Damon Linker: Mormon President? Yes, It's a Problem.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Damon Linker is the former editor of First Things and author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. ]

Within days of stepping down as governor of Massachusetts on January 4, Mitt Romney is expected to announce his candidacy for president. Shortly after that, Romney will almost certainly need to deliver a major speech about his Mormon faith--a speech in the mold of John F. Kennedy's 1960 address to the Baptist ministers of Houston, Texas, in which the candidate attempted to reassure voters that they had no reason to fear his Catholicism. Yet Romney's task will be much more complicated. Whereas Kennedy set voters' minds at ease by declaring in unambiguous terms that he considered the separation of church and state to be "absolute," Romney intends to run for president as the candidate of the religious right, which believes in blurring the distinction between politics and religion. Romney thus needs to convince voters that they have nothing to fear from his Mormonism while simultaneously placing that faith at the core of his identity and his quest for the White House.

This is a task that may very well prove impossible. Romney's strategy relies on the assumption that public suspicion of his Mormonism--a recent poll showed that 43 percent of Americans would never vote for a Mormon--is rooted in ignorance and that this suspicion will therefore diminish as voters learn more about his faith. It is far more likely, however, that as citizens educate themselves about the political implications of Mormon theology, concerns about the possibility of a Mormon president will actually increase. And these apprehensions will be extremely difficult to dispel--because they will be thoroughly justified.

The religious right has been enormously successful at convincing journalists not to raise questions about the political implications of a candidate's religious beliefs. Analyzing the dangers of generic "religion" to the nation's political life is considered perfectly acceptable--indeed, it has become a cottage industry in recent years--but exploring the complicated interactions between politics and the theological outlooks of specific religious traditions supposedly smacks of bigotry. The focus on Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960, for example, is today widely derided as a shameful expression of anti-Catholic prejudice that ought never to be repeated.

This is unfortunate. However useful and necessary it may be to engage in theoretical reflection on politics and "religion," the fact is that there is no such thing as religion in the abstract. There are, rather, particular religious traditions, each of which has its own distinctive history of political engagement (or disengagement, as the case may be). And, certainly, the political history of pre-Vatican II Catholicism--with its overt hostility to modernity, democracy, liberalism, and religious "error," as well as its emphasis on the absolute authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals--raised perfectly legitimate questions and concerns about what it would mean for the United States to elect a Catholic to the nation's highest office.

A very different, though arguably more troubling, set of questions and concerns are posed by the prospect of the nation electing a president who is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). In some ways, Catholicism and Mormonism present diametrically opposed political challenges to liberal democracy. With Kennedy's faith, the concern was over the extent of his deference to a foreign ecclesiastical authority. The genuine and profound loyalty of Mormons to the United States and its political system is, by contrast, undeniable. Indeed, LDS patriotism flows directly from Mormon theology. And that is precisely the problem. ...

The centrality of the United States to Mormon theology extends beyond the past and present to encompass the end times as well. Like many of the religious groups to emerge from the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, Mormons are millennialists who believe themselves to be living in the years just prior to the second coming of Christ; hence the words "latter day" in the church's official title. Where the LDS differs from other communities gripped by eschatology, however, is in the vital role it envisions the United States playing in the end times. The Mormon "Articles of Faith" teach that, when Christ returns, he will reign "personally upon the earth" for 1,000 years, and LDS interpretations of a passage in Isaiah have led some to conclude that this rule will be directed from two locations--one in Jerusalem and the other in "Zion" (the United States). This belief has caused Mormons to view U.S. politics as a stage on which the ultimate divine drama is likely to play itself out, with a Mormon in the leading role. Joseph Smith certainly thought so, which at least partially explains why he spent the final months of his life--he was gunned down by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844--running for president of the United States. ...

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maggie e. winslett - 12/31/2007

Since I am the mother of three DAUGHTERS and the grandmother of one GRANDDAUGHTER it scares me to death to have a president that believes the husband must call the name of his wife to heaven BEFORE she can go to heaven.

Otherwise, he has great hair.