Conventional wisdom holds that Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was a boat anchor that reduced his potential support among Republican primary voters in 2008, and could undermine his campaign in the 2012 general election. This concern declined as Romney won solid primary victories and rapidly consolidated Republican support. Recent polls show him running neck and neck with President Obama in the November election.
But Romney’s faith could still be a factor—and one that helps him, not hurts him. Romney’s membership in a minority religious community with a history of suffering—very real and very recent religious persecution—opens up an opportunity for him to connect with voters as a credible advocate for the religious liberty of all Americans.
The modern Democrat party openly boasts that it will win in 2012 by dividing Americans—black against white; immigrant against native-born; poor against rich—with the “Buffett rule” and rhetoric against the “one percent.” That said, Obama has been in one key aspect the unifying President he claims to be. He and the aggressively secular left have in effect created an ecumenical movement in defense of religious liberty.
This has been most dramatically visible in Obamacare’s demand that Roman Catholic hospitals and charities—in the words of the letter read to most American Catholic parishes on Sunday, February 5—“be forced to offer their employees health coverage that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception.”
The letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also insists that “The federal government, which claims to be ‘of, by, and for the people’ has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people—the Catholic population.” It further states, “We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens.”
Obama’s fight is not just with Catholics. As the letter stresses, “We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom.”
On a social-networking site, the evangelical Protestant Rev. Rick Warren posted, “I’m not a Catholic but I stand in 100 percent solidarity with my brothers and sisters to practice their belief against govt pressure,” and “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29.”
At a conservative conference, Mike Huckabee said, “I remember very vividly when John F. Kennedy said that we are all Berliners. Well in many ways, thanks to President Obama, we are all Catholics now.”
Parallels with events that led to the Reagan victory in 1980 are dramatic. In the late 1970s the “religious right” of Falwell and Robertson fame developed when the Carter administration threatened to withdraw the tax deductibility of contributions to Christian private schools, and to use the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” to close Christian radio stations. Some argue those threats were exaggerated. But at the time, they were seen as very real. And, left unchallenged, Carter might have followed through on them in a second term.
As such, BCEC’s—Big City Ethnic Catholics—became available to Reagan and Republicans when they perceived hostility to Roman Catholic traditions and a strong pro-abortion movement within the Democrat party. That sense of embattlement, and the contempt establishment Democrats showed to southern Baptists and northern Catholics, drove many to begin to break free from the once-secure political moorings that flowed from the Civil War and the immigrant experience. In that way, the secular left created the religious right.
The new alliance was successful when it played defense and demanded religious liberty—the right to be left alone. When it was viewed as threatening or promoting one faith over others, it became a political liability and faltered. The 1980s debate over prayer in public schools highlights the difference. Many politicians looked at polling data that showed overwhelming public support for “prayer in school,” so they jumped on the bandwagon. But whose prayer? Religious minorities feared their faiths and children would be marginalized. Despite 90 percent support in theory, the issue could not get traction in Congress. But when the focus shifted to school choice and home-schooling, religious minorities were empowered rather than threatened. That movement for parental choice in education has united parents of all faiths and has made great inroads, most recently in Indiana and Louisiana.
THE MODERN DEMOCRAT PARTY is run by clever folks, but ones who are blinded by their own ignorance of and contempt for the various communities of faith. They expect them to be divided by their theological differences rather than united by a commitment to the First Amendment. (Democrats always seem to miss the power of the next amendment on the list as well.) They missed the storm petrels that foretold the 1980 Reagan win, and they are ignoring through mockery the concerns that Catholics and others now have about religious liberty.
A recent example of how religious minorities see an attack on one as an attack on all followed the campaign in the spring of 2010 to forbid the establishment of an Islamic Center in New York City. Channeling Martin Niemöller’s famous “first they came for…” lament, the Jewish Daily Forward published on August 11, 2010 a story titled “When Shuls were Banned in America.” The article explains that the 17th-century governor of New Amsterdam (now New York City) wanted to bar Jewish refugees, but he settled for a ban on synagogues instead. Jews were to practice their faith “in all quietness” and “within their houses.” In 1685, with the British now in control, New York City’s Common Council refused a request for a synagogue: “Publique worship is tolerated…but to those that professe faith in Christ.”
Ten days later—on August 21, 2010—the Salt Lake Tribune ran the headline “Living History: Mormonism’s ‘9/11 mosque moment’ came in 1903.” The anti-Mormon bigotry had surged in response to LDS apostle Reed Smoot’s appointment by the state legislature as U.S. Senator from Utah. Amid the drama, which included a national petition campaign and a four-year delay in seating Smoot in the Senate, the mayor of New York banned Mormon missionaries from preaching in his city.
Those on the left who are hostile to religious belief of any flavor see themselves as an embattled minority, and “organized religion” as the 800-pound gorilla. Thus they fail to understand that every single religious sect in America views itself as a minority with its own history of being picked on. According to 2008 statistics from the American Religious Identification Survey, the largest religious minority in the country is Roman Catholics, with 57 million adult members, or 25 percent of the adult population. There are 36 million adult Baptists (15.8 percent); 11 million adult Methodists (5 percent); 8.6 million adult Lutherans (3.8 percent); and 2.4 million adult Episcopalians/Anglicans (1.1 percent). Mormon adults weigh in at 3.1 million (1.4 percent); Jewish adults at 2.6 million (1.2 percent); and Muslim adults at 1.3 million (0.6 percent). Those who refuse to identify themselves as affiliated with any particular faith number 34 million (15 percent). Of those, 1.6 percent call themselves agnostic or atheist.
As Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition and now chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, points out, “The Obama administration’s hostility to religious liberty gives Romney a unique opportunity to appeal to evangelicals, Roman Catholics and others as a member of a religious minority that has experienced persecution and shares a fear of government oppression.”
Mitt Romney, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a.k.a. the Mormon Church, has street cred when it comes to unifying all faiths in defense of religious liberty. Mormons live in Utah and not New York, Illinois, or Missouri, because folks were shooting at them as they headed west. In 1838 Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs actually issued an order that said Mormons “must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” That fatwa was not formally undone until 1976 when Republican governor Kit Bond did so at the request of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.