One non-Protestant has been elected president in our history. Mitt Romney is being urged to follow John F. Kennedy’s example and make a speech taking the “Mormon issue” head on. It is bad advice. Kennedy sought to defuse anti-Catholicism by essentially saying that for purposes of public life he wouldn’t be a Catholic. If Romney follows suit, he will be calling his integrity into question. A man so frequently accused of flip-flopping cannot flip-flop about his religion.
Nor should Romney denounce anti-Mormon bigotry. Accusing people who are so far withholding their votes of bigotry is not likely to persuade them to change their minds. Few people who oppose Romney because he is a Mormon are going to come around. Romney’s problem, and his opportunity, is a different group of people: those who are not hostile to Mormons but find Mormonism unfamiliar and strange.
Romney need not go into the details of Mormon theology to reassure these people. He need not persuade them that Mormonism is sensible or even that it is a branch of Christianity. He need only say that, although some aspects of his religion may look odd from the outside, those aspects are irrelevant to governing. Distinctively Mormon views on salvation will not affect, and have not affected, Romney’s conduct in office. But at the same time he should make it clear that Mormon values will have a large effect — and that these values are widely shared.
It is tempting to say that citizens should never consider a candidate’s religion when voting, but one can imagine extreme cases where his beliefs were so perverse, and had such alarming implications for government policy, that conscientious citizens would have to take them into account. Romney’s Mormonism does not raise these questions, and should not concern voters.
Martin Luther apocryphally said he would rather be governed by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. Voters should judge Romney on how wise — and trustworthy, and courageous, and competent — he is; not on his religion.