Michael Gerson’s most recent column ”Who’s Afraid of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism”is a must read. He takes as his point of departure some polling data that suggests a durable unwillingness to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, a reluctance that has hovered around 20% of the electorate (give or take) for more 30 years.
The stability in U.S. bias against voting for a Mormon presidential candidate contrasts markedly with steep declines in similar views toward several other groups over the past half-century, including blacks, women, Catholics, and Jews. The last time as many as 22% of Americans said they would not vote for any of these groups (the same level opposed to voting for a Mormon today) was 1959 for Catholics, 1961 for Jews, 1971 for blacks, and 1975 for women. As noted, opposition to voting for each of these has since tapered off to single digits.
At the moment, reluctance to vote for a Mormon is highest among Democrats (27% vs. 18% among Republicans). After arguing that for good political reasons even theologically conservative Protestants will make their peace with Romney, if he is the nominee, Gerson adds the following observation:
[S]ecular tolerance for the emphatic faiths has been thinning for some time. To many liberal thinkers, conservative religion is inherently illiberal. Mormonism only magnifies those concerns. Damon Linker has warned that Mormon leaders, claiming prophetic authority, might dictate to an American president. Jacob Weisberg has insisted , I wouldnt vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats currently say they would not vote for a Mormon a higher percentage than among Republicans or Protestants.
Will Romneys Mormonism matter? It depends. On much of the right, politics will eventually trump theology. On at least some of the left, secularism will trump tolerance.
Back in 2007, I had something to say about this. (Full disclosure: I voted for Mike Huckabee in the Georgia primary, but persuaded my pastor, who has very strong theological objections to Mormonism, that he could follow his political judgment and cast his ballot for Romney.) My unsolicited advice to Governor Romney before his December, 2007 Faith in America speech went something like this:
Governor Romney ought to make a speech in which he acknowledges that his faith matters, but that, in the Constitutional context, it can only matter in a way that enriches our pursuit of limited worldly ends. As president, he would be called to welcome and to honor all the faiths that contribute to our public life, and to resist all those that would illegitimately coerce our consciences.
After the speech, which had its share of critics on both the Right and the Left, I defended him:
The narrative that seems to be emerging is that Mitt Romney lacks the courage to stand up to the narrow-minded and intolerant yahoos on what pundit Andrew Sullivan would call the “Christianist” side of the Republican Party. I think that Romney could offer a courageous response to this line of argument and here, without further ado, it is.
He can begin by calling attention to this carefully-worded passage in his speech:
In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day. And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.
Here he unites the rationalist and religious friends of liberty against its enemies, at the same time affirming that ” any believer in religious freedom ,” as well as any religious believer, “has a friend and ally in me.” His “symphony” is indeed not all-inclusive: excluded are religious enemies of liberty (the jihadis ) and rationalist enemies of religion (those who adhere to what he at one point calls “the religion of secularism”).
Back then, Governor Romney gave a good speech, one that repays our attention now and one of which his campaign ought to remind us. It was and remains a valuable contribution to our discourse about religion and politics.