Millions of Americans think John F. Kennedy put to rest the issue of religion in presidential politics when, in 1960, he became the first Roman Catholic to win the White House.
Another Massachusetts politician, Republican Gov. W. Mitt Romney, may find out that is not the case should he run for president in 2008, as many people believe he is angling to do.
Romney is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. Its members, however, are not considered Christians by a number of other denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant denominations in America and two faiths whose membership is heavily concentrated in the South.
Given that the South has become a GOP stronghold in recent presidential races, some believe Romney’s religion would emerge as an issue there should he seek to become the 44th president.
“I think it likely will matter,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “I think he will have to be very savvy and skillful in talking with evangelicals, and I don’t know what experience he has doing that.”
Wilson, who has heard Baptist ministers denounce Mormonism from the pulpit, said the Latter-day Saints are viewed as “an odd religious phenomenon” by Southern evangelicals, most of whom are Republicans. Aggressive Mormon proselytizing has not helped the religion’s image in the region, Wilson said.
“In the South we talk about religion, and so he’s got to find a way to diffuse the issue of his religion,” he said. “He’s got to make morality the issue.”
“I think he’s got a hard row to hoe,” Wilson said.
J. Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, sees the situation differently. Guillory said the fact Romney is Mormon would not be as significant to voters as his positions on issues like abortion and school prayer, whether he is comfortable with his faith and what sense voters get of his family life.
“It’s how he deals with those that are more potent than he being a Mormon rather than a Methodist,” Guillory said.
In many ways, Romney is in step with evangelicals. He is a dedicated family man who does not smoke or drink and who has been a church leader.
He is a governor who personally opposes abortion and gay marriage, but he has said he would never interfere with a woman’s right to choose and that he favors benefits for same-sex partners.
Romney rarely speaks about his faith in public, saying religion is a private matter. That stance proved largely a non-issue in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, and his communications director, Eric P. Fehrnstrom, said recently, “His faith is something he shares with his family, and he keeps it separate from his public duties.”
In a national race, however, Romney is certain to face questions about his religion, which has been called a cult.
William E. Gordon Jr., who serves as an expert in comparative religions for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, would not label the Mormons a cult. But he said there are major differences between Southern Baptists and Mormons.
“the term can be defined either sociologically or theologically. Sociology concerns itself with behavior, while theology concerns itself with doctrine.”
“We believe in a different God, and we believe in a different Jesus, and we believe in a different plan of salvation,” Gordon said.
Mormons consider themselves Christians and believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate beings; the church leader is a prophet; and the Bible and the Book of Mormon are among four books of Scripture. Many people also may associate Latter-day Saints with polygamy, though the church discontinued the practice more than a century ago.
The church was founded in 1830 in New York state by Joseph Smith, who reported he had been in possession of a set of gold plates that were a record of God’s dealings with ancient people who lived in the Americas. He reported that he transcribed the plates with divine assistance, and he published the record as the Book of Mormon.
Thomas S. Derr, who taught religion and ethics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., for 42 years, said the Mormon church is not a Christian faith.
“There’s no way that a person with knowledge of history could regard the Mormons … as authentically within the Christian tradition,” Derr said.
Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Pennsylvania congressman, believes Romney’s faith will be an issue he will have to deal with should he run for president. Edgar does not, however, think being a Mormon automatically condemns a presidential bid. “I don’t think it’s a death sentence for a candidate or a super big obstacle,” Edgar said. “I do think that people who express what their faith tradition is have to be authentic about expressing it.
“I think Lieberman did that well when he ran for vice president,” Edgar said, referring to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Al Gore’s 2000 running mate. “You know he’s an observant Jew, and he’s not ashamed of that and you connected with that.”
Still there is evidence voters have been much more accepting of the idea of a Jew, a Catholic or a Baptist running for president than of a Mormon running for the office. Opposition to a Mormon presidential candidate failed to decrease in polls taken nearly 32 years apart.