MOUNT VERNON — As Mitt Romney’s challenge to Barack Obama enters its final weeks, one of many stories playing out is his Mormon religion and the impact it may have on the election. Romney is the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to be nominated for president, and comparisons to the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon are unavoidable.
The “Catholic controversy” was a major theme in 1960 as Kennedy sought to become the first Roman Catholic president. Polarization between Protestant and Catholic voters was evident, as Nixon, a Quaker, won the support of 62 percent of Protestants. But Kennedy’s overwhelming 78-percent support from Catholics provided a razor-thin victory.
JFK is the last man to lose Ohio but win the White House. Ohio is certain to again be a pivotal state on Nov. 6, but will Romney’s religion be a major factor? Local civic leader Pat Crow, who is also a Mormon, thinks not.
“When Joe Lieberman ran for vice president (in 2000) there were some anti-Jewish people, and the same will be true with Romney,” Crow said. “But I think most people will vote for the person they believe will do the best job.”
Statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life seem to support that view. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed this summer knew that Romney is a Mormon, and 80 percent said it will not factor into their vote.
Another indicator that people today are more apt to vote on policy than on theology is a look at John Kerry’s 2004 campaign. Like Kennedy, Kerry ran as a Catholic Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, but unlike JFK he was left at the altar. The only “Catholic controversy” was opposition to Kerry’s pro-choice stance by pro-life Catholics. Methodist George W. Bush captured 52 percent of the Catholic vote and won a second term. But had Kerry gotten 60,000 more votes from Ohio’s 5.6 million voters, he would have gained a majority in the all-important Electoral College and become president.
This year, the fact that incumbent Joe Biden and his vice presidential challenger Paul Ryan are both Catholics has hardly created a ripple. Romney has emulated Kennedy and assured voters his religion does not dictate his policies. But in one regard his situation is very different than JFK’s: Nearly a quarter of the votes cast in 1960 were by Catholics, but Mormons represent just 1.7 percent of the U.S. population.
Three in four American Mormons live in Utah or another western state, and fewer than one percent of Ohioans belong to the church. Statistics show that 65 percent of Mormons tend to vote Republican, but Crow pointed out that liberal Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is also a Mormon.
“Not all Mormons will vote for Romney,” Crow said. “We don’t all agree with him, but we feel that we know him. There are a lot of demands on lay people like Mitt who have had leadership roles in our church. They tend to be way above average — people you can trust. When you look at his family life and his success in business, and think about what he did for the Olympics, Romney’s a remarkable man.”
The Pew Forum’s survey revealed a major disconnect between Mormons and mainstream Christians. It found that 97 percent of Mormons, including Romney, self-identify as Christians, while only 50 percent of Protestants and Catholics consider them as such.
“I would have a hard time deciding for someone else if they are a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim,” Crow said. “If believing that Jesus Christ is our savior means you are a Christian, then I am one. There are some major differences in our beliefs, but we also have a lot in common.”
Perceptions among non-Mormons differ. Pew reports that 61 percent say they are “very different” and only 23 percent say they “have a lot in common” with Mormons. Nevertheless, Crow is enthused about Romney’s campaign as a high-profile Mormon and the attention drawn to the church.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about us, and some dark chapters in our past,” he said. “Romney’s nomination is an opportunity for our church to normalize itself with the community as a whole. If his father (the late Michigan Governor George Romney) had been nominated in 1968, he would have had a very hard time of it, but the country has changed.”
The Church of Latter Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, and his followers soon began to migrate west because of religious persecution. Smith was killed by an Illinois mob in 1844 after he was accused of treason and jailed. Uncertainty about leadership succession led to divisions within the church and three years passed before Brigham Young became president.
Young founded Salt Lake City and led the church for 30 years. During that time he made two decisions that would cloud Mormon history with controversy. He established polygamy as an official church institution, and barred African Americans from the priesthood. Polygamy was accepted among Mormons until the practice was disavowed in 1890, and blacks were admitted to the priesthood in 1978.
With few exceptions, American presidents have been practicing Christians. The beliefs of several early chief executives, notably Thomas Jefferson, leaned toward Deism. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft were Unitarians. Abraham Lincoln read the Bible and spoke often of God, but like his successor, Andrew Johnson, he did not belong to a church. Dwight Eisenhower was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness but converted to Presbyterianism. And now Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have squared off.
Obama was a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ for 20 years, but a persistent minority of Americans — 17 percent according to the Pew Forum — contend he is a closeted Muslim. Obama left his Chicago congregation in 2008 amid controversy over the views of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but has repeatedly reaffirmed his Christian faith.
Both candidates will doubtless lose some votes in November because of their religious backgrounds or their polar-opposite positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. In 2012, a third of Mormons question whether America is ready for a Mormon president, just as some Americans wondered in 2008 if an African American could attain the office.
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