Do Mormons Get a Seat at the Table?

October 20, 2011 | 29 comments
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coexistI just started reading the recently published Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, by Kevin M. Schultz (OUP, 2011). With Mitt Romney’s Mormon-ness continuing to be an oddly fascinating topic for the mainstream media, a point of criticism and ridicule for journalist comedians (they think they are journalists, I think they are comedians), and a strategic weakness to be exploited by Rick Perry and possibly other candidates, Tri-Faith America seems like a very timely book.

That Was Then …

The book focuses on the two decades after World War II, a period that was preceded by conflict between labor and capital and that was followed by conflict over race and civil rights. The turbulence of the Sixties and the polarized politics of the last couple of decades largely obscures historical memory of the ethic of religious harmony that prevailed in the postwar period. The book gives readers a way to recover this important chapter in American religious history.

Here’s how the book sets up the beginning of the move from America as a Protestant nation to America as a tri-faith nation:

In 1934, Everett R. Clinchy, a thirty-seven-year-old Presbyterian minister, published a short book with a red cover called All in the Name of God. America was not a Protestant nation, Clinchy declared in the book. Instead, it was a nation composed of three equal “culture groups” — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. Each group had its own unique “way of living,” had its own “folkways,” and thought its way of living was superior to the others. But Clinchy contended that in order to survive in the face of the totalitarian demagogues emerging worldwide in the 1920s and 1930s, to beat back the prejudices on which they were capitalizing, to allow the United States to live up to its most cherished ideals, no group could be allowed to proclaim its superiority in American civic life. At a civic and social level, the three groups were equal. There could be no Protestant hegemony in America. (p. 15.)

As recounted in the book, the gradual displacement of the idea of America as a Protestant nation by the idea of America as a tri-faith nation took a few decades to occur but was largely successful. In the context of its time, that was a progressive change that broadened participation in American civic life to include groups (Catholics, Jews) that had previously been marginalized. The civil rights movement of the sixties carried that change forward to bring full civil rights to previously marginalized racial and ethnic minorities as well.

… This Is Now

But religion in America didn’t stand still. In the closing third of the 20th century, new immigrants from Asia and the Middle East broadened the American religious spectrum to include Buddhists and Muslims. New age religions sprang to prominence as well, including Neo-Paganism, Wicca, and self-congratulatory Brights. And Mormons are in the mix, too, emerging from relative seclusion in the Mountain Time Zone to claim a place in national life. Where do these new religious voices fit in the tri-faith or Judeo-Christian model of harmonious American religious and cultural life that emerged in the postwar period? More to the point in light of current events, do Mormons get a seat at the table?

That’s a question we probably wouldn’t be asking if it weren’t for the presence of Romney and Huntsman in the 2012 presidential race. Politics often brings out the worst in people, so it is unfortunate that this discussion happens in the context of a presidential campaign. When it came up in the 1960 campaign and the question was whether John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a presidential disqualifier, here was his response (as quoted at p. 6):

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote. … I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.

That speech largely resolved the Catholic issue for the campaign, and after Kennedy’s election the issue never returned. Romney’s 2007 “Faith in America” speech obviously did not resolve the Mormon issue, but 2011 is not 1960 and Romney is not Kennedy. As noted above, the religious spectrum is now broader. Mormonism is not Catholicism. The year 1960 was at the close of the religiously inclusive tri-faith period, whereas 2011 is part of an era where politics is polarized along many axes, including religion. The media itself is much broader than in 1960, with extremists at both ends of the spectrum now able to find large audiences through online publications and forums.

So Where Are We Now?

Recalcitrant Protestants who opposed the inclusion of Catholics and Jews into American national life were unsuccessful in opposing the tri-faith movement. Will they now be successful in opposing the inclusion of those outside of the tri-faith club? I think that is an open question at this point. As Kennedy’s election in 1960 resolved the Catholic issue, Romney’s candidacy in 2012 may resolve the Mormon issue, but the message could be “not yet” rather than “come on in.”

A related question that I have not seen discussed is whether “playing the Mormon card” (or any other religious card) is itself a presidential disqualifier. If there’s one thing a presidential candidate has to project at some point, it is inclusion. “Looking presidential” is part of the test every candidate faces, but exploiting religious differences for political gain is decidedly unpresidential. I would hope that it eventually becomes so unpresidential that candidates simply avoid it.

29 Responses to Do Mormons Get a Seat at the Table?

  1. Jax on October 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    A related question that I have not seen discussed is whether “playing the Mormon card” (or any other religious card) is itself a presidential disqualifier.

    Meaning if someone says, “don’t vote for him, he’s a Mormon” then the public would say, “he’s not inclusive enough, I won’t vote for him.” That would be nice, but a Republican primary probably isn’t the best place to expect it to happen.

  2. queuno on October 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    No one has problems with Mormon Democrats. Just saying…

  3. psychochemiker on October 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Queuno, but more Democrats have problems with Mormons than republicans do. That’s just because they’re more “tolerant” and less “judgmental”.

  4. Chino Blanco on October 20, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    #3 is bunk but it gets repeated ad nauseum in the right-wing blogosphere.

  5. Bradley on October 20, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    Even scandalous attention to Mormons dies down in the public mind, so the term “Mormon” loses its bad connotations and gets stuck in the back of the mind.

    Then you get people saying “I’ve heard of the Mormons before. Tell me more, white-shirted guys with name tags”.

  6. Bob on October 21, 2011 at 1:11 am

    It seems, more than Romney, Mormons wish to keep the Mormon issue alive. Romney has made himself a force__ Mormon or no.
    I think Mormons do have a seat at the table – maybe larger than their numbers have earned.

  7. John C. on October 21, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Psychochemiker,
    That runs contrary to my experience. The liberals who don’t like us tend to be:
    1. Evangelical liberals
    2. Many who are very passionate about gay-rights issues
    3. New Atheists (Hi, Mr. Maher)

    Since the right’s base is made up of Evangelical conservatives, there is plenty of hostility. I suppose that you could argue that those who are passionate about gay-rights are an equal percentage of the liberal base, but, outside of the immediate aftermath of Prop 8, they have generally left us alone. They’ve certainly not engaged in the sustained assault on Mormonism that you find among the Evangelicals (Chino excepted, of course). So, as I said in my first sentence, your statement runs contrary to my experience; there’s a data point for you.

  8. Don on October 21, 2011 at 7:43 am

    No one ever had a problem that I know of with a liberal or moderate Republican and there is a long list of those dinosaurs to prove it. What we have now is a Republican Party that is totally, militantly conservative, that does not tolerate deviancy of any kind. Mitt Romney, despite years of being a liberal or moderate Republican, has reinvented himself as a true believer and a lot of people don’t buy it. If they don’t buy his politics, it’s not surprising they don’t buy his religion. To say that Democrats have more problems with Mormons than Republicans is absolute nonsense.

  9. Jettboy on October 21, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Don, have you read the responses to Joanna Brooks’ response to Hitchens? To say Democrats don’t have an equally strong problem with Mormons as Republicans is flat out wrong. Chino Blanco, and those who agree with his statement, the little fact that Democrats have more of a problem with Mormons than Republicans (although I won’t say more than a particular segment of Republicans) is a polling fact. Its in the numbers. In fact, I am bothered and a bit amused by the negative views of Evangelicals. However, I am straight out frightened for my life by the negative views of Liberals. The Evangelicals believe for the most part that Mormons are “good people”, but seriously theologically wrong. The liberals, as noted above by Hitchens and the responders to Brooks, think Mormons are monstrous sub-moral psychopaths. Face it Blanco, isn’t that what you believe?

  10. Romney / Hunstman 2012 on October 21, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Dave Banack thinks it’s odd that the East Coast media finds Mormonism fascinating.

    How could they not find it fascinating? Romney’s about to go where no Mormon has gone before: all the way to the top. This is the biggest Mormon story since we dropped polygamy. This is huge. I can barely believe it myself.

    Frankly, I think the liberals are cool with Mormonism. Their whole take is this: sure, gold plates are far-fetched, but then again, so is parting the Red Sea.

  11. Bryan Stiles on October 21, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I Psychochemiker was referring to the recent Pew poll where 31% of Democrats as compared to 23% Republicans said they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he were Mormon.

    I don’t know if this is really representative of bigotry. Since Mormons are so likely to be Republican it’s almost like asking Democrats if they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he were Mormon.

    I just wanted to point out that maybe it’s not complete and absolute nonsense. More like a situation where someone didn’t take time to think about a statistic.

    And let’s be honest, I think everyone here is guilty of not taking time to think about the statistics we read at one time or another. Especially if they support our view of the world.

  12. Bryan Stiles on October 21, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Edit: Since Mormons are so likely to be Republican it’s almost like asking Democrats if they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he were Republican.

  13. Chino Blanco on October 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Campbell and Putnam recently penned a piece for the WSJ that ends:

    “Thus our data suggest that the key question isn’t whether a Mormon can be elected president, but whether a Mormon can win the GOP nomination. Should Mr. Romney clear that hurdle, the evidence suggests that the general election would not hinge on his religion.”

    That sounds about right.

    Massachusetts elected a Mormon. That same Mormon returned the favor by mocking the state that elected him. Y’all are familiar with the term “chicken patriarchy”… well, I’d describe Mitt’s approach as “chicken co-belligerence” and it’s no good for his church or his country.

    For the record, I’d vote for a Mormon. If Ben McAdams ever runs for president, I’d likely volunteer for that campaign.

  14. el oso on October 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Chino,
    If Romney wins the nomination, he will work hard to get the 23% of Republicans to change their mind and vote for him. Most of the 31% of the Democrats who won’t vote for a Mormon are the furthest left and their votes are not really in play for any Republican presidential nominee. There is no story talking about just another reason for the far left to not vote for a Republican.
    The moderate/independents are the least likely to say no to a candidate because he is a Mormon(or most any other religion). These are also the key targeted swing voters.
    You may think it is bunk, but it is just in this case not really a good story, so why report on it.

  15. Chino Blanco on October 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Uhmm, exactly, el oso. Kinda my point. That 31% stat is a non-story. Maybe you should be addressing your comment to those who are pretending that it is.

  16. Chino Blanco on October 21, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Ughh. Unclear. Let’s try that again:

    That 31% stat is not a story. Maybe you should be addressing your comment to those who are pretending that it is.

  17. el oso on October 21, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Chino,
    I said it is not a story, but it is still a fact you seem to have some trouble with. Is Harry Reid a stealth Mormon? I think that either the 31% of Democrats discount his or others’ candidacies (Bryan Stiles expounds a variation of this) or they just do not know his religion in your view.
    The alternate view that physchochemiker, and others have is that they are just really on the fringe. So what is bunk? (from comment #4) The non-story is that the far-left will not vote Republican. If the 31% are far-left bigots, that is a story.

  18. Chino Blanco on October 21, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    OK, so let’s just zoom in on your last sentence, #17.

    Rather than leaving it hanging as an open question, what do *you* think?

    No “ifs”… do you truly believe that 31% stat is evidence of far-left anti-Mormon bigotry?

  19. el oso on October 22, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Chino #18,

    Yes, the far-left has a significant element of anti-Mormon bigotry. Most of them probably are somewhat bigoted against most strong Christian believers. I think that the reason for the higher rate of anti-Mormon bigotry instead of anti-Evangelical, anti-Catholic, etc. is because we are a smaller movement and have few members in many areas of the far-left demographic concentration.

  20. Chino Blanco on October 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

    As Nate Oman noted on this blog last year (Why folks dislike Mormons): “Mormons garner hostility on the left for political reasons.”

    I’m not convinced that this hostility amounts to bigotry. If it did, how do Mormon democrats keep getting elected? As a lefty voter, I wish there were more Mormons running as progressives/liberals/dems. And if Mitt had just stuck to running as a Rockefeller/Northeast Republican, I think the tenor of the conversation about his Mormonism would be very different right now.

  21. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 22, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Since Mormons are so likely to be Republican it’s almost like asking Democrats if they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he were Republican.

    That is a good observation though liberals, as noted above by Hitchens and the responders to Brooks, think Mormons are monstrous sub-moral psychopaths. Face it Blanco, isn’t that what you believe? caught me aback.

    Now I wonder.

  22. david packard on October 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Democrats are probably equally likely to think Romney is weird as are Republicans. Democrats tend to think Romney is weird because he adheres to such a conservative institution. Republicans, on the other hand, are focused more on the details of Mormon theology. So here how it will play out: If Romney becomes the Republican nominee, then his game will be to attract more independents and Democrats (by being somewhat moderate) than he will repel (by being Mormon). And here’s the important point: most Republican Evangelicals who won’t embrace Romney because he’s Mormon will nevertheless reluctantly favor him over Obama. At the same time, Romney may be able to steal enough Democrats and Independents (who tend to care less about theological nuances) if he can sell that he’s the non-Obama they’re looking for, who is smart and can fix the economy. Weirdness will hurt Romney more in round one than it will in round two, if he gets that far.

  23. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Campbell and Putnam’s research shows Evangelicals have almost as high negatives as Mormons outside of conservatives and Republicans. Among Jews, Mormons have good positives while Evangelicals (despite being pro-Israel) are viewed negatively. So in the general election, Romney as a Mormon has about the same chance of attracting non-Republican voters as an Evangelical candidate, looking solely at voters’ feelings about other religious groups.

    Beyond that, the conservative talk radio attacks on Romney for not being the Tea Partiest candidate show that he is more likely to attract independent voters and more conservative and pragmatic Democrats who are disappointed with Obama for being more left wing and ideological and ineffective than he promised to be. Romney’s liabilities in the primaries as a less conservative Mormon may actually make him more electable than Perry and Cain in the general election.

  24. david packard on October 22, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Raymond, I tend to agree on every one of your points.

  25. Glass Ceiling on October 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    David,

    I think that his second round will be harder.
    Dems and the press are laying low until Romney gets the primary, then they will bring out the big guns: Mormon beliefs and Mormon history. They will pull a Jeremiah Wright-style smear in the hopes to derail his campaign and keep him on the defense. I will be impressed if he can stay above it.

    But if I was a betting man, I would lay money down that rge Dens want Romney to run against Obama, as they spend the next several months scouring the internet getting a crash course on anti-Mormonism.

  26. david packard on October 22, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Glass Ceiling,
    That would be the right strategy for Obama. The central question here, (albeit somewhat oversimplified) is: “How weird are Mormons?” Setting aside the LDS PR efforts to seem more normal and actual mainstreaming (doctrinal and otherwise), the answer to this question has been largely up to the US citizens to decide. But until now, they didn’t get to decide as citizens, per se, but but rather as members of an American culture and an overall western tradition. But now, in a very real way, citizens may get to cast a literal ballot on how weird Romney (and by extension, Mormonism) is. Interesting times.

  27. Glass Ceiling on October 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    David,

    In a very real way, the future of the country could be determined upon how people perceive Mormonism.

  28. Bob on October 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Mormonism is not running for President. Romney is. He is running as a man, and is doing well. Why not just let him do that?
    Obama would be silly to make race or religion an issue.
    If Romney was running as a Mormon, we would be seeing his family. Isn’t that the heart of being a Mormon? Obama has always run on Family Values. His love of his wife, kids, dog. He runs on apple pie too.

  29. Glass Ceiling on October 23, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Bob,

    I agree with you. Read the thread ….