As the Republican nominating process reached its zenith with the Iowa caucuses, entrance polls showed a close vote among Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, with Newt Gingrich fighting to maintain a viable candidacy.
Romney has since moved ahead in the Republican race and, although he had lost ground, he secured a crucial win in Michigan and it looks as though he will become the Republican standard bearer against President Barack Obama in the November election.
For a variety of reasons, all of the GOP candidates have their supporters and detractors, but notwithstanding the problems in Gingrich’s history and Santorum’s strong pro-life belief, Romney may have the biggest hurdle to overcome — his religion, Mormonism.
My guess is that we won’t hear much commentary in the media about the fact that Romney is Mormon, at least for the present. So far there hasn’t been much said about it. However, if Romney should become the Republican nominee, I predict that there will be a great deal of attention paid to the Mormon religion and, therefore, Romney by implication.
Religion has played a part in past presidential elections, perhaps most notably that of John F. Kennedy, who was the first Catholic to win the office. Until his election, voters in general questioned whether a Catholic president would owe his first allegiance to the Pope or to the United States. JFK managed to overcome the issue of his religion to become the first — and, so far, only — Catholic president of the United States.
A recent Los Angeles Times article noted: “The nomination of Romney, a one-time Mormon bishop who remains active in the church, would be ‘a 1960 JFK moment for Mormons, where the glass ceiling is shattered,’ said Patrick Q. Mason, a professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, referring to John F. Kennedy’s election as the first Catholic president.”
Thus, the adage that history repeats itself seems to be playing out once again, this time involving a Mormon candidate.
If Romney becomes the GOP candidate, his religion undoubtedly will be heavily exploited by Obama’s supporters, who will characterize it as a small, off-beat religion whose adherents are out of the “American mainstream.” Not directly, mind you, but on the Internet, by bloggers, op-ed writers and the plethora of political Web sites.
Many voters may question whether a U.S. president who is Mormon would owe a higher allegiance to his church than to the responsibilities of his office.
Considering the importance of the issue, a few points about the Mormon religion may be instructive. Without getting into the minutia of the history of the Mormons, a few facts are of particular interest.
There are only about 20 million Mormons worldwide — about 6.1 million in the United States, 1.2 million in Mexico, 1.1 million in Brazil, 630,000 in the Philippines, 560,000 in Chile, 500,000 in Peru and 380,000 in Argentina.
Mormonism has often been associated with polygamy, a practice that was followed by many early Mormons, until it was renounced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890. Today, polygamy is practiced only by certain “fundamentalist” groups that have left the LDS Church.
In 1978, the church reversed its policy of excluding black males from the priesthood, which was prompted by problems encountered with mixed-race converts in Brazil.
In an article titled “Evangelicals and Romney: Should Theology Matter?” Dennis Prager pointed out that “most evangelicals label Mormonism a cult, and many accuse Mormons for being dishonest for calling themselves Christians.” He also made the following observations, among others, about Mormonism:
“Regarding Mormonism being labeled a cult, my study of religious history has taught me that just about every religion is seen as a cult in its formative years ... or it gets labeled as a cult by the older religion in order to delegitimize it.”
“... I believe that what most annoys evangelicals (and some other Christians) about Mormonism is that Mormons call themselves Christian.”
“... in the view of most evangelicals, if people wish to believe in the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the prophecy of Joseph Smith, that is their business, but to call these and other distinctive Mormons ‘Christian’ bothers many evangelicals.”
In the final analysis, when we cast our ballots for president of the United States, or a contender for any other political office, each of us must ask ourselves if the religion of the various candidates influences our vote. For example, would you vote for an Islamic candidate for president of the United States, or a Jewish one, or a Christian fundamentalist, or any candidate whose religious beliefs don’t necessarily square with your own?
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.