I've been watching the recent news involving Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the whole 'Mormon question' with a lot of interest.
For one thing, like Romney, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (colloquially known as the 'Mormon church.') I disagree with Romney about virtually everything in his political platform, and the one thing that he did that I could support if he proposed it nationally, his universal health coverage plan in Massachusetts, he hardly ever talks about as he campaigns for the Republican nomination.
But the news has shifted to more and more coverage of the problems that some members of the 'Christian Right' have voiced with Romney's faith. That matters because they represent a group of voters which Romney had been courting and hoping they would choose him because of a desire not to see the GOP nomination go to the most socially liberal Republican, Rudy Giuliani. Instead, they appear to have found their candidate in Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, who claimed last week that his most unique qualification for the job was a degree in Bible studies from Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Interviews with many individual voters in Iowa who have recently opted for Huckabee over Romney make it clear that faith is a major reason why.
So pressure has been mounting on Romney to give a 'Mormon' speech, similar to the one that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 to put to rest concerns about his Catholicism.
One thing the media has gotten wrong though: Romney is NOT the first Mormon to be a major candidate for a Presidential nomination. That would be Morris Udall, who was the runner-up to Jimmy Carter for the 1976 Democratic nomination. The error is understandable though, as most rabid anti-Mormons reside in the Republican party and among Democrats Udall's religion was never an issue. For that matter, after Al Sharpton made some intemperate comments about Romney and Mormons earlier this year, he backtracked quickly and apologized to anyone who had gotten the misimpression that he was biased against Mormons. That is in contrast to the anti-Mormon stuff that you hear from some fundamentalists on the right, which is never retracted but instead reinforced.
I don't know honestly whether giving such a speech would help Mitt or not, but I will say a few things here, primarily about Mormons and politics, not specifically about Mitt.
First, before every election a letter is read from the First Presidency (which consists of the President of the Church and his counselors) in which they reiterate that the Church is a religious, not a political organization. Church buildings, lists, and other Church properties or resources are not to be used for political purposes, and the letter makes it clear that the Church does not endorse political parties or candidates. The Church does, however, push for involvement in civic affairs and encourages members to vote, run for office and otherwise be involved in their communities. Though the Church does not endorse parties or candidates, it does occasionally take a stand on issues, such as opposition to abortion and to casino gambling.
Probably about 80-90% or more of active Mormons are Republicans, however. I have a friend who once said that Mormon Democrats are 'like a recessive gene-- it tends to run in families (like the Udalls, where Morris succeeded his brother in Congress and since Morris have had other members of their extended family elected to Congress in other states), and it sometimes pops up where least expected. But that is still only about 10-20% of active church members. And whether because it is a matter of what the Church encourages or otherwise, they do get out and vote. Since 80-90% of active Mormons vote for Republicans in most elections, and as part of the 'civic involvement' ideal includes running for office it goes without saying that the Udalls (and Senate majority leader Harry Reid) are exceptions-- nearly all church members who hold public office are Republicans. I am a Democrat and a Precinct Committeeman (and soon-to-be-former County Vice-Chair) but that is relatively rare among members of the church.
It was not always this way though. Early in the history of the Church, almost all of the members were Democrats (since the Democrats in states like Missouri and Illinois had generally been more tolerant towards the church in its early days than had their opponents.) In fact, in the late 1880's and early 1890's as Utah prepared for statehood, Church leaders encouraged some families to become Republicans because the prospect of a state with only Democrats was causing some hesitiation among Republicans in Congress who would have had to approve the creation of a new state. This pattern was replicated in Idaho, Arizona and other areas where there were a lot of church members. As recently as 1948, Utah joined the rest of the west in providing the critical flood of late votes that elected Harry Truman in an election where Thomas Dewey had swept most of the Northeast and produced the now-famous headline in the Chicago Tribune. Of course in 1964 Utah and Idaho went with most of the rest of the country during the Johnson landslide.
So what happened since? Two things have caused most active LDS members to become Republicans.
The first is that (like in the rest of the west) people who had supported FDR and the New Deal began to see the Federal Government as less of a friend for ordinary people and more of a bottomless pit for taxes. I don't myself subscribe to this view, believing that Government can be productive and helpful for solving problems. But in the west, where the Federal Government owns over 90% of the land in many counties, and then various environmental laws (some of which were ironically authored by Morris Udall) blocked or limited access to most of it, the whole rhetoric of the so-called 'sagebrush rebellion' got through to a lot of people. It may have been a phony 'rebellion' spurred by advertising financed by logging, mining and other industries but it hit a very real nerve-- and it doesn't help that Washington is a speck way out on the other end of the country. So the whole 'anti-Federal government' rhetoric that Republicans made their living on in the 1980's (with Ronald Reagan the exemplar of it) did help turn a lot of people in the west to the right. Though land use issues have become less of the focal point over the years, guns have replaced it as a way to keep voters Republican in small towns in the west. If you don't live in one, you wouldn't understand it, but I do and I can tell you that if you tell someone out here you want to take their gun away you might as well be telling them you want to take their kids away. Recently though other issues have caused most of the west to begin swinging back to the left.
But not Utah, and not LDS voters. Which brings us to the second reason why Mormons have moved to the right since the days of Truman. Social conservatism. The 'Christian conservative' movement which is now refusing to support Romney because he is a Mormon may be strongest in the deep south and may have a southern flavor, but it plays well in Utah and in small LDS communities throughout the west, such as the Arizona town I live in. For people who pray daily, are opposed to abortion and try to live a life free from sin, rhetoric which castigates the ACLU for 'driving God out in favor of Satanic humanism,' attacks supporters of keeping abortion legal as 'murderers' and bashes 'wicked gays, teenage sex and booze,' if shallow and hateful rhetoric which aims for the lowest of human emotions, does hold an appeal for those who are already disposed to thinking that way. And LDS people are no different than people anywhere else, a deceptively simple sounding way to wrap hate has been good enough to justify all manner of human persecutions in the long and tortured course of human history, including the persecution that early members of the Church suffered at the hands of mobs in Missouri and Illinois. I don't suggest that the rhetoric we hear on talk radio or from Republican politicians is going to bring out mobs with pitchforks and torches, but it is certainly sufficient to stir up people to support all kinds of laws against other people who are in some way 'different' that might not be supported in the absence of such rhetoric.
It is possible to reason with people of course, starting with pointing out just how hateful some of the rhetoric is. The west is not the south, and the west has a history and a tradition of tolerance. That is especially true of the LDS; it is a fact that Brigham Young, as governor of the Utah territory (which at the time was pretty much synonymous with President of the Church,) made and signed a number of agreements with neighboring tribes and he and his successors are the only major American leaders to sign treaties with native American tribes who stood behind their words and made sure that none were ever violated. But that history of tolerance has to be appealed to directly, not defensively. Tolerance does not mean liking someone or something, or even approving of it, but rather of deciding not to punish or intentionally cause problems for people who are not like we are or like we want to be.
On the issue of abortion, instead of looking like a zero-sum game (either you win and I lose or my side wins and you lose) we are today in a unique position to move beyond the debate. Bill Clinton was on to something when he said he wanted to see abortion 'legal but rare.' As I alluded to once before, liberals have since Clinton took office reduced the number of abortions quietly but efficiently by about 30% since the early 1990's. This involved a combination of education and the availabilty of birth control. Being against something does not mean that the only way to be against it is to ban it. The fact is this:
The number of abortions that liberals have prevented by pushing sex ed, family planning and birth control: Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions.
The number of abortions that conservatives have prevented by quixotic attempts to ban it: zero. (but they have made some lawyers very rich, at taxpayer expense.)
The obvious example of how to oppose something without banning it is smoking. Nobody has suggested that we make tobacco illegal, but a combination of education (especially in schools), aggressive support for smoking cessation programs (largely financed by taxing cigarettes, which taxes also discourage people from smoking) and reasonable restrictions on smoking have combined to 1. preserve the CHOICE people have to smoke, but 2. acknowlege that smoking is not good for society as a whole and therefore do what we can to encourage people to make the choice to not smoke.
I personally completely agree that abortion must remain legal (as Mitt Romney used to, not so many years ago) because let's face it-- if you don't own your own body, then do you own anything at all that somebody can't legislate away from you someday? Wasn't that what the Civil War was fought over? Now, there's a 'property rights' issue that might appeal to people in the rural west. That said, with the advent of the over-the-counter 'morning after pill,' I believe it will be less and less frequent anyway. We can, if we recognize that having another generation is beneficial to society, do as many countries in Europe have done and actively enhance social programs that promote childbirth (the French have been a model for this, and actually increased their birthrate, which had declined for decades.) For that matter, at one point, after reading a Guttmacher Institute study that made it clear that the cost of a hospital delivery, together with a lack of healthcare insurance and/or low income was a major reason why many women are forced to choose abortions that they don't even want, I've even proposed a program to pay for childbirth expenses for poor women, financed by a tax on abortions. This is pro-choice for two reasons: 1. it really does give all women a choice, while right now the study I linked to makes it clear that many poor and uninsured women are forced to have abortions by the financial realities of America's healthcare system (so there is effectively no choice), and 2. if you tax something, then you are acknowledging as a premise that it is legal (though conservatives have little choice, because in fact it is legal.) At the same time it is a measure which should appeal to the pro-life crowd because after all it does have the effect of reducing abortion by one of the same mechanisms that has helped reduce smoking.
But since that makes sense, I'm sure that everyone will be against it.