This article first appeared in the News Watch column of the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number1 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
After many months of hints and media speculation, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney announced his candidacy on February 13 for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
Having once served as a bishop in the Mormon Church, Romney is trying his best to keep his religious affiliation from becoming a distraction to voters. When asked specifically about issues unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Romney politely tells interviewers simply to “ask the church.”
Romney’s religious moorings came to the forefront when the Boston Globe ran an article (October 19, 2006) that claimed that a political team representing Romney had asked Mormon Church leaders for their help. The newspaper reported that Mormon Church president Gordon B. Hinckley knew about the discussions, which had begun in September 2006, and “expressed no opposition” to them.
Mormon Church officials vehemently denied any involvement with Romney’s campaign, claiming on their Web site, www.lds.org, that the Globe article was inaccurate. The statement read, “In light of articles appearing in the media, we reaffirm the position of neutrality taken by the Church, and affirm the long-standing policy that no member occupying an official position in any organization of the Church is authorized to speak in behalf of the Church concerning the Church’s stand on political issues.”
The Globe reported how two officials at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management had sent an e-mail, dated October 9, 2006, to fifty members of the Brigham Young University (BYU) Management Society and one hundred members of the school’s National Advisory Council, asking them to support Romney’s candidacy. The Mormon Church and BYU—both of which are tax-exempt, non-profit organizations—are prohibited by the IRS from participating in the campaign of any candidate for an elected office. The church and college could endanger their 501c3 tax status for violating this standard.
The idea that Romney would be able to put together a volunteer grassroots campaign utilizing members of his church, which has about six million members in the United States and nearly thirteen million worldwide, is not far-fetched. Probably Romney’s greatest claim to fame came during the three years he served as the president of the Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, held in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Among other achievements, Romney helped raise $100 million in Olympic sponsorships while organizing a team of forty thousand Utah volunteers. He was also able to get academic classes at BYU cancelled during the two weeks of the Olympics so that thousands of students and university employees could volunteer for positions such as drivers, hospitality hosts, and traffic officers.
A Viable Candidacy? A Mormon bid for the United States presidency may be rare, but it is hardly a new concept. Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith, Jr., was a candidate for president when, in 1844, at thirty-eight years old, he met an untimely death at the hands of an angry mob. Today Mormons such as Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and veteran Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) serve in high positions on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, if Romney, a moderate Republican who in 2002 became a one-term governor of Massachusetts, has a legitimate chance to win the presidency against GOP front-runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, most political observers agree that he will have to avoid being seen as the “Mormon candidate.”
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said, “The problem for Romney is that thirty-five percent or so of the delegates to the Republican National Convention are fundamentalist Christians, and to be blunt about it, most of them see Mormonism as a cult” (November 14, 2006, http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=645918).
Some would say that not voting for a candidate because of his religion is wrong. For instance, Senator Hatch—who made a brief run at the GOP presidential nomination in 2000—told a Salt Lake City television station: “This business of prejudice against Mormons is real. I think some stories are efforts of smear.”
The idea that Romney could be rejected for his religious, not political, views remains a strong possibility. Nobody knows, for example, how American voters would assimilate the fact that Romney’s nineteenth-century family tree includes six polygamous ancestors with forty-one wives, including his great-great-grandfather who had thirteen wives. Many voters may mistakenly believe that a Mormon president would attempt to make polygamy legal. Whatever the reasoning, a recent Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll showed that as much as a third of likely voters would not vote for a Mormon candidate for president.
Tony Kimball, a Mormon and a retired professor of American government at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, warns that it would not take much to make voters wary of Romney and wreak havoc with his chances. “This is just what the Southern Baptists and others need to bash the [LDS] church,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune (October 20, 2006). “They are hostile to the church anyway. If they see Mitt’s campaign as a Mormon campaign, that’s going to drive them into a frenzy.”
Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt is attempting to educate the public about Romney’s candidacy through an upcoming book titled A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every Conservative Should Know about Mitt Romney, which will hit bookshelves in March. Hewitt says he is not necessarily endorsing Romney, but he feels that Mormonism is “not particularly well understood by many.”
Courting evangelical Christian support, Romney began setting up personal meetings last fall with small groups of Christian church leaders. Joe Mack, the public policy director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, was impressed after attending one such meeting. “Obviously as Baptists, theologically we have some differences, but on social, moral issues…it seemed like we had some common ground,” Mack told the Boston Globe (November 2, 2006).
Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell agrees that Romney’s conservative values are more important than his personal religious beliefs. “If he’s pro-life, pro-family, I don’t think he’ll have any problem getting the support of evangelical Christians,” he said (Jackson [Mississippi] Clarion-Ledger, July 28, 2006). Adds Southern Baptist leader Richard Land (Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2006), “We are not electing a theologian-in-chief. We are electing a commander-in-chief.” However, as his political positions of the past are given more scrutiny, some Republicans are wondering if Romney is really as conservative as they would hope.
It doesn’t appear that Romney’s Mormonism is causing many evangelical Christian leaders to oppose his candidacy. In fact, one group of Christians has even jumped on his bandwagon by hosting an Internet site (www.evangelicalsformitt.org). Perhaps University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith summarized the precarious position of many when he said (Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2006), “Some evangelicals may think that Mormons are going to hell, but at the same time, they might think that it wouldn’t be too bad to have one in elected office.”
— Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson