A Mormon for President?

Mitt Romney tries to assuage fears about his Mormon faith as rival Mike Huckabee gains ground among

“You, sir, are an apostate!” So went my first media introduction to Mitt Romney – delivered as a question (well, statement really) in one of his early media appearances when he was getting his campaign going. It seemed to be a bad portend for his attempt to seek the highest office in the land.

Having avoided the question for so long, the former Massachusetts Governor and CEO of Bain & Company, finally caved on Thursday and delivered a speech seeking to address his Mormon beliefs.

The reason for this decision? The rather sudden ascent in early primary polls of former Arkansas Governor and ordained Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee, a self-styled “Christian Leader,” whose emphasis on religion in advertising has been widely seen as a direct appeal to the Christian conservative constituency of the Republican Party. For these undecided Republican primary voters, the idea of voting for a Mormon holds little appeal, almost as little as it does voting for a divorcee (Rudy Giuliani, amongst his many problems) or the increasingly lacklustre John McCain or Fred Thompson. Mike Huckabee’s corny humour and endorsement from Chuck Norris on the other hand appears to be gaining some traction amongst the 40% Iowa Republican caucus voters who identify themselves as “Christian Conservatives.”

To counter this looming storm, Governor Romney decided to have a “JFK moment” – bringing to mind as it did the famous speech that then-Senator Kennedy made in 1960 in which he repudiated those who had attacked him for his Catholicism – Mitt the Mormon stood up and assured the public “that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”

Instead, Governor Romney emphasised his piety and the importance he placed on religion in America, to counter “those that are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism.” To a European audience, brought up on a rigid diet of separation of church and state, these words are surprising to say the least, and Governor Romney even took time to point out our religious vacuity stating he had “visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired.....so grand....so empty.”

Still, this was not a speech aimed at Europe, rather it was aimed at an American audience, and rather specifically at a deeply religious constituency within the United States – the Christian right. It is a historical fact that Karl Rove managed to mobilize them and secure a double election victory for President Bush, and reaching out to them was what Governor Romney’s appeal was all about.

The Church of Latter Day Saints is (by some counts) America’s fastest growing religion, numbering some 6 million nationwide. Founded by the rather forgettably named Joseph Smith in the 1820s, Mormons follow a set of beliefs that were handed down to Smith in the form of golden plates that he translated with the assistance of angels. This made up the Book of Mormon, that denote the articles of faith by which Mormons live (rather than go into detail about what exactly Mormons believe, here is an excellent Q & A).

The first thing most American’s will say about Mormon’s is that they practice polygamy. This is not actually true anymore; the religion has long banned the practice, though fundamentalists continue to pop up in some of the more obscure parts of the mid-West. However, it is emblematic of a feeling among Americans, as indicated by one CBS poll in June 2006 that showed that 43% of respondents would not vote for a Mormon.

The problem is that unlike President Kennedy who was defending himself from the accusation that he was under the influence of foreign prelates (the Catholic Pope); Governor Romney is defending his membership of what many Americans see as basically a weird cult. A cult whose beliefs dance closely to the Christianity that most of them practice, and yet worships as a prophet a man who had visions that Jesus was going to come back and establish his kingdom on earth in America, practiced polygamy, and led a group of early settlers in open conflict against the then-government.

Ultimately, the religious question is not, however, aimed at most Americans, but rather specifically at Republican primary voters. Hence Governor Romney’s decision to take the line that he is a pious man, who simply happens to have a slightly different belief structure. The Republican base, as indicated before, has a substantial and powerful religious constituency, whose stridency has all the potential to overwhelm most other issues.

So for Governor Romney, the sudden appearance of a seemingly viable candidate who is able to appeal directly to this group, presents a genuine threat. Or does it? The truth is that Governor Huckabee’s campaign remains infant in comparison to any of the other top tier contenders. While he may have had a slight upswing now, his national profile remains volatile (his current surge is mostly due to his novelty factor in a campaign that has been dragging on for a year now), and he has no-where near the financial war chest that Governor Romney boasts (whose personal wealth has been placed at a cool $250 million). This is important, as even if he is able to do well in some of the early polls, Governor Huckabee lacks the political infrastructure to be able to necessarily effectively capitalize upon it in subsequent primary races.

The problem for Romney, however, is that for him the primaries count a lot. He has purposely invested a lot in the early primary states on the assumption that he could use the momentum to carry him through to the nomination. A dent too early might sink him and let someone like John McCain catch up.

Arguably, for the rest of the world, all this matters little. Even if Governor Romney overcomes the “apostate” brand and wins the nomination, he faces an uphill battle in convincing America that they need another religiously inspired Republican in charge. Still, one discounts the power of the Republican mid-West at one’s peril – their ability to mobilize on polling day is in stark contrast to apathetic Democratic voters. Whether they would do this for a Mormon, however, is another matter altogether.