Just over 50 years ago, the United States public struggled to decide whether they were ready for a Catholic to be their next president. Plagued by the thought that John F. Kennedy would be the “Pope’s puppet” in the White House in 1960, American voters today have teetered back and forth with the idea of a Mormon taking office in 2012.
Mitt Romney has reminded the American public that the “affairs [of his church] end where the affairs of the nation begin,” but it doesn’t seem like the vast majority of the Republican constituency is convinced — as we saw in South Carolina. But just as Kennedy exhibited his “allegiance to the Constitution,” and not to the Pope, Romney has promised the same in his office. Why does the religious affiliation of a presidential candidate even matter?
Voters should use Romney’s religiosity as a predictor for the values and the character he will bring with him to the White House. Ironically, Romney’s religiosity has proved three things that should matter: He’s committed, he’s made political decisions that deviate from his Mormon beliefs, and he’s demonstrated that conservative ideals are important to him.
Over the last couple weeks, Romney’s 2011 tax return has been on the hot seat. Romney donated over 12% of his 2011 income ($2.6 million) to the Latter-Day Saints Church and another $1.4 million of it to his very pro-Mormon family foundation. Americans have become very suspicious of Romney since they have found out that his donations to the LDS church have equaled his contributions to the U.S. government. While the numbers really have nothing to do with each other, the mainstream media has given reason to believe that they do. On the surface, the parallel between these two seemingly unrelated numbers seem to somehow cast a negative light on Romney, but when closely examined, they really shouldn’t.
The typical U.S. voter knows very little about “Mormon ways.” Ten percent tithing is mandatory in the LDS church. We know that Romney is a Mormon. We now know that Romney has more than generously given to his church — beyond the standard 10% the LDS church asks for. Romney has proven to be committed to his church and firm in his faith. Can we say the same about Newt Gingrich who claims to be a Catholic? The Catholic Church forbids divorce, and yet, New Gingrich has had multiple divorces. His commitment to his faith is not blatantly evident. Romney’s is. These two characteristics, commitment and firmness, are characteristics we can only hope that our president exemplifies. Instead of determining a presidential nominee based on their actual religious beliefs — Mormonism in Romney’s case and Catholicism in Gingrich’s case — the U.S. voter should separate the candidate from his religion and decide who better exemplifies the traits of a president. In this case, Romney wins.
Romney served as the bishop of the Mormon congregation in Belmont, Massachusetts. This point has been continually brought up throughout the Republican presidential race; Romney himself was an authority of his church. A substantial number of Americans, particularly Republicans, have demonstrated reluctance to Romney’s electability. Much of that has been seeded in the fact that Romney has invested his time, his money, even his authority into a religion that is “outside the mainstream.” People are afraid that his own beliefs — most very unfamiliar with the greater American public — will overlap with his political authority. There is an element of unpredictability associated with Romney’s Mormon religion, because very little of its doctrine is commonly understood. Romney has reminded the American public time and time again that he would “never [under any circumstance], confuse the particular teachings of [his] church with the obligations of office.”
He has reiterated to the American voters that he does in fact have a proven record as governor of Massachusetts. On several occasions, as governor of the liberal state, Romney made decisions that were contrary to his own faith. For instance, he governed with a very tolerant stance on gay marriage and abortion. While not particularly characteristic of the Republican-platform, his position on the two issues as governor should prove to the American public that he is willing to make political decisions that contradict his faith.
In a speech after the New Hampshire primary, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum urged his audience, “Do not defer your judgment to those who do not share your values.” He was indirectly referring to Romney. But was this a jab at Romney’s religion? Was it accurate? Romney’s political values are in line with Santorum’s in the grand scheme of things — they are in fact running under the same party platform. In addition, the present-day Mormon values of “the sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage, and the importance of family” seem to be values shared by the conservative crowd. Santorum himself seems to know very little about Mormonism himself. We should not base our ultimate political decision as voters on Romney’s religious beliefs, because as we have seen, the role that religion plays on policy is minimal. In addition, where it does seem to have an indirect impact, a Mormon’s religious convictions and an Evangelical’s religious convictions seem almost analogous. What we should evaluate is what Romney’s religiosity has demonstrated: he has proven to be loyal to things he stands for — like his Mormon faith.
We need a president with those transferable traits in this day and age — a president who rules with an unwavering and steadfast commitment to the U.S. and its people’s interests. Romney has them.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore