by Dr. Gary Scott Smith
Religious issues have played a significant role in numerous presidential elections, as they are in 2012. In 1800, his opponents accused Thomas Jefferson of atheism and trying to undermine the republic’s Christian foundation. In 1928 and 1960, many Americans were alarmed by the Catholic faith of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy, who they feared would be more loyal to the pope than the Constitution. In 1896, 1976, and 1980, professed evangelical Protestants competed for votes. In 2000, George W. Bush’s faith was a major issue, especially after he declared Jesus to be his favorite philosopher. Barack Obama frequently discussed his faith journey and used biblical language to defend his social policies.
In 2012, a key issue is how much support religious conservatives, especially evangelicals, will provide for Mitt Romney. When campaigning for the 2008 Republican nomination, Romney gave a speech in Texas to address concerns about his Mormon faith. (About six million Mormons live in the United States, more than the total number of Muslims and Jews combined.) While admitting that his “church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths,” Romney affirmed “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” Attempting to appeal to Americans holding a variety of religious views, he expressed his appreciation for features of Catholicism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and Islam.
Refusing to distance himself from his religious convictions as some urged him to do, Romney declared, “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers—I will be true to them and to my beliefs.” However, like Kennedy in 1960, he promised that “no authorities of my church … will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority … ends where the affairs of the nation begin.” As the governor of Massachusetts, Romney asserted, “I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution—and … I would not do so as president.”
In contrast to his approach in 2008, in the 2012 campaign, until the Republican National Convention, Romney rarely referred to himself as a Mormon or connected his policies with his faith. In an effort to help voters identify more with him, Romney took the calculated risk of having his supporters discuss his Mormon background and commitments and his work as a lay pastor in Boston for 14 years. Pastor Grant Bennett testified that Romney labored tirelessly to assist sick and needy members. “Mitt prayed with and counseled church members seeking spiritual direction, single mothers raising children, couples with marital problems, youth with addictions, immigrants separated from their families and individuals whose heat had been shut off,” Bennett explained. Church members Ted and Pat Oparowski described Romney as a compassionate man who regularly visited their cancer-stricken son and preached his eulogy after the 14-year-old died.
How prospective voters view Romney’s faith and the way it may affect his work as president could play a decisive role in what appears to be a close election. This issue is especially important to the millions of American evangelicals who have been a major force in American politics since the late 1970s. Most evangelicals view Mormonism as an alternative religion rather than a Christian denomination. They have more in common theologically with Obama, who claims to accept many of the doctrines they affirm. Moreover, much more frequently than Romney, Obama has used biblical teaching to support his policies, especially in aiding the poor. However, many evangelicals are repulsed by Obama’s views on abortion and homosexual marriage and his administration’s mandate to provide contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs as part of health care services.
Undoubtedly speaking for many evangelicals, former Arkansas Governor and Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee declared at the convention, “I care far less … where Mitt Romney takes his family to church, than I do about where he takes this country.” Although Obama is a “self-professed evangelical,” Huckabee added, he supports changing the definition of marriage, “believes that human life is disposable … at any time in the womb,” and requires “people of faith … to bow their knees to the God of government and violate their faith … to comply with what he calls, health care.”
In a recent issue of “Christianity Today,” Stephen Mansfield, who wrote a very positive spiritual biography of Obama, argued that voting for Romney is “a moral option for followers of Jesus Christ … even though his Latter-day Saint religion is far from orthodox Christianity” and his presidency would give “heightened visibility and influence” to Mormonism. Richard Mouw, the president of evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, insisted that in 12 years of discussions with Mormon scholars and leaders and “extensive reading of Mormon literature,” he had found nothing to keep him from voting for Romney. For them, Romney’s positions on key issues are more important than his Mormonism.
The extent to which other religious conservatives agree with Huckabee, Mansfield, and Mouw will have a significant effect in deciding the 2012 election.
— Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press).
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