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.

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Here’s a piece of trivia worth knowing: The first Mormon to run for U.S. President was none other than the founding prophet of Mormonism himself: Joseph Smith, Jr.

While it may have sounded like a stretch when then-Republican Party nominee George Bush named Christ as his favorite political philosopher without explaining what sort of ideas Jesus offered about governance and public policy, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney could hark back with complete authenticity to the political philosophy of Joseph Smith — indeed, Mormonism is the only world religion whose founder ran for U.S. Ppresident.

Of course, Romney will likely do nothing of the sort. Not only does the candidate himself appear personally irked by questions about his faith but also his campaign has tried to deflect the religious issue. Any decision on Romney’s part not to name Joseph Smith as his favorite political philosopher is probably a wise one; ReligionWriter’s scan of the historical record on the Smith’s short-lived candidacy reveals themes Romney would probably like to gloss over.

For one thing, Smith’s five-month-long, second-tier run for the presidency in 1844 (which ended when Smith was assassinated in June of that year) bore the hallmark of the mini-Mormon civilization Smith had created at that time in Nauvoo, Ill. — it blurred the boundaries of church and state.

As journalists Richard and Joan Ostling write in their newly revised Mormon America, the charter for the Mormon settlement in western Illinois “provided no effective separation of powers.” Smith served as mayor of Nauvoo, in addition to being “head lawmaker and judge,” not to mention the prophetic religious head of the 12,000-strong Mormon community in Nauvoo (whose Hebreo-Mormon name should not be confused with the fictional Star Wars world of Naboo.)

Just so, Smith’s campaign was a cross between political and spiritual evangelism. Three months after he declared his candidacy, he called for volunteer “electioneers” to campaign for him, and more than 340 stepped up the challenge. “Campaigning seemed secondary in comparison to the amount of time they spent preaching,” writes former BYU undergrad Margaret C. Robertson, who surveyed and analyzed the electioneer’s journals.

But Smith did lay out a national platform (Views of the Power and Policy of the Government of the United States,) in which he called for “abolition…; prison reform; unity as a nation; a national bank; the annexation of Texas, California, and Oregon; and the expansion of federal power,” as Robertson writes.

More controversial than his specific policy proposals, however, was Smith’s call for “theodemocracy,” a kind of national political system that would — like the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo — blend theocracy and democracy. Said Smith in April, 1844: “There is not a nation or a dynasty now occupying the earth which acknowledges Almighty God as their lawgiver.”

Smith’s religio-political vision was not an easy sell: his electioneers, who depended on the charity of others for their own sustenance, faced not only “hunger, fatigue and illness” on the campaign trail, but also bodily threats; some electioneers recorded being pelted with tobacco, whipped or even tarred and feathered, according to Robertson. And of course Smith himself died at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob that stormed his prison cell, where he was kept after being accused of treason for destroying a rival’s printing press.

Does Romney, in his private moments, find inspiration in Smith’s ill-fated candidacy? At the very least, he can take comfort in the fact that he has not yet been tarred and feathered.

In researching this post, ReligionWriter would like to acknowledge and thank BYU Studies, an academic journal at Brigham Young University that hosts a free, searchable database of articles on Mormonism and LDS history.
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This presidential election cycle is supposed to be all about religion, right? The pundit mop-up of George Bush’s 2004 victory was all about “values voters,” and while the “God gap” apparently narrowed in the 2006 mid-term elections, we’ve still had any number of articles about how the Democrats are getting religion. (We are awaiting a book from journalist Amy Sullivan on this topic.) And of course religious talk has been much in evidence from the Democrats, including an entire debate devoted to the subject of faith.

Given this new hyper-focus on personal religious faith as a political plus, some of the findings of a survey released earlier this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provide some puzzling material for pundits to chew over.

Consider these contrarian facts:

When asked what issues would be most important to them in terms of voting, all groups — Democrats and Republicans, evangelicals, Catholics and everyone else in between — rated domestic issues (like the economy, health care and education) and the war in Iraq as more important than social issues (like abortion and gay marriage.)

Note in the Pew table to the left, of course, there are some variations: 45% of Republicans mention social issues as “very important” compared with 36% of Democrats, and White evangelicals are most concerned with social issues (56% mentioning them as “very important,”) compared to mainline Protestants, who are the least concerned (28%.)

While some might argue that on a local level, these slight differences might make or break a president, it seems unlikely that the 2008 election will be all about the “values voters.”

Here’s another one: The two most popular candidates right now are not the candidates perceived as most religious. According to the Pew survey, Hillary Clinton is perceived as less religious than either Barack Obama or John Edwards, yet she is the current front-runner. Similarly on the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani leads in popularity, even though he is perceived as less religious than Fred Thompson, John McCain and Mitt Romney. (And ReligionWriter would like to meet the 14% of people who perceived Giuliani as “very religious.”)

If religion matters in 2008, then pundits are going to have to explain Giuliani’s popularity with Republicans — where did all the values voters go? Here too the Pew study may provide a clue: Could Giuliani be riding a wave of favorable ignorance? Nearly 60% of voters who say that social issues are “very important” don’t know what Giuliani’s position on abortion is (he says he “believes in a woman’s right to choose.”) In other words, more than half of the people one expects to reject Giuliani outright are unaware of his abortion stance — it seems that Giuliani might have a tough row to hoe if his lead continues and “values voters” become better informed about his social issue positions.

Some parting questions:

In talking faith and values, are Democrats fighting the last war?

Will the mini-industry of religion-and-politics pundits and reporters (ReligionWriter included) fairly report on the unimportance of religion in the campaign?

If religion is a non-decisive issue in 2008, will all the buzz over religion in public life fade away, to be replaced by another, yet-to-be discovered issue? (Readers, tell us what this might be!)


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Question: What does the current field of presidential contenders have in common with the Supreme Court bench? Answer: It is disproportionately Catholic.

Using the handily compiled religious biographies of the presidential candidates (which number 16, if undeclared Fred Thompson is included) from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ReligionWriter discovered these interesting tidbits.

Six out of 16 presidential candidates, or 38%, are Catholic (and five out of nine, or 56%, Supreme Court justices are Catholic.) Nationwide, Catholics make up an estimated 24.5% of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. (That percentage may be lower now, since it declined by 2.3% between 1990 and 2001, and because an increasing number of American Hispanics are leaving Catholicism for other — or no- religions, according to a recent Pew Forum study.)

The six Catholic candidates are: Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Christopher Dodd, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson.

The candidate roster also reflects what scholars call the vibrancy of the American “religious marketplace,” in which individuals often choose new religious identities. (ReligionWriter covered this trend in her Feb. 2007 Religion News Service article, “For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given.”) Five Six candidates now practice faiths different from the ones they grew up with:

  • Democrat Mike Gravel grew up as a Roman Catholic, attending Catholic schools, and now belongs to the Unitarian Church. (Gravel’s profile is not yet posted on the Pew Forum’s website.)
  • Republican Ron Paul grew up it the Lutheran faith, married and baptized his five children in the Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as a Baptist. (Paul’s profile is not yet posted at the Pew Forum.)
  • Republican Sam Brownback grew up attending United Methodist and other mainline Protestant churches. He later attended a nondenominational evangelical church and, in 2002, converted to Catholicism.
  • Democrat John Edwards was raised a Southern Baptist, “drifted away” from his faith as a young man. After the tragic death of his son in 1996, he became more religious, and he is now a United Methodist.
  • Democrat Barack Obama grew up in a largely non-religious environment, the son of an absentee Muslim-turned-atheist father and a non-practicing Protestant mother. He now belongs to the United Church of Christ.
  • Winning honorable mention in this category is Democrat Christopher Dodd, who, while adhering the Catholicism of his childhood, is married to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church.) The couple’s children are being raised in both faiths.
  • UPDATE 8/21: Tom Tancredo is also a convert. Born a Roman Catholic of Italian heritage, Tancredo converted to evangelical Presbyterianism.

For those interested crunching their own numbers, here are the religious affiliations of the remaining candidates:

Hillary Clinton: United Methodist

Mike Huckabee: Southern Baptist

Duncan Hunter: Southern Baptist

John McCain: Episcopal

Mitt Romney: Mormon

Fred Thompson: Church of Christ

Re: Fred Thompson, here’s a question best answered by the citizen journalists of McLean, Va., where Fred Thompson now lives: Is the former Senator from Tennessee currently a member of a local Church of Christ? Although Thompson grew up in this largely conservative denomination, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in a United Church of Christ, a more liberal denomination. If Thompson belongs to a church, of any denomination, in Northern Virginia, that has not yet been reported.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, ReligionWriter notes that she regularly contributes to the Pew Forum and compiled several of the candidate profiles mentioned here.)

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