ANTI-MORMON prejudice reared its head during Mitt Romney's first political campaign, his 1994 run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. Back then it usually manifested itself not as opposition to Romney's religion per se, but to the conservative political views of the Mormon Church, which Romney, as a faithful Mormon, was presumed to share.
Rarely, though, did overt bigotry against Mormonism bare its fangs. Kennedy's nephew, then-congressman Joseph Kennedy, disparaged the challenger for belonging to a "white boys club" in which blacks and women "are second-class citizens."
Even more disdainful was Vincent McCarthy, a leading liberal activist: "I have always found it a delicious irony," he sneered to The Boston Globe, "that a church founded on polygamy is so sanctimonious about fornication and homosexuality."
But those were exceptions. While Romney's religion was often mentioned, there was a nearly universal taboo against explicitly condemning him for his faith. "In 1994," I wrote at the time, "no one dares suggest that Romney, by virtue of being a Mormon, doesn't belong in the Senate."
Thirteen years later, anti-Mormon hostility isn't so inhibited:
- In Florida, televangelist Bill Keller informs his 2.4 million e-mail subscribers: "If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!"
- The Associated Press reports that a Romney trip to New Hampshire "started on a sour note" when Al Michaud, a Dover resident and self-identified liberal, shouted, "I'm one person who will not vote for a Mormon" and refused to shake Romney's hand.
- In Warren County, Iowa, the local chairman of Senator John McCain's presidential campaign reportedly tells Republican activists that the Mormon Church funds Hamas and treats women the way the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
- Al Sharpton, during a debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens, gratuitously says of Romney: "As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyways."
- The Politico, a popular Washington e-zine, publishes an essay by veteran Democratic strategist Garry South, who says Romney should be hectored on whether he "personally believes" Mormonism's "offensive" teaching that mainstream Christianity is "an abomination."
As one who believes that people in public life should be judged by their behavior, not their theology, I had hoped that such deplorable reactions to Romney's candidacy would have dried up by now. Clearly, that hasn't happened. Between one-fourth and one-third of respondents consistently tell pollsters that they are unlikely to vote for a Mormon for president. In a June
In the end, of course, there could be less to such opposition than meets the eye. In 1960 something like 30 percent of respondents told pollsters that they wouldn't vote for a Catholic. That didn't keep John F. Kennedy from winning the White House in November.
Two months earlier, JFK had taken the "Catholic issue" by the horns in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. That speech, which Romney and his advisers have undoubtedly read closely, drove home the message that to oppose a candidate for political office solely because of religion was deeply un-American. "If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized," Kennedy said, "then it is the whole nation that will be the loser."
That doesn't mean that voters should never pay attention to a candidate's spiritual beliefs, or that candidates who adhere to unfamiliar minority faiths shouldn't expect to be asked about them. America's civic culture has always taken religion seriously, and candidates from outside the religious mainstream will naturally draw extra scrutiny.
Nevertheless, election campaigns are for choosing political leaders, not popes. A candidate's public record has far more to say about his fitness for office than his private devotions do. All the presidential hopefuls, Romney included, have made their mark in the worlds of politics, business, the military, or the law. Each has a history. That, not what they believe about Jesus or Joseph Smith, is what voters should care about most.
The Framers of the Constitution banned religious tests for political positions, and for good reason: What a candidate believes about the hereafter is not nearly as important as how he lives his life in the here and now. That is just as true today of the Massachusetts Republican who happens to be a Mormon as it was 47 years ago of the Massachusetts Democrat who happened to be a Catholic.