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.
Whenever the subject of Romney's "Mormon problem" arises, a whole host of commentators offer the same solution: all Romney has to do is "pull a J.F.K.," they say, meaning he needs to make a game-changing speech of the kind Kennedy delivered in September 1960 to the growling Protestant ministers of greater Houston. Kennedy declared that he viewed the separation of church and state as sacred; his religious beliefs, he said, were his private affair. "But if the time should ever come," he vowed, "... when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office." Romney has echoed Kennedy's sentiments, declaring that he would no more take orders from Salt Lake City than Kennedy would from Rome. But he can hardly suggest to the devout voters of the G.O.P. base that religious views don't matter, don't warrant discussion or don't affect one's conduct in office. These are voters inclined to think the wall of church-state separation is too high; it is certainly not one any candidate can hide behind. So his challenge is to draw the lines about what's relevant and what's not.
Compared with the Roman Catholic Church, which had 42 million U.S. members in 1960, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is newer and less familiar, its rituals more private. Romney supporters are offering Mormonism 101, emphasizing hard work, clean living and shared family values, to address the concerns of the 29% of Americans who say they would not vote for an LDS member for President. But when it comes to religiously conservative voters, the more people learn, the greater Romney's problem may become. And he will have to decide whether he's willing to provide the kind of public theology lesson that no other candidate has been asked to deliver.
Many Evangelicals have been taught that Mormonism is a cult with a heretical understanding of Scripture and doctrine. Mormons reject the unified Trinity and teach that God has a body of flesh and blood. Though Mormons revere Christ as Saviour and certainly call themselves Christians, the church is rooted in a rebuke to traditional Christianity. Joseph Smith presented himself as a prophet whom God had instructed to restore his true church, since "all their creeds were an abomination in his sight." He described how an angel named Moroni provided him with golden tablets that told the story (written in what Smith called "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics, never seen before) of an ancient civilization of Israelites sent by God to America. The tablets included lessons Jesus taught during a visit to America after his Resurrection. Smith was able to read and translate the tablets with the help of special transparent stones he used as spectacles. He published them as the Book of Mormon in 1830.
Twelve years later, Smith explained to a Chicago newspaper that "ignorant translators, careless transcribers or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors" in the Bible, which he revised according to God's revelations. Mormons were subject to persecutions, and in 1844, as he was running for President, Smith was murdered by an angry mob. His successor, Brigham Young, led followers to Utah, the church proceeded to grow rapidly, and Mormon leaders were identified by the church as God's prophets on earth.
At all but the top level, the church is sustained by Mormon men volunteering as lay leaders. Romney was bishop of a ward, or congregation, and eventually president of a stake in Boston, meaning he was responsible for 14 wards with a total of some 3,000 members. Women cannot serve in priestly roles, nor could African Americans until a new revelation brought a change of policy in 1978. Should Romney have to account for such church practices? When he married Ann, a Mormon convert, in 1969 in the temple in Salt Lake City, her family could not attend the ceremony since only Mormons are allowed inside. A separate ceremony was held for "gentiles," as non- Mormons are called.