If former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wins today’s Iowa caucus or proves to otherwise be the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, one element of his potential candidacy might prove a relief of at least one issue the Obama re-election campaign may find itself having to dispose of again. Religion.
For over two centuries now, distraction from the issues, dirty tricks and despicable tactics have marked presidential primary elections and then the general election. The factor which could very well undermine one of this year’s potential sideshows is that falsehood about one candidate’s true faith and fraudulent beliefs about the other’s religious beliefs may cancel one another out. It’s sort of like the old Eugene Field poem about the calico cat and the gingham dog which ate each other up and left no trace of one another.
Those who adhere to the belief that Romney’s Mormon faith is a “cult,” rather than a genuine branch of Christianity and could thus never vote for him are also the same demographic which insists on believing the nonfactual claim that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. The unique dilemma may actually force many people to vote for a presidential candidate based on their view of the issues rather than their religion, pets or astrological sign.
It is often an irrelevant grain of a fact that is extrapolated to its wildest possible interpretation which has served as the basis for a religiously bigoted political smear. Mitt Romney, his father and grandfather all lived within the tenets of their Mormon faith each with one wife, the faith’s practice of polygamy having been banned some three or four generations before the candidate. While it is true that the President’s paternal ancestors had migrated to Kenya as followers of Islam, drawing that sort of direct religious link to him would mean that Clinton, the Bushes, even George Washington could be similarly called non-Christian pagans like their ancient British Isles ancestors. But from anti-Quakerism to suggestions of Atheism to anti-Catholicism and even three cases of antisemitism based on false premises riddle the presidential pop culture history.
Although the presidential election process was entirely different in 1800, there being less of a party infrastructure than simply a candidate’s declaration of his partisanship, attacks on individual candidates based on allegations about their true faith were already part of the landscape. That year, Federalists labeled anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson as an “infidel,” and warned that if he were elected president, he would order that all Bibles be removed from not only public book collection like those in courthouses and educational institutions funded by taxpayer monies, but would go further to systemically have them taken from private homes. Elderly people were especially warned to hide their Bibles in tree stumps if he were elected.
All of it stemmed from Jefferson’s immutable belief that organized religion and the clerical class that managed all sects were essentially corrupt. He was, in fact, a Deist, believing in a Divine Creator. He won the election and no Bibles were seized or declared illegal.
After years of his own study into the life of Jesus Christ, Jefferson postulated his own interpretations of Scripture, portions of which he believed had been translated either incorrectly or with ill intent for political purpose. His resulting scholarship came to be called “The Jefferson Bible.”
A century later, when William Howard Taft was running for the 1908 presidential nomination and then in the general election, some of his fellow Republicans and the Democratic opposition questioned whether he was a “true Christian,” because he was a strict adherent to relatively abstract Unitarian faith. Some even pushed it to call him an atheist. Rather boldly, he stated without apology, “I do not believe in the Divinity of Christ,” and angrily refused to “go into a dogmatic discussion of creed.”
Although the 2000 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was Jewish, and the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had a Jewish father, no presidential candidate has been a member of the Jewish faith. Nonetheless in the mid-20th century, antisemitism was used against three successive candidates of both parties running for the presidency or for re-election.
The fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt had several Jewish advisers first led Adolph Hitler to suggest during the President’s controversial 1940 third-term candidacy that his “real” family name had been “Rosenfeld,” a charge circulated by Republicans opposing F.D.R.’s growing support of England in war against Third Reich Germany. Harry Truman’s support of the state of Israel during his 1948 campaign led to contorted allegation that his rarely-used middle initial of “S” actually stood for “Solomon.” Both isolationist Republicans during the primaries and then some segregationist Democrats in the general election, spread the rumor that the Jehovah’s Witness faith of Dwight Eisenhower‘s parents was not a legitimate Christian one and a mere cover for the fact that he was, in fact, Jewish. In no instance, however, did any of these false claims rise to the level of becoming serious campaign issues.
Anti-Catholicism, long present in the American elective politics, especially in rural regions, hit the national level with the 1928 presidential candidacy of Democrat Al Smith. Protestants of both parties vigorously opposed him on the old fear that his first loyalty would not be to the Constitution or the United States, but the dictates of the Vatican and the Pope.
His Republican opponent Herbert Hoover was never known to encourage any religious bigotry, perhaps having felt a slight sting of it himself. Not only were he and his wife married by a Catholic priest, but his Quaker faith was one that orthodox evangelists found a bit too peaceful and forgiving, compared to fire-and-brimstone Protestantism. Interestingly, there was no known controversy after an assistant attorney general who was a close friend of Herbert Hoover called his home one where “tolerance is reality….I have been there with Catholic, Jew and unbeliever.” In a rare coincidence, the 1928 election between a Catholic and a Quaker was relived 32 years later when Catholic John F. Kennedy faced Quaker Richard Nixon. By then, much of the fear that electing a Quaker to public office would mean enforced gender equality in all professions and leave a Quaker President refusing to engage the U.S. in any war, even for self-defense, had long since dissipated into rare bits of bigoted ridicule. Still, Hoover for one had been somewhat sensitive to those pondering the religious validity of his Quakerism. “Religion,” he said, “is a difficult matter to handle politically.”
The 1960 campaign was, however, marked by the last great gasp of anti-Catholicism, a matter Kennedy dispensed with by a direct and plain-spoken repudiation of having any leaders of his personal faith influence his decisions as commander-in-chief. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he had no need to diminish the fact that his father had been a faithful Catholic, while his mother had been a Protestant. Similarly, there was practically no religious bigotry issue faced by either 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry, a Catholic with Jewish ancestors, or 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, of the Greek Orthodox faith.
While it is the Republican Party candidates who are now saddled with a religious litmus test of sorts, it was the 1976 Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter who ironically campaigned by proclaiming himself a “born-again Christian,” introducing religious terminology into the mainstream of national politics where it has remained more fixed in place than it was in the decade previous to that.
Not all Democratic presidential candidates were quite so eager to expound on their private beliefs. As Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson once privately yelled in exasperation to a 1964 campaign aide who transmitted a religious questionnaire for him to answer, “To hell with those goddamn Christers!”
- Romney’s Mormon Faith Likely a Factor in Primaries, Not in a General Election – Pew Research Center (policyabcs.wordpress.com)
- The Mitt Romney question: can a Mormon be US president? (100gf.wordpress.com)
- Romney is Still Not a Real Christian (atheistrev.com)
- Harold Bloom Questions Mitt Romney and Mormonism (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Why is it OK to to be prejudiced against Mormons? (csmonitor.com)
- For Mitt Romney, ‘Mormon Factor’ Could Still Hold Down His Iowa Vote (huffingtonpost.com)
- Neil J. Young: Evangelical Good News For Romney? (huffingtonpost.com)
- I’ll ignore the Mormons when they start ignoring me (americablog.com)
- America’s Muslims?: (brothersjuddblog.com)
- Campbell and Putnam: Pinpointing Romney’s Mormon Challenge (online.wsj.com)
- Romney looks beyond GOP presidential primary (sfgate.com)
- Remember when Romney said he wouldn’t put a Muslim in the cabinet? He made his Mormonism relevant. (americablog.com)