On Opinion Journal earlier this week, John Fund opines on the Mormon factor in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He notes that a survey of 1,269 faculty members by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research just found that 38 percent of social sciences and humanities professors, a highly liberal group, viewed Mormons “unfavorably.” According to the latest Washington Post /ABC News poll, some 15 percent of Republican voters say there is “no chance” they would back a Mormon for president.
Mr. Fund quotes Alan Wolfe of the Boisi Center at Boston College, who said: “In some ways, [Romney’s candidacy] is the best test of whether Americans have really put some of the old religious differences aside. And my guess is that they haven’t.”
It’s hard to know what to make of that survey of liberal professors. I wouldn’t be surprised if 38 percent or more of them view Christianity "unfavorably." And the 15 percent of Republicans who said "no chance" is lower than one might expect. If they are conservative Republicans, and if a year from now they face a choice between a conservative Romney and a very liberal Democrat, it seems probable that many of them would think there is more than a chance of supporting him after all. As for Alan Wolfe, his dream, as I have had occasion to discuss in First Things , is of a country in which those "old religious differences" make no difference. And he has long employed dubious sociological research to claim that, in fact, his dream has come true. Romney and Mormonism are apparently giving him second thoughts.
John Fund writes:
Mr. Romney doesn’t have to give an exact repetition of John F. Kennedy’s famous statement to Houston’s Protestant ministers, in which he said that he would resign if his religious beliefs conflicted with his public duties. But Richard Bushman, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University who has written the leading biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, told a Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life seminar I attended in May that Mr. Romney could say, “I’m going to follow my own conscience, come what may.” Mr. Bushman noted that under Mormonism “politicians are not required to comply” with the dictates of the church in public life. If Mr. Romney makes that explicitly clear at some point in his campaign, he will allay some fears and stifle some criticism.
Mr. Romney has said, “I think the American people want a person of faith to lead the country. I don’t think Americans care what brand of faith someone has.” In response to which John Fund says: "That is not entirely true. But it would help all of us if everyone in the political community worked towards that goal. In a country as diverse as ours, we will benefit if there are as few religious barriers as possible to those seeking high office."
That, too, is not entirely true. It is true, and it is a very good thing, that the Constitution forbids the government to impose a religious test. But the sovereign people may support or oppose a candidate for all kinds of reasons they consider germane. For many millions of Americans, contra Alan Wolfe and others who wish it were not so, religion matters a great deal. An oddity in these discussions of Romney and Mormonism is that people routinely bring up John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech as a model of overcoming the religion factor. The case might be made that it was the religion factor that elected JFK.
One plausible reading of that Houston speech is that JFK was telling the Baptist ministers and the nation that he was not a very serious Catholic, a truth that few would now dispute. More pertinent to the present discussion about "religious barriers," in 1960 Catholics reached toward unanimity in voting for JFK because he was a Catholic. Catholics were, in effect, voting for themselves, symbolically celebrating the fact that Catholics had "arrived" in America. Without that overwhelming Catholic vote, it is certain that JFK would not have been elected. (Indeed, although Nixon declined to call for a recount, there continues to be reasonable doubt that he was elected.) In this view, 1960, far from representing the overcoming of "religious barriers," demonstrated how very much religious differences matters.
There is no Mormon vote comparable in size to the Catholic vote. Christian suspicion of Mormonism, concentrated in but by no means limited to evangelical Protestantism, is strong. Nor is that suspicion entirely unreasonable, as I have discussed on several occasions in First Things .
I believe that many Mormons are Christians as broadly defined by historic markers of Christian faith. That does not mean that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christian. It is indisputably derived from Christianity and variations on Christianity, but its distinctive and constituting doctrines are irreconcilable with even a very liberal construal of biblical Christianity. It is, as Rodney Stark and many others have argued, a new religion and, by the lights of historic Christianity, a false religion. It is true that there are Mormon scholars who are working mightily to reconcile the LDS with Christianity, and one wishes them well, but they have their work cut out for them.
It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who, unlike Alan Wolfe et al., care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney. The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.
For millions of other Americans, the above questions do not matter. And for those for whom they do matter, they are not the only questions that matter. Mr. Romney is a very attractive candidate in both substance and style. As in most decisions, and not least of all in voting, the question comes down to what or who is the alternative. We will not have an answer to that question for some months. But I can now register a respectful disagreement with John Fund when he writes, "We will be a better country if even people who don’t support Mr. Romney for president come to recognize that our country is better off if his candidacy rises or falls on factors that have nothing to do with his faith." On the contrary, we are a better country because many Americans do take their faith, and the faith of others, very seriously indeed. Also when it comes to voting.
Does this line of argument mean that anti-Catholicism should have prevented the election of JFK? No. Anti-Catholicism is, in my judgment, an unreasonable prejudice. Others, of course, will disagree, but not enough others to prevent the election of a Catholic president. Anxiety about the strengthening of Mormonism by virtue of there being a Mormon president is not unreasonable. One may or may not share that anxiety, but it is not unreasonable. Those who think it is unreasonable are, more often than not, people who think it is unreasonable to take religion so very seriously. For the millions of citizens who do take religion so very seriously, the fact that Mr. Romney is a Mormon may not be the determinative factor, but it will be a factor, and, for many, an important factor.
I am sure Mr. Romney is aware of that, and I hope he finds a way of addressing it that does not suggest that his religion does not matter¯or that those who think it does matter are guilty of unreasonable prejudice.