Latter-day Saints have a big stake in Romney's campaign

Published January 6, 2008 12:00 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Let us suppose that Mitt Romney is not the next president. What will this mean for Mormons?

There about 5.7 million Latter-day Saints in America. In a nation of more than 300 million, that makes us demographic chicken feed, but the question is important for what it reveals about the presidency's relationship to American citizenship.

America insists that it is a creedal rather than an ethnic entity. And yet the world - even the American world - has its tribes. For all our protestations of individualism, Romney's run suggests that one's tribe must pass muster before one enjoys the luxury of being judged as an individual.

There are many reasons why Romney might lose. He is a technocrat who does not deduce positions from first principles. After an eight-year surplus of conviction and deficit of competence, technocracy has its appeals, but an ideological vacuum is unnerving.

Even technocrats must be pointed in some direction. If Romney loses there will be culprits to blame other than his Mormonism.

Yet his Mormonism is a problem. Among the Evangelicals dominating many GOP primaries, the hostility is deep, and anti-Mormons' prejudice extends well beyond the theopolitical hothouse of the religious right.

For example, "West Wing's" Lawrence O'Donnell insisted that a Mormon candidate must present a syllabus of errors on his faith's racism, sexism and homophobia before being considered by right-thinking Americans.

It requires a touching belief in the political virtue of the left to imagine that Democrats will not pander to such fears should Romney get the GOP nod. It will be impossible to judge exactly what role Mormonism played if Romney loses, but it will also be impossible to deny that it had a significant impact.

If Romney loses, the correct parallel will not be John F. Kennedy, but Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover. The first major Catholic presidential candidate, Smith provoked a wave of anti-Catholicism. There were lots of other reasons Smith lost in 1928. Republicans dominated the 1920s, and Hoover was a Bill Gates-like figure without the negative baggage. All of this was soon forgotten.

Rather, Al Smith stood for the rule that a Catholic couldn't be president. It was Al Smith's failure that provoked Kennedy's struggle to quiet Protestant fears 32 years later. The fact that no Catholic since Kennedy has given a similar speech marks his success. If Romney loses, however, history suggests that national LDS candidates still face the "Mormon problem."

As a Latter-day Saint, I care whether a Mormon can be elected. Full citizenship entitles one to full participation in public life. It doesn't mean that one will hold any particular office. It does mean that one can't be rejected as a member of a foreign tribe.

So long as a Mormon cannot be elected president because he is Mormon, I am a second-class citizen, part of a clan disqualified from full political participation. In short, the possibility that a Mormon is de facto ineligible for the presidency throws the full citizenship of all Mormons into question.

History suggests that this question can only be laid to rest by a Mormon being elected president. This does not provide a reason to vote for Romney, but it does mean that whether they like it or not, Latter-day Saints have very high stakes in this election.

It is also a cautionary tale for members of any other marginal American tribe seeking the privilege of being judged as an individual.


* NATHAN B. OMAN is an assistant professor at William and Mary Law School.

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