Is This The Mormon Moment?

Can Romney do for Mormonism what John F. Kennedy did for Catholicism? Here's why the comparison is premature

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Tony Tomsic / Getty Images; Debra L Rothenberg / WireImage / Getty Images

JFK and Mitt Romney

According to his memoirs, Richard Nixon believed that he lost the 1960 election because his opponent, John F. Kennedy, was a Roman Catholic. The Kennedy machine managed to “turn the election partially into a referendum on tolerance versus bigotry,” and the hapless Nixon found himself holding the bag for bigotry. Mitt Romney would like to be Kennedy in this scenario, bringing America to a Mormon moment just as JFK brought American to its Catholic moment; both the candidate and the media have made the comparison incessantly.

(MORE: Read TIME’s Cover Story, “The Mormon In Mitt”)

A Mormon moment would mean a sudden instant in which America collectively grows up, reexamines its prejudices, learns more about a foreign faith, and realizes that its adherents are not so different after all. But the truth is that the integration of a religion into American life is the work of decades, not a single presidential election. Only 32 years before Kennedy’s narrow win, the Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith was torpedoed by a whisper campaign that insinuated he planned to invite the Pope to live in the White House. By 1960, Roman Catholics had spent a century making concessions to American culture. Kennedy’s election was a culmination, not a catalyst. Romney, on the other hand, is swimming against the tide: his faith remains far more alien than Catholicism was to Kennedy’s fellow Americans in 1960.

(MORE: Is Romney Using Mormonism as a Shield?)

By 1960, roughly one in every four Americans was a Roman Catholic and the growth of Catholicism was matched by its cultural integration; while the first generation of Catholic immigrants settled the cities of the East Coast, by the end of World War II Catholics lived across the nation. By the time of Kennedy’s election, most Americans had a Catholic neighbor, coworker or friend, Notre Dame football had rocketed to prominence, and the bishop Fulton Sheen was dispensing advice on his national TV talk show. Catholicism had entered the cultural mainstream.

Mormonism has yet to make that leap. While Hollywood movies of the 1940s and 1950s had made ethnic Catholics an integral part of any World War II platoon, of all the Mormons depicted in the entertainment media only the Henricksons of HBO’s Big Love were well-rounded, relatable protagonists, and they were fundamentalist polygamists. Far more common are figures like the missionaries of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon: wide-eyed innocents swathed in ludicrous naiveté. Today the six million Mormons in America account for about 2% of the national population, and most of them live along the Mormon corridor, from Idaho south through Utah into Arizona. The sheer amount of interest in Mormonism that  Romney’s candidacy has generated may indicate that many Americans simply know no Mormons whom they can ask about their underwear.

(MORE: The Root of Mitt Romney’s Comfort With Lying)

Moreover, Kennedy was quite willing to compromise at places where Americans found his religion a bit disconcerting. In the fall of 1960, Kennedy told the Houston Ministerial Association that the Catholic religious hierarchy would have no influence over his decisions as president. Today Catholic politicians, like John Kerry or Joe Biden, routinely defy their church’s teachings on issues like abortion, and their fellow American Catholics rarely hold it against them. Romney, on the other hand, seems fairly uninterested in attempting to explain his religion away, even though he also belongs to a church with a powerful hierarchy that teaches obedience to doctrine. Instead he has simply acted as though he has nothing to explain. In 2007 he delivered his equivalent to Kennedy’s Houston speech, but received much criticism from the media for his failure to address the political implications of his Mormonism — that is, for his failure to pull a Kennedy. Earlier this year, in a speech at Liberty University, he invoked Christians of all stripes — John Paul II, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer — to argue that believers are often subject to criticism in the world, implicitly putting his Mormonism in step with religious conservatives who feel under siege in American culture.

(MORE: What History Tells Us About Romney’s Chances)

Mormons certainly hope that Romney’s candidacy brings them closer to assimilation—the church is mounting a formidable public relations campaign aimed at minimizing the perception of Mormon difference, and the church staunchly declares that it has no interest in partisan politics. Romney surely believes that his faith poses no obstacle to service in public office — he may not have given a Kennedy speech simply because he does not believe he needs to. But challenges remain: it is most likely implausible that Mormons may ever represent a fifth of the American population, and despite the cranky presence of Harry Reid, the Mormon who serves as Democratic leader in the Senate, many Americans still perceive Mormonism as a culturally conservative monolith, far from the political diversity American Catholicism has achieved. Though it’s no fault of his own, Mitt Romney may be closer to Mormonism’s Al Smith than he is to its John Kennedy. Although we see a glimmer of it now, the Mormon moment is likely many years off.

VIDEO: A Group of Mormon Democrats Rally for Obama

MORE: Read About Gloria Borger’s Upcoming CNN Documentary“Romney Revealed: Family, Faith and the Road to Power”

15 comments
Edgar Swindenhauser
Edgar Swindenhauser

Regardless of their theology, Tolstoy called Mormonism a 'quintessentially American religion' centered around N. America and the western hemisphere.  Mormons believe that the USA is indeed a "a shining city upon a hill",  and they are a very patriotic group. So a Morman president would be most fitting for the USA and in all probabilty a very good one - regardless of his inability to give out free phones and hang out with DJ's.

merit131
merit131

Romney: He’s become a puppet and a prostitute for the Koch Brothers and their endeavors. Amazing how big bucks can destroy a good man and his real believes. He’s a lost soul now out there by himself with nowhere to turn. The citizens are not fools as his party thought they were. The hidden video showed his true colors about what he thinks of the other half of America. That half will show up in November with their answer about how they fell about him and his friends. He should just step down now and save everyone a lot of money. Too many secrets, not showing taxes, not talking about his cult church. ALEC has been exposed and their entire plan to take over our government. Maybe in 2016 they can try again. Unfortunately they just don’t get it, and I doubt if they ever will. Shame so much money as gone down the tubs. The big money get’s pulled now and goes to the states to fill the house and senate with more dead beats that will do nothing to help this country get back on it’s feet as it‘s done before. The President will be left to do it on his own, as he has proven in the past. Get our troops home, and cure our sick country off these greedy corporations who think they can steal an election with lies and big bucks. Put the people back to work making money so they can fix the economy.

 

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

A Mormon moment would mean a sudden instant in which America collectively grows up, reexamines its prejudices, learns more about a foreign faith, and realizes that its adherents are not so different after all.

 

Yet, Mormon beliefs are different and Romney has not addressed how his different beliefs would affect a Romney presidency. The secrecy that pervades the Romney campaign does not help to create confidence that the Mormon prophet in Salt Lake City would not exert undue influence on Romney. After all, the Mormon prophet supposedly speaks for God to Mormons. My distrust of Romney is not based solely on his religion,  but his inability to explain himself and to even talk about his beliefs make it impossible for me to vote for him (I've already voted for Obama anyway). I remember JFK (my first presidential vote was cast for him) and how he handled the religion question during his campaign. JFK met it head on. Romney has not done so. As a voter, I have no obligation to disregard a candidate's religion if I'm not comfortable with it.

E B
E B

I am a Mormon. Most of what is "understood" about Romney is flawed, because of his coverage.  If the GOP were really what the media makes of them they wouldn't be a threat to Obama. The media references polls weighted unrealistically towards Democrats - above even 2008 levels. They ignore that independents prefer Romney. And how many anti-Obama headlines have you seen compared to anti-Romney ones? It doesn't say as much about the two men as it does about the bias of those who write about them. Even the 47% remark has been taken wildly out of context by liberals and media.

Read both sides for balanced coverage because it doesn't exist in one place and both sides leave stuff out. How can you make an informed opinion on any topic if you consider only one point of view? You can't. Thanks for listening.

www.conservativemormonmom.blog...

maurices
maurices

Your comments are not surprising.  I  applaud you for  supporting Romney as a fellow Mormon.  Can't say people like  Reid feel the same way!

JohnYuEsq
JohnYuEsq

Romney = GREED, AVARICE, DECEIT, BLIND AMBITION, CRONYISM, WAR PROFITEERING, DELUSION  

 

Obama = HONESTY, HUMANITY, COMPASSION, STABILITY, LEADERSHIP, SOUND JUDGMENT  

 

VOTE: DEMOCRATIC TICKET

Lee Gunn
Lee Gunn

I'm not sure it's right to compare the two, because Catholicism is an established religion with thousands of years of faith and followers and what not.

Wasn't mormonism randomly made up in like the 19th century? Kind of like Scientology was made up in the mid 20th century?

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

I think the other problem with the comparison is that Catholicism and Protestantism share the same theological books and teaching.  Mormonism on the other hand has different teachings that are not accepted by Catholics or Protestants.  The fact that the Mormon church is secretive about some of its teaching and practices just adds to the non acceptance.  Then again, the more people know about the teaching and practice might add to the non acceptance as well.  

SteveKaKa
SteveKaKa

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SteveKaKa
SteveKaKa

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ranger99
ranger99

In short....no.  I'm an atheist so I think all religions are strange but Mormonism is especially weird.  Any fan of "South Park" would be able to tell you exactly why.  The whole religion is based on a fraud, and a poorly constructed one at that.

That being said, all of the Mormons I've met, without fail,  have been exceptionally good, friendly, wonderful people.  It's that "niceness" that attracts people to the church, not the actual theology of it.

Danyz
Danyz

Agreed. Practicing Mormons tend to be quite likable people. And some people are curious to learn more about what makes them nice. That said, it should be pointed out that Joesph Smith believed that he was founding a church destined to play a prominent role in the end times, hence the name Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Early on Smith taught that Jesus would make his return in Missouri no less (yeah, the show me state...) and that of course the restablished saints would play a huge role in the end time production. They also believe that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired, and, well, in a generic way maybe all higher human aspirations are.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while also believing in the second coming of Christ, believes that the end times began at the time of Christ's first advent and that the second coming is an event that no man can predict. Normally Catholics don't carry on about the second coming, what with  centuries of failed predictions by various self ordained prophets to reflect on. Catholics believe too in the sepration of church and state as in the past state churches in Europe passed laws against them.    

I wonder too if the average Mormon would actually want to blend in with the rest of mass society. Can Zion compromise with seductive worldly values?  

In the final analysis then, Mitt's faith may be neither here nor there. His  getting cozy with pro war neocons however, a non-faith issue, is something every American whole believes in the gradual growth of a rational human order should seriously reflect on.  

foodleking
foodleking

 "The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while also believing in the

second coming of Christ, believes that the end times began at the time

of Christ's first advent and that the second coming is an event that no

man can predict. Normally Catholics don't carry on about the second

coming, what with  centuries of failed predictions by various self

ordained prophets to reflect on. Catholics believe too in the sepration

of church and state as in the past state churches in Europe passed laws

against them."

Mormons believe exactly the same.