In the wake of Mitt Romney’s victories in Arizona and Michigan, it now seems more than likely that he will eventually capture the GOP nomination. When he does, he and the GOP will have to deal with the rising tide of anti-Mormonism, mostly from outside the party but from within it as well.
The media has suggested America is in the middle of a “Mormon moment,” highlighting the fact that there is a Mormon presidential candidate (there were two until Jon Huntsman dropped out), a critically acclaimed Broadway musical poking fun at Mormonism and a general discussion about Mormon theology and culture. But it is not all pleasant press.
Prominent commentators have ratcheted up the anti-Mormonism in recent weeks. Last month, Charles Blow of The New York Times tweeted, “Stick that in your magic underwear.” Salon’s editor, Joan Walsh, recently tweeted that “Romney’s saving the soul of America — so he doesn’t have to baptize us after we’re dead.” CNN’s Tricia Erickson said, “It is my opinion that an indoctrinated Mormon should never be elected as president of the United States of America.” Bill Maher stated, “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion.”
Mormonism presents a real political problem for Romney and the GOP. As Byron York explains:
Twenty-seven percent of Democrats say they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, while 18 percent of Republicans say the same. For independents, the figure is 19 percent. …
Perhaps the most striking news in the Gallup survey is the durability of anti-Mormon bias. For more than 40 years, Gallup has asked a simple question: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person who happened to be a Mormon, would you vote for that person?” In the most recent survey, 76 percent of those polled said they would vote for the Mormon candidate, while 22 percent said they would not.
In 1967, when Gallup first asked the question, 75 percent said they would vote for a Mormon, while 17 percent said they wouldn’t. The results were practically the same as they are today.
Perhaps this is why critics of Florida Senator Marco Rubio have been trying to tie him to Mormonism. A recent article about Rubio’s Mormon childhood went viral and gave opponents an opportunity to question the viability of a Romney-Rubio ticket.
When Mitt Romney ran for Senate in 1994, his opponents quickly brought his religion into the race. His Republican challenger’s campaign manager called Romney a “rich white Mormon.” His Democratic opponent, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, famously focused on Romney’s leadership experience within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both as a Mormon bishop and as a stake president.
Mormonism will certainly be an issue in the general election if Romney is the nominee. Liberals will focus on the supposed disproportionate power that Mormons hold in government, business and elsewhere. They will paint Mormonism as the “GE of religions,” as Newsweek’s Walter Kirn did in a recent article. It will be a protest marriage between Occupy Wall Street and religion, a particularly nauseating but possibly effective combination.
As a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and someone who also works in politics, I believe dodging the Mormon issue would be a mistake for Romney and the Republican Party.
But what can Republicans do to address it?
They should focus on the aspects of Mormonism that appeal to broad segments of the American population. For instance, they should highlight to conservative audiences the fact that Mormonism is the most conservative major religion in America. Independents will appreciate Mormonism’s focus on faith, family and service.
The “Mormon problem” is not going away and Republicans would be wise to begin the battle to define Mormonism for voters now. I am not sure why, but I am reminded of a quote from General George S. Patton: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
Thomas Grier is a third-year law student at The Ohio State University. A graduate of Arizona State University, Grier writes on constitutional law, politics and pro-growth policy.