That Same Old Problem of Religion in Politics: Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and the
By: Robin A. Hardy
Historically America has been divided on whether it approves of the influence of religion in politics. Competing and even contradictory messages existed from the beginning making it no surprise that over two centuries later the electorate remains confused as to whether the two should be co-mingled. On one hand early Americans were proud of the fact that they no longer were beholden to the dictates of ecclesiastics characteristic of their European roots and yet the founding fathers not only employed religious rhetoric in political documents, but also in many respects viewed their new nation as a manifestation of divine will. This essay will discuss the American landscape regarding religion in politics and more specifically, the debate over the Mormon, Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency in 2008.
Thomas Jefferson’s political theories were shaped not only by a Deist faith but also by the Enlightenment which challenged traditional assumptions of the King as the de facto extension of heaven on earth, characteristic of absolutist rule in early modern Europe. Kenneth Thompson contends Jefferson was an optimist in that the statesman saw the American experiment as a new beginning – a challenge to old ways of government.[i] Americans were proud of the fact that they were no longer subject to King or Pope. Describing the United States in the 1780s, the Frenchman, John de Crevecoeur claimed that Americans were not aristocrats, they wanted “… no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion…[they] have no princes for whom [they] toil, starve and bleed; [they] are the most perfect society now existing in the world.”[ii]
But while early Americans were aware of the perils associated with a strong connection between church and state, they nevertheless brought God into political discourse. They saw their new country as the American Zion, “a City on a Hill, beckoning to all mankind to follow.”[iii] Indeed, the eighteenth-century Founding Fathers brought religion into their writings, The Declaration of Independence yet remains one of the most illustrative examples with explicit references to God - maintaining that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights …”[iv] thereby staking their claim towards political independence in religious terms.
And time did not dissipate this trend. Almost one hundred years after the founding of the nation, Abraham Lincoln’s leadership was significantly influenced by his religious beliefs. Stewart Winger contends that for Lincoln religion was an integral aspect of his being, bound to take part in the political leader’s life beyond chapel walls. In this regard Lincoln’s family significantly affected the President; the American leader’s father was a Separatist Baptist who believed in a powerful providence where humans were endowed with great responsibility, leaving little doubt that Lincoln’s policies were substantially informed by his religious upbringing. So much so states Winger, that “Lincoln could not have supported the country if it [had] abandoned its moral commitments.”[v]
But while the early United States had as one of its goals to distance itself from an authoritarian past- in part characterized by religion as a central element of state dominance, it nevertheless perpetuated the inclusion of religion in the political arena. Yet when religion manages to work its way into the political environment, what are the key issues which concern those who object to its inclusion? To begin with, Martin E. Marty suggests that religion can substantially alter policy, underscoring the idea that politicians and their spiritual beliefs are inextricably linked. And he argues that some issues are more likely to interest religious candidates. According to Marty, “whether our military actions should be for humanitarian purposes or not cannot be debated without addressing the religious question, because all the religious groups say that the humanitarian side must be considered.”[vi] And yet military action is not the only hot button for religious politicians and their constituents. Marty notes that international human rights and international trade are also concerns for many religious politicians[vii] and therefore can be added to the highly-charged list of abortion, gay marriage, capital punishment, the environment as well as gender and racial questions. He further argues that “[r]eligion is not an issue in itself. Rather, it hitchhikes on issues. It barnacles to issues. It subverts issues. It is a penumbra around issues. It is part of a constituency on all sides of all issues.”[viii]
To be sure, modern Americans continue to grapple with the issue of religion in politics. John F. Kennedy’s campaign in the 1960s clearly demonstrates this fact. Religious leaders such as Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham argued at the time that if the Catholic John F. Kennedy were elected President, his religion raised the question of his loyalty to the Pope over that of the American Constitution and Congress. But while Americans ultimately reconciled themselves with Kennedy’s spiritual beliefs following his famed 1960 speech in Texas - where the candidate assured voters of his intention to keep his private religious beliefs separate from politics, their concern over religion in the political realm never went away. To wit, Jimmy Carter in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s both made claims to being strong Christians as part of their campaigns for the oval office. However, in contrast to the 1960 campaign where Kennedy’s goal was to demonstrate a clear division between Catholicism and politics, both Carter and Reagan wanted the American public to clearly connect them with mainstream Christianity. Therefore rather than their religious beliefs being a deterrent to voters, their spiritual commitments were perceived by many Americans as a reason to support their candidacies.
Despite an ideal by the Founding Fathers to separate church and state, almost 250 years later many Americans still closely scrutinize political candidates’ religious beliefs. Indeed, 2007-2008 reveals a heavily contested run for the office of president – where already in the early stages of the campaign the issue of religion has again resurfaced front and center.
Joan Lowy, of The Associated Press, argues that “the personal faith of candidates has become a very public part of the 2008 presidential campaign.”[ix] She notes that this trend takes its most recent nod from George W. Bush’s campaign in 2001, where he made “a direct appeal to conservative religious voters – [citing] Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher during one debate.”[x] And further, she contends that now “all the leading presidential candidates are discussing religious and moral beliefs, even when they’d rather not.”[xi]
The 07-08 campaign’s most controversial religious candidate is without question the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney - son of Michigan’s former governor and presidential candidate in the 1960s, George Romney. Noteworthy however is the fact that Romney’s father’s presidential bid was not hampered by the level of religious scrutiny characteristic of his son’s campaign. Indeed, both George and Mitt Romney are Mormons – members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And the younger Mitt Romney has been the least willing of the current presidential candidates to discuss his spiritual beliefs. Romney is proving to be the “wild card” for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Notwithstanding relative obscurity, Romney’s bid for the White House has garnered widespread attention; he has quickly raised millions of dollars, dresses impeccably, speaks smoothly, and seems to look the part of a world leader. But while Americans are in the process of learning more about Mr. Romney they are also finding out more about Mormonism. Romney’s religion has thus created more questions for the electorate regarding how a candidate’s faith may affect his role as an American leader.