Separation of church and state may be a constitutional requirement in US government. But in Election 2012 politics, religion has become an increasingly important factor.
Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are focusing on particular religious groups – Roman Catholic, Jewish, and evangelical Christians. Mr. Romney’s religion – Mormonism – is being covered by the media like never before in US political history. (At least since the sect moved to Utah in the 19th century in order to practice its own beliefs – including, at that time, polygamy.)
Off to the side, meanwhile, is an apparent spat between the two most prominent Mormon politicians – Romney and Senate majority leader Harry Reid – that seems to bear on their religion’s theology.
The cover story in the current issue of Time magazine is headlined "The Mormon Identity: What Mitt Romney's faith tells us about his vision and values." It’s written by Jon Meacham, who’s a member of the Leadership Council of the Harvard Divinity School and whose books include “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.”
"[T]he question is whether Romney has the capacity to draw once more on the pragmatic tradition of his religious forebears,” Mr. Meacham writes. “Will he stick with a strategy that seems not to be working against President Obama, or will he respond to changing events … with bold policy proposals or a more overtly negative campaign or whatever might move the election in his favor?”
“One thing is clear: as a devout Mormon leader, Romney knows his church history, and he knows that difficulty and doubt are inherent elements of life,” Meacham writes. “The key thing is to remain faithful, to serve, to press ahead – to the next territory that might welcome you, to the next voter who might decide to give you a chance. From the outside, Romney's life looks to have been easy and affluent. There is, however, another angle of vision, one that reveals a deep-seated Romney instinct to survive and thrive in even the worst of storms.”
There, Professor Critchley (who is not a Mormon) sought to explain to nonbelievers – especially urban skeptics whose knowledge is limited to snarky superficialities – that the Mormons he met as part of his academic work “were some of the kindest, most self-effacing and honest people I have ever met.”
“They were also funny, warm, genuine, completely open-minded, smart and terribly well read,” he added.
But with many non-Mormons today, he finds “a casual prejudice that is not like the visceral hatred that plagued the early decades of Mormonism – lest it be forgotten, Joseph Smith was shot to death on June 27, 1844, by an angry mob who broke into a jail where he was detained – but a symptom of a thoughtless incuriousness.”
“More ethnically and economically diverse than the typical Mormon ward, its roughly 200 congregants are drawn largely from Northeast Washington and have included deported immigrants, a teen shot dead in gang violence, refugees from African wars, and youths who depend on the church for meals, tutoring for class and support to pay for Boy Scout camp,” the Post reported.
The writer seemed surprised to find that most ward members are Democrats. Still, one said, “I’d welcome him with open arms.”
One who would not welcome Romney to Washington with open arms is fellow Mormon Senator Reid. When Romney made his now-infamous comment that seemed to write off the 47 percent of Americans who “are dependent upon government … believe that they are victims … believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” Reid was quick to comment that Romney had “sullied” their religion and that the GOP presidential challenger “is not the face of Mormonism."
In The Washington Post’s “Belief Watch” column, Lisa Miller puts Romney’s controversial “47 percent” remark to wealthy donors in historical and theological perspective.
“Mormons regard thrift, industry and self-reliance as non-negotiable obligations,” she writes. But, she adds, “The dark side of the Mormon devotion to self-reliance is a corresponding horror of failure and dependency on outsiders.”
“A good Mormon wants to care for others in need, but he doesn’t want to be cared for,” she writes. “If in dire straits, he should seek help first from family and then from his church community – not from government assistance.”
Not all Mormons agree with Romney’s apparent interpretation.
“That’s Republicanism,” Kathleen Flake, professor of religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a Mormon, told the Post. “That’s not Mormonism.”
“What thunders from the Book of Mormon in LDS churches on Sunday, professor Flake added, is ‘if you judge the poor, you have no place in the kingdom of God.’ ”
Beyond Romney’s faith, both he and Mr. Obama are watching closely as other religious groups move toward one candidate or the other, seeking to influence that trend.
The Religion News Service reported this past week that “President Barack Obama's support among Catholic voters has surged since June … despite a summer that included the Catholic bishops' religious freedom campaign and the naming of Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as the GOP's vice-presidential candidate.”
“On June 17, Obama held a slight edge over Mitt Romney among Catholics (49 percent to 47 percent), according to the Pew Research Center,” the news service reported. “Since then, Obama has surged ahead, and now leads 54 percent to 39 percent, according to a Pew poll conducted Sept. 16.”
Among Jewish voters in 2008, Obama won an overwhelming 78 percent, according to exit polls. This year, the GOP is trying hard to win a larger percentage of such voters.
Reports The New York Times: “Focused on South Florida, Ohio, and Nevada, the Republican Jewish Coalition, backed mostly by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a Zionist, has begun spending $6.5 million on an air-and-ground strategy to reach Jewish voters who may view Mr. Obama as unreliable on the question of Israel’s security.”
Meanwhile, evangelical Christians – a substantial minority of whom had previously indicated they might not be able to vote for a Mormon – apparently began gravitating toward Romney once it became clear he would be the Republican nominee.
“There are at least two explanations for why Romney’s Mormonism matters so little among this powerful voting bloc,” writes Jonathan Merritt on the blog site for Sojourners, the progressive religious and social action organization. “First, evangelicals seem to care more about political ideology than orthodox theology as far as voting is concerned. Polls show that voters care most about the economy, not faith. It’s why the Tea Party – most of them being self-described evangelicals – have gravitated toward another Mormon, Glenn Beck.”
“Second, any discomfort about Mormonism is outweighed by an even larger disdain for President Obama,” Mr. Merritt writes. “Many evangelicals bemoan the last four years of his administration’s policies and they fear what he’ll do if re-elected.”
As religion scholar John-Charles Duffy of Miami University in Ohio put it in the Religion & Politics online news journal, “Evangelicals may not think Romney’s a Christian, but at least he’s not Obama.”