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The Mormon elephant in the presidential arena

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Charles C. Haynes
August 13, 2011

For better or for worse, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain likes to say out loud what others only whisper.


A few weeks ago, for example, Cain mentioned what his rivals for the nomination dare not mention: Mitt Romney has a religion problem.


“Romney would be a good choice,” Cain told the editors of The Washington Times, “but I don’t believe he can win.”


Why? Because to win the nomination (and the presidency), a Republican needs to do well in the South—and Cain sees Romney’s Mormon faith as a major barrier in Southern states.


“It doesn’t bother me,” said Cain, “but I know it is an issue with a lot of Southerners.”


However impolitic it might be for Cain to raise the “religion issue,” polls suggest that Romney will indeed face significant resistance among voters reluctant to vote for a Mormon—much as he did in 2008.


According to a recent Gallup survey, 22 percent of Americans say they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. Anti-Mormon bias appears to be especially high among evangelical Christians. In a Pew Research Center poll released last spring, 34 percent of evangelicals said they were less likely to vote for a Mormon.


But if religious affiliation is such a big liability for Romney, then why is he the current front-runner for the nomination? The American Research Group puts Romney ahead in South Carolina, a state with a large evangelical voting bloc. Among likely Republican primary voters there, Romney has the support of 25 percent, with Sarah Palin (who has not announced whether she will run) second at 16 percent.


One explanation may be that many voters are still unaware of Romney’s faith. A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that only four in 10 Americans know that Romney is a Mormon. Among evangelicals, that number rises to 44 percent.


Unfortunately for Romney (and Jon Huntsman, the other Mormon in the Republican field), this anti-Mormon prejudice is persistent and not easily overcome. According to Gallup, anti-Mormon bias has remained at similar levels since 1967, ranging from a low of 17 percent to a high of 24 percent.


By comparison, bias against Roman Catholic candidates went from 33 percent in 1939 to 21 percent before John F. Kennedy was elected to 7 percent in 2009.


Of course, voters have a right to consider how a candidate’s faith and values might shape his or her performance in office. Character matters.


But Romney’s “Mormon problem” seems to have very little to do with his actual qualifications for the presidency. To rule out voting for a Mormon—any Mormon—is to apply a religious test based not on questions of character or record in office, but on religious prejudice, pure and simple.


Nothing in Romney’s career suggests that he would use the presidency unconstitutionally to impose his religion on the nation. But just as some voters in 1960 feared a Catholic president would advance Catholicism in America, so some evangelicals now fear a Mormon president would elevate the power and influence of the Mormon Church.


Evangelical journalist Warren Cole Smith, associate publisher of The World (a major Christian news magazine), recently wrote that the election of a Mormon president “would serve to normalize the false teachings of Mormonism the world over. … To elect a Mormon President is to advance the cause of the Mormon Church.”


I don’t have a study to cite, but I seriously doubt people rushed to join the Catholic Church after JFK’s election. And I can’t imagine that Sen. Harry Reid, who happens to be a Mormon, has inspired conversions to his faith in Nevada or anywhere else. Most voters understand that we elect the person, not the church.


By demonstrating that a Catholic could be elected president, Kennedy advanced the cause of democracy in America—not the Roman Catholic Church. And if not Romney or Huntsman in 2012, one day a Mormon will be elected president, bringing down yet another unjust barrier that should have no place in American political life.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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