In presidential politics, not all religions are created equal
by Bob Chodos
From a strictly legal perspective, nothing could be clearer. There is no religious test for public office in the United States. De facto, however, things are a lot murkier, especially when the office in question is the presidency. Is there a de facto religious test for the presidency? And if there is, whom does it exclude?
It is certainly difficult to imagine anyone who openly professes atheism or agnosticism, or a religion other than Christianity, getting very far as a presidential candidate. At one time the same could be said of Roman Catholics, and while John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960 appeared to lift this religious test, there has not been another Catholic president since Kennedy. In the 2008 campaign, rather than Catholicism, three other Christian expressions were at issue: Mormonism, the black churches and straight-up evangelical Christianity. Let us consider each of those in turn.
Mitt Romney and the Mormon dilemma
There is no more thoroughly American religious group than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons as they are commonly known. They have an American prophet in Joseph Smith (1805–1844), the upstate New York farm boy whose visions formed the basis for the new church. They have an American scripture in the Book of Mormon, which Smith claimed to have found on gold plates near his home and translated from the “reformed Egyptian” with the help of divination tools. They have a sacred story that takes place largely in the New World and features migration to the Americas by ancient Israelite refugees and a post-resurrection New World appearance by Jesus Christ. They have an inspiring modern American story as well, centring on their Great Trek westward to the promised land of Utah. By and large, contemporary Mormons not only preach but practise wholesome family values. Many of them have been successful in the worldly pursuits of business and politics. Their church is wealthy and growing rapidly. So what’s the problem?
Mormons have not quite shaken the sense that they are outside the American religious mainstream. Their American prophets, scriptures and sacred stories are not recognized by the rest of the Christian world, and Mormons differ from other Christians on a number of key theological concepts, including God, sin, grace and revelation.1 The Mormons’ history of discrimination is also frequently evoked: the Mormon priesthood was closed to blacks until 1978 (a point brought up against Mormon candidate Mitt Romney during his unsuccessful 1994 run for Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat), and remains closed to women. So is the secrecy of some Mormon ritual and the church’s closed, top-down decision-making. But if an authoritarian leadership style, patriarchy, a legacy of racism and beliefs that seem farfetched to the rational mind were enough to exclude a religious tradition from serious consideration, then few religions would be left standing.
Of a somewhat different order is the question of polygamy, encouraged by the LDS church for roughly two generations in the 19th century. The practice of plural marriage was formally repudiated by the main body of the church in 1890, a necessary prelude to Utah’s admission as a state and the Mormon church’s long march to respectability. Nevertheless, the practice continues on the fringes of Mormonism,2 and the popular association of Mormons with polygamy lingers. But no one seriously suspects Mitt Romney of being a polygamist or a supporter of polygamy.