We who began "sighting" religion in American public life a half-century ago had to open a file on "religion and presidential candidates" when "Ike" ran against "Adlai." Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were very religious, but Roosevelt's form of mainstream Protestantism was seen as inoffensive, and Truman disdained the "use" of religion in political contention. Then came Adlai Stevenson, who was controversial because he was a Unitarian and, of course, he was utterly dismissed by religious conservatives (pre-Reagan) because he had been divorced. Dwight Eisenhower ushered in the new era with what a critic called his "very fervent faith in a very vague religion." In 1960 religion came to the fore in the Kennedy-as-Catholic campaign, and it has stayed there ever since. One has to marvel at the naiveté or historical short-sightedness of communicators and analysts today who think that controversial religious identifications among candidates are new. The cast of characters changes; the stage is the same.
So the files bulge fatly and prematurely in this too-long campaign. Not a single candidate is discussed apart from her or his religious commitments. We can save comment on other candidates for future seasons until November 2008. First off, meanwhile, we have the Mormon context and involvement of new candidate Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. There is no hiding his Latter Day Saint identification, nor does he try to hide it. He did his three-year missionary stint, and is by all signs wholly engaged with his faith community. And that is controversial. We are told that though he is working his way into acceptability on hot-button issues among religious conservatives, they have more reservations than do other Americans about his being a Mormon.
Such reservations were better described as suspicious and hateful in the 1840s and for a century that followed. Almost nothing galvanized publics in that century more than the perceived threats by the Mormons. The practice of Church-sanctioned polygamy shocked non-Mormons in a time before the public accepted our serial polygamy of celebrities, stars, and sometimes neighbors. In case no one has noticed, except among fringe groups, all that is past. That Latter Day Saints theology differs radically from Christian orthodoxies is also obvious. That Mormons, especially in Utah, tend to be rather homogeneous in their expressions of right-wing Americanism is evident in polls and outcomes.
So we line things up. First, there is the U.S. Constitution, with its "no religious tests" clause. That settles things legally but it is in the ethos, mores, prejudices, and preferences of the public that this all has to be fought out. My own favorite among commentaries by Mormons is "Mormon President? No Problem: Have Faith," by Richard Lyman Bushman in the New Republic. Bushman is as notable and fair-minded an American historian as we have, and has written perceptively about Mormon history. His reassurances are well grounded. "Beliefs do matter. Romney's values, as he has said repeatedly, come from his Mormonism. But teasing out possible implications of theological positions can verge on fantasy. We should ask Romney what he believes, but it would be wrong to predict his future course."
In short: Let's keep the inquiry cool.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com. Original Source: Sightings A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.