Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Image Trouble: Can a Mormon Be President?

Of the major religions – other than Muslim – people in the US are least comfortable with the prospect of a Mormon president, says a new Pew Research study. Even evangelical Christians, a core constituency for many a Republican hopeful, tend to see the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a secretive, possibly heretical cult. Thus, if Mitt Romney does become the GOP’s nominee in 2012, this could be a tougher obstacle than his association with health care reform or his oft-discussed absence of authenticity.

There are a number of Mormon political heavy-weights, notably US Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Jon Huntsman – as of this week officially another rival for the nomination, and five other senators, including both from Utah, Michael S. Lee and Orrin Hatch, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Dean Heller, who replaced John Ensign to join Reid in representing Nevada. Ronald Reagan may be the Church’s leading admirer among the presidents, and his administration reportedly contained more Mormons than any other.

According to Stephen M. Studdert, a Mormon who was Special Assistant to Reagan, he and two other church members were on Reagan’s personal staff and another was his chief strategist. The list also includes Secretary of Education Ted Bell, US Treasurer Angela Buchanan, Solicitor General Rex Lee, Brent Scowcroft, and many more. Several Mormons also served as ambassadors. “LDS senators and representatives were held in special regard, and the Tabernacle Choir was his special inaugural guest," Studdert recalls fondly. Sounds almost like a Golden Age.

Still, no LDS member has risen higher in government so far than Reid, who joined while attending Utah State in 1960. He later converted his Jewish wife. Since the rise of Las Vegas as a gambling Mecca, prominent Mormons have also worked as top executives for legalized gaming and other conglomerates. Former Utah Senator Bob Bennett, for example, was a once the top corporate PR man for Howard Hughes.

Romney’s ties to the Church are among the deepest. A fifth-generation Mormon whose ancestors were involved from the mid-1850s, he is a former lay bishop of Massachusetts' temple. But he isn’t the first Mormon to seek the presidency. That honor goes to founder Joseph Smith, a Vermonter by birth who struck out for the west in revival days.

Part of an evangelical surge known as the Second Great Awakening, many revivals of the early 19th century centered on Christian predictions of impending doom. The prophecies faded but the righteous attitude and enthusiasm gave energy to diverse movements, from abolition to temperance and opposition to the influence of Masons. The basic revival message was the promise of salvation from social and personal dilemmas. Revivals offered a way to stay focused in confusing times, as well as a group of like-minded converts, simple answers to problems, and a sense of purpose in line with a communal form of liberty.

Smith was born in a small Vermont town near the Connecticut River on December 23, 1805 but moved to upstate New York before founding the Church in 1831. He began by announcing that an angel had given him a book of golden plates inscribed with a religious history of ancient peoples. Once “translated” by Smith their contents became The Book of Mormon.

Believers flocked to the new religion, but hostile neighbors forced Smith and his followers to keep moving, first to Ohio and then Missouri and Illinois. In Missouri the tensions broke into outright war. Hostile Missourians thought the Mormons were planning an insurrection and the governor said they should be "exterminated” or driven out.

Smith next led his followers to Illinois, where they built a town on some Mississippi River swampland. There Smith became the mayor of a town he named Nauvoo and commanded an impressive militia.

He announced for President as candidate of the National Reform Party in early 1844. It was a long shot, since former President Andrew Jackson was engineering the nomination of Tennessee farmer, lawyer and political “dark horse” James Polk. The Whigs were backing Henry Clay, and the big issue was expansion – specifically the takeover of Texas and Oregon.

Smith’s Party had emerged from the National Reform Association, a coalition of unionists, locofocos (a radical Democratic faction combining unionists and libertarians) and the Workingman’s Party, united in their concern about depression and “social degradation of the laborer.” What especially attracted Smith, however, was the Party’s policy focus – homesteading rights. National Reformers wanted legislation allowing workers and others to acquire public lands free of charge, state laws exempting farm land from seizure to collect debts, and restrictions on ownership of large swathes by the wealthy. Their slogan was “Vote the Land Free.”

Unfortunately, like many candidates before and since, Smith had some personal baggage. In his case it came in the form of romantic overtures he had made to the wife of a convert, William Law, a Canadian who quit the Church and publicly attacked the Mormon practice of polygamy in a newsletter. “We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith, and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms,” wrote Law. Accompanied by the Nauvoo city marshal, Smith responded by destroying his accuser’s printing press. The Illinois governor charged him with inciting a riot and had him jailed.

On June 27, 1844, while Smith was drinking wine with his brother and some friends in a spacious cell in Carthage, a mob surrounded the building. The prophet had a gun, a six shot “pepper-box” pistol, but a gang with blackened faces charged into his cell and opened fire, immediately killing his brother and the others. Smith almost escaped out the window. With shots coming at him from behind and below he plummeted two stories to the ground and then died.

Five men were tried for his murder. All were acquitted. But the church soon recovered when a new prophet emerged – a 43-year-old former housepainter and carpenter from Vermont named Brigham Young.

Thirty-seven years after Smith’s fateful race Chester Arthur succeeded where he had fallen short, becoming the first president from Vermont upon the assassination of President James Garfield. But Arthur was the Episcopalian son of a Baptist minister, and public attitudes had turned less tolerant in the intervening years. In his first Annual Message to Congress on December 6, 1881, Arthur called Mormon polygamy an “odious crime” and a “barbarous system,” urging legislation to stop its spread. By then Mormons were well established in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other Western Territories. Still, attacks on polygamy peppered Arthur’s speeches throughout his presidency.

More than a century later, the LDS church has 14 million members and identifies itself with patriotism, monogamy and conservative values. Yet the Pew Research Center has concluded that 25 percent of American would be less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The responses from white evangelicals are even less encouraging. More than a third react negatively to the idea of a Mormon in the White House. Among those, 63 percent said there is no way they will go for Romney. A new Gallup Poll says 22 percent of all voters won’t vote for a Mormon. University of Akron political scientist John Green claims that distrust among Christian evangelicals contributed to Romney’s 2008 loss in the Iowa caucuses. Could it be enough to prevent any Mormon from winning the nomination?

Mormon associations with secrecy, polygamy and religiously “subversive” beliefs persist, frequently reinforced by popular media portrayals. In the HBO series Big Love, a modern-day polygamist struggles with the LDS hierarchy, religious fanatics, and federal investigations. Although elected to the Utah legislature, his tenure is cut short by scandal and, in the final episode, he is murdered by a disillusioned neighbor. At the other end of the theatrical spectrum is the irreverent musical satire of The Book of Mormon, an award-winning Broadway hit by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Even straight historical dramas tend to focus on the extremism of early Church leaders. And let’s not linger on the Order, the notorious Utah crime family and polygamist Mormon cult, profiled this week in Rolling Stone and reportedly worth at least $300 million.

During Romney’s 2008 presidential run he tried to defuse the issue and dispel doubts with a speech, a strategy used with success by John F. Kennedy when he spoke publicly about Catholicism and politics during his presidential run. But Romney's "Faith in America" talk in Texas mentioned the name of his faith just once, raising questions about whether he was as comfortable with the issue as he suggested. For some it’s politically the M-word.

This time, Romney moved to preempt attacks by announcing on CNN that he is “not a spokesman” for the Church. It came off as defensive, and ultimately beside the point. "We go to different churches or maybe don't go to church so much," he has said, apparently in the hope of associating himself with tolerance rather than polygamy. Whether this will work remains to be seen. But considering how things went for Smith the Romney and Huntsman campaigns are positively mainstreaming.

So, can a Mormon be president? It does remain exotic or threatening for some. But after the first Black president, and especially what’s been said about him, a Mormon commander-in-chief is getting easier to imagine. We may soon find out whether it can happen here.