If Mitt Romney is elected the next president of the United States in November, it will mark an epic milestone for his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), better known as the Mormon Church.
Since its founding in 1830, the LDS has been the object of violence, exclusion, general animus, and, especially in recent years, biting ridicule. Its founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered while a candidate for the presidency in 1844. Its first Senator, Reed Smoot, endured a grueling, four-year congressional probe into his religious commitments. Given this history of tribulation, a Romney victory would be a sweet and fitting redemption for the LDS.
And yet — despite its historical significance, and despite the fierce opposition that it would have inspired among non-Mormons a few decades ago — Mitt Romney’s Mormonism may have very little to do with the outcome of this year’s presidential election.
This is surprising because everything else about Romney’s life has been fair game for critics, including his business career, his personal tax returns, and his questionable transportation choices for the family dog. But his Mormon faith has been — at least for the Obama election team and its major supporters — declared off limits.
It’s also surprising, given that the “the religious issue” played a pivotal role when the last non-Protestant, Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy, was elected President in 1960. JFK and his supporters spent much of their campaign fending off (and sometimes exploiting) accusations that he would be an agent for the Pope and an advocate for specifically Catholic positions on critical policy issues.
Romney’s experience has been much different.
What explains the virtual absence of Mormonism in this year’s presidential race?
Surveys by Gallup and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life offer some clues as to the immediate causes. As of the first month of the summer, Pew informs us, four in 10 voters did not know that Romney is a Mormon. In addition, only one in seven said that they “wanted to hear more about Romney’s religious beliefs,” which suggests that indifference to religious identity may provide another part of our answer — even though the Pew article revealed that more people were “uncomfortable” with President Obama’s religion (20 percent) than Romney’s (13 percent).
A still more important factor may be that a growing number of Americans do not want to hear their politicians talking about religion. Given the lackluster economy, voters may simply be more concerned about the unemployment rate than the respective faiths of their presidential candidates.
There are two longer-term causes that may be playing a role as well.
First, over the last several decades, we’ve seen a steady expansion of religious tolerance — except, perhaps, toward Muslims — and this has been accompanied by unprecedented volatility in religious adherence. As a result, arguments based on religious identity have moved outside the realm of respectable public discussion.
A second related factor is that Mormons have now moved firmly into the American mainstream of American business and politics. ( Senate Democratic majority leader Harry Reid is a Mormon.) Well educated, disproportionately prosperous, ardently patriotic, and overwhelmingly white, they do not set off nativist or racial alarm bells among the middle-class electorate .
It’s still possible that Romney’s Mormonism will come into play before the election campaign concludes. A stubborn remnant of the electorate refuses to vote for a Mormon. Moreover, there are significant theological differences between the LDS and other Christian groups, which may temper enthusiasm (and thereby turnout) among conservative evangelicals, a key Republican constituency.
As of this writing, however, the signs are pointing toward an election outcome that will have very little to do with the faith of a candidate who adheres to one of the most distinctive and most controversial of Americans faiths — one that constitutes less than two percent of the American population, as opposed to Protestantism’s 51 percent and Catholicism’s 24 percent.
That’s a development in which we can all take some pride.
Chris Beneke is associate professor of history at Bentley University.