This is getting really old. Mitt Romney is a legitimate candidate for the Republican presidential ticket. A conservative governor of one of the most liberal states in the union, maybe he could rebuild some of those political bridges burnt and blown up during the past six years. But Romney won’t be president. He won’t even edge the hapless—and surprisingly popular, though increasingly less so—pro-choice Rudy Giuliani.
Why is it unlikely he’ll get the primary nod? Because he is Mormon—in fact, his great-great-grandfather was a polygamist martyr—and that is all the media seems to be able to talk about. The Washington Monthly, Reuters, The New York Times, and even conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt.
In November, Time asked “A Mormon for President?” shortly after two-thirds of Americans said they wouldn’t vote one of Joseph Smith‘s followers into the Oval Office (though there are 15 in Congress). In March, however, Gallup released a new poll saying 72 percent of Americans would vote for a qualified Mormon for president. Back came Time yesterday with this story:
John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was supposed to have laid the “religious question” to rest, yet it arises again with a fury. What does the Constitution mean when it says there should be no religion test for office? It plainly means that a candidate can’t be barred from running because he or she happens to be a Quaker or a Buddhist or a Pentecostal. But Mitt Romney’s candidacy raises a broader issue: Is the substance of private beliefs off-limits? You can ask if a candidate believes in school vouchers and vote for someone else if you disagree with the answer. But can you ask if he believes that the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Mo., as the Mormon founder taught, and vote against him on the grounds of that answer? Or, for that matter, because of the kind of underwear he wears?
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg threw down the challenge after reviewing some of Joseph Smith’s more extravagant assertions. “He was an obvious con man,” Weisberg wrote. “Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.” That argument, counters author and radio host Hugh Hewitt, amounts to unashamed bigotry and opens the door to any person of any faith who runs for office being called to account for the mysteries of personal belief. He has published A Mormon in the White House?, a chronicle of Romney’s rise as business genius, Olympic savior, political star. But Hewitt has a religious mission as well when he cites a survey in which a majority of Evangelicals said voting for a Mormon was out of the question. If that general objection means they would not consider Romney in 2008, Hewitt warns, then prejudice is legitimized, and “it will prove a disastrous turning point for all people of faith in public life.”
The Mormon question has settled in right next to the issue of whether a twice-divorced man has credibility discussing family values or whether changing one’s mind on an issue like abortion is a sign of moral growth or cynical retreat. Unlike in 1960, today the argument is less about the role of religion in public life than in private. It is about what our faith says about our judgment and how our traditions shape our instincts—and about what we have the right to ask those who run for the highest office in the land.