Two Republican presidential candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — practice a religion that many Americans don’t quite understand. But would having a Mormon in the White House actually change anything in the day-to-day workings of the presidency?
“I think everyone will find it very boring or normal in the White House itself,” said Joanna Brooks, a Mormon and a columnist at religiousdispatches.org.
“There’d be a Book of Mormon, maybe, in the nightstand,” said Brooks, grasping at straws to come up with some things that would change. Of course, she pointed out, there’s already one in the nightstand in every Marriott hotel room in America.
Mormons obey the Word of Wisdom, a religious law that prohibits consumption of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and illegal drugs. But does that mean that under a President Romney or Huntsman, the White House would go dry and sleep-deprived aides wouldn’t be permitted to refuel with coffee?
“I would absolutely predict and bet a thousand bucks that you would not have a dry White House,” Chuck Warren, a Republican strategist and a practicing Mormon, told The Daily Caller.
While he may not personally drink coffee, Romney doesn’t seem have a problem with being around it. The New York Times reported that he discussed his 2008 loss at a holiday party with former aides “over coffee, sandwiches and doughnuts,” and that he has held at least one campaign function at the Buddy Brew coffee shop in Tampa, Fla.
The same attitude appears to apply to alcohol. A Boston Globe write-up of Romney’s inaugural ball as governor identified that there was a cash bar present for those with standard tickets, while those willing to shell out the big bucks were upstairs in the “exclusive Martini Lounge” where “[v]odka flowed down the trunk of an elephant-shaped ice sculpture.” Many guests reportedly took advantage of it. (RELATED: TheDC’s complete coverage of Mitt Romney)
“We’ve had teetotalers in the White House before, including recently George W. Bush,” pointed out conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt during an interview on his radio show, “so I don’t think a lack of alcohol makes much of a difference.”
“I actually don’t think that their LDS [Latter-Day Saints] faith would in any way change anything that any American would see or observe, even if they were working in the White House,” added Hewitt, who authored a book titled “A Mormon in the White House.”
Mormons who spoke to TheDC were similarly unable to come up with examples of changes likely to come to a Mormon-led White House.
“There’s a strict law of chastity, but I don’t think presidents are required to cheat on their wives; they just do sometimes,” joked McKay Coppins, a reporter for The Daily Beast and Newsweek who is also a Mormon.
“Mormons generally are taught that on Sundays you’re not supposed to work,” mused Coppins. “But we also are taught that there are exceptions for jobs that need to be done on Sundays; for example, doctors. I would imagine that the job of president probably falls under there.”
One unique challenge that could face a Mormon president, Coppins pointed out, would be what to do about a security detail when worshiping at temple.
Temples are not places Mormons go for routine weekly services — for that Mormons go to church. Temples are sacred places that Mormons attend more infrequently.
According to the church’s website, “the primary purpose of the temple is to provide a dedicated place where sacred ordinances needed for eternal life can be preformed. Because of its sacred nature, attendance in the temple is limited to Mormons who obey God’s commandments and therefore are worthy to enter.”
That last part could present a security issue for a Mormon president: how to worship at temple with Secret Service agents who may not be worthy Mormons, and without disrupting other worshipers in what Brooks described as a “setting that is highly private and designed to be very peaceful.”
Other Mormons who spoke to TheDC offered several suggestions, though no one could say for sure. The president could, perhaps, enter with Secret Service agents who were worthy Mormons, or simply not attend temple for the duration of his term in office, as it is not required.
The Mormon Church declined to make official comment on the matter. The Washington, D.C. Temple, located in Kensington, Md., also did not respond to TheDC’s request for comment.
Both Coppins and Brooks suggested, however, that any issues which might arise as a result of Romney’s religious beliefs would be addressed with “an extreme sensitivity to making sure his faith doesn’t make anyone else feel uncomfortable,” something Coppins says he has demonstrated throughout his career.
Brooks said that if Romney were elected president, he “would probably be on double time” to show just how normal his religion was.
“We really want to be liked,” said Brooks. “We’re super friendly for that reason.”
Ultimately, she suggested, the biggest effect of a Mormon presidency could be outside the White House on the larger LDS community.
“Mormons are an insular community, pretty much,” Brooks explained. “We don’t like to have to explain ourselves, but we’re asked to do it a lot these days … and this scrutiny will continue.”
A lot of that scrutiny stems from the fact that there certain aspects of the religion hidden from the public.
“A lot of what is most sacred to us we keep fairly close to us,” she said.
There’s “always an interesting tension in being Mormon between moving mainstream, because we’re assimilated, and yet retaining a highly differentiated identity that’s difficult to explain. So, it would sort of heighten the tension around those circumstances” by placing the religion on a more prominent stage, explained Brooks.
Warren suggested that scrutiny would ultimately be a good thing.
“There are so many misperceptions and falsehoods about the LDS faith, that the scrutiny will allow members to express their faith and correct misperceptions,” he said.
“For crying out loud, people still think the faith promotes and practices polygamy,” he continued. “If either Mr. Romney or Huntsman are nominees, people will also see who they are and their characters. That can’t hurt the LDS faith in the world of perception.”
Another thing that could come to the fore is American cultural bias against Mormons. According to Gallup, 22 percent of Americans would be unwilling to vote for an otherwise well-qualified presidential candidate if her or she were a Mormon.
“What was most interesting to me about the whole exercise is I discovered a huge deal of anti-Mormon bigotry on the left. … There’s some anti-Mormon bigotry on the right as well, but I found most of it on the left,” said Hewitt, about the experience of writing his book.
Polling appears to verify the anecdotal evidence: Twenty-seven percent of Democrats say they would not vote for a Mormon, while just 18 percent of Republicans held that view. Hewitt pointed out that most Mormons are Republicans, and many Democrats could oppose them for their presumed politics.
Evangelical leaders interviewed by the Huffington Post this week had a similar take, suggesting that Romney’s “faith may be attacked and questioned more aggressively by liberals in the general election than it has been by conservatives in the primary.”
Hewitt pointed out that such bigotry is, perhaps surprisingly, a rather new political phenomenon.
“Do you want to know what the most interesting thing I discovered writing ‘A Mormon in the White House?’” he asked. “When George Romney ran … nobody cared. I read everything from that campaign. Nobody cared.
“So the difference between 1966 and 2006 was incredible, mostly because of the yellow-sheet media, and modern controversialists looking for something to write about.”