Well, it’s official. Rick Santorum—the Tim Tebow of American politics, the would-be Pope of Pennsylvania Avenue—has bowed out of the race for the White House, paving the way for Mitt Romney to become the uncontested GOP nominee for president.
Much was made during the long primary season about Santorum’s extreme brand of conservative Catholicism, which seemed to be couched more in moral rigidity than in the Christ-like humility Peter tells us we must “clothe” ourselves in if we are to receive God’s grace. In fact, through months of contentious campaigning, the candidate seemed to distinguish himself more for his regular lapses into sarcasm, vitriol and downright meanness than for a vision of a nation grounded in good Christian “love-thy-enemy” values. Yet looking back years from now, the most enduring legacy of Santorum’s participation in the 2012 primaries will most certainly be his role in elevating the issue of religious faith to a level not witnessed in a U.S. presidential campaign since 1960, when Catholics turned out en masse to send John F. Kennedy to the Oval Office.
So where does Mitt Romney fit into all this?
It’s hard to imagine a figure more diametrically opposed to Santorum than the presumptive nominee: Where Santorum’s rhetoric is biting, Romney’s is milquetoast; where Santorum holds on to his political convictions like his eternal salvation depends on it, Romney’s message shifts and sways depending upon the composition of his audience; and, perhaps most notably given the current environment, where Santorum wears his Catholicism on his sleeve, Romney has so far shied away from a discussion of his Mormon faith.
Asked last October if he planned to give a speech explaining Mormonism to U.S. voters, Romney demurred.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think the great majority of American people want to select the person who’s the most capable of getting our country going again, with strong values and a strong economy and a strong military … Among the things that are unique and exceptional about our country is the fact that, in America, we recognize and appreciate differences in faith.”
But that hasn’t stopped everyone else from chiming in.
The subject of Romney’s Mormonism has bubbled under the primary landscape since he entered the race; and if it never broke to the surface, it’s only because—thanks largely to Santorum—it was overshadowed by discussions of gay marriage, abortion and how many bishops the Republican Party can squeeze under your bed.
But here we are barely two days after Santorum’s official concession and articles on what Romney’s Mormonism will mean for his campaign have already appeared in dozens of media outlets, ranging from the conservative Daily Caller to the liberal Huffington Post. The press certainly seems eager to make it an issue, but that doesn’t mean it has to be.
Last week Sen. Orrin Hatch—a Utah Republican and a Mormon himself—predicted that the Obama campaign would use Romney’s Mormonism against him in the general election. (Democrats, for their part, have pledged not to.) But to date most of the contempt has come from the right—particularly from evangelical Christians.
Christian conservatives have made no attempt to mask their disdain for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the official governing body of the Mormon faith, which Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, famously called a “cult.”
The same sentiment has been echoed by Rick Warren; Billy Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham; and Fox commentator Ainsley Earhardt—all of whom have challenged Romney’s assertion that he is a Christian.
In the South Carolina primary, evangelicals voted more than two-to-one for a philandering thrice-married Catholic convert rather than cast their ballot for Romney, whose long-term marriage to Ann and brood of five kids is the picture of Christian family values.
So what is it that makes some people so uncomfortable with Mormonism? It usually boils down to a few admittedly odd beliefs, such as the practice of baptizing dead ancestors, the concept of eternal marriage, a belief in a distinct three-being Godhead, and of course polygamy (which incidentally hasn’t been practiced by mainstream Mormons since the 19th century). Oh. And there’s the “magic underwear” too.
But the real issue is that since its birth in the 1820s, Mormonism has attempted to modernize an existing religion (Christianity), which—to some believers—is akin to blasphemy. Mormonism is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism: It basically takes its foundation in the original faith and tacks on a lot of modern extras, which explains why, just like early Christians, who were charged with being members of the Cult of Christ, Mormons are accused of being part of an inauthentic sect or fringe religion by the members of the faith they have attempted to modify.
In the political spectrum, this distrust manifests itself in the concern that Romney will put his faith above his country. The same charge was made against John F. Kennedy, prompting him to make his famous September 12, 1960 speech in support of the absolute separation of church and state. (You know, the one that made Rick Santorum puke?)
At the end of the day, it all comes back to that age-old argument: “My faith is better than yours.” Which begs the question: Does faith really have a place in presidential politics?
According to theologian and religion historian Randall Balmer , author of God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, it does, but only as another form of politicking.
“I think religion is part of our common vocabulary,” said Balmer. “Politicians want to be part of that conversation for their own well-being, so they speak the language of faith and politics … [However,] with the exception of [Jimmy] Carter, there is very little connection between a candidate’s declarations of faith and the way he governs.”
Maybe that will put the haters at ease.
Polls show most people would have no problem voting for a politically palatable Mormon, regardless of what kind of underwear they sport. The truth is, neither would I. But I would find it difficult to vote for an out-of-touch former hedge-fund manager who lacks the guts to stand up and take credit for inspiring Obamacare and thinks that corporations are people.
What makes Rick Santorum such a divisive figure is not the fact that his radical beliefs are unrepresentative of those of a majority of Americans (which they clearly are), but the fact that he would allow them to inform his vision of how others should behave. Until Mitt Romney gives us some indication that he would do the same, I say we leave his Mormonism out of it.