Politics & Policy

Latter-Day Politics

Is Mitt Romney's religion a problem?

Last week, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced that he will not run for reelection, increasing speculation that he will run in the 2008 Republican primary for president.

Romney is Mormon. He has other obstacles, mind you-like winning over conservatives after running and winning and governing in the bluest of blue states–but some have suggested that his religion makes him a non-starter.

When asked about the religion thing by an Atlantic Monthly reporter profiling Romney earlier this year, Massachusetts Democrat Senator Edward M. Kennedy replied, “We’ve moved on. That died with my brother Jack.”

Nice sentiment, Senator, but not quite. In fact, it was Ted Kennedy himself who, when Romney challenged him for his Senate seat in 1994, tried using Romney’s Mormonism against him.

It was so bad that Saturday Night Live parodied it. Here’s how the Boston Globe wrote it up:

A “Mitt Romney ad” opens with a very unflattering picture of Sen. Ted Kennedy, camera slowly zooming in on Kennedy’s face, ending with an extreme close-up of his eyes and nose as the narrator says:

“On October 14th, 1978 Ted Kennedy is seen puking in the parking lot of the U.S. Capitol. On February 8th, 1983 Kennedy relieves himself on the leg of a Georgetown waitress. Three years later Kennedy passes out on the floor of the Senate–soiling himself in the process. Kennedy. He’s a big fat drunk.”

A “Kennedy response ad” opens with a picture of Brigham Young. Narrator: “Mormon prophet Brigham Young believed that a man ought to have as many wives as he wants.” Young and Romney pictures appear side by side: Narrator continues: “Apparently Mitt Romney agrees. After all, he’s a Mormon.” Cut to picture of Kennedy with his new wife. Written words appear on screen: “Kennedy. One wife at a time.”

Romney has one wife–his high-school sweetheart, Ann, with whom he has five sons. So, this juvenile stuff is the real non-starter, right?

Only time will tell. According to a 1999 Gallup poll, 17 percent of those surveyed said they would not support a Mormon for president (compared with six percent who would rule out a Jew and four percent a Catholic).

Michael Cromartie directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. I asked him for his thoughts on Romney and how his religion might play in a potential campaign for the Republican nomination for president in 2008.

KJL: Do evangelicals specifically think of Mormonism as a cult? Is there something legit there?

Michael Cromartie: Most evangelicals do perceive Mormonism to be a cult and are deeply troubled by its theology. But this does not mean they would not vote for someone like Governor Romney. They admire his record and they agree with his conservatism on moral, social, and cultural issues. Given a choice between Hillary Clinton versus Governor Romney for President, evangelicals know how to bracket aside their theological differences with the governor and would support him because of his positions on the social issues.

KJL: Ted Kennedy used Romney’s religion against him in 1994. Wouldn’t people recoil a bit from it if it were tried again? Or is that wishful thinking?

Cromartie: While many religious conservatives may have qualms with aspects of Mormon theology, they have even greater problems with religious bigotry and intolerance. Any candidate that chooses to attack his faith in a personal fashion will surely run the risk of a backlash.

KJL: Is it significant that Harry Reid is a Mormon, and so is Orrin Hatch–that prominent politicians have already become prominent despite being Mormon?

Cromartie: Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch are from parts of the country where there is a heavy population of Mormons. That is different than running for national office where more people might have concerns and questions about Mormon theology.

KJL: Do you hear positive or negative or lukewarm things about Romney when you get into ‘08 conversations?

Cromartie: I hear positive comments about Governor Romney as a person of integrity, and as a successful economic, political, and social conservative in a very blue state. I hear very lukewarm comments about the governor when it comes to his religious tradition. Evangelicals admire the governor but find Mormonism to be a strange and baffling abberation of the historic Christian faith.

KJL: What would you advise Romney deal with his religion when talking to groups, reporters?

Cromartie: Romney very much needs to do what John Kennedy did in 1960 in front of the Southern Baptists in Houston: Explain how he understands his faith and its application to his view of politics and public policy. He especially needs to articulate what the Mormon faith tradition’s understanding of church and state is and how it applies to important issues of today. It is not at all clear that Mormons have views on church and state issues that are any different than the general understanding of most traditional Catholics and Protestants.

KJL: Would the religion thing play differently in the primaries? Say, could conservatives lay down their concerns because of issues they agree with him on but then the Mormon Factor play more of a negative role in the general election?

Cromartie: I believe the “Mormon factor” will play a more negative role in the national, general election. But Governor Romney is a smart man and smart politician. I am sure he will address, early on, concerns about the “Mormon factor.” In fact, I suspect that speech has already been written or is being crafted even as we speak.

KJL: How important is religion in general in elections?

Cromartie: The religious faith of candidates, especially presidential candidates have become more and more important. A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey last summer indicated that an overwhelming majority of Americans, for some reason, want their presidents to be religious and a “person of faith.” This is why, late in the campaign, Senator Kerry started talking more and more about his Catholic faith. But it was too late and many perceived it as contrived.

KJL again: Even with a good candidate and the power of the fear of President Hillary, if I were a Romney adviser, I would not discount the power of prayer.


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