Can a Mormon Candidate Rise Above the Religious Issue to Win It All Next Year?

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Vaughn Davis Bornet is Emeritus Professor of History and Social Science at Southern Oregon University. Among his books are The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in the American Presidency Series (1983), Welfare in America (1960), and other books on Herbert Hoover, social welfare, radicalism, and unions. His autobiography is An Independent Scholar in Twentieth-Century America (Bornet Books, 1995).

Dr. Bornet wrote about the Elections of 1964 and 1968 in Encyclopedia of the American Presidency, and The United States in 1960 for a long essay in HNN

If Mitt Romney is the eventual nominee of the Republican Party this year, will the American public disregard his Latter Day Saints membership, loyalty, and affection (amounting to dedication), or will a substantial part of the electorate turn on him with Christian based, upright, uncompromising venom? In short, will the election bring out the best or the worst in voters as they finally reflect silently at ballot box time on what they are, who they really are, and what they think will motivate this candidate who professes something called Mormonism?

Jon Huntsman is a less conspicuous Latter Day Saints member than Mitt Romney, but both face the potential of religious prejudice. They bear their religion with a different degree of emphasis, as a few minutes spent on Google quickly shows. Romney did his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University, Huntsman at the University of Pennsylvania. The difference in orientation during these formative years seems to have stuck with each.

I just don’t know whether Huntsman can rise above prejudice rooted in his religion as Romney will be trying to detour any religious issue during his possible run as the Republican nominee. And I really do not see how anybody can foresee what will happen throughout the vicissitudes of the coming year, although columnists are striving mightily. Of course, one can look back, hopefully, to see what History can teach about voting at a time of public prejudice rooted in religion. When doing that the focus is likely to be on the Catholic issue in 1960 with Kennedy vs. Nixon. Actually, it can just as easily be on 1928 with Smith vs. Hoover.

In 1928 the Democrats could not shake off the Catholicism of Al Smith. He had been a successful governor of New York State, displayed a winning smile, and had an engaging manner. He dwelt on issues that appealed to America’s working men. The issue of Prohibition would not go away, nor would the matter of the Smith accent, which was NewYawkish first to last and decidedly alien to MidAmerica.

Former Governor Romney will have to shake off not just his Mormon aspect, but the all too conspicuous matter of the Massachusetts medical plan with which he is inevitably associated. As in 1960 when Kennedy’s youth was an issue for some, and his extra-cultured accent was also alien to many voters nationwide, the question will be: can the electorate be diverted from issues that bother them so that they will concentrate on matters more positive for the candidate? In 1928 they continued to dwell on effects of the prohibition amendments and the “New York” aspect, and especially matters said to center on “The Pope.” They could not be diverted from those divisive channels. On the other hand, Hoover’s Indiana style Quakerism, a decidedly fundamentalist style of religion with a minister and beliefs that could easily intrude on an individual’s freedom of action, might well have come up as an issue, but didn't.

In a book about the 1928 election, Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic (1964), I observed: “It is never easy to keep issues gray rather than black or white. Could the fact that Alfred E. Smith was a Catholic and a product of the largest city in the United States be minimized in the eyes of all but Catholics and city voters? Could his lack of higher education be built into an asset, his accent be forgiven, his [signature] derby hat kept in the realm of friendly good humor, and his Tammany connections—however free from scandal—be subordinated?”

A contemporary answer from that day may suffice to indicate a negative response. From a Unitarian minister writing in the Christian Register in mid-campaign came this: “Every intelligent person knows that religion is already perhaps the principal factor in the discussion of the people throughout the country, outranking prohibition, farm relief and any other question that the press attempts to keep foremost.” As to this ineradicable prejudice, I wrote way back then, “Here was provincialism, plus an ill-considered and suspicious anti-Catholicism, from persons who, meaning no profound harm, nevertheless dishonored the spirit of fair play. In retrospect, the slurs slung at Alfred E. Smith in 1928 make the historian pity—not Smith—but the little ones who reviled him.”

If during the coming year the Republican Party delegates at the national convention decide to take a chance, that is, if they gamble on the charity of a public that time and again has shown its capacity for swinging toward crude bias and away from issues (even ones associated with their self-interest), then a sentence like one that follows may appear in a book down the line. From Labor Politics comes this sad judgment on America's state of toleration in 1928: “Unfortunately for Alfred E. Smith, an able and self-made man of the people, the workingmen and women of America had their eyes on collateral matters in 1928—not on the intricacies of his well-meant appeal to their economic self-interest.”

The Mormonism of Mitt Romney is very well known at this point; not so the professed faith of Jon Huntsman, whose presumably similar religion seems by contrast subterranean. Can he keep it somewhat out of the public eye during a sustained campaign? Pew polling some time ago suggested that Mormonism might well make a difference for a third of voters! On the other hand, the Obama appointment of Huntsman as Ambassador to China ran into little religious comment, suggesting that the former governor of Utah may have subordinated the matter as an issue so far.  In tight elections, remember, a little prejudice can turn out to be determining!

Today is certainly not the Twenties; nor in many ways is it the transition between the Fifties and Sixties. It is altogether true that the voters of the Twenties had somewhat stogy newspapers, various magazines, and living room radios providing information to them on the passing scene. Churchgoers had the advice of ministers and church bulletins and fellow parishioners. Today all realize that we have Fox News, liberal pundits and NPR, often irresponsible radio pundits in the AM, national and local newspapers that are down but not out, and the voices of organized religion in many forms. If we look to the past for guidance, it seems to indicate that this distinguished Mormon candidate of 2012 could run into the kind of prejudiced trouble that could push notable assets to one side and bring nothing but stinging defeat.

Yet not so fast. Has the Age of the Internet taught us nothing? Will the election year airing of multiple viewpoints on Twitter and Facebook and blogs, and the nationally distributed candidate debates ahead turn out to be like holding up a mirror to the faces of The Prejudiced? Nothing remotely like these phenomena existed in 1928 (when I was eleven and delivered a daily newspaper to homes in Bala Cynwyd, PA, each evening). Discrimination was taken for granted; no one thundered against it. Heads nodded up and down when all kinds of biases were aired in those living rooms decorated with artificial potted plants or in kitchens boasting iceboxes.

The American public can sometimes display a stupid streak, as Rick Shenkman, publisher of HNN shows in his book Just How Stupid Are We? (2009). Somehow, religious prejudice displayed at the voting booth may not quite be “stupid” but rather deep rooted misapprehension stemming from flawed education enroute to adulthood. Perhaps religion is not entirely to be ruled out as a qualifier for presidential power. Is it possible that an atheist in our top office might find it ultimately frustrating to govern without a personal religiously based moral guide? The general public could be the loser as such a president floundered about with an inadequate moral compass. With Catholicism, some citizens seem to have feared policy meddling by outside forces. With Mormonism it is hard to say what is feared exactly, although the familiar Bible seems to some to have been amended somehow or other by an unfamiliar Book of Mormon.

In 1960, Kennedy squeaked out a miniature victory eventually in spite of all those anti-Catholic sentiments -- although the result was a virtual tie. A quarter of a century earlier, Smith didn’t come close, not even remotely. Can it be that the half century from 1928 to 1960 (in this case) brought enough change to the country to enable JFK’s success at the polls? May it be that 1960 to 2012, another half century, will do something like that for Romney? It could be. After what happened to Smith, it turned out to be easier for Kennedy. After Kennedy, maybe it will be easier for Romney to defeat prejudice. First, of course, the handsome former Massachusetts governor must eke out the chance to lead his party through those risky electoral waters of the primaries, where candidates who happen to be stuck with a “different” religious faith, publicly displayed, have to gamble on the intelligence and tolerance of their fellow citizens.

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