Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Significance of a Mormon Presidential Nominee

The 2012 presidential election was particularly significant in regard to the relationship between religion and politics because Mitt Romney became the first Latter Day Saint to earn the nomination of a major party. Mitt Romney is the most prolific Mormon politician of the 21st century. Romney family history has deep roots within the Mormon tradition. Miles Romney, an Englishmen, converted to Mormonism in 1837 after encountering a missionary and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where Mitt Romney’s great grandfather, Miles Park Romney, was born. The Romney’s headed west after Smith’s assassination and Miles helped to settle towns in Utah and Arizona, prior to fleeing to Mexico after being pursued by local authorities for being a polygamist. Mexican law did not prohibit polygamy like American law did. George Romney, Mitt’s father, was born in Mexico to Anna and Gaskell Romney, who deviated from precedent and did not engage in plural marriage. The Romney’s left Mexico to escape the 1912 revolution and eventually settled in Salt Lake City. George Romney worked as CEO of General Motors, served three terms as Republican governor of Michigan in the 1960s, where Mitt was raised, and unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

As a candidate for president in 2012, Mitt Romney’s campaign team chose to downplay the nature of his Mormon heritage. While not completely ducking the issue of his faith, Romney took very few opportunities to highlight his cultural and spiritual roots in the Mormon faith. Much of this has to do with tensions in the Republican Party between Evangelical voters and Mormonism. This decision to avoid Romney’s religion met with little opposition in the election campaign of Barack Obama. The incumbent’s campaign team certainly had the option of highlighting a faith that has historically ruffled mainstream America’s feathers. Add to this the potential conflict within the Republican Party, and the Democrats could have played up Romney’s religion much bigger than they did.  This perhaps speaks to the successful execution of the Romney team’s plan to downplay the religion card.  However, taking into account the many potential strengths a Mormon candidate can draw on from his or her faith; this may have been a mistake.  As discussed in greater detail in our book, Mormons in American Politics, several theological and social developments within the Church of Latter Day Saints have provided for much greater political benefits in identifying with the Mormon faith.  It is a uniquely American religion with familiar Christian overtones.  It is an adaptable faith that has grown into modern, conservative, American cultural values.  It is a growing faith with vibrant new members and strong financial resources. The identity politics of modern American elections will allow future Mormon candidates to make use of these unique features.  Whether or not the time was right this particular presidential election for a Mormon candidate to feature his or her religious faith as a prominent part of the campaign, it will not be long before that becomes the norm.  At least for now, the history involved overshadows the promising political gains. This history is not lacking in drama either.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints began in 1830 in Palmyra, New York with just six members, under the leadership of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet. Membership grew to over 26,000 people by the time Smith was killed in 1844. Mormons have become the fourth largest church in the United States and the country’s wealthiest relative to size. Today the church has a global membership of over 14 million, the majority of whom live outside the United States. Early Mormons were theologically and socially different than their neighbors. They lived in theocratic communes and engaged in plural marriage, the practice of men having several wives.  Persecution typically intensified along the Mormon trail as their communities quickly grew in number and began to influence politics and business. And so the Mormons fled the United States under the leadership of Brigham Young after an imprisoned Joseph Smith was murdered by an angry mob. They landed in Utah, where the nation and the federal government persecuted the religion. Mormon leaders were deemed too theocratic and the practice of polygamy was viewed as a threat to American morality and culture. The Mormon Church eventually ended the practice of plural marriage in 1890 under the threat of having their temples and property seized by the federal government. This issue maintained national prominence after statehood was attained in 1896 because of widespread opposition to Mormon apostle Reed Smoot being seated as a U.S. Senator from Utah. It took four years of hearings and deliberations, but Smoot was finally seated and became an instrumental figure in the normalization of relations between Mormons at Americans at large. A century later, Harry Reid, a Mormon and U.S. Senator from Nevada, was elected Majority Leader, a position he has held since 2004. The Mormon Church is the most persecuted religious group in American history, but through many years of adaptation and growth the Church is poised to take its place in positions of political power for years to come.

Luke Perry, PhD, is associate professor of government at Utica College, Utica, NY. Perry holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 

Christopher Cronin, PhD, is assistant professor of government studies at Methodist University, Fayetteville, NC. Cronin holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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