are also those most ferociously opposed to the incumbent President. James L Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University, South Carolina, argues that Romney’s faith will have less of a bearing on this race than it did four years ago, because “Republicans of all stripes are much more focused on removing President Obama from the White House, and on economic rather than social issues,” he says. “Although Romney has not been particularly skilful in his efforts to woo the conservative religious community, he will have their solid, if not always enthusiastic, support against the President in November.”

“I hate to say it,” says Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, “but this may all come down to how much [the Republicans] decide they hate Barack Obama.”

And they hate him a lot, says Carlos Eire, a professor at Yale University. “Obama has acquired a nearly apocalyptic dimension in Republican circles. He embodies the decline and possible fall of America. The animosity is deep enough to make any Mormon who is willing to joust with him not only acceptable, but perhaps something of a hero.”