Mormons’ candidacies a fresh test of voter biases

    The buzz over two Mormons running for president raises again the question of when a candidate’s religious identity harms rather than helps their chances of winning an election.

    We’re accustomed to traditional evangelicals such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee on the stump. The hubbub created by their views on evolution, abortion and homosexuality is well rehearsed.

    The more acute test case is posed by the Mormons.

    Mitt Romney didn’t get the Republican nomination 2008. While his defeat wasn’t primarily tagged to his church affiliation, polling during that year indicated that between a fourth and a half of America held negative attitudes toward Mormonism and a fifth said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate.

    This year both Romney and fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman are running for the GOP nomination, so their faith heritage is stirring lots of debate and speculation. The coincidental (we think) blockbuster Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon, has ballooned the discussion.

    No snake handlers or Scientologists

    Though it’s not clear that in this era religious loyalties alone can sink a candidate, the widespread assumption is that a line separates “acceptable” affiliation from connection to a group deemed bizarre, kooky or dangerous.

    Snake handlers or followers of Sun Myung Moon (where is he now?) shouldn’t expect much success in elective politics, though free-market fundamentalists get a pass. Listing “Scientology” on your resume would likely ruin your chances, too. Pat Robertson, the television preacher given to invoking otherworldly power into contemporary affairs, was perhaps the nearest example of religiosity that came to seem more suspect when subjected to the scrutiny that accompanies national political ambitions.

    Over time, to be sure, some “outside” religions have come inside the barriers. John F. Kennedy helped achieve that for Catholicism in 1960, four decades after the first Catholic aspirant, Al Smith, went down to defeat. Ronald Reagan showed in 1980 it was possible for the “unchurched” to win the White House. And Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quakers, a movement once considered radical for its unqualified pacifism.

    Mormons themselves were once banished to their own world in Utah, but Mitt Romney and his father both became prominent governors in states other than Utah.

    On the flip side, displaying the “right” kind of religion can boost electability so long as it doesn’t go too far. Jimmy Carter’s image as a devout Christian won him votes among many portions of the electorate, but his born-again status also earned him scorn in the Northeast media, as an unwelcome trait of “backward” Southern regionalism.

    Romney and Huntsman encounter a similar problem of divided responses.

    While their church is regarded as “Christian” by slightly more than half of Americans, some evangelicals reject that view, regarding Mormonism as an apostate sect. On that point, it’s worth remembering that Christianity itself spent its first couple hundred years on Rome’s list of leading suspects.

    Perception proves to be the key to whether candidates with “iffy” religious backgrounds can win over voters. Americans do appear to shun candidates from religious groups whose members strike them as inherently unstable or unhinged.

    Many voters also frown upon politicians whose religious allegiance appears to override their civic loyalties; religion can matter but not too much. Sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t argue with that. To them and other fiercely pious groups, fidelity to a divine mandate precludes participation in the political fray.

    The unspoken creed of American politics says faith should play a subordinate role. It’s OK if your religion supports your politics up to a point. Politicians are alert to that, allotting religion a place, but not a veto.

    Kennedy made famously made that case. By assuring skeptical Houston ministers that his Catholicism wouldn’t trump his Constitutional duties, he calmed fears and paid respects to separation of church and state. In the spirit of toleration, the astute politician can embrace a personal creed while recognizing that what is holy to one person is hokum to another.

    Pat Robertson made no such accommodations, and paid a political price.

    Mormons used to scrutiny

    Romney and Huntsman are already being predictably scrutinized to determine their Mormon commitments. So far Romney emerges as more attached to Mormon practice than is Huntsman, which would seem to make Huntsman more suitable to the general public. But he’s not setting the conservative base on fire in the run-up to the GOP primaries.

    Mormonism is different in the sense that it became a high-profile religion almost from its start in the 19th century, with a set of beliefs that continues to create controversy and conflict. All religious groups have rough sledding as they struggle to clarify who and what they are, but Mormons have had the added burden of going through many of their growing pains in the glare of modern media. They have prospered in extraordinary fashion against formidable obstacles.

    But have they moved from carving out a niche to entering the American mainstream? Romney’s candidacy could provide convincing proof.

    Ken Briggs, an adjunct professor at Lafayette College, is former religion writer for the New York Times and author of several books about the Catholic Church.

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