If you’re into religion and politics, then December 6 is shaping up to be every bit as important, if not more, than January 3, when the Iowa caucuses are held. That’s because this Thursday, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney will deliver a long-awaited speech on religion, and more specifically, his own Mormon faith — the topic that has unwittingly dogged him throughout his campaign.

Time political analyst Mark Halperin writes that the speech will be a “rare” and “emotional” moment in the campaign. Its significance may surpass the Iowa caucus, ReligionWriter suggests, because even if Romney loses in Iowa or fails to win the Republican nomination, his speech on Thursday may be a turning point in the century-and-a-half long, often contentious relationship between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the rest of the United States.

To make sense of this upcoming important event, RW e-mailed questions to veteran religion reporter Dick Ostling, author, with his wife Joan, of the newly revised Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. Ostling explained why Romney’s task — satisfying the demands of evangelical Christians — will be a very different job than Kennedy’s task of assuaging the fears of non-Catholics.

ReligionWriter: In your view, what’s the significance of Romney’s speech, both for himself as a candidate and for Mormonism as an American faith?

Richard Ostling: Depending on what is said and how it is received, the speech is potentially crucial for Romney’s presidential aspirations and for the status of Mormonism in American life. For Romney, conservative Protestant leaders decry opposition to the candidate based on his religious faith, yet polls indicate considerable wariness among grass-roots voters. For Mormonism, as we state in the new revised edition of Mormon America, Romney’s race (and the less-discussed, simultaneous ascent of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) constitute one of three landmarks for LDS normalization in American life. The previous two were the 1890 manifesto against church polygamy and the 1978 elimination of the ban on lay priesthood for males of African blood.

RW: Nearly every commentator has likened Romney’s upcoming to speech to JFK’s 1960 speech that touched on his Catholicism. Can you tell us, why was that speech so successful at the time? And are Mormons today in the same situation Catholics were in the early 1960s? In other words, how valid are the comparisons to the JFK speech?

Ostling: JFK’s speech was successful because he was an eloquent communicator who addressed the anxieties of the day. Since that was a close election, one could readily suppose that he would never have been president without it. Remember that at the time Protestants faced scattered persecution in Latin America and the Roman Catholic Church had yet to baptize full religious liberty and tolerance, which only came at the Second Vatican Council. Differences: The LDS church is far smaller and less influential than U.S. Catholicism. Non-Catholics expected Kennedy to say his faith would make no difference, which is hardly what today’s Republican Christian conservatives want to hear. Kennedy was not thought of as particularly devout, so Protestant hostility was more a matter of ethnic prejudice, whereas Romney is a dedicated believer who has held important church offices.

RW: Thus far on the campaign trail, Romney has tried to downplay differences between Mormons and other Christians. This approach has seemed to irk many evangelicals — why is that?

Ostling: That approach does not work because the LDS religion in fact differs from traditional Christianity, not only for evangelicals but the rest of Protestantism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Better to candidly admit there are differences but these should not affect voting decisions. This is what conservatives like Richard Land and the late Jerry Falwell have said. The more effective plea is tolerance, asking voters to follow the spirit of the Constitution’s ban on any “religious test” to hold public office.

RW: In your book, you and your wife write about how the official LDS church often stonewalls in the face of criticism, legitimate and otherwise. Do you see traces of that defiant attitude in the way Romney has handled criticism of his Mormonism? He often seems annoyed that he’s being asked about it at all.

Ostling: Not really. Romney is understandably irked when his religion is constantly raised while other candidates are not so quizzed. Politically, the chief problem regarding the LDS church is not its strong response to criticism (most churches and secular organizations do that) but its unusual culture of secrecy. This could foster paranoid fears of an office-holder “taking orders from Salt Lake City” the way 1960 bigots said Kennedy would “take orders from the Pope.”

RW: The very first Mormon presidential candidate, of course, was the founding prophet of the LDS church, Joseph Smith. Were Smith’s political views and strategies similar in any way to Romney’s? Is there a distinctly Mormon brand of politics?

Ostling: The situations in 1844 and 2008 are entirely different. Smith was a prophet who proclaimed himself God’s unique channel of revelation. Romney is simply a devout member of the faith. Smith led a theocratic political entity and movement and [his] apostles were campaigners. Romney’s record as governor and presidential candidate shows no hints of theocracy. Quite the contrary.

RW: Finally, several Mormon readers of this website have asserted that you and your wife can’t write objectively about the church because you are evangelical Christians. Could you respond to that assertion?

Ostling: Gladly. We open Mormon America by informing readers that we are quite conventional Protestant believers, so by definition we do not follow the LDS church’s restored gospel. Readers needed to know this and judge accordingly. We do seek for accuracy and fairness, and readers can decide for themselves whether we achieved this. Mormons’ opinions on this are divided. A related question is whether Mormons are able to be objective about their church. Richard Bushman’s recent biography of Joseph Smith is a step in that direction. Before and during our research, as we tried to indicate, we were impressed by the thoughtfulness, faithfulness, charitableness, devotion, integrity and savvy of the Mormon people. We believe that Mormons have much to teach non-Mormons.

» » » »


3 Comments so far

  1. Parker on December 4, 2007 6:52 pm

    Many thanks to the Ostlings and to ReligionWriter for this balanced, thoughtful, respectful dialogue. This is journalism at its best.

  2. T. "Chimpy" Greer on December 6, 2007 9:05 pm

    Can’t say I disagree, even if I am one of those Mormons who doubt the Ostling’s objectivity. ^_~

    I am curious though to RW’s reaction to the speech Romney gave today. Perhaps she will give us a little reviews? You know, from the religious perspective?

  3. Vigilante on December 8, 2007 8:50 pm

    Doesn’t the Republican Party owe Americans a clear choice-a Huckabee-Romney or Romney-Huckabee ticket-that would, in effect, be a referendum on the separation of church and state?

    The alternative is to keep allowing the Religious Right to keep dominating the American conversation far out of proportion to be their true numbers and in contradiction to a consensus that existed in the nation’s politics since 1776 until Islamic terrorists gave Bush’s Christian absolutists a climate of fear in which to propagate their own extremism.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

FireStats icon Powered by FireStats
E-mail It