MITT ROMNEY'S Mormonism threatens his presidential candidacy in the same way that John F. Kennedy's Catholicism did when he ran for president in 1960. Overt and covert references to Romney's religion -- subtle whispering as well as unabashed inquiries about the controversial sect he belongs to -- plague his campaign. None of his responses so far have silenced the skeptics.
Recent polls indicate that from 25% to 35% of registered voters have said they would not consider voting for a Mormon for president, and conventional wisdom from the pundits suggests that Romney's biggest hurdle is his faith. Everyone seems eager to make his Mormonism an issue, from blue state secularists to red state evangelicals who view the religion as a non-Christian cult.
All of which raises the question: Are we religious bigots if we refuse to vote for a believing Mormon? Or is it perfectly sensible and responsible to be suspicious of a candidate whose creed seems outside the mainstream or tinged with fanaticism?
Ironically, Romney is the only candidate in the race (from either party) who has expressed discomfort with the idea of religion infecting the national dialogue. While his GOP rivals have been pandering to the evangelical arm of the party, Romney actually committed himself (during the first Republican debate) to the inviolable separation of church and state.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 17, 2007 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Politics and Mormonism: A June 10 Opinion article about Mitt Romney and Mormonism said the movie "September Dawn" opens in a few weeks. It is scheduled to open Aug. 24.
To understand Romney and the unique political obstacle his religion imposes, and to determine if the Mormon vision for America has relevance in a 21st century presidential campaign, one must explore the fundamentals of the religion -- both where it's been and where it is today. The Mormon Church -- officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- is perceived as a fringe religion by many Americans, yet it is perhaps the most homegrown of American faiths. Founded in 1830 in upstate New York by a charismatic farm boy named Joseph Smith Jr. -- the sect's "prophet, seer and revelator" -- the religion was not Judaic, Christian or even monotheistic, at least not in any traditional sense.
Smith claimed to have received divine revelations from an angel named Moroni, who visited him and directed him to restore God's true religion on Earth -- to gather the lost tribes of Israel and establish the new Zion in North America. His proposed theocracy of evangelical socialism -- a precursor to Marxian communism -- offered a seductive utopia in a moment of theological and political schism.
But from the beginning, Smith and his "Latter-day Saints" drew hostility from the outside world. Controversial, communal, secretive and acquisitive, its doctrines thick with unorthodox practices -- including polygamy, blood atonement, secret sacraments and consecration of property -- the church routinely met with antagonism and even violence. Like other new religions of the day, it had its share of fanaticism and, along with other millennialist movements, it inspired a holy war passion in many of its adherents.
There exists a popular misconception that Romney is the first Mormon to run for president. In fact, he is the fifth. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), former Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) and Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney, also sought the job.
In fact, in 1844, Smith announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, advocating theocratic rule for the entire nation. Challenging the Whig and Democratic parties, he advocated what he called a "theo-democracy where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteous matters."
Smith was commander in chief of an "army of God," composed of well-trained and armed church members, that was nearly one-quarter the size of the U.S. Army. He also was secretly married to nearly 50 women (a condition that would certainly be a serious impediment to a candidate running today). He prophesied the overthrow of the U.S. government.
But Smith's candidacy came to an end that summer when he was shot to death in Illinois by an anti-Mormon vigilante mob. "I am going like a lamb to slaughter.... My blood shall cry from the ground for vengeance," he said before his death.
Brigham Young ascended as president of the church, moved his flock to a new Zion in Utah and built what continues to be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. Today, the church claims about 13 million members.