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The Mormon Factor: The Debate Continues


Earlier in the week, I argued that Romney’s Mormonism made him a risky choice to nominate. While I would have no objection to having a Mormon president, the number of voters who would seems to be significant, and Republicans have little if any margin of error this year. A Mormon reader objected to my line of argument, and I posted his letter with a response.

That got me another good email from a Mormon reader:

I have always been proud to be a reader of National Review. Your magazine converted me to conservatism during the 2004 elections. I subscribed almost a month ago. And I have always, always read from its pages that pandering and bending with the wind were not our positions. That bowing to the lunatic fringe wasn’t something that we were willing to do, because we had principles. Is it worth the occasional liability to hold to those principles, not to mention the Constitution (no religious test for office)? How desperate do we have to be before we sink to the level of those who will say anything to get a vote?

I’m not that desperate. Some liabilities are rarely as necessary as standing against bigotry and ignorance. Even if it costs us 2008. At least we will have no need to be ashamed of ourselves.

Lowell, at Article VI blog, also writes about this debate:

Ponnuru is arguing for pragmatism over principle:  “The country’s not  ready for a Mormon president; it shouldn’t be that way, but it is, so let’s just acquiesce to that prejudice.”

Since when is that conservative thinking?  I remember during the early days of the Reagan Revolution, when Republicans who wanted to compromise on principle were labeled “prags” (short for “pragmatist”).  As John has argued for months now on this blog, once conservatives — especially religious conservative like Ponnuru– start to accept such morally lame reasoning, we open the door to the same reasoning being used against other religious candidates.

Let’s play my favorite religious-bias game with the Ponnuru pull-quote above:  Imagine we are in a time when anti-Catholic or even anti-Evangelical bias is running high.  Then replace the word “Mormon” in the quote with “Catholic” or “Evangelical.”  How does that feel?

(The whole thing’s in italics in the original.)

As I said, I don’t share the concerns of voters who don’t want to have a Mormon president. (Neither do I categorically dismiss those concerns as bigoted.)

But let’s be clear-eyed and honest here. It has never been a conservative principle that voters should not take candidates’ religion into account, and it has certainly never been a conservative principle that we should nominate people without regard to whether their religion poses a political problem. Lowell’s thought experiment isn’t really all that hypothetical, after all. The Republican party has never nominated a Catholic for president, and for large parts of American history that was the reasonable thing to do. (Should we have run a Catholic in 1860?) The Constitution, meanwhile, does not compel people to ignore candidates’ religion in the voting booth, nor does it compel primary voters to ignore the political impact of their religion in a general election.

I found another email more persuasive:

Regarding Romney’s Mormon problem (he’s my guy this year): I respect your pragmatic take that his religion could cause him problems, so he should be damaged goods to people who want a winner.

This leaves out some important history. Namely that it wasn’t a problem when he was elected governor of MA. If left-liberals are the most hostile anti-Mormons in the country, and if they elected Romney Governor even after having just had three prior controversial GOP governors, I’d say that it isn’t really that potent a factor.

That’s a good point, and it does tell against my argument for worrying about Romney as the nominee. But it doesn’t quite wipe out my concern. It could be that a candidate’s religion will play differently in a presidential and a gubernatorial election, either because people pay more attention to the race or because the presidency has more symbolic importance, or for some other reason.

It could also be true–I suspect that it is true–that liberals react more negatively to Mormonism when it is attached to a socially conservative candidate, such as Romney today, than to a socially liberal one, such as Romney in 2002. (That is to say, I suspect that liberals would react more negatively to a pro-life Mormon than to a pro-life Episcopalian.)

As I said, though, I hope I’m wrong, and I would certainly be prepared to argue that voters should be willing to have a Mormon president–especially if Romney ends up winning the nomination.