Consider the following scenario: four candidates are running for president in 2008. One is a pro-choice Protestant who believes in balanced budgets and would cut spending and lower taxes, but is divorced and remarried to someone who has also been divorced. The second candidate is a Catholic, who is pro-life, but who believes in tax increases and more government spending to help the poor. This candidate is married, but during the '60s he smoked dope and lived in an ashram with two women. The third is Jewish and supports the Iraq war and Israel against those who wish to destroy it, is married to a gentile and thinks same-sex marriage is OK. The fourth candidate is a Mormon, who is married to the same woman he started out with, is pro-life, opposes same-sex marriage, wants taxes and government spending cut, would put more conservatives on the Supreme Court and appears consistent in his private and public behavior.
According to a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, if you are a conservative Christian voter, you are more likely to vote for the Protestant, Catholic or Jewish candidate before you would vote for the Mormon, though he is more in line with your political philosophy.
The poll found that while anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism are fading among voters, anti-Mormonism is not. Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution forbids a "religious test" for those wishing to serve in public office, but it can do nothing about voters who wish to apply a religious test to candidates.
The impetus for the poll appears to be the likely presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon.
I am reminded of a comedy bit by the late Steve Allen. Allen would take a camera and microphone into the street and ask people, "Could you ever vote for an openly heterosexual person for president?" The shocked interviewee would fervently respond, "Oh, no, I could never do that." It was funny, but it also said something about the ignorance of the individual being quizzed.
If Romney runs, he might consider following the example of another son of Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who addressed the issue of his Catholicism in a speech to the Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960 campaign. Kennedy said: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president - should he be Catholic - how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him."
In a telephone interview, Governor Romney tells me he doesn't believe religion is a factor "when people know the real individual." Asked whether he might follow Kennedy's example and make a speech about church and state, Romney says, "There may well be a time when something is said by me or something happens that crystallizes the issue for people, but I believe the people in this country subscribe to the Lincoln view that when people take the oath of office they abide by America's political religion and that they place the Constitution and the rule of law first."
The poll results may reflect attitudes toward Mormonism that are similar to what non-Catholic voters thought about Catholics four decades ago. Some may get their impressions of Mormonism from the HBO series "Big Love," about a modern polygamist and his three wives (the church banned polygamy in 1890 as a condition for Utah's admission to the Union, which took place in 1896.)
If an ambulance hits me, I care less where or how the driver worships than I do about his sense of direction to the nearest hospital. It troubles me not that a Mormon might be president. It does trouble me a great deal that so many people would think a person's faith - whether one shares it or not - should be the only reason to deny someone the presidency. Perhaps if Romney decides to run it won't matter too much of that 37 percent, anymore than it eventually did during the 1960 campaign when the issue was Catholicism.