Is Romney Mormonism’s JFK?

After his successes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is two crucial steps closer to clinching the 2012 Republican … Continued

After his successes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is two crucial steps closer to clinching the 2012 Republican nomination. Though hampered throughout the 2008 election by a Mormon faith that was ridiculed by Mike Huckabee and others, Romney’s religion seems less of an issue this time around-at least so far.

There’s a key historical parallel here, but it’s not the obvious one that everyone seems to making, including Romney himself. Romney is no JFK, a candidate who was able to rise above the cloud of a highly suspect religious faith by virtue of sheer New England charm and a dynastic war chest. No, Romney’s story more closely resembles that of Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic candidate who was the first Catholic to have a legitimate shot at the presidency.

It’s hard for contemporary Americans to imagine how widespread anti-Catholic prejudice was, even into the 1920s. In 1921, a Catholic priest was murdered by a Methodist minister while the former relaxed on his front porch in Birmingham, Alabama; in 1922, voters in Oregon tried to put Catholic schools out of business by insisting on mandatory public education. And in 1925, anti-Catholicism was one of several factors at play in the immigration quotas approved by Congress, which allowed for sometimes ten times as many immigrants from Protestant, Western European nations as the predominantly Catholic ones of southern and Eastern Europe.

Today at the Library of Congress Web site you can read some of the era’s anti-Catholic screeds online, including the 1928 pamphlet “Roman Catholics in America Falsifying History and Poisoning the Minds of Protestant School-children,” which alleged that stealthy Jesuits were sneaking pro-Catholic textbooks into public schools. The timing of the pamphlet was no accident. Alarmed by Al Smith’s candidacy, anti-Catholicism reached a fever pitch that year. Moreover, it was successful: not only did Smith lose to Hoover by a substantial margin, but five states in the “solid South” transformed themselves from Democrat to Republican to avoid the dangerous specter of a Catholic president.

The lesson for Romney is clear, and depressing. Smith tried to run for president before a number of critical shifts occurred in American history that made Catholicism not just accepted, but mainstream. The most significant of these happened in the 1940s, when Catholics proved their American commitments on the battlefield. This was the most direct and unforgettable answer to charges that a Catholic would obey the Vatican before the Constitution. That wasn’t the pope that Catholic Americans were dying for on the beaches of Normandy; it was the United States of America.

JFK benefited from the nation’s appreciation for Catholic loyalty in wartime–a boon that will not be available to Romney–and from a demographic trend that won’t help Romney one bit either. Between a fifth and a quarter of Americans call themselves Catholic (and did in 1960), but just under two percent of Americans self-identify as Mormon, less than a tenth of the Catholic presence.

In short, Romney has his work cut out for him. For a Mormon to win the presidency in 2012–when fewer than one in fifty Americans is LDS and 17 percent of voters surveyed by CNN in October said they would not be likely to support a Mormon candidate–will take a full-on miracle.

But there are silver linings that the candidacy of Romney, like that of Al Smith, will help to pave the way for a successful Mormon candidate for president later down the road. That 17 percent figure? That’s down significantly from the quarter of Americans who reported just a few months earlier that they were not likely to vote for a Mormon. Progress in religious tolerance happens incrementally, but it does happen.

Jana Riess has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University. She is the author of “Flunking Sainthood” and numerous other books, and is currently co-organizing a conference at Columbia on February 3-4 about Mormonism and American politics. She blogs at

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  • Tornogal

    What never seems asked in there Mormon-written pieces is WHY so many Americans are leery of the Mormon faith and WHY so many would not support a Mormon in a run for president.

    Well, I am one of those people. And here is why.

    1. The LDS church is selective in its disclosure of its history including this bit: Joseph Smith used staring in a hat a “magic seer stone” to hunt for buried treasure. He always failed, of course, and was arrested for the practice. He later used that same stone to “translate” the Book of Mormon. Well researched documents are abundantly available on the Internet showing overt efforts by the church to tell only part of its story and to hide the parts that are not “faith promoting.” A revealing body of thought has developed called “Lying for the Lord,” which is the practice of Mormon leadership to not tell the whole truth to protect the religion.

    2. Despite many archaeological expeditions, not ONE SHRED of evidence of the enormous civilizations described in the Book of Mormon has been found. It tells of enormous civilizations in Mesoamerica, for which NO evidence has been found. It also tells of animals and plants not found in the region. More, it was supposedly written in “Reformed Egyptian,” a language never seen before or since. And the golden plates on which the book was supposedly found were conveniently taken by and angel and hidden in a mountain in upstate New York, never to be seen again. I cannot trust as my president someone with such poor critical thinking skills as to believe all that.

    3. The Mormon church has a recent history of intense bigotry. Blacks were not allowed to fully participate until 1978, well into Romney’s adulthood. And there is no evidence this man objected in any way to that policy. And more, recent LDS church activities regarding Proposition 8 ended up in the church being penalized for inappropriate conduct. I do not want a bigot as president.

    4. The Mormon church reveals nothing of its enormous fi

  • imthegil

    Freedom of religion was huge for the founding of America, so why religion is a big issue. Why can’t voters just vote for the merits of how a candidate best apply himself. American employers don’t ever ask the applicant’s religion for fear of being sued for discrimination. If all being equal, that can be a big lawsuit against the voting citizens of this nation. You’re hiring the next President of the United States. How are you going to hire?

  • WmarkW

    A candidate’s religion is only an issue to the extent he makes it one. Since Mitt Romney doesn’t go around saying “the government should do X, Y, Z because the LDS church teaches it,” then his religion is a private matter between himself, his family and congregation.

  • GrizzlyBear1

    A very good opinion piece. I enjoyed it.

    The Mormon Quest for the Presidency: From Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, a book that came out last year, actually makes reference to Al Smith and John F. Kennedy and asks whether Romney will be Smith or Kennedy.

    The authors suggest that while Romney’s first presidential run, as well as his father’s and other earlier Mormons, might be along the lines of Al Smith, the present presidential campaign could actually be more like Kennedy’s

  • GrizzlyBear1

    Your assertion that Mormons try to hide their history is laughable. Mormon authors like Richard Bushman have discussed Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone in a hat, as well as other aspects of Mormon history that might seem strange or questionable to outsiders.

    The so-called paltry donations in hummanitarian aid is incorrect. Take a look at the worlwide efforts by the Mormon church. In fact, after the devestating earthquakes in Haiti, the LDS Church went in and started providing aid. A number of haitians commented that the best organizations providing aid were the LDS Church and the Mormons (they ddin’t realize it was the same organization).

    Escapees from Mormonism? Really? Are you serious? There’s no big wall around Utah or anywhere else where the Mormons are. There are no evil elders who track so-called escapees down and get them. Stop reading the silly exposees and stuff like “Trapped by the Mormons.” Enough with the dumb sterotypes that usually only fool ignorant people.

  • Secular1

    Personally speaking the candidates religion is of little concern to me. To me everyone is wedded to some ind of silly sets of superstitions. Perhaps one a bit different from the others. The jewish ones are silly, then christian ones are sillier and mormon ones are even more sillier. As the succeeding ones have the burden of the old superstitions but added burden of additional superstitions.

    My problem with Willard is that, he considers that unless one partakes in superstition, whatever kind it may be, one cannot be a patriot or fully qualified person – per his 2008 speech promoted as Romney’s JFK speech. He failed miserably on that front. But above all his changing positions on every aspect of policy judgements, without any life experience or event that would prompt the changes, except the expediency of getting elected.

  • WmarkW

    His business record is a perfectly valid reason one might oppose his candidacy.

    Religious affiliation isn’t.

  • coltakashi93

    Jana, I think the difference between Al Smith and Romney is that the opposition to Smith was stronger among the opposing party, and the anti-Catholics among the Democrats preferred throwing the election to a Republican than support a Catholic. That is not the demographics of the current situation.

    We have a Republican Party that is fine with Catholics, and where a minority has problems with a Mormon, BUT even people who think Mormons are a “cult” have stated they would rather put a Mormon in the White House than continue with someone who is a “semi-Muslim”. On the other hand, the opposition to Mormons in the Democratic Party is basically identical to the opposition to Evengelical Christians. In other words, in the general election, being a Mormon is not going to be a relative disadvantage for the Republican candidate, since he can count on basically the same partisan lineup among both Democrats and Republicans as an Evangelical candidate would get. So the main question is whether Romney can win the nomination.

    I think one thing you should note is that in New Hampshire, between Romney and Huntsman, Mormon candidates got 56% of the votes! That is in a state with about 1/2 of 1% Mormons. There was no visible religious bias there, and exit polls indicated that the majority of evangelicals actually voted for Romney.

    I think there is another factor at work. Some of the survey datsa analyzed in the book American Grace indicates that members of Evangelical churches are willing to admit by about 70% that people NOT in their faith tradition can still get to heaven. The figure for Mormons was 100%, which is in line with Mormon theology, but the Evangelical number is totally inconsistent with the teachings of most of their pastors. A group of Evangelical pastors was confgeronted with this number, and they were devasted that their congregants disagreed so strongly with their teachings about the dichotomy and chance for salvation between Evangelicals and others.

    If the ac

  • coltakashi93

    Ezra Taft Benson came to Japan when I was a missionary there. The Japanese members in the Otaru branch met him at the train station and he took them by the hand and walked with them all the way to the building we were using to meet in. It was in pretty bad shape, and he took action to get funding for a new chapel, which was under construction a year later. He had lived through World War II when Japanese were demonized, but he embraced the Japanese people he met there and cared about them having a decent place to worship in.

    You know darn well that Romney does not practice astrology, and he makes his decisions carefully with all of the skills he learned at Harvard Business School and with consideration for all sides of an issue that he learned at Harvard Law School. He became a millionaire not through an inheritance but because he was a smart person whose advice was sought by his peers. People literally bet millions of dollars on the soundness of romney’s judgment. How many people would be willing to invest a million dollars of their money with you?

    Back in 1841, Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde went to Jerusalem to pray for the return of the Jews, as prophesied in the Bible. He was 50 years ahead of the Zionist movement. The Mormons did not go out and try to influence world events to get the jews to return to Palestine. They had faith that God would be able to continue to fulfill his own prophecies. And they still do. By the same token, Mormons agree with Evangelicals that America has a moral obligation to help protect Israel, the one full democracy in the Middle East, and an ally with the US, against the terrorists that threaten its survival. Mormons don’t think an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would be good for the US or the world.

  • LJSki

    You are correct regarding religious affiliation being an invalid reason to oppose anyone’s candidacy. You should also add that any religious minister teaching otherwise is speaking out of self interest. Paid ministers view Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) as a threat to their vocation. Plain and simple. The fact is, if they are opening their mouths to even whisper about religious precepts,they have a conflict of interests. In other words, if the interest is money, talk business. If the interest is God, talk religion. Taking a paycheck for something that is supposed to be free? That’s bogus. Talking dirt abot the next guy’s faith while taking that check? Well, if people can’t see through that one, then they have truly failed the IQ test in the most remarkable way imaginable.

    As for business records, I suppose you’ll instead favor candidates that DON’T have a business record at all? As for me, I’ll be voting for the smartest guy in the room. To me, that’s the one that knows how to make the most money…and keep it. Yes, you might have noticed the 15% tax bracket of Romney, vs the 20% + of others in the public view (except John Kerry, who was lower). Once again, I’m voting for the guy that is the MOST skilled at keeping the government’s hands OFF his money. I’ll take someone like that all day, every day over any idiot candidate that would argue that Romney should have been paying more taxes, or making less money. Very bizzare thinking out there. Sounds a bit like criticizing a coach that went for another touchdown in the last 3 minutes of the game, even though the team was leading by 21. Are even the 2nd and 3rd string players supposed to just stop being so good, so the other team doesn’t feel bad about losing? Losing has merit. It teaches hard life lessons on what works, and what doesn’t. The winners don’t always win, but they always take a lesson from a loss. The only “losers” are those that don’t care to find

  • LJSki

    Ever change your mind about something important? I’m betting you have. Probably many, many times. That’s ok though, because I’m sure you can fully support the reasons for those changes, right? Often, I hear these criticisms about people making good changes (which, in politics is called “flip-flopping”.) Sounds bad when you call it that, doesn’t it? But in truth, when I read the harsh criticisms and the labels applied to people who change their minds in a good way, it just makes me smile and feel right at home, like I’m having a chat with my kids. That same smile I had for your comments also appears for my kids when they try to argue that I can’t change my position in parental matters. Ex: “But you said I wouldn’t have to wear my coat today!”…To which I would, of course supply them my reasons for the change, including the weather report, all while reaffirming that my new decision would be the relevant decision – and not the old decision. Honestyl, I would be more concerned about a person that can not, or will not move away from a bad position. Call it political expediency, or call it plain ol’ human intelligence. Just different labels, man. We all naturally seek the position which gives us an advantage, or appears to be superior. It works in battle, in finding a mate, in education, in job hunting, in career building. You want a guy that sticks to his bad positions, no matter what? Good luck with that one General Custer.
    As for the religious question and statements about “silly superstition” – well, there’s plenty in the world that may accurately qualify as “silly”. However, describing spirituality as “silly” reminds me again of my kids – this time at the dinner table. Scenario: New item on the menu. Kids: “That’s gross, that’s disgusting, I’m not eating that!” Parents: “Ok, how do you know it’s gross and disgusting?” Kids: “because it LOOKS gross and disgusting!” Parents: “Ok, so tell you what – you try it just this once. If you really can’t