Even before Mitt Romney’s presidential announcement last Tuesday, his Mormon faith was becoming the hottest “religious issue” since 1960, when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, became the first — and still only — non-Protestant to be elected president in U.S. history.
This week, for instance, a USA Today cover story asked: “Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House?” In December, Time magazine wondered: “Can a Mormon be President?”
While other Mormons hold important posts in Washington — Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is the highest-ranking elected Mormon in the land — Romney is the first member of what is officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to have a shot at a major party nomination for president. Thus the questions about a church that some have accused of being little more than a cult.
Indeed, no large religious denomination has faced more controversy over the years than Mormonism, sparked by a set of beliefs and traditions that many Americans consider out of the mainstream. The practice of polygamy, which the church banned 117 years ago, and the unusual secrecy about its rituals are among the most cited examples. But even the story about the church’s founding is unusual to nonbelievers: God appeared to Joseph Smith and told him that all existing forms of Christianity were “an abomination” and then directed Smith to a hillside in upstate New York where, with the help of the angel Moroni, Smith recovered a set of golden tablets that revealed the real word of God. Smith had further revelations, which Mormons treat as scripture alongside the Bible, including that Jesus would eventually return to reign from Missouri. Smith was eventually killed by vigilantes. For readers interested in knowing more about his life, the primary biography is “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” by Columbia University historian Richard Lyman Bushman, a devout Mormon. Dan Vogel takes a skeptical view of Mormon origins in his “Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet.”
In addition to the problematic history of polygamy and the church, there is a second discarded teaching, on race, that has lingered for some in their thinking about Mormonism. Until 1978, the Mormons barred anyone with African blood from the church’s “priesthood,” to which virtually all men and boys eventually belong. Although that doctrine was abandoned, it caused significant disillusionment among blacks who had joined the church — both in the United States and abroad.
The presidential race is likely to raise anew questions about church-state separation for Mormons. While Mormonism did operate theocracies in the 19th century — including in Utah before it became a state — today’s church practices strict neutrality. It does speak on certain moral issues, such as opposing same-sex marriage. Sens. Reid, a liberal, and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a conservative, demonstrate the wide range of Mormons’ political views.
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Another trait that makes some uneasy is the church’s evangelistic zeal. Mormonism asks all young men to undertake short-term missionary tours, as Romney did in France from 1966 to 1968. Not all of them do such tours, but their energetic efforts to convert believers of other faiths rubs some people the wrong way. Evangelism extends beyond the grave, too, through vicarious “baptisms for the dead,” a practice that is considered odd by many Christians and that drew outrage among Jews when Mormons turned their attention to victims of the Holocaust.
It’s often said that Mormonism is the fastest-growing major religious denomination. There are nearly 12.6 million members worldwide, of whom about 5.7 million are in the United States. However, a 2005 series by the Salt Lake Tribune indicated that many members on the church’s rolls are inactive.
The church’s system has no clergy; instead, laymen serve such functions part-time. Romney was in effect the pastor of his congregation in Massachusetts and then was a regional leader akin to a bishop. (Presidents James A. Garfield, once a Disciples of Christ preacher, and Jimmy Carter, a short-term Southern Baptist missionary, rendered similar service to their churches.) The Mormon Church also maintains an unusual level of secrecy about internal administration and its considerable wealth. It imposes strict privacy regarding rituals in its temples, with the inner sanctums themselves restricted to certified members of the faith. Only Mormons in good standing, for instance, can attend a wedding ceremony inside a Mormon temple.
Finally, the most difficult question may be: Are Mormons really Christians? They profess themselves to be — though it’s a different version from that preached in Catholic and Protestant churches. Mormons reject traditional Christian beliefs about God, Jesus and the Trinity. Given Joseph Smith’s teaching that God declared all creeds before Mormonism “an abomination,” it is not surprising that Roman Catholics and most Protestants require rebaptism of converts from Mormonism. (Mormons likewise rebaptize Catholics and Protestants.)
Will any of this matter to Romney during his presidential campaign? The Constitution demands that the government impose “no religious test” for holding public office. Yet voters make their own choices and public opinion polls show that when it comes to Mormons, many people do worry. When a recent USA Today-Gallup poll asked respondents whether they would vote for a qualified woman, Mormon or black candidate to be president, the results were striking. About 94 percent said they would vote for a black nominee, 88 percent said a woman and 72 percent said a Mormon. In the current field, that could spell trouble for Romney.
Richard N. Ostling is the co-author, with his wife, Joan, of “Mormon America” (HarperSanFrancisco). He was a longtime religion writer for Time magazine and the Associated Press.