After Mitt Romney announced this week that he would not seek reelection as governor of Massachusetts, the Washington Post briefly mentioned what could be Romney’s biggest hurdle in a presidential run: “Another problem could be his Mormon faith — which strategists say might turn off some evangelical Christian voters.” Accompanying its front page article on the announcement, the Boston Globe speculated about Romney’s “viability.” The Globe listed “overcoming prejudices about his religion” among two other deficiencies, foreign policy inexperience and being perceived as a Northeast liberal. And over at NRO’s The Corner, where writers have taken a particular interest in Romney, his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) became topic A. So what is Romney’s Mormon problem?
In short, much of this thoroughly Christian country has a thing against the Mormon faith. As NR‘s John Miller reminded readers in his Romney profile earlier this year, a 1999 Gallup poll found that while only 6 percent of Americans refuse to vote for a Jew and 4 percent a Catholic, 17 percent rule out Mormons on their ballots.
Some have dismissed this animus as the Globe did: another prejudice Americans will overcome, like racism. Ted Kennedy took that route in an interview with the Atlantic Monthly this year, bringing up Romney’s faith and then dismissing it. “We’ve moved on,” he said. “That died with my brother Jack.” If only Teddy had been so outspoken when Romney was smeared in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race.
While some reluctance toward a Mormon president may be reactionary, many Americans will have legitimate, rational questions about Mormonism that they have already answered about Catholicism. They’ll want to know if Mormons are indeed Christians, as the LDS Church says. President Gordon B. Hinckley adamantly maintains Mormons’ Christianity: “Are we Christians? Of course we are! No one can honestly deny that.”
Yet beyond Christian-sounding platitudes, the Mormon version of Christianity is pretty novel. To Mormons, the Book of Mormon is equivalent to, if not preeminent over, the Bible. Joseph Smith said, “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” Mormons reject the Holy Trinity, instead believing God, Son, and Holy Spirit to be separate beings. People preexisted as God’s “spirit children” until we assumed human bodies on Earth. Adam is the same person as Michael the Archangel. Married couples can become gods in the afterlife.
LDS moral teachings will likely displease social conservatives when they learn the church’s position on abortion sounds more like a political compromise than a well-reasoned moral teaching. “There is seldom any excuse for abortion,” LDS teaches, except when the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, the “life or health” of the mother is in “jeopardy,” or the child has “severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.” In Romney’s defense, though, Grover Norquist argues in our December/January issue that some social conservatives like Chuck Colson can back Romney because he supports the Defense of Marriage Act.
The church’s policies on blacks and polygamy, while in the past, could rankle many conservatives and liberals alike. Brigham Young banned blacks from the priesthood in 1852. In his Journal of Discourses, Young affirmed the “curse of Cain,” the Mormon doctrine that blacks bear the fallen brother’s punishment: “The Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin.” It wasn’t until 1978 that LDS President Spencer W. Kimball (co-signing with counselors N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney, a second cousin of Gov. Romney) announced that God had revealed all “worthy male members” could now be ordained “without regard for race or color.”
Polygamy was revealed as licit by God to Joseph Smith in the early days of the Church, and then revealed as illicit by God to President Wilford Woodruff in the 1890 “Manifesto.” It thrives to this day in Utah — some estimate there are as many as 50,000 — and polygamists claim to be following the true, original teachings of the LDS. Their foremost historical figures and prophets were inexhaustible practitioners of “The Principle.” Joseph Smith took dozens of wives, often claiming that he was commanded to do so by the Almighty Himself. Brigham Young followed suit, marrying as many as 27 women.
Forget about the press’s old maxim, “Does it play well in Peoria?” This doesn’t play well in Colorado Springs or in your local church. If there’s any doubt, look at the 2004 National Day of Prayer, when Mormons asked to offer a prayer. Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson, said no. These aren’t small matters, especially to evangelical Christians. The press will report them as soon they take Romney seriously. The country may not openly discuss the Mormon faith when it considers Romney’s candidacy, but you can bet they’ll be whispering about it. And it will play a role.