Monday, January 2nd, 2012
Mitt Romney’s serious candidacy to become the Republican nominee for president has brought renewed attention to the “Mormon question” in national politics. The debate over Mormonism’s relationship to the nation has periodically surfaced ever since the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, quixotically threw his hat into the ring in the 1844 presidential race. (Smith was murdered a few months before voters went to the polls.)
A common theme developed by nineteenth-century opponents of Mormonism and resurrected in recent months is that Mormonism, despite its quintessentially American roots, is fundamentally and inherently anti-democratic, and thus un-American. Fears of a Latter-day Saint theocratic oligarchy—or the inclination toward it—have circulated ever since Smith led a veritable Mormon city-state in Illinois and Brigham Young presided over his “kingdom” in the intermountain West.
Historians of religion in America know that as far as Mormonism and politics goes, more has changed than has remained the same since Young’s “Great Basin Kingdom” dissolved in the face of overwhelming federal pressure and even violence in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Latter-day Saints as a group haven’t articulated a distinctive political theology since they gave up polygamy in 1890 and Utah joined the Union in 1896. Every election season the church circulates a disclaimer about its political neutrality that is read from every pulpit. Indeed, the only thing remarkable about Mormon politics in the past century has been the degree of their assimilation to national norms. To be sure, in recent decades Mormon Americans have disproportionately allied with the Republican Party, but so have Wall Street, the defense industry, and white evangelicals.
Of course, no one has suggested that Romney be formally disqualified because of his religion; even the most strident critics of Mormonism uphold Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits a religious test for any public office. Rather, the issue is whether or not Romney’s (or any candidate’s) religious affiliation and personal beliefs should make a difference to individual voters—whether theology has a place in the voting booth.
Although this question has received considerable attention, with sophisticated positions taken on all sides, to a large degree the debate of whether religion should have any influence in voting behavior is moot. Americans can and do take any set of values they wish into the voting booth with them. Religion (speaking in the most generic sense) thus joins abortion, or Israel, or the environment, or tax policy, or who a voter would like to have a beer with, as a legitimate standard by which candidates are chosen or rejected in a democratic society. And of course religious (and irreligious) worldviews often directly, if not always consciously, impact voters’ views on any of the other, “non-religious” issues that also shape their selection of candidates.
Mitt Romney’s candidacy, along with the popularity of The Book of Mormon Musical and various other pop culture phenomena, have raised the collective profile of Mormonism in public life. In general Mormons have embraced the philosophy that any publicity is good publicity. Yet in recent months, many Mormons have been upset by attacks, from both the religious right and secular left, on Romney because of his religion and on their religion because of Romney. They have rightly insisted that people get their facts straight and not rely on outdated stereotypes, selective readings, and outright distortions. The Romney candidacy thus provides Americans—including scholars of religion—an opportunity to look inward and consider the depth of their own commitments to truth-telling, tolerance, and robust pluralism.
But there is another side to the coin. If Mormons feel it illegitimate for a certain percentage of voters or commentators to reject Romney out of hand simply because he is Mormon, then those same Mormons have a duty not to embrace Romney uncritically simply because he is a Mormon. I have even heard lifelong Mormon Democrats (there is such a thing) say they would vote for Romney in a general election because he is “one of us.” Identity politics is a long and hallowed tradition in America, applying to white evangelicals in their support of George W. Bush and African Americans in their support for Barack Obama. But it is simply not consistent for Mormons—or anyone else—to decry the identity politics of others while unblinkingly practicing it themselves.
Mitt Romney may or may not become president—or even the GOP nominee. But regardless of the final results, this election season gives all Americans yet another opportunity to reflect on the kind of society we want to construct, including the extent and meaning of religious pluralism in American public life.