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.
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.
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.
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.
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.