What it means to be Mormon, Part 4
By John D. Turner
19 Oct 2007

Most Americans are pretty much accepting of the idea that a president’s religious upbringing may have an impact on the way he or she approaches different issues, reacts to problems, or handles policy issues. However, they get a bit queasy when they think it possible that a president might favor one religious group over another, or worse yet, take instructions on how to run the country from his or her religious leadership.

The United States was founded as a country without a specified national religion. There was to be no religious litmus test at the federal level to determine who could or could not hold public office. It had to be thus. The United States was composed at the time of 13 former European colonies with very different religious backgrounds. Although many left Europe and came here to escape religious persecution, they did not necessarily champion freedom of worship and many state charters embodied an official state religion. A notable exception was Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams on the principle of separation of church and state. It was the first colony to guarantee all its citizens freedom of worship.

During the course of U.S. history, we have had presidents from various different faiths, predominately Episcopalian (to include most recently, George H. W. Bush). Of the major faith groups in the country, the most under represented is the Roman Catholic. In fact, we have had only one Roman Catholic president in the history of the country; John F. Kennedy.

Anti-Catholicism (a word not much heard in the United States these days) was particularly strong in this country until relatively recently. It arrived on our shores with the earliest settlers, and despite the founding of Maryland as a haven for Roman Catholics fleeing persecution in England, flourished everywhere. If there was one thing that all non-Roman Catholic denominations could agree on, it was hatred of the Church of Rome. Many colonies even had proscriptions against Catholics in their colonial charters and laws.

Despite this, many Catholics immigrated to the United States, particularly from Ireland. Once here they were blamed for raising the taxes of the country, spreading violence and disease, and faced extreme prejudice, including mob violence, burning of Roman Catholic property, and the killing of Roman Catholics. I have many Catholic relatives on my maternal Grandfather’s side of the family. While I know that Americans of African descent have a lot of reason to hate and fear the Ku Klux Klan, I can attest that my Catholic relatives have no great love for the KKK either, for much the same reasons.

Nevertheless, by 1850, Catholics had become the single largest religious denomination in the country, and by the start of the 20th century, approximately one-sixth of the U. S. population was Catholic.

Despite making up such a large segment of the American population, being Catholic was not seen as a plus when it came to presidential elections. In the election of 1928, one of the major factors in the defeat of the Democrat candidate Al Smith was anti-Catholic hysteria fanned by fears that if he were elected, the Pope would take up residence in the White House and Protestants would find themselves stripped of their citizenship. Acceptance of Catholics and their mainstreaming into American culture did not happen until the 1950’s and 60’s, when they finally became accepted as “just another Christian denomination”.

Even so, when John F. Kennedy ran for president, many people were initially inclined to not vote for him because he was Catholic. During his campaign, in an attempt to defuse the still present anti-Catholic presidential bias, he stated:

“I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.”

This speech has been credited for quieting enough public fears to win him the election. Even so, it was one of the closest elections in American history.

It has been argued that the bias against Catholic presidential candidates still exists. It has been over 40 years and we have still elected only one Catholic president (and he was assassinated). There have been other Catholic presidential candidates, but none has succeeded in getting elected.

I would argue against this position; Kennedy was not assassinated because he was Catholic. And the candidates since then failed election not on the basis of their religion, but rather their politics. For example, during the last election there were many different points brought up against John Kerry, both during the primaries and the general election, but not once did I hear anyone say that John Kerry should not be elected because he was Catholic.

Not so with Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for president who also happens to be a Mormon.

Today the issue isn’t Roman Catholicism, but instead, Mormonism. The fears are the same: will the Mormon prophet take up residence in the White House? Will Mitt first consult with Salt Lake when making public policy? Will there be a “hot line” between the president of the country and the first presidency of the LDS Church, whereby the first presidency weighs in on matters of State?

Like the purveyors of anti-Catholicism before them, there are conspiracy theorists putting forth the argument that this is part of a plot for the Mormon Church to take over the country, and after that, the world, for nefarious purposes of their own. Despite the fact that, as with the Catholics before them, the 1990’s began to finally see the mainstreaming of the LDS Church into American culture, many are not yet comfortable enough with Mormons to feel at ease with having one in the White House.

Interestingly enough, this was not an issue for his father, George Romney, former Governor of Michigan, who ran for president in 1968 election. Like the son, the father was LDS, served a mission, married his childhood sweetheart, and went into the business world; in his case, American Motors Corporation (AMC). While serving as Chairman and CEO of AMC, George Romney also served as Stake President for the Detroit Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an area which included all of Metro Detroit, Ann Arbor, the Toledo area of Ohio, and the western edge of Ontario along the Michigan border. At the time of his candidacy for president, polls had him as the leader among rank and file Republicans, especially “moderates”, a position that Mitt does not enjoy. He also served as a patriarch for the Church until his death in 1995 at the age of 88.

It wasn’t his religion that torpedoed George Romney’s candidacy, it was a statement he made in a taped television interview, and his subsequent “flip-flop” regarding support for the war in Vietnam. Following Nixon’s election in 1968, Romney was named as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, where he served until the beginning of Nixon’s second term in 1973.

He is not the only Mormon to serve in a Presidential cabinet position, nor was he the first. There have been five Mormons to so serve, the first being Ezra Taft Benson as Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration; the most recent, Terrell Bell, Secretary of Education under President Reagan. Ezra Taft Benson is particularly noteworthy, as he also served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the same time as he was a member of the Cabinet, and later became the thirteenth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1985, where he served until his death in 1994.

Mitt has been urged by many to give the “Mormon version” of the John F. Kennedy speech, laying to rest the concern that he will be getting his marching orders from Salt Lake. So far, Mitt has declined to do so. It is my thought that what he wants is for people to vote for him based on his merits, and not against him based on his religion. He doesn’t want to make the speech because he sees a religious test for president as un-American and doesn’t believe there should be a need for such a speech.

His father didn’t need to give one.

Nevertheless, times change, and it now appears that he will have to do so if he expects to have any chance to gain the nomination. Polling data has consistently shown a large percentage of the electorate that claims they would never even consider voting for a Mormon. I believe that if he wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and the poll numbers overall do not change he will then decide to make the speech. It is possible, with the way things are going with the changing primary dates, he may do so sooner rather than later. It will need to be a good speech, because he will only get one chance to get it right.

Mitt is correct however. He should not need to give such a speech. And if people really understood the LDS Church better they would understand that they have nothing to worry about.

The Church is apolitical. It doesn’t endorse political candidates and it stays firmly out of partisan matters. It does encourage its membership to vote, but it does not tell them how to vote or for whom to vote. The Church’s official position is to urge members to prayerfully consider the issues, and then “vote for the people that best represent their ideas of good government”. While many of the large local Christian churches host partisan political activities you will never see this happen at an LDS Church. Not only can the buildings themselves not be used for partisan political activities, but ward membership lists are not to be used for such either.

While the Church does participate in legal cases concerning religious liberty issues, it does so in a “friend-of-the-court” capacity in an effort to protect its ability to proselytize and hire church employees. Rarely does the Church join an Establishment-Clause case, and it does not accept government funds to assist with any of its operations.

The Church will, on occasion, speak out on matters of principle. A good example is the Church’s declaration on the family, issued by the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles in September 1995. The Church played an active role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 70’s and early 80’s, which it saw, among other things, as a threat to the family [1]. The Church has most recently spoken out in support of referendums banning same-sex unions, which it also sees as a threat to the traditional family. Note that these stances are in the form of support for ballot measures. They are not support for specific political parties or persons running for office.

Should Mitt Romney win the White House, he might receive a call from Salt Lake. I would expect, however, it to be one of congratulations and not “marching orders” from the President of the Church. If Mitt should seek counsel from the Prophet, I am sure he would receive it. I am equally certain he would not receive commandment with regard to the running of this nation.

The whole issue of whether or not the President of the Church will have any hold over what a member of the Church does in political matters was settled long ago, in 1904, when Reed Smoot, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was elected to the Senate. The Senate refused to seat him. Hearings were held which lasted four years. Ultimately, Joseph F. Smith, then President of the Church, was called to testify before Congress. He was asked not once, but over and over again whether Smoot would be obligated to do what he [Joseph F. Smith] told him to do in political matters. Each time, Smith’s answer was the same; no, he is not obligated, he should follow his own conscience and the obligations he feels to his constituency, not to the President of the Church.

In the end, the Church released an official statement: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds to the doctrine of the separation of church and state. They believe in the non-interference of church authority in political matters and the absolute freedom and independence of the individual in the performance of his political duties.” This has remained in force for over a century, and remains in force today. One needs look no further than the Church website to find the Church’s official stance on matters of politics.

One could also take a quick look at the 12th Article of Faith for some guidance on this issue: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” That too, might give some insight on Mitt Romney and his character.

So you don’t have to worry about the United States turning into some sort of theocracy if Mitt is elected, or that he will be taking his orders from Salt Lake City. Our religion just doesn’t work that way.