Separation of Church of Latter-day Saints and State - The Romney Dilemma

Pundits have been urging Mitt Romney to pull a John Kennedy - to take the issue of his religious affiliation head-on. Second only to Giuliani in fundraising, and in the lead in the GOP polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, Romney seems to have just two main negatives to overcome; his “flip-flops” on social issues and his Mormonism, and they may be related.

Former Bush advisor Dan Bartlett, in a moment of brutal candor in front of the US Chamber of Commerce, recently said, “The Mormon issue is a real problem in the South, it’s a real problem in other parts of the country… People are not going to step out and say, ‘I have a problem with Romney because he’s Mormon.’ What they’re going to say is he’s a flip-flopper.” He has two good points. One is that what people tell pollers often differs from what they do at the polls, and Romney is, in fact, a flip-flopping Mormon.

A Salt Lake Tribune editorial yesterday had this advice for Romney:

“Mitt Romney appears to have decided that to run successfully for president of the United States, he must run away from the issue of his Mormonism. He’s wrong about that. …

JFK did it in a celebrated speech to Southern Baptist leaders in Houston. Mitt Romney should make a similar statement. …

JFK accomplished that by emphasizing his belief in an America where separation of church and state is absolute, …”

(emphasis mine)

Unlike when JFK made that famous speech in 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, today most religious, southern, conservative voters are Republicans, and conservatives do not like or wish to abide by Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation,” like most Americans today. Back in 1960 Kennedy was lauded for his stance. Here in 2007, as the The Carpetbagger Report put it the other day, “If Romney were to publicly argue that “the separation of church and state is absolute,” he would be booed aggressively by conservative audiences that want more intermingling between religion and government, not less.” This is going to be tricky for Romney.

There are more contrasts to face as well. For starters, there are and have always been a lot more Catholics (about 25%) than Mormons (around 1 1/2%) in America. As the Salt Lake Tribune noted, “…polling about Americans’ religious beliefs and ideas shows that only about half of Americans have a favorable view of Mormonism, but about the same percentage know little or nothing about the faith,” but, “Those same polls show that Americans who actually know Mormons have a higher opinion of the faith than those who don’t.” But how many Americans can get to know only 1 1/2% of their fellow Americans, mostly concentrated in Utah?

The Salt Lake Tribune editorial went on… “Some evangelicals do not consider members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be Christians.”

Some? A September Baptist Press poll showed that 52% of Evangelicals belief that Mormonism is not a Christian faith, and evangelicals make up 30% of the GOP.

“…most American voters are fair-minded,” said the Tribune,”…We think that’s the ideal (the separation of church and state) most Americans still embrace, and would support in the voting booth.” This is simply naive.

Speaking as a liberal, secular, atheist, I have no horse in the GOP race. But let me offer this little piece of friendly advice to Mitt Romney: Ignore the Salt Lake Tribune. The best thing for Romney to do is to simply avoid speaking about his faith, avoid questions about it, avoid the high-minded clarions from the pundits, and just plain avoid the entire issue. America may be no more ready for a Mormon president than an allegedly liberal woman or an African American named “Obama.” Hillary knows this, and though she can’t hide her femininity, she can present herself as the moderate she really is. Obama is stuck. He can hide neither his race nor his name. Romney has it easier. If he can stifle the issue of his faith, and the GOP continues to lose support from the evangelical community, he could well win the nomination. And if Hillary is his opponent, that same evangelical base may well come out in the nationals, just to vote against Clinton.

Romney, keep the faith (to yourself).


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