The Romneys and Religion

Mar 2, 2012

I was a teenager back when Mitt Romney’s father, George, was governor of Michigan, and made his own run for the Republican Presidential nomination. I was already fascinated by politics, and followed that race closely. And here’s something you may find interesting. Back in nineteen-sixty-eight, nobody seemed to care that George Romney was a Mormon. Now, his formal campaign didn’t last very long. He dropped out of the race at the end of February.

But for much of the preceding two years, Romney was talked about nationally as a potential nominee. There was some discussion of the fact that George Romney had been born while his parents were on a trip to Mexico. People wondered if that would make him ineligible to be president.

But nobody mentioned his faith.

Back then we prided ourselves at having evolved to a point where religion no longer mattered in politics. John F. Kennedy had become the first Roman Catholic elected president, and that supposedly ended any religious barriers to holding office.

Mormons were then seen by most people as some sort of slightly exotic Protestant sect, whose members used to practice polygamy, but had stopped long ago. It was really a non-issue.

Well, since then, religion has come roaring back into politics, and perhaps never more than this year. We’ve had Rick Santorum, for example, saying what we’ve all been taught was wrong and church and state don’t need to be completely separate,

Yesterday, Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptists‘ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made headlines by proclaiming that in his opinion, Mitt Romney was not a Christian.

He then compared Mormonism to Islam, something clearly designed to set off red flags. He later added that didn't mean that Christians couldn't vote for Romney, but, he trusted Santorum more. Billy Graham’s preacher son Franklin has said similar things.

I think this is shameful. We were more civilized fifty years ago, it seems. Whatever one thinks of Romney, his religion ought not to matter.

What matters is what his policies could do for this nation, at home and abroad. Romney may, however, need to do what Kennedy did when he ran for office. Romney might want to make a major speech saying that if elected, his only loyalty would be to the Constitution of the United States of America. Unfortunately, he probably needs to do something else, too. Recently, members of the Mormon faith have been offending people and making headlines by the bizarre practice of “baptizing” Jews killed in the Holocaust and elsewhere.

Think how you would feel if someone announced they were posthumously inducting your dead mother into their religion. Mitt Romney doesn’t need to intervene in his church’s affairs.

But it might be helpful if he told the American people he found this an appalling practice, and called on other Mormons to stop. Years ago, I went to the Kennedy library in Boston, and interviewed Dave Powers, JFK’s close confidante.

Powers told me the one man Kennedy had worried about running against was George Romney, and talked about why. Mainly, it was because of Romney’s image as a strong morally upright leader. The words “Mormon” and “religion” were never mentioned.

And that‘s the way I think it should be today.